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.
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.)
But wait, some of you are saying—aren't you describing desktop search, a feature that's been available for some time through Windows XP add-ons? Yes, but there are a few key differences between the search capability offered by Vista and desktop search programs from Google, Yahoo! and MSN. First, the options to refine a search are superior in the Vista version. Second, Vista search is available wherever you are within the Windows system. But most important, it's baked right into the operating system, where it's available without a lot of downloading and installation hassles and, essentially, guaranteed to work properly. I've had my ups and downs with desktop search add-ons—Google Search works fine on one machine I use frequently, but turns ugly on another, causing nagging compatibility problems. (The same machine runs MSN Search without a hitch.) My pre-release version of Vista's search function not only ran flawlessly, but it was also amazingly fast and effortless.
And speaking of add-ons that are now baked in…
If you look at the top photo to the right, you'll see a panel on the right side of the screen with a clock, a text box and a photograph, among other things. These are Gadgets, accessory programs that live on your Vista desktop. (The three shown here deliver current time, updated news headlines and a revolving slide show of photos on your hard drive.) If you're connected to the Internet, these Gadgets can grab updated information automatically—hence, the utility of the news headline display. A wide variety of Gadgets will be available when Vista launches, with more in the works. For example, you can install Gadgets that display current weather information, upcoming appointments, traffic maps and your personal to-do list. Another might play music from Internet radio stations or your personal collection.
Here again, the concept isn't new—Macintosh OS X calls the same function Widgets, and Yahoo! offers a free Widget Engine program for Windows XP users. But as with the search feature, building the application into the operating system ensures more reliable performance. Moreover, once Vista with Gadgets already installed becomes pervasive, software developers will invest time and money in creating innovative new applications, knowing that an enormous audience is just waiting to applaud (and, potentially, pay for) their efforts.
The new digital photo management software in Vista is a huge improvement over XP. Now you can handle basic photo-editing chores right in the Photo Gallery. While the application won't exactly have the Adobe Photoshop folks quaking in their boots, its basic uses—cropping, rotating, adjusting exposure and color and removing red-eye—cover all that many users ever want to do with their digital snapshots. What's more, no matter how much you torment that poor image in pursuit of artistic excellence, the software retains a pristine copy of the original, so you can always hit revert and rescue Uncle Leo from the lime-green complexion you gave him.
Here again, easy searching was a key goal for Vista developers, and they adopted two popular approaches from existing photo album software. First is a star-rating system that allows you to grade your pictures, so when it's time to show off you can pull up only the ones you consider your best work More intriguing, you can now "tag" photos with keywords for use in advanced searches. For example, I might create tags called "vacation," "Hawaii" and "Helen." Then I could put the vacation tag on all the vacation pictures on my hard drive. The ones taken in Hawaii would get both the vacation tag and the Hawaii tag, and all the pictures with Helen in them, regardless of where they were taken, would get tagged with her name. Now, though faced with thousands of photos, I can easily pull up all the photos of my wife, or my wife on vacation anywhere, or only the photos of my wife in Hawaii. What's more, I can combine the tag search with the star-rating system to instantaneously locate only the very best pictures in a given category.
Tagging is not a new concept—I've used it in Adobe products for years. But when I upload pictures to an online photo-sharing site like Shutterfly, the tags disappear. Same problem if I burn pictures to CD and hand them off to family members—unless they're using the same photo album software I'm using, all my carefully categorized tag information evaporates. But with tagging at the operating system level (and the specifications for using that tag information made public by Microsoft), photo sharing online or by disk will become a lot simpler.
Responding to the justifiable concerns of parents who want to protect their kids from inappropriate games or online content, or possibly even persuade the adorable little scamps to stop banging away at the keyboard and set foot outdoors once in a while, Microsoft has developed an extensive parental control system. You get to choose which games your kids are allowed to play, either by individual title or based on ratings. (The Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory group that also oversees advertising and privacy standards for computer and video game software, rates every game based on its level of sex and violence.) Parents can also choose to block access to the computer altogether, or limit usage to specific computer activities at designated times of day (say, when homework should be done), or set a timer to limit the number of hours an individual child spends on the computer. And while it has an Orwellian ring to it, there's no denying that many parents will be thrilled with the ability to have the computer automatically keep a log of everything their children do at the computer, including games they've played, Web sites they've visited and programs they've used.
