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ISBS Tech Guide: The ISBS Review of Windows Vista

By Brian | April 22, 2007 | Share on Facebook

By now, you’ve probably read several dozen reviews of Windows Vista. When I first started using it, I was tempted to join in as well, but I decided I should spend some time with it first and then offer my opinion. So here you go – a review of Windows Vista that’s based on what it’s like to use the OS on a day-to-day basis, not on the results of some laboratory diagnostic test:

It’s Good.

It’s not a buggy piece of crapware, and it’s certainly not awesome, spectacular, or life-changing (anyone who describes an OS that way is either trying to sell you something, or is such an irrational fan of Steve Jobs that he/she would use the same words to describe the iBrick). Ironically, Microsoft’s advertising campaign goes about as far as I would take it: “Wow.” And even then, only “Wow” to a couple of things. In every other aspect, Vista basically does it’s job and does it well.

The first “Wow” is the Windows Aero design. The edges of the windows are translucent, so when you drag one on top of the other, you can see a blurry image of the back window around the edges of the front window. To be sure, this is more cool looking than it is useful, but I must admit, it is extremely cool looking. If the WinXP windows looked like index cards scattered across the desktop, then these look like Shrinky Dinks, or, to use an even geekier reference, like Tom Cruise’s Minority Report computers.

The second, and much more useful, “Wow” is the Flip 3D and Live Icon features. Flip 3D is that three-dimensional rolodex interface that you’ve seen in the advertisements. Rather than using Alt-Tab to cycle through the icons of open applications, Vista lets you use Start Key-Tab (that’s the key with the flag on it – situated right near the Alt key on most keyboards) to see a 3D rolodex of the live content on each open window (including animation, video, moving status bars, etc.). When you recognize the one you want, you just release both keys and that window animates to the front.

All of the other icons in Vista are also improved. When you Alt-Tab, Vista shows you thumbnail versions of the live content, rather than those old, static app icons. If you mouse over the minimized applications on the task bar, you also see these live content thumbnails. IE7′s Quick Tabs feature shows you the open web pages in live content thumbnails. And inside the windows themselves, the icons for unopened files reflect the first page of the document, a thumbnail of the picture, or the first frame of the video, depending on the file type.

I know this sounds like pure “Wow,” but I found it a huge productivity boost in two ways. First, it’s much, much easier to recognize a window’s content than it’s icon/title, which is all you had to go on in Windows XP, so choosing/switching applications is simpler and faster. Second, you can check the status of a long running process (e.g., a DVD burn, a backup, a large download) without having to switch applications and interrupt your train of thought. It’s also noteworthy that these features only run on machines with high-powered graphics cards and fast CPU’s. At lower resolution or slower speeds, these “preview” features would look chintzy and add almost no value, and so Vista disables them automatically.

Another very useful (although much less “Wow”) feature is the breadcrumb functionality in each window’s address bar. Rather than the traditional “tree” structure taking up real estate on the left side of the window, Vista shows you each node in the current path, and provides a navigation arrow for each one. So if you’re currently in the Documents/Excel/Finance/2007/Budgets folder and you want to switch to the Documents/Word/Reports/ folder, all you have to do is click the arrow next to Documents in the address bar and select Word, then select Reports in the newly opened view.

Back on the “Wow” side of the spectrum is the Windows Sidebar. Current OS X users will find it a patent violation familiar, while long-time Windows users will enjoy the slick user interface and the wide array of available “Gadgets.” Microsoft’s Windows Live Gallery will let you browse a few thousand of them, and then download them directly into your Gadget inventory, ready for use. I also downloaded an application called Amnesty Generator, which allows me to convert (most) Google gadgets (intended for the Google Desktop) to Vista gadgets. Between these two libraries, you could easily fill up the sidebar on a portrait-shaped 24″ monitor (more on that in a future Tech Guide post!)

I’m leaving out a bunch of things, of course, and I’m sure there are more surprises tucked away for me to eventually find. Two things in particular, Vista’s search capabilities and its new security strategy, fall so squarely into the “Wow” + “useful” category that they warrant their own Tech Guide entries, so you’ll have to come back to hear about those as well.

Bottom line: if you’re in the market for a new PC, buy it with Vista pre-installed. Everything interesting that happens to Windows (and Windows software) in the coming decade will happen to Vista. If you buy something else now, you’ll kick yourself later. If you’re happy with your current PC, though, then wait a while. It’ll be around when you’re ready to upgrade. If you need some “Wow” before then, go rent Minority Report.

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