Vista, for Better and Worse

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Windows Vista lands in stores Tuesday, more than five years after its predecessor Windows XP debuted. With that much time for Microsoft to rewrite its operating system, you might expect it to be a sharp break from the Windows we've known.

It isn't. For all the ways that Vista looks and works differently from XP, it remains recognizably Windows underneath.

And that's not always good. In a week that I've been using Vista full-time on two laptops and one desktop, I've seen many things that I hated in XP: error messages that don't offer any advice on how to correct them, programs that inexplicably fail, annoying stalls and one "blue screen of death" crash.

(At least I didn't have to stare at the same old stupid hourglass icon while the computer chewed its cud -- Vista bores you with a spinning blue circle instead.)

Vista is not a cheap or easy update. The version most home users will want, Home Premium, sells for $159 if you upgrade from an older copy of Windows. But Vista needs far more power under the hood than XP: 15 gigabytes of free disk space and a gigabyte of memory.

Many PCs meeting those requirements still can't run Home Premium, since their graphics cards are too slow to draw its slick "Windows Aero" interface.

Once installed -- after online "product activation" to tie your copy to your computer -- Vista may then require you to upgrade some of your old programs. Most software that I tried worked fine in Vista (including iTunes, Firefox, Quicken and Skype), but some needed updates.

Nobody should think of buying Vista without first running Microsoft's free Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor ( to see if his hardware and software measures up.

The obvious reward for putting up with all that is Vista's visuals. Like the Aqua interface of Apple's Mac OS X, Vista's Aero front-end teems with transparent effects that lend a sense of depth-- such as when you can see through the edges of windows and the Start Menu to spot what's behind them.

Aero further simplifies things by replacing generic icons with live previews of windows. For example, when you shuffle through active programs (by clicking on the taskbar, hitting the Alt and Tab keys or using the Windows-icon and Tab keys to bring up a nifty "Flip 3D" view), you get a thumbnail view of each window, not the usual abstract symbols.

In an equally helpful trick, folder icons include tiny previews of their contents.

Vista (again, like Mac OS X) incorporates a search form at the top of every window -- a massive upgrade from XP's search tools, but not from what you get for free in Google Desktop. The same goes for Vista's Sidebar, which, like Google Desktop's Sidebar, offers quick access to things like weather forecasts and your calendar.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company