WINDOWS MOVIE MAKER
Even computer users who've mastered the art of tweaking their digital photos often leave their home video footage untouched and unimproved. Unfortunately, the next "un" in that sequence is often "unwatched." Who wants to wade through 20 minutes of relatives shoveling down Thanksgiving dinner, just to find that great 35-second clip where little Johnny dumps the cranberry sauce on Aunt Edith's obnoxious poodle?
The solution is video editing, and Microsoft has dramatically improved its Windows Movie Maker software in the Vista edition, streamlining the editing tools, upgrading the special effects and transitions, and making the whole process much faster. What's more, DVD creation and disc-burning software is built right in. You can even create professional-looking menus for one-click access to your favorite scenes.
MEDIA CENTER PC
Media Center is the Windows system that lets you view and record TV programs, see your digital photos and watch Web-based entertainment on a full-size monitor, all from across the room, via wireless remote control. For nearly two years I've had a Media Center PC (which runs a special flavor of Windows XP) hooked up to a 50-inch plasma screen, and it's truly transformed my home theater into a multifunction powerhouse.
For Windows Vista, Microsoft has refined and reorganized Media Center, but the most important change is support for CableCARD technology. With previous Media Center PCs, piping in standard- definition TV from a cable box required connecting a spaghetti-like thicket of cables, and a method to move high-definition cable programs into the PC wasn't provided. Now, a CableCARD (which your cable company can supply) substitutes for the external set-top box. You only need to slide the card into a slot and connect the cable feed to watch unscrambled premium cable programs, in both standard- and high-definition. Because the Vista version of Media Center is compatible with CableCARD, you can watch programs via the computer, schedule recordings using a free downloadable program guide, and store hundreds of hours of standard- or high-definition TV on internal or removable hard disk drives.
WINDOWS BACKUP AND RESTORE CENTER
When it comes to keeping your precious documents, photos and music safe, the only way to get ahead is to back up. Unfortunately, few of us have the discipline to regularly and consistently make copies of our files, and the Windows XP backup utility is barely better than nothing at all. In Vista, the well-designed Backup and Restore Center lets you automate the chores that keep your data safe. It's easy both to set up an automatic scheduled backup of your important files, and to roll back system changes if something goes wrong. Vista can also keep several previous versions of a file, a great "oops"-proofing option when you've made changes that seemed like a good idea at the time, saved over the existing document, and later realized you regret losing pieces of an earlier draft.
Hard-core computer gaming fans will be all over Vista like maggots on a zombie, thanks to a major improvement in graphics technology that's only available in the new operating system. Called DirectX 10, it lets programmers dramatically enhance lighting and shading effects, resulting in more realistic (or surrealistic) worlds and characters. Getting access to the latest level of graphics firepower is a two-pronged operation—you need Windows Vista, and you need a graphics card certified to run DirectX 10, an item that is just coming onto the market. Not a big deal for the Solitaire player, but for those who like blowing stuff up real good, this is tantalizing stuff.
Potentially the single most compelling reason to make the move to Windows Vista is that it provides significant ammunition to champions of truth, justice and the American way in the battle against digital evildoers, thanks to a variety of new security features. Some of these improvements lurk deep in the bowels of the system, while others are readily apparent.
For example, while Windows XP let you set up separate accounts for individual users, this feature is much simpler and more practical under Windows Vista. You can prohibit a specific user from installing any new software—which in turn protects your computer from viruses triggered while that person is using the machine.
Vista also incorporates software that defends against Web sites that try to plant nefarious software on your system—stuff like keystroke loggers, which record every key you press (including account passwords and personal info) and periodically upload this info to individuals with bad intent.
Another slick feature incorporated in the new version of Internet Explorer protects you from "phishing" attacks by Web sites that appear to represent a trusted provider—say, your bank or utility company—but are intended to trick you into revealing personal information. Now these phony sites can be automatically detected and blocked.
Unfortunately, Microsoft isn't providing a comprehensive digital condom—you still need to install a separate antivirus program, from Microsoft, Symantec, McAfee, Webroot or whomever, to thwart the full complement of online attacks. Still, in a world where your infected PC can rapidly become my problem as it reaches its tendrils out over the Net, Vista is a big step in the right direction
THE BOTTOM LINE
I've highlighted only what I consider to be the key Vista features here, but they are just the beginning of the system's dozens of changes great and small, from improved software for Tablet PCs (laptops that let you write in "digital ink," directly on the screen) to better step-by-step guidance for tricky tasks like setting up a home network. For a full-on Vista rundown, check out Microsoft's extensive, reasonably nontechnical explanation at microsoft.com/windowsvista.
