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Windows Vista

What's in the new consumer versions

Jan. 26, 2007

Vista's windows are partly transparent to let people see what's behind them. (Microsoft handout)

What should I buy?

That's the burning question that faces people in the market for a computer at the best of times as they wend their way through row upon row of gleaming hardware at PC and electronics retailers.

For those who buy a new Windows PC on or after Jan. 30, that decision will be made for them. Unless they request otherwise, the computer will almost certainly come bundled with a version of Vista, the latest incarnation of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system (OS) software, which will be pre-installed on the machine in most cases.

For the rest of the people out there — those who don't plan to buy a new computer in the next year or more — which version of Vista they should switch to or whether they should upgrade from Windows XP at all may not be an obvious decision.

With the Jan. 30 launch of three consumer versions of Windows Vista, the world's largest software maker says it is providing people with the best, most stable, most compatible, most versatile and most easy to use OS that it has ever offered. The company launched two business versions of Vista on Nov. 30, 2006.

The advantages of Vista need to be experienced to be understood, according to the operating system's product manager in Canada.

"Once you get a chance to see it and use it, you can't go back," Maurice Benatar told CBC News Online when asked about the differences between Vista and Windows XP, the last version of the operating system released five years ago.

"You can't imagine how you could cope before you had it."

Ease of use is a major selling point for the OS, whose look and layout has been changed based on research and feedback from Windows users.

Three consumer versions

The Ultimate version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista operating system combines the business and consumer versions. (Microsoft handout)

The consumer versions of Vista come in Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate editions.

Home Basic, as the name implies, is for people who use their computer for basic tasks such as surfing the internet, e-mail and chat, and simple office tasks such as writing and editing documents. It also stresses security with enhanced parental controls.

Home Premium is aimed at people who use their computers for more processor-intensive tasks, including multimedia and entertainment functions such as editing photos and video, watching television and movies, and playing computer games and music. It incorporates the Windows Media Center functions from Windows XP as a kind of dashboard that integrates the entertainment functions and connectivity to other PCs, including the ability to connect to Microsoft's Xbox line of video game consoles. The Premium edition also supports Tablet PC functions.

Tablet PC's are computers that rely on touch-sensitive screens for interactions with a person, rather than a keyboard. People can use a special stylus to control them and use the software's handwriting recognition function.

Windows Vista Ultimate combines all of the features of both the consumer and business versions of the new operating system. That includes the built-in Windows BitLocker utility to help prevent information from being read by unauthorized individuals, a particularly important measure if a computer is lost or stolen. BitLocker encrypts the computer's hard drive.

New look and ease of use

Vista features the Flip 3D view of windows as part of the Aero interface. (Microsoft handout)

Vista's most obvious change is its appearance. The redesigned graphical user interface sports a new look, while beneath the surface Microsoft says it has done a major revision to the underlying code to make the OS more secure and reliable than its predecessors.

The new "Aero" visual design to the software allows users to make program windows appear transparent or translucent so they can see a number of open applications simultaneously and Flip 3D, a three-dimensional view of "stacked" windows that lets users flip through open programs quickly.

The basic version of Vista does not include the Aero interface or the Flip 3D view but it does share functional design and layout elements of its more feature-laden cousins, Benatar said.

"Microsoft does care about usability," Rob Helm of Directions On Microsoft told CBC News Online. "They test rigorously and put a lot of engineering effort into Vista. But that's not enough of a reason to go out and buy it."

Even so, the director of research at the Kirkland, Wash.-based consultancy thinks the new OS will grab people's attention. "I think there's going to be more interest in consumer versions of Vista than in enterprise versions. The graphics are a real improvement and make a significant difference in ease of use."

But the changes go far beyond the refined interactions, Benatar said.

Better security

Vista is designed to address the changing ways in which people are using their computers, from making computers safer to use through anti-malware, anti-phishing and other security measures, to handling rich media and entertainment like video and photos, to making it easier to find things with an improved search function, Benatar said.

Windows Defender is built into all versions of Vista to help people block out computer viruses, worms, spyware and other similar threats, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7 Web browser features anti-phishing filters to detect fraudulent e-mail scams.

The security aspects of Vista — especially software controls for the core OS — are the single most compelling reason to get it, according to Helm.

