Ash Nallawalla's blog

Review: Windows Vista Ultimate

by Ash Nallawalla, 30 Mar 07

Microsoft Windows Vista (Vista) was released in late January this year and I have had the pleasure of playing with its betas for the previous 18 months. It is an operating system (OS) and it succeeds Windows XP. All PCs need an operating system to run your applications – your programs such as a word processor, Web browser and so on.

Disclaimer

I have to start with a disclaimer.

I wrote “playing” because I have only used it on my own desktop on a spare hard disk, not on one of those optimised Ferrari laptops or souped up desktops that were handed out to many testers in my group. I don’t have a spare, usable PC that can support Vista and which I can run regularly.

Since I am not ready to throw out two lightly used printers and buy ones that support Vista, I have not yet made it my primary operating system. In addition, my main home office software also does not work in Vista. This was all very disappointing, but I expect many of our members to be in a similar situation, so it is a realistic testing environment.

My desktop is a two-year-old Pentium 4 (pre Core Duo) with 1 GB RAM and a WDDM-standard graphics card that works well with Vista’s Aero feature. However, the Vista Upgrade Advisor says that it is only suitable for Vista Business, not Ultimate. I have read many user comments suggesting that one should have at least 2 GB RAM to enjoy Vista (IBM suggests 4 GB is optimal, Dell says 2 GB), but for my use (mostly browsing the Web, VoIP and using Microsoft Office), 1 GB does the job.

Editions

Windows Vista is available in five editions in Australia; there is also a Starter Edition for so-called emerging markets (the poorer nations where software piracy is common). Consumers can choose from three versions:

  • Home Basic
  • Home Premium
  • Ultimate

Small businesses can choose from:

  • Business
  • Ultimate

Medium and large businesses can choose from:

  • Business
  • Enterprise

Which Version is Right for Me?

You can explore http://www.windowsvista.com to see the official description of each edition and their thousands of features, but to save you time, I suggest that you avoid the Home Basic edition, as it is too crippled to be useful. Backups are not included, for example.

It is interesting that the different editions will be supported by Microsoft for a different number of years (and this is reflected in the pricing). The two Home editions and Ultimate will be supported for five years and the Business/Enterprise editions will be supported for 10 years.

The true home user would be satisfied with the Home Premium edition, but any home user with the slightest wish to be a home office user (say, to send faxes, to use drive encryption and keep shadow copies) should get the Ultimate edition.

Choosing the right version of Vista is dependent on the PC configuration you have, or plan to get. The US Dell site (see Hardware Requirements) compares three PCs with varying specifications:

  • 512 MB RAM with Vista Basic: No Aero experience. “Great for booting the Operating System, without running applications or games.” They couldn’t be more candid than that. Local laptop resellers used to sell machines with 512 MB and Windows XP, but we knew that 1 MB was needed to make it useful. Similarly, beware that the cheap Vista Basic laptop you see with 512 MB RAM could be useless.
  • 1 GB RAM with 128 MB graphics card: Great for multitasking, but Aero will work on a single monitor.
  • 2 GB RAM with 256 MB graphics card: Great for multitasking with power-hungry applications, advanced video editing, high-definition viewing and recording, dual monitor usage.

Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor

You should also use the Microsoft tool known as Upgrade Advisor (6.6 MB download) to see if your current PC can handle Vista. You might be prompted to download and install msxml6.msi to run this tool. My desktop PC was diagnosed as being suitable for Vista Business and not Home Premium or Ultimate, possibly because my audio device (C-Media) could not be identified properly. I don’t have a TV card but Media Center runs DVDs just fine.

Your Old Software?

Don’t forget your existing collection of software. In my case I have Adobe Acrobat 5 (full version, not the reader) and Macromedia Studio MX (2002) and as I no longer work for them, an upgrade cannot be justified for the occasional home office and Melb PC volunteer purposes. I have a small collection of purchased (as opposed to review copies) software that are also 2-3 years old and probably incompatible.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has the Expression series of software that is Vista compatible and I have been using a beta of Expression Web Designer, which will replace my old Dreamweaver. Whether the web developer community is ready to switch or upgrade the OS is to be seen.

Why do old applications fail? Many were written to run at Administrator privilege, which is a no-no in Vista. Some took shortcuts that worked only with older operating systems. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to fix weaknesses that are present in old software. For example, guidelines to developers include that they may not replace the system files and Registry keys that come from Microsoft.

Works with Vista or Certified?

When choosing a PC that comes pre-loaded with Vista, look for the “Certified for Vista” sticker (http://snipurl.com/1cqnr). This is shorthand for “No specs necessary”, namely, you don’t need to read the fine print to find out if a computer or peripheral will work with Vista – in fact, more than just work. “Works with Vista” is a lower grade certification and will be found on less critical items such as peripherals. Note that there were interim logos marked “Windows Vista Premium Ready” and “Windows Vista Capable” which were meant to be used prior to the launch. Such software or hardware might not work properly with the released version.

To move your old data to a Vista PC, you should use Windows Easy Transfer (http://snipurl.com/1cqno) which can use a cable, DVD, external drive and so on. You can download the free transfer tool from the same page.

