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A New Computer Vista

Windows Vista, the new user-friendly operating system on Microsoft's horizon, promises improved work flow and some handy features. Is it time to give your computer an upgrade?
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

Why in the name of all that's sensually satisfying and luxuriously masculine is there an article about a computer operating system in Cigar Aficionado?

Because in January, Microsoft opens its promotional fire hoses full blast, inundating us with urgent exhortations to upgrade our computers to run the new Windows Vista software or, better yet, buy a new machine with Vista preinstalled. If past experience is any guide, the millions that Microsoft invests in advertising will do very little to actually explain why Vista is any better (or potentially worse) than the current version of Windows. That's why I'm here.

The launch of a new version of Windows is a seismic event. In a country where each major political party claims the affection of less than half the country, just 18 percent of television viewers watch the single most popular show, and even chocolate only garners 52 percent of the vote as our favorite flavor, Microsoft Windows is about as close to unanimity as we get—90 percent of America's computers run Windows software. So when Bill Gates's minions unveil the first major Windows update since the release of Windows XP way back in 2001, it's going to change the way nearly all of us work and play, create documents and send e-mail, enjoy music and photos, play games, and search the Internet for…well, whatever floats your boat.

The long delay in getting Windows Vista ready for public consumption (it was originally slated for late 2003) created an interesting complication. Some of the most intriguing features planned for Vista, such as a new, more robust system for storing files on disc, were jettisoned in an effort to get the thing out the door. Other key Vista components, including the Internet Explorer 7 Web browser and Windows Media Player 11, actually made their debuts as downloadable upgrades to the existing Windows XP. Still, many features—ranging from heightened security to gee-whiz visuals to vastly improved search capabilities—are only available by making the switch to Vista. Let's start with the change you'll notice as soon as you turn on a Vista-powered PC—snazzy good looks.

AERO PLAIN? NOT BY A LONG SHOT!
Windows XP is bland but functional in its presentation of windows and icons. If your computer has the graphics horsepower to enjoy the full Windows Vista experience (a significant "if," as we'll soon see), then you can enjoy a new user interface called Aero, which cedes no ground to Macintosh snobs when it comes to sleek on-screen display.

Under Windows XP, one window stacks on top of another, blocking your view when you have lots of programs running. Aero turns the borders and menus of each window transparent, making it easier to see windows below the one you're currently using. Truth be told, since only the edges turn transparent rather than the entire document window, you're not gaining that much navigationally, but damn if it's not a cool visual treat. And I'm the last one to pooh-pooh pleasing aesthetics, when I spend hours staring at a computer screen day after day.

A more compelling combination of graphical panache and navigational smarts is Vista's new approach to toggling from document to document. Many multitasking Windows XP users have learned the trick of moving quickly from program to program by holding the alt and tab keys simultaneously. Doing this produces an on-screen listing of all the currently running programs, and each time you hit tab while holding alt, the selection moves to the next program icon on the list. Aero enhances this capability with a feature called Flip: instead of just seeing an icon for each window, you see a preview of what's in the window itself, making it simple to alt-tab your way through, for example, several word processing documents at a glance. Even better is Windows Flip 3D. Press tab along with the Windows key (that rarely used key with the Windows logo on it) and all the cluttered, stacked windows on-screen disappear, replaced by an angled, three-dimensional display of all your open windows. Using this handsome, practical feature is like shuffling through a deck of cards every time you tap the tab key, and the experience is addictive.

The same design approach—displaying images of the actual contents of your files when you're trying to find your way through a thicket of stored information—comes into play when you open stored documents. Windows XP displays rows of generic icons reflecting the file type (Word, Excel or whatever). With Windows Vista, the icons give you a peek inside. You can see a miniaturized version of a document's first page, or the photos in a digital image folder, without your having to open the file.

SEARCH
Being organized is a wonderful thing, if you can swing it, but some of us have the clutter gene in our DNA. Microsoft understands, and has improved its search function to make up for our organizational inadequacies. Windows XP has a built-in search function, but it's ghettoized in a separate application, making it slow, cumbersome and generally awful. Vista, on the other hand, lets you run a comprehensive search from pretty much wherever you happen to be on your computer, and get results with blazing speed.

The secret? During all that time the computer is sitting there waiting for you to come up with something worth doing, the system keeps itself busy by creating an index of all the information in all your documents. That means, if I want to find the story I wrote at some point ages ago that mentioned a bar in Miami, I only have to type "Miami" into the search box and a list of everything on the hard drive with the word "Miami" in it magically appears, about as fast as my fingers hit the keys. The system checks file names, file contents, even keywords you can choose to attach to your files. (Flag every file related to a particular client with the same keyword, for example, and they'll all bubble up to the surface, wherever they're stored, when you search for that word.)


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