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The Five Best and Worst Things About Vista

by Preston Gralla
12/19/2006

After five years, Windows Vista is finally here. With a Mac-like interface, improved security, and far better networking, it's a great improvement over Windows XP. Like any new operating system, though, there are things you'll love about it, and things you'll hate about it. Check out my list of five things you'll love and five things you'll hate, and add to the list by using the link at the bottom of the article.

Five Things You'll Love About Windows Vista

Graphical Interface and Windows Aero

The thing you'll probably like most about Vista is its new interface. Transparent windows slide into place with animations, there are useful gadgets on the right side of the screen, and the colors are subtler than in previous versions of Windows. Overall, it's less cartoonish and more Mac-like than Windows XP.
At the heart of the new interface is Windows Aero, which features windows with glassy, translucent edges, and whose colors, level of transparency, and saturation can be customized. The Alt-Tab switching between open windows has been drastically improved with Windows Flip and Windows Flip 3D. With Windows Flip (Alt-Tab), you see thumbnails of all your windows as you rotate through them. Windows Flip 3D stacks all of your windows in three dimensions; you can flip through them like cards. (To run it, click the Windows Flip 3D button in Quick Launch, or press the Windows Key-Tab combination.)

Thumbnail, click for full-size image.
Figure 1. Windows Flip 3D switching among open windows. (Click for full-size image.)

Two more elements of the new user interface are particularly notable: the gadgets on the Sidebar, and Live Thumbnails. Hover your mouse over a window on the Taskbar, and a thumbnail of that window pops up, including the program and document name or website just above it. These thumbnails are "live"; if there's video playing in the windows, you'll be able to see the video playing in the thumbnail.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Live Thumbnails show you live previews of any active window.

Gadgets, which live on the Sidebar, are interactive applets that gather and display information, such as displaying RSS feeds, updating stock quotes, and so on. Windows Vista ships with about a dozen of them.

Network and Sharing Center

Windows Vista is the first version of Windows built in a world where networking has become nearly ubiquitous, and it shows. Microsoft has finally gotten networking right; for the first time, the network seems a natural extension of your PC.

Command central for networking is the Network and Sharing Center, which lets you easily configure a network and all its features, including sharing files and folders, connecting to and managing multiple networks, and accessing all of your network's resources. All of your vital networking tools and information are right at hand, from file sharing to changing your network name, connecting to a network, managing network connections, repairing broken connections, and more.

To see my favorite new networking feature, click "View Full Map," and Vista shows you a complete map of all of the PCs and devices on your network, including switches and gateways. Click a device or hover over it, and you'll see more details. So click a PC, and you'll see shared network files and folders. Hover your mouse over a device and details about it will be displayed--for example, its IP address and MAC address.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The new Network Map shows you every device on your network and displays details about each, such as IP and MAC addresses.

Wireless Networking

If you frequently connect to multiple wireless networks, for example, one at home, hot spots outside your home, and possibly a workplace wireless network, you'll appreciate the ease with which you can connect to and manage wireless networks and connections.

Click the network icon in the System Tray, then click "Connect or disconnect," and you'll see a list of nearby wireless networks. Hover your mouse over any network, and you'll see details about it, including the network type (802.11b, 802.11g, etc.), whether security is being used, and if so, what kind.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Vista's new way of connecting to, or disconnecting from, a wireless network.

You can also easily manage multiple networks and connections. For example, if you use a wireless network at home, one at work, and several at hot spots, you can name and save each connection and tell Vista to automatically connect to each when you're in range. That way, you won't have to fumble with making manual connections. And excellent built-in management tools let you configure your wireless connections so that if you're in range of more than one, you can set which one takes precedence over the others.

There's nice built-in security as well. You designate each network as public or private, and when you connect to each, Windows Vista automatically applies the relevant security. Private networks, for example, allow file sharing; when you're at a public network, Windows Vista automatically turns that off.

Search

If you're like me, you'll have a love/hate relationship with the new Search. On the one hand, it's exceedingly fast, makes it a breeze to find any file, and lets you save searches for future reference. On the other hand, you'll have to perform a few workarounds to get it to work right.

Search is built into every level of Windows Vista; it's on the Start menu, it's on the upper-righthand side of Windows Explorer, and it can be accessed via Start-->Search. It uses indexing to perform your searches, and because of that, it displays results lightning-fast. It searches the index as you type, so results appear as you type the first letter of your term, and narrow as you keep typing. It finds documents, emails, applications, and even websites you've visited.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Vista's advanced search feature is exceptional powerful and displays results literally as you type.

In addition, there is a very powerful advanced search tool that lets you narrow your search by date, file size, author, tags, and location. It accepts Boolean searching. You can even search other computers on your network, as long as you have the rights to read from the other PCs.

You can even save your searches. Create a search once, then visit again in Windows Explorer so that you don't have to re-create it.

There are some problems, though. Search works differently in different places. For example, you get different kinds of results if you search using the Start search box, as compared to the Windows Explorer search box. More maddening is that, by default, Search only indexes a small portion of your hard disk, your own \Users\{username} folder, primarily. Microsoft assumes that you will store all of your files in subfolders underneath that folder. If you store your files somewhere else, Search won't find it, unless you do a nonindexed search, which can be painfully slow.

To fix the problem, go to Control Panel--> System and Maintenance--> Indexing Options, and hand-pick folders to put into the index.

Security

It's no secret that previous versions of Windows have been chock-full of security holes. Microsoft aimed to plug them in Windows Vista, and it's done quite a nice job.

The Windows firewall has been improved; it now blocks dangerous outbound connections as well as inbound ones. (In Windows XP, it only blocked inbound connections.) This adds an extra level of security against Trojans and bots.

Vista also ships with Windows Defender, anti-spyware software with some particularly notable features, especially the Software Explorer, which shows you programs that run at startup and currently running programs, and provides details about each, including whether it's classified as malware. You can then take a variety of actions, including disabling the application, removing it, and so on.

Some of the biggest security improvements are under the hood. Network Access Protection, designed for enterprise-level networks, lets network administrators set up requirements that any PC must meet before it can connect to the network, such as having up-to-date antivirus signatures. And BitLocker Drive Encryption, available only on the Enterprise and Ultimate versions, provides a hardware-based way of locking down an entire PC and all its data.

Internet security has also been improved. Internet Explorer now includes a very good antiphishing filter. In addition, any IE window, including pop ups, now includes an Address Bar with a URL. In previous versions of the browser, pop ups didn't include URLs, so you couldn't know whether they originated from a legitimate site or a spyware purveyor. With this version of IE 7, the URL is now in plain sight.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Internet Explorer's antiphishing filter, warning about a phishing site.

Also, by default, IE now runs in the new Protected Mode, in which the browser can't modify system files or settings. In addition, protection against cross-domain scripting attacks has been added. In this kind of attack, a hacker could create a malicious website that would spawn a legitimate website in another window, such as a banking site. But when you enter information into the banking site, the hacker can read it from his other domain.

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