What’s Different in Vista?

For this article I will assume that most readers here use Windows XP or are familiar with it. If my memory serves me well, there was a significant difference between Windows XP and Windows 98. With Windows Vista, there is once again a small learning curve, but nothing to fear. Things aren’t always where they used to be, which will annoy power users more so than novices, but the main thing is – Vista is easy to use.

Aero

The main improvement you will notice is the visual brilliance. We were privy to the detailed stages of development taken by Microsoft’s design team and we understand why the final design is so good and usable. I don’t mean the “transparent window edges” that are the first thing you will notice, but the overall graphics wizardry that makes the OS a delight to use.

If using a laptop on battery power, you should turn off Aero, as the extra CPU requirements of this 3-D feature will gobble up 20-40 minutes of usable time.

User Account Control (UAC)

Microsoft has done a great job with improving security – some would say to excess. In Windows XP, many people ran their PCs with a single account that had Administrator privilege. This meant that uninvited nasty programs were very likely to run with Administrative privilege and cause the most damage. In Vista, you are always a standard user even when logged in as Administrator. Every time you perform some system-related task such as installing some program, Vista will prompt you to either supply the Administrator password or confirm that you really want to do this. All such task buttons are marked with the Windows shield to signify that it requires Administrator privilege.

UAC ensures that applications do not run with Administrator privileges all the time, so that malware, viruses, root kits or trojans do not sneak in. You can turn off UAC, but that is like leaving your front door open.

Not Enough RAM?

Vista has a great feature called ReadyBoost, which enables us to increase the computer’s RAM by plugging in a flash drive. This made a great difference to my Vista experience! To use Windows ReadyBoost, PCs must have access to a non-volatile flash memory drive with at least 1 GB of storage capacity. The flash drive must also meet the requirements for random reads and random writes specified in the Windows Vista Logo “Storage-0009 WLP” specification:

  • 5 MB/sec throughput for random 4 kB reads across the entire device
  • 3 MB/sec throughput for random 512 kB writes across the entire device

All the 32-bit versions can only address 4 GB of RAM, but the 64-bit versions handle up to 8 GB for Home Basic, 16 GB for Home Premium, and more than 128 GB for the rest.

SuperFetch

SuperFetch anticipates what data you will need, based on previous behaviour, and puts it in RAM, so the system will respond quickly. As you can expect, more RAM is always better, but remember the maximum 4 GB RAM that a 32-bit machine will handle.

Internet Explorer (IE)

Apart from the visual improvements such as tabs, IE has become more secure and runs in protected mode. It runs with very low privileges and cannot modify your files or write to the Registry keys. Trusted sites show a green background in the address bar and bad sites show red.

Networking

A new set of public APIs (application programming interface) have been written under the label Windows Filtering Platform. The TCP/IP stack has been completely re-written, Internet Protocol (IP) V4 and V6 have a single stack and the internal system calls and hooks have been removed. The result is that old network scanning, firewall and antivirus applications may fail. Microsoft is working with the networking community to ensure that new applications are Vista-aware.

Sideshow

A great hardware feature is Windows SideShow. New laptops have an additional, smaller display on the side or the lid where you can see email subject lines, appointments and the like without requiring you to boot up the computer. The remote control for a Media Centre PC will display information about the videos and TV programs available to you.

Digital picture frames were really hot at CES this year. Wireless picture frames all over your home can display images from your PC via Windows Media Connect.

General Security

Without doubt, Microsoft has engineered security into every corner of this OS. It has taken into account the fact that most consumers are not computer experts and need a quick fix. An example of this is the “Fix My Settings” option in IE, which can get your settings back on track.

Parental Controls enable parents to make it impossible for children access material that is not suitable for them. You can control which programs they may use and at what times. They can run reports later to see what the children have done on the PC.

Multimedia

Now you can organise your picture, video and music collections better, without needing third-party applications. You can purchase music online – Windows Media Player 11 has a new look and is integrated with the online purchase mechanism. It can burn data to DVD and can span multiple CDs. Windows DVD Maker enables you to make DVDs from video that was taken with your digital video camera. While this won’t displace third-party applications, it gives you more features. I had a hardware problem that blocked the audio, so I could not appreciate the multimedia features.

Email and Newsgroups

Outlook Express has been replaced with a beefed up application known as Windows Mail. It has a very quick search feature, a junk mail filter, phishing filter and you can access newsgroups through your ISP.

Pricing

Windows Vista pricing varies so much that you should check online price comparison sites. I found that the price for Vista Ultimate ranged from $615 to $719. If you are eligible for academic pricing, or want to get an upgrade edition, it will be much lower. Buying it with a new PC will be another cheap route.

Conclusion

Without doubt, Windows Vista is a great operating system for home and business users. Make sure that your current software and hardware will run on Vista by searching the Web for discussions on those topics. For once I am unsure when I can afford to leave Windows XP and move entirely to Vista but it should be in the next 2-3 months. If you don’t have old hardware or software, you’ll get there before me. Later this year I will cover other aspects of Vista that deserve to be featured in detail, such as the multimedia and business features.

Ash Nallawalla

Search strategist experienced in large, complex websites. Ash's Google+ profile

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