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Is 'Vista' buena?

The Baltimore Sun

I don't know anyone who plans to line up outside a computer store at 12:01 Tuesday morning to get a copy of Windows Vista. That's when Microsoft begins selling consumers the first major revision of its flagship operating system in five years.

There's a good reason for the lack of enthusiasm. Vista is safer and slicker than its predecessor, but not a must-have upgrade. Most of its improvements are incremental, and Windows XP is a solid performer.

Unless you're an uber-geek who doesn't mind gambling with his PC, installing Vista isn't worth the peril of replacing a perfectly workable operating system - certainly not the first week it's released.

On the other hand, if you buy a new computer after midnight on Monday, Vista will probably come with it. And you'll learn to like it, once you adjust to some new ways of doing things.

First things first: Vista comes in five versions, two for home use and three for business. The Home versions are labeled Basic and Premium, with upgrades priced from $100 to $200, depending on the version and the retailer.

Vista Basic is designed for low-end computers. Although it offers the same security improvements as higher-end products, it lacks the fancy graphics of the Premium upgrade. Yes, it will handle word processing, Web browsing, e-mail and so forth just fine. But it won't be much fun.

Vista Premium (the version I reviewed) is loaded with bells and whistles, including terrific multimedia capability. As a result, it requires a lot more horsepower than Windows XP - a processor running with at least 1 GHz, a gigabyte of internal memory, and a dedicated graphics adapter. More of everything is better.

My test machine, supplied by Microsoft, was a monster Hewlett Packard dv9000 multimedia laptop, with a dual core processor, wide screen, 2 gigabytes of memory, a TV tuner and a price tag north of $1,700. But you can find a desktop machine that will run Vista Premium well for half that price, maybe less.

Look and feel

Vista Premium is the prettiest version of Windows to date - with subtle shadings, beautiful backgrounds and more Mac-like features than Windows XP.

The so-called "Aero" interface, which accounts for so much of the extra computing power that Vista demands, creates windows with semi-transparent edges - so you can see what's underneath. Another feature called "Flip 3D" shuffles through open windows that appear to float in three-dimensional space.

These animated touches, obviously inspired by a visit to the Center for the Easily Amused, are fun to watch - the first few times. Otherwise, they're a total waste of processor cycles. If you really like this stuff, you might as well buy a Mac.

Another Mac-like addition is the presence of "Gadgets," tiny desktop accessories such as a calendar, wall clock, post-it notes, a mini-photo pane or stock ticker. Likewise, they're cute but not deal makers.

A bigger improvement - at least for beginners - is the way Vista organizes your computing life, with an enlarged, rearranged Start menu designed to make it easier to find your documents, photos, music, videos and so forth.

At first, I was confused and frustrated by the new look. In fact, my reaction illustrates a problem Microsoft and other longtime publishers face when they're redesigning products for an audience that has fewer beginners and more people who know how to use their PCs. After a while, I began to appreciate the simplicity of the new interface, but experienced users may grumble a lot before they figure out how to do make Vista do things the old way.

Other nice touches include a search bar at the top of every window that displays files and folders - faster and more accurate than XP's brain-dead search prompt.

Security

If Windows XP (at least the early version) had one outstanding flaw, it was security. It was easy prey for Web hackers who wanted to steal credit card numbers and bank account passwords, or turn vulnerable PCs into "zombies" that send out millions of spam e-mail.

Microsoft promised to plug those holes, one reason it took five years to get Vista out the door. Most new features protect invisibly against network invaders - only time will tell how successful Microsoft was. One thing Vista users will notice is more programs that ask permission before making potentially dangerous changes in system settings. This can be annoying, but in a hostile world, better safe than sorry.

Vista also will nag users to update Windows Live Onecare, an online service that tunes and protects the computer. But don't give up on third-party security suites from Symantec, McAfee and other vendors. Microsoft may finally be taking on some of these chores itself, but others have far more experience battling viruses, worms, Trojan horses and spyware.

Web browsing

Vista comes with Internet Explorer 7, a major rewrite that brings it up to the slick standards set by a couple of third-party browsers, Mozilla Firefox and Opera. Aside from improved security - including protection against "phishing" Web sites - IE7 finally provides tabbed browsing. This feature allows you to open multiple Web sites in the same window and switch by clicking on "tabs" at the top of the screen.

On the downside, navigation buttons you've relied on over the years suddenly have been relocated or are missing altogether. Progress has its speed bumps.

Multimedia

For managing and playing and recording TV programs, video, music and photos, Vista Premium includes a much improved version of Microsoft's Media Center Edition - which required a separate version of Windows in earlier releases. It's great - and reason enough to buy a PC with a built-in TV tuner, or add a tuner to a PC.

Media Center's best feature is a digital video recorder (DVR) that works much like a TiVo or cable company recorder attached to a TV set. Hook your computer's TV tuner up to a cable feed and you can download the schedule, search for programs and record them on your hard drive for playback whenever.

You can also play recorded shows on your TV set if the PC has a video-out port. The quality of the recordings wasn't as good as what our Comcast DVR produced - and high-definition recordings will be problematic for some time. But Vista's DVR will sell a lot of TV tuners in laptops headed for college dorms.

Windows Media Player also has an upgrade. It's a bit easier to use than earlier versions but still not as slick as Apple's iTunes software. And, thanks to incompatible copy protection schemes, it won't play songs downloaded from iTunes, unless you record them to an audio CD and re-import them as Windows media or MP3 files.

The really bad news is that Vista is full of copy-protection traps demanded by the music, film and TV studios. Microsoft virtually rolled over on this issue to avoid lawsuits, and as a result, Vista may not work with some existing external players and media extenders that don't have the same copy protection built in.

Vista Big Brother is so restrictive that it may prevent your PC from playing legitimately recorded high-definition programs or new hi-def DVDs through many existing digital HDTV sets. If you're seriously into HD media, stick with Windows XP or forget about using your PC as the central player.

Accessories

The new Photo Gallery does a workmanlike job of transferring photos from your digital camera, organizing your pictures and performing rudimentary cropping, exposure adjustments and red-eye reduction.

It also provides an excellent photo browser. But if you're serious about digital photography, you'll probably want a more powerful editing program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Likewise, Vista's version of Microsoft Movie Maker is much faster and smoother than earlier versions. I was able to cobble a bunch of video clips from a recent vacation into a basic DVD in less than an hour - without ever clicking on the Help icon. Again, if you're serious about video, you'll want a real movie editor - and a computer with enough processing power to render your movies while you're still young enough to enjoy them.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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