At the end of the day, no single Vista feature screams "Buy me!" Instead there's a multitude of fixes, upgrades and updates. Nothing earthshaking, whatever the hype-meisters may say. But taken in total, Vista is a dramatic improvement over XP. And unless you wander off into the sparsely populated land where the Macintosh minions reside, or relish the geek cred of living with a Linux PC, you'll experience a certain inevitability to Windows Vista. They may get you now, they may get you later, but they will get you, my friend. The remaining questions are "How?" and "When?"
Vista will be released in four versions in the United States: Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. For personal use, Home Premium is the way to go—Home Basic leaves out much of what makes Vista fun to own, including the Aero desktop design and Media Center PC features. Home Premium will cost $239 for the full product, but if you're already running Windows you can choose the upgrade version for $159.
If your I.T. department is involved in choosing a machine that you'll be running both at work and at home and insists on one of the business editions (with certain security features appropriate to a corporate environment), lobby them for the Ultimate edition, which includes several entertainment-oriented goodies. The basic business edition costs $299 for the full package and $199 for the upgrade, while the Ultimate editions go for $399 (full package) and $259 (upgrade).
Now, what about timing? Microsoft has put Vista through months of torture testing, allowing hundreds of thousands of users to download pre-release versions, run them on their own machines and report problems. In my own testing of the latest release (which is this close, but not identical, to the final product that will hit shelves on January 30), I've encountered nothing out of the ordinary beyond a single missing piece of driver software.
Drivers are the little pieces of software code that let a component part of your system—say, a printer or an external hard disk drive—talk to the mother ship. While Microsoft is working hard with equipment manufacturers to make sure Vista-compatible drivers are available, there are an awful lot of pieces to this puzzle, including products you may have purchased years ago. Hence, this recommendation: if you're buying a new PC, order it with Vista preinstalled. The manufacturer will have tested the operating system with all the specific component parts of your computer working together, and any Vista-driven nasties that do show up will be covered under the warranty.
When it comes to selecting a Vista PC, you need to make sense of some potentially confusing terminology. Microsoft labels the basic Vista-ready machine "Windows Vista Capable"—that's an extraordinarily low bar for system manufacturers to clear. Yes, the machine will run Vista, but without the jazzy Aero interface or much soul-satisfying oomph when it comes to processing power. What you want is a Windows Vista Premium Ready PC, which is guaranteed to be compatible with all of the Windows Vista features (including Aero).
In addition to a more powerful processor (it would be difficult to find a machine that doesn't dramatically exceed Microsoft's minimum spec here), it pays to splurge in two other areas. One is system memory—while the Premium Ready PC specification mandates at least one gigabyte of system memory, I'd go for a more generous two gigabytes to maximize system performance. The second key area is video. The Premium Ready PC spec mandates the 128 megabytes of video memory needed to run the Aero interface, but there are still choices to be made. Most systems will support DirectX 9 (a Vista requirement) while high-end gaming systems will include graphics cards to support the more demanding DirectX 10 standard. You can pass on DirectX 10 if you're not a gaming enthusiast, but either way, you do want a removable, upgradable video card rather than what's called "integrated graphics"—meaning a video chip that's built right into the system's motherboard. With a separate graphics card, if the wonders of DirectX 10 extend beyond high-end gaming down the road, it will be easy to upgrade to the new standard.
And what about upgrading your current Windows XP machine? I don't see any features that make Vista a must-have on the day of release, the week of release or even the month of release. I say, let the other guy have bragging rights (such as they are) for being the first on the block to run Vista. By holding back, you're letting the rest of the world serve as your personal taste testers, as they tip off Microsoft to any problems that are lurking, so the company can figure out the fixes before you make your purchase.
I'm thinking two months after the product launches is a good time to seriously consider upgrading, and three isn't unreasonable. That said, I do feel that compelling new features await you in Vista, and expect you'll be happier at the keyboard after upgrading. But is your current computer up to the task? Microsoft can help answer that question with a program called Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, which is available for free download from its Web site (you'll find it at www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready). The program will scan all your installed hardware and software, and produce a report that will either confirm that you're ready for Vista or recommend the required system upgrades if you're not. It will also list programs that may cause problems after upgrading, and suggest solutions.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor who writes regularly on technology issues.