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Under the hood: What's different about Vista's GUI?

By Paul McFedries
October 17, 2006 12:00 PM ET

This article is excerpted from Windows Vista Unveiled, with permission of Sams Publishing. Copyright 2006 Sams Publishing, all rights reserved.

Whenever Microsoft releases a new operating system, the one thing anyone seems to want to talk about is the new interface. What does it look like? Is it cool? Can I run it? On the surface this seems superficial because, after all, Windows is and should be more than just a pretty interface. Don't things such as stability and security mean more? Shouldn't the goal of any OS be to just get out of the way and let us get on with our work, perhaps a tad more productively than before?

That's all true, but the operating system interface shouldn't be relegated to mere eye-candy status. After all, we use the operating system's interface for many nontrivial tasks during a typical day: starting programs; saving our work; finding documents; moving, copying and deleting files; maintaining the computer; troubleshooting problems; networking with others; and so much more. If the interface to all these tasks is ugly, inefficient, or confusing, then we'll simply get less work done or have less fun than we would otherwise.

So how does Vista's interface rate? As you'll see in this chapter, the answer has to be "pretty darned good," although with a few reservations. Vista's interface is almost certainly the best that Microsoft has come up with so far (some would claim that's not saying much), and it's got plenty of eye-popping and jaw-dropping features without descending into gaudiness and mere trickery.

The Windows Presentation Foundation

All the interface changes that come in the Vista package are a direct or indirect result of Vista's new graphical subsystem. Code-named Avalon but now officially called Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Vista's graphical underpinnings should prove to be a boon to both developers and end users. But it won't be just the Vista community that benefits from WPF, because Microsoft has decided to backport WPF for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

Developers will (and, by all accounts, already do) love WPF because it provides a one-stop shop for all their graphical needs. Before WPF, developers had to work with a rather alarming number of technologies and application programming interfaces (API). For example, to draw a simple 2-D shape, they called on the Graphics Device Interface (GDI); for 3-D objects, they used Direct3D or OpenGL; for media objects, they used DirectShow; and for user interface objects, they used USER32 or Windows Forms, to name just a few. Some of these technologies (such as the GDI) have been around since Windows 1.0. Clearly, it was time for a change.

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