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Windows Vista Today

A progress report on Microsoft’s much-maligned operating system

By Bill Camarda

Everyone knows that Microsoft Vista came out of the gate to rather mixed reviews. (And if you didn’t know that, Apple will be happy to show you a few of their “Mac vs. PC” ads to make the point!) But it’s been awhile since Vista was first released. And, with the holidays around the corner, you might be wondering: “Where does Vista stand now? Should I be afraid to get a new PC that runs Vista? Does it make sense to upgrade the PC I already have? Will my stuff work OK with Vista? What’s in Vista that I might actually want, anyhow?”

In this article, we help answer those questions – so you can get beyond the noise, and make the right buying (or “not-buying”) decision.
What’s in Windows Vista that you might want?

For us mere mortals who aren’t sophisticated Windows “power users,” Microsoft’s worked hard to make Vista more intuitive and convenient. For example, it’s significantly easier to find the files you’re looking for. There’s a nifty 3D tool for switching between open programs. Neat new “Gadgets” give you quick access to information such as updated stock listings.

Vista also comes with far more software than Windows once did. For example, Windows Vista Home Premium contains media software intended to rival Apple’s competitive iLife for the Macintosh – tools for everything from creating movies and DVD presentations to managing your photos. Older, clunkier versions of some of these tools were available in “Windows XP Media Center Edition,” but not the mainstream Windows XP systems most folks bought. There’s also new email software, Windows Mail, which replaces Outlook Express; plus a handy new Calendar tool.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that you can download Windows XP versions of some of this software: you needn’t upgrade to Vista to get it. For instance, you can get Windows Media Player 11, the Internet Explorer 7 browser, Windows Mail, Windows Search 4.0, and a fairly recent version of Windows Movie Maker, Microsoft’s tool for creating movies from camcorder video. You can even download Windows Defender, which protects your computer against spyware. Of course, these downloads take time, and they’re a bit of a hassle. In Windows Vista, all these goodies are built in.

Vista makes quite a few other improvements, as well. It’s designed to be somewhat more secure -- and its “Home” and “Ultimate” Editions come with excellent new Parental Controls. There’s better power management for notebook PCs. There’s great new support for surround sound audio. Networking’s a little easier to manage. Mobile phone support is built-in. And most versions come with the nifty Aero Glass transparent 3D interface -- way slicker and more modern than older version of Windows.

What was wrong with Windows Vista when Microsoft released it – and is it fixed now?

With all those goodies, why didn’t everyone instantly run out to buy Windows Vista? Well, first of all, some folks just didn’t need it. They were perfectly happy with their current Windows PCs. (Not buying something simply because you don’t need it? What a concept!)

But, beyond that, when Vista was first released, there were three big showstoppers:

  1. Vista was incompatible with plenty of hardware and software, from video cards and printers to specialized business applications
  2. Vista was unreliable: many people found it far more crash-prone than their older Windows computers, which had already benefitted from years of Microsoft bug fixes
  3. Vista was slow -- unless your computer had a lot of memory, a new video card, and a powerful processor

OK, how’s Microsoft doing in fixing these problems? Let’s take them one at a time.

Microsoft’s come a long way here. More than four times as many hardware devices can now run with Windows Vista – including both hardware that’s built into your computer, as well as external devices like printers and scanners. (You may have to download special “driver” software, either from Microsoft or the manufacturer.) As far as software goes, nearly any major software program you buy today will be Windows Vista compatible, and many older programs that once had trouble now have fixes available. Again, many, but not all. (You’ll especially have trouble with older security software, which may violate Vista’s tough new security rules.)  If you’re running Windows XP, Microsoft has a simple piece of software that’ll check your computer and give you a checklist of commercial hardware and software that may require updates. You can get the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor here – and it makes a lot of sense to run it before you commit to Vista.

Microsoft’s also made huge progress here. They’ve analyzed zillions of Vista crashes, figured out what’s caused most of them, and delivered software fixes to deal with those problems. Most of those fixes – along with quite a few security fixes – have been bundled into something called “Windows Vista Service Pack 1.” (You’ll probably know all about this if you bought one of the early versions of Vista!) If you buy a new computer today, those fixes will have already been incorporated. Everyone’s experience is different, but it appears that most users are now a lot more comfortable with Vista’s reliability.

Speed. Microsoft has fixed a few areas where Vista was especially slow (for example, copying files across networks). But, despite Microsoft’s claims to the contrary, most independent experts say Vista’s still frustratingly slow when running on older equipment. If you’re buying a new PC, this isn’t as much of a problem: today’s “average” new PC is much more powerful than its equivalent from two years ago. (Do make sure to get at least 2GB of memory, though – preferably 3GB or 4GB.)

If your PC’s more than a year or two old, chances are it’ll run Windows Vista more sluggishly than you’d like. If it’s more than four years old, it might not run Vista at all. (Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor can help you pinpoint these issues, too.) You might be able to overcome some of your computer’s limitations by adding memory, and possibly a more powerful video card. But if you add up the cost of Vista, plus all that hardware – and perhaps throw in professional installation – you’re probably up around $300. Maybe more. If you really want Vista, consider putting that money towards a new computer that already comes with it.

So, what’s the bottom line?

In a nutshell: if you’re thinking about buying a new Windows PC this winter, don’t be scared of Vista. Just double-check that it’ll work with the software and hardware you depend upon (chances are, it will). Unless you’re really set in your old Windows ways, chances are you’ll love it!

But if you’re thinking about upgrading an older Windows PC to Vista, that’s a tougher sell: maybe save those bucks until it’s time for a brand-spanking-new PC that can really take advantage of everything it has to offer.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.

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