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Wednesday, December 6, 2006 - Page updated at 10:10 AM

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A first look at Vista, good and bad

Seattle Times technology columnist

Like it or not, you'll probably be using Windows Vista before you know it.

Microsoft expects to sell 200 million copies of the new operating system within 24 months. By comparison, Windows 95 sold 67 million copies in its first two years.

Vista is being marketed as a "breakthrough computing experience." That may be pushing it, especially since some of the more radical innovations were cut when the project bogged down two years ago, but it will rapidly change the way many people use a PC.

Most of those 200 million Vista users will really like the new software, after they've worked through the transition from Windows XP.

But Vista's not perfect, and it has plenty of things to gripe about. This isn't a comprehensive preview, but a heads-up about some of the best and worst things to expect.

THE GOOD

Appearance

Vista looks and feels great. In fact, it's dazzling. Its 3-D icons, transparent "glass" effect and improved buttons and layout feel crisp, modern and sharp — as if you're using a high-definition PC. Mac users will note that OS X has had a similar feel for years; still, Vista feels new and different.

Microsoft says this is more than eye candy. It's easier to find things on the desktop, and you get a preview of what's inside file folders — a thumbnail shows the first document or photo in a folder, for instance.

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Vista also finally gives Windows a built-in search bar, like OS X, that makes it as easy to search for computer files as it is to search the Web.

At the very least, it's a refreshing change from that XP screen you've been staring at for five years now.

Security

This is Microsoft's first new operating system since the company realized in 2002 that it had to make security and reliability its top priority. Vista includes an improved firewall, a browser that runs in a "protected mode," built-in malware protection and changes that will reduce the damage an attack can cause to a system.

Out of the box, the system is configured to run more safely, although you'll still want to have additional virus protection.

It's early to say, but it appears that Vista will remove the cloud of uncertainty about computer attacks that have loomed over Windows users for the past five years.

Networking

During the long life of Windows XP, broadband came to a majority of the U.S. population, home networking proliferated, laptop sales outpaced desktops and wireless became a standard feature on most PCs. The circa 2001 networking tools in XP needed an overhaul.

Vista has an innovative tool for connecting a PC to networks, setting up a home network and connecting other devices. The software makes it easier to share files on a network, and it includes a troubleshooter that diagnoses problems and suggests a fix.

Windows Media Player

Digital music will move further into the mainstream, and the media player built into Vista introduces the phenomenon to tens of millions of people. Good thing it's a great piece of software.

When you copy a CD onto your PC, the software automatically finds information about the music, including a crisp image of the album cover — without requiring you to register as other music jukeboxes do.

Your digital music collection appears in Windows Media Player 11 as a collection of colorful albums, instead of a list of file names, and its big control buttons make it feel less like you're using a database to play music.

Best of all, the player is available free to Windows XP users.

Applications

It's easier than ever to find high-quality, free software applications. Google, in particular, is trying to lure users by offering a word processor, desktop tools and photo-management applications.

Microsoft's response includes several great applications bundled with Vista that make the system more useful out of the box. They include an improved e-mail program that replaces Outlook Express, and a slick calendar that you can synchronize with other users.

Also included are Photo Gallery, for managing and editing digital photos, and Movie Maker for working with digital video.

THE BAD

Security

It's vastly improved, but at times that's going to make the software frustrating to use. It could be especially frustrating shortly after Vista is released, if other software companies haven't updated their applications to work smoothly with Vista's more restrictive settings.

A cornerstone of Vista's security is User Account Control. What this does is make it easier to run the system in a restricted mode. Users in restricted mode don't have authority to do things like download new programs. This prevents attacks from taking over a PC. When users want to change settings or download a program, a window pops up and asks if the user wants to invoke administrative privileges and proceed.

The system can also ask for the administrator password, so children can't override parental controls, for instance.

Microsoft has been fine-tuning the system to minimize the pop-up privilege requests, but this feature is likely to interrupt users more than they'd like. It's probably a small price to pay for improved security.

Cost

Standard home and business versions of Vista will cost the same as XP. But given all the concern about security and stolen information, consumers and businesses will want Vista Ultimate, a pricey premium version with the new BitLocker Drive Encryption security feature.

Businesses, in particular, will want BitLocker because it locks down files if a computer is stolen. Unfortunately it's only available to big corporations, governments and people who buy Ultimate, which costs $399 — double the price of XP Home and $100 more than XP Professional.

That's just part of the cost. Many will have to buy a faster PC or upgrade their current machine to run Vista smoothly. At a minimum, you'll need a system with a recent processor, 1 gigabyte of system memory and 128 megabytes of graphics memory. The word from insiders, including Dell's chief executive, is that you'll really need at least 2 gigabytes of RAM.

The price of Windows XP desktops has fallen to around $300. It's going to be a shock when you have to pay two or three times that much for a decent Vista machine.

Confusing versions

Vista comes in six flavors, four available to consumers. Home users are being targeted with Vista Home Basic, a barebones version without the cool new desktop appearance, and Home Premium, which includes the 3-D stuff, support for handwriting recognition and the Media Center entertainment features.

There's also a Windows Vista Business, which is roughly the equivalent of XP Professional. Microsoft is producing a high-end enterprise version for corporations and governments and a low-end Starter Edition for developing countries.

But what's really confusing are the "Vista ready" labels Microsoft and PC makers have on machines available now.

Some "Vista capable" PCs may only be able to run Vista Home Basic.

If you want that "breakthrough computing experience," buy a PC that's labeled "Vista Premium Ready."

Digital-rights management

Vista works in tandem with new chip sets to create powerful new system locks.

The locks will prevent illegal copying of Vista itself. But they can also be used by Microsoft, movie studios and record companies to restrict how people use digital media files on Vista PCs.

Combined with Microsoft's sophisticated copy-protection software, the locks enable new subscription services — so you can rent a movie by downloading a copy that will expire after three days, for instance.

But expect the system to add even more restrictions to digital content in the future, particularly high-definition video content.

Timing

It may seem like ancient history after Vista is widely available, but Microsoft's long and troubled development process created uncertainty and confusion for consumers, software developers and the PC industry.

The project also forced Microsoft to confront one of its biggest weaknesses, its bloated bureaucracy. The delays and tribulations demoralized employees.

It turns out Microsoft itself was also due for a system upgrade.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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