Skip the navigation

Visual Tour: Vista's new UI

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

This article is part 2 of an excerpt from Windows Vista Unveiled, with permission of the Sams Publishing. Copyright 2006 Sams Publishing, all rights reserved. Also see Part 1: Under the hood: What's different about Vista's GUI? .

General Interface Changes

The first thing you might notice upon loading Windows Vista for the first time is the new Welcome screen, shown in Figure 3.1, which replaces the XP Welcome screen. (If you're running Vista with just a single user account and no password, you won't see the Welcome screen; it appears only if you have multiple user accounts or after you have assigned a password to at least one account.) Click the user you want to log on as; then type your password and press Enter.

The Windows Vista Welcome screen.  

FIGURE 3.1      The Windows Vista Welcome screen.

The Vista Desktop

After Vista loads, the main thing you'll notice is that the overall look of the desktop has changed. As you can see in Figure 3.2, the most obvious change is the new wallpaper (although the one you see might be different; when you install Windows Vista, it gives you a choice of several wallpapers) and the new Windows Sidebar on the right.

If you're into the wallpaper thing (I rarely see my desktop these days), you'll be happy to know that Vista ships with some stunning new images, as shown in Figures 3.3 and 3.4.


The Windows Vista desktop  

FIGURE 3.2          The Windows Vista desktop.

The Windows Vista desktop showing an image from the Textures series of backgrounds.  

FIGURE 3.3      The Windows Vista desktop showing an image from the Textures series of backgrounds.

The Windows Vista desktop showing an image from the Black and White series of backgrounds.  

FIGURE 3.4      The Windows Vista desktop showing an image from the Black and White series of backgrounds.

As you can see in Figure 3.2, the desktop also comes with updated icons for the Recycle Bin, Computer (formerly My Computer) and Network (formerly My Network Places), as well as a new desktop icon for the Control Panel. The default desktop just shows the Recycle Bin icon, but you can customize which icons appear on the desktop by using the Desktop Items dialog box, shown in Figure 3.5. (Right-click the desktop, click Properties, click Change Desktop Icons and then click Customize Desktop.)

The Vista Taskbar

At the bottom of the Vista screen, you see the slightly revamped taskbar, shown in Figure 3.6.

The most obvious change here is that the Start button has morphed from XP's rounded rectangle to a translucent orb showing just the Windows Vista logo. It sure looks nice, but I have to wonder if it will confuse novice users because in the past they saw the word Start and at least had a logical place in the interface to get something going.

To the right of the Start button, the taskbar itself has a new look. If your video card supports the Aero Glass interface, the taskbar appears with the transparency effect so you can see the desktop behind it. Also, the taskbar now appears as an integrated whole, meaning that you no longer see any visual breaks between the Quick Launch toolbar on the left, the taskbar's icon area in the middle and the notification area on the right. (The breaks are still there, but they don't appear with the taskbar locked. Right-click the taskbar and then deactivate the Lock the Taskbar command to do things such as resize the Quick Launch toolbar and display more taskbar rows.)

 

FIGURE 3.5          Use the Desktop Items dialog box to customize the Windows Vista desktop

The Windows Vista taskbar.  

FIGURE 3.6      The Windows Vista taskbar.

Speaking of the notification area, it's now a bit more customizable in Vista. As you can see in Figure 3.7, the Taskbar and Start Menu Properties dialog box (right-click an empty section of the taskbar and then click Properties) now comes with a Notification Area tab. You can hide inactive icons, as you could in XP, but there's a new System Icons group that enables you to toggle the icons for four different items: Clock, Volume, Network and Power.

The Start Menu

Clicking the Start button reveals the Windows Vista version of the Start menu, shown in Figure 3.8. The overall layout of the Start menu hasn't changed too much from Windows XP, but there are subtle differences in the way the Vista Start menu works. For example, the left side of the XP Start menu showed a list of the programs that you've used most often. In Vista, the left side of the Start menu shows a list of the programs you've used most recently; those that you've used most often appear closer to the top of the list. As with XP, the Internet and e-mail items are "pinned" -- that is, they appear in bold at the top of the program list and are a fixed part of the Start menu. However, just as in XP, you can pin any icon to the Start menu by right-clicking the icon and then clicking Pin to Start Menu.