"It's not a sexy feature but I think a lot of users will appreciate it once they experience it," he said, explaining that before Vista, people using Windows were running the software with full access rights.

This meant that if a computer virus or other malicious attack reached a system, the attacker could install software at will and ultimately wreak havoc.

Under Vista, the user must switch into a special administrator mode that temporarily allows them to make changes like installing software. As a result, the OS is better protected from threats, Helm said.

Improved search 'like night and day'

Also included in all versions of Vista is an improved search function that constantly scans and indexes all data on a computer to help users find anything quickly, from a specific e-mail message to a photo, video or other multimedia file.

"It's like night and day," Helm said, comparing it to the search on Windows XP. "The search utility on XP is flaky, slow and every time you use it, it's like it's seeing your computer for the first time."

In contrast, the indexing and accuracy of the new desktop search is transformational, Helm said. "It really is a significant improvement." He noted that it is also available as a download for XP but doesn't think most people will bother to do that.

Multimedia key focus

The Media Center includes a dedicated sports channel and tools with content from Fox Sports Interactive. (Microsoft handout)

A move away from more technical tasks and toward lifestyle activities such as watching TV and movies, playing games and communicating with each other is at the heart of the Vista redesign, according to Benatar.

"Windows XP came out over five years ago and it wasn't conceived and created to handle the entertainment and multimedia uses people are using computers for today," Benatar said.

Helm is skeptical. "That's rewriting history a little. They made the same pitch for Windows XP," he said.

Irrespective of any marketing claims, the Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista undeniably include an array of features for a broad range of multimedia interests.

"The most appealing thing is the Media Center," Benatar said, referring to the dashboard and underlying applications that let people manage their video, audio, photos, TV and streaming entertainment.

It's all part of a shift computers are making into the living room, Benatar said.

A new aspect of Media Center in Vista that won't be available for XP is the inclusion of dedicated sports and entertainment channels.

Microsoft teamed up with Fox Sports Interactive to include a tool that lets people track their favourite sports teams, including a score ticker and newsfeed, and streaming video of games over the internet.

The Media Center is built into the Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista to manage video, audio, photos and more. (Microsoft handout)

Similarly, an entertainment channel through a partnership with the Nickelodeon channel allows people to watch shows and glean entertainment information.

Both services will be available in Canada and neither carries any additional fees.

Amateur and professional photographers alike will enjoy using Vista's photo management and editing utilities, which incorporates elements of Microsoft's Digital Image Suite software within the OS itself.

One feature that met with approval from industry and media professionals at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a function called "group shot" that lets people merge separate photos into one seamless image within seconds. Microsoft touts it as an ideal way to combine the best elements of a group photos in which one person may be blinking, for example.

When the feature was demonstrated at CES, a professional photographer in the audience immediately remarked to a colleague: "That would take me at least 10 minutes to do in PhotoShop."

Vista includes enhancements to the desktop, too, such as video wallpaper that lets people use moving images as a background, and so-called Sidebar Gadgets, which let people run tiny single-purpose programs in a panel on the desktop. The gadgets can be anything from a calendar to constantly updated weather indicator to a webcam and more, with new ones being developed all the time, Benatar said.

Using a feature called ReadyBoost, the OS also lets users plug in a USB memory stick between 256 megabytes and 4 gigabytes in capacity to temporarily add additional memory to a computer, something that can come in handy when playing a high-end online game or editing photos and video.

The decision

All of this boils down to the question of which version of Vista — if any — people should buy?

"If you're a user, is there a reason to upgrade to Vista? Not any compelling reason," Helm said. "A lot of the flashy user interface features are useful but if you had to have those features, you would have bought a Mac."

That said, Helm advises people who do plan to move to Vista or who buy a new PC with Vista installed to check to ensure the programs they use are compatible with the new OS, cautioning that there will be some applications that don't run on Vista.

That shouldn't be much of a problem, Benatar said. pointing out there are some 1.5 million programs that will run properly on Vista at launch, more than 200 of which are certified by Microsoft to take advantage of Vista's advanced features.

All versions of the software will be available for computers that run on newer 64-bit computer chips, as well as 32-bit systems prevalent today.

There will also be a basic, lower-technology Starter version of Vista available for distribution in the developing world.

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