Visual Tour: 20 Reasons Why Windows Vista Will Be Your Next OS

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Avalon's amazing graphics

The cost in hardware support may be more taxing than most companies and end users are fully prepared for, but there's nothing wrong with the result. Even in Beta 2, it seems to me that Microsoft has surpassed Apple's Macintosh OS X in the area of rapidly rendered, well-formed 3-D graphics. For the first time ever, Windows will offer graphics mastery. That will clearly be true for games, and Wintel PCs have long been the premier gaming platform. But it will also be true for the Windows interface and any applications that are written to take advantage of the new graphics subsystem, whose code name was Avalon. (Microsoft now calls it Windows Presentation Foundation. The company's code names are so much better than its marketing names. What's up with that?)


Vista can rapidly resize icons quickly and smoothly

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Unless you've tried Vista Beta 2 (or newer), I don't think you're qualified to dispute my next statement. I've seen numerous forum posts and articles that summed up Avalon as so much eye candy. It's true, that's what it supports. But it's how you use the 3-D graphical horsepower to make the interface easier to interact with that can make a huge difference to the user experience. Avalon, and its highest-level "Aero" interface, introduces a bevy of new visual tools that include transparency, translucency, shadows, reflections, blurring, vector-based rendering and crisp icon scaling, and a new video driver subsystem. Combined, these new graphical capabilities deliver several important advantages:

Intense speed. Graphical rendering seems effortless, and that has a huge impact on perceived usability. Where Windows labored to bit-blit (combine two bitmap) images before, it now draws in fast motion. The result is crisp curves and fine lines that rapidly appear across your screen. The difference is palpable.

Reliability. The new Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) has changed the way that video drivers access core parts of the operating system. Video drivers no longer have such intimate access to the Windows kernel. There's an abstraction layer; the use of DirectX 9 is required for the highest video support level. Only a small stub of an instruction set is permitted directly from the video driver to the kernel. And that means that blue screen of death (BSOD) will be reduced by a huge factor, since something like 80% of such events were caused by video drivers in earlier versions of Windows. To give you a real-world example, since last September I have not seen a single BSOD on any of the six or more test machines where I've installed Windows Vista.

Subtle UI improvements. It's easy to be skeptical about this aspect because the advantages literally slide beneath your level of awareness. The fact that you can see one window behind another because part of the covering window is transparent makes you feel less closed in and more aware subconsciously about what you have to do to reveal something else you want to work on. Shadows and reflections make the world you view on your computer feel less antiseptic, less fake, more like what you expect from the rest of the world. Again, the user experience is just a little better as a result. Add these things up, and they may just present an OS that's a little more fun to use. For Windows, come on, that's saying a lot.

Next to the security improvements, the powerful graphics subsystem is likely to pay the most dividends Vista users over time. The improved experience will grow slowly, but it will be evident in future applications.

Start menu

The Windows Start menu is more than a decade old. Apparently, Microsoft got it right the first time, because it has changed very little in the years since, and the construct has been copied by others, including several Linux desktops.


The new Start Menu offers welcome submenu refinements

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Windows Vista's iteration is the first to make minor usability changes to Start that actually matter. The best change is that Microsoft has worked out a nifty fix for the problem of the pop-up Programs submenu (or All Programs, as Vista calls it) that popped away from the Start menu as a separate element. Sometimes it got too big and would attempt to run off the screen. Microsoft tried the "scroll" setting, but it really wasn't any help for many of us. Submenus from XP's Start menu were unwieldy.

Under Vista, the All Programs submenu stays within itself. When you click the All Programs button, the submenu appears on the left side of the Start menu, replacing the top-level menu items. When you click into a folder on the All Programs submenu, that folder expands and a real scroll bar appears automatically (instead of top arrow and bottom arrow over the menu items). Perhaps best of all, the new Start menu supports a scroll-wheel mouse. The addition of the scroll bar and the scroll-wheel support make scanning a lengthy Start menu perfectly acceptable, and they let Microsoft eliminate the giant pop-up Programs menu.

The other notable feature of the new Start menu is the ability to search for programs to launch in the "Start search" area at the bottom of the Start menu, just above the Start button. As you type a program name, such as gpedit.msc or msconfig.exe, the left side of the Start menu changes to display all the possible programs you might launch that match the letters you've typed so far. The search facility on start can also return the names of folders, music files, images and other data you might want to access as well. It's a great feature, and one that will surely get a lot of use.

Live Taskbar thumbnails, Flip and Flip 3-D

If your video hardware supports the highest Vista video mode, called Aero, there are three Vista features that will help you work with multiple open windows -- something many power users complain about. Live Taskbar thumbnails provide a pop-up thumbnail window from task buttons on the taskbar. The "live" part describes the feature's ability to show moving video, which works when the video window is open (presumably behind other windows), not when it is minimized. Given that sound continues on video even when the video window is minimized, this is a bug Microsoft should fix. Still, Live Taskbar thumbnailing is a useful feature that is a whole lot better than clicking every taskbar button, opening all your windows (again?) when you're trying to find a specific one.


Vista's new Live Taskbar thumbnails pop-up from taskbar buttons, showing you a thumbnail of what the open windows looks like — without opening program button. This makes it much easier to find a specific window.

Another way Microsoft offers to solve this too-many-open-windows problem is by merging Live Taskbar with the Alt-Tab task switcher tool, which is part of the muscle memory of many experienced Windows users. By pressing Alt-Tab in Vista, you can see the same Live Taskbar thumbnails in the task switcher, which you can quickly navigate to open the window of your choice. This is a strong improvement to the task switcher, which previously only displayed program icons. Microsoft has named this feature "Flip."

The third feature, Flip 3-D, is pretty cool, but in Vista Beta 2, it's also somewhat disappointing. It works exactly like Flip. The only difference is that instead of using the Alt-Tab key combination, you use the Windows key with the Tab key. And the result is a three-dimensional view of your open program windows (not thumbnails). They're rendered in a three-dimensional view, lined up in single file but twisted on a vertical axis and inclined so you can see both the full front of the foremost program windows and parts of the program windows behind it.


The new fully graphical Alt-Tab task switcher shows live thumbnails

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In Windows Vista Beta 2 and all previous builds, across all levels of hardware, Flip 3-D has been a little disappointing visually. Flip 3-D works well, but it has a very bad guess of the jaggies, or jagged straight lines. Also, Microsoft's decision to darken the desktop also darkens the program windows themselves. This feature seems in need of visual polish, and yet it has been unchanged over the last several Vista prereleases.

Even though I like these three features quite a bit, I'd still have to cast my vote in favor of Apple's Exposé as being a slightly better tool for dealing with program window litter. But that's just a personal preference. There's not a strong enough difference to matter. Both tools work well.

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