In Windows Vista, you can control the notification area view by toggling several different system icons.  

FIGURE 3.7      In Windows Vista, you can control the notification area view by toggling several different system icons.

You can tell Windows Vista not to display recently used programs on the Start menu. Right-click the Start button, click Properties and then deactivate the Store and Display a List of Recently Opened Programs check box.

One of the biggest disappointments on the new Start menu is the missing Run command that gives you access to a command-line interface. If, like me, you use Run frequently, you can add it back where it belongs. Right-click the Start button, click Properties and then click Customize. In the list of Start menu items, activate the Run Command check box and then click OK to exit all dialog boxes. Remember that you can also fire up the Run dialog box by pressing Windows Log+R.

The right side of the Start menu -- it's called the Start panel -- contains links to various Windows Vista folders and features. There are three changes to note:

  • Windows Vista does away with the old "My X" paradigm that began with Windows 95 and the My Computer icon, and reached absurd heights in Windows XP (My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, My Received Files, and on and on). In Vista, the corresponding folders are named simply Documents, Pictures, Music, Recent Items and Computer.
  • The new Games icon opens the Games folder, which has icons for the games that come with Vista, as well as most third-party games you install yourself.
  • If you're connected to a network, the Network icon appears on the Start menu. Launching this icon shows you the computers and devices in your workgroup or network, so it's the equivalent of XP's View Workgroup Computers command. (Vista has no equivalent to XP's My Network Places feature.)

The Windows Vista Start menu.  

FIGURE 3.8      The Windows Vista Start menu.

One of the major changes to the Start menu is the All Programs link, which works a bit differently than it did in previous versions of Windows. When you click all Programs, instead of a menu flying out to the right, Vista simply converts the Start menu's program list to a list of items in the All Programs folder, as shown in Figure 3.9.

If you then click a folder icon, the folder's menu items appear in place, as shown with the Accessories folder in Figure 3.10. To return to the list of recently used programs, click Back. In other words, Vista's Start menu is self-contained; when you get used to the new method, it's a relief not have to chase menus and submenus across the screen.

In Vista, clicking All Programs displays the submenu within the main Start menu.  

FIGURE 3.9          In Vista, clicking All Programs displays the submenu within the main Start menu.

The bottom of the Start menu has been revamped considerably from XP. For starters, there are replacements for XP's Shut Down and Log Off links:

  • Sleep -- Click this button to save your current programs and documents and put your computer into a low-power mode that's the next closest thing to being completely shut off. The next time you power up your computer, Vista resumes in just a few seconds; after you log on, it restores your running programs and documents.
  • Lock -- Click this button to lock your computer. This displays the logon screen; you can return to the desktop only by entering your password. You can also click the arrow to the right of the Lock button to display a menu consisting of several items, including Switch User, Lock, Log Off, Shut Down, Restart and Undock (for docking stations only).

Perhaps the most interesting and potentially most useful and time-saving of Vista's Start menu innovations is the Instant Search box that appears on the bottom left. Thanks to Vista's high-powered search engine, the Start menu's Instant Search box offers on-the-fly searches. Type in the text you want to search for, and Vista immediately displays a list of programs, folders, files, e-mail messages, contacts and other user data that have names containing the text, as shown in Figure 3.11. Vista also displays Search the Computer and Search the Internet links so that you can easily expand your search.

Clicking a folder icon opens the folder’s menu items in place.  

FIGURE 3.10      Clicking a folder icon opens the folder’s menu items in place.

Type text in the Start menu's Instant Search box, and Vista returns a list of programs, folders, and files with the text contained in the name.  

FIGURE 3.11      Type text in the Start menu’s Instant Search box, and Vista returns a list of programs, folders, and files with the text contained in the name.

Our Commenting Policies