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

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WORKING WITH DATA

11.
Desktop search

Just about everywhere you look in Windows Vista, there's a new search field. As detailed previously, the Start menu's search field finds programs and data files to open. Control Panel's search field finds Control Panels. Internet Explorer's finds words on the currently loaded Web page. All of these search fields also give you the option to search the Web by keyword. Behind the scenes, Microsoft has built a new indexing service (which you can configure with the Indexing Options Control Panel) that continually uses the data areas of your hard drive for new files. This service operates well enough that Microsoft turns it on by default in Vista.

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Vista's desktop search Search Pane let's you name and save searches.

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If this were all that Microsoft desktop search did, it would be a nice little feature, very much akin to Apple's integrated desktop search for OS X Tiger. Microsoft has continually scaled back during Vista development on a more significant use of its search index, but a usable semblance of this effort is still available. Dubbed the Search Pane, it's an advanced search option available from the Search drop-down menu of any folder window.

When you open Search Pane, it gives you several clickable options for adding multiple "and/or" searches, and it can also search your index based on file types and file contents. Once you've created a search you like, you can save it in the Searches folder. Every time you open it, it will display up-to-date search results that include all new files that match the search criteria.

You can also "stack" (or roll up hierarchically) search results graphically by an additional criterion, such as Kinds, Authors, Keywords, etc. But the differences between Stack By, Group By and Sort By -- all options available as you delve into this tool -- are still likely to elude most Windows users. When you work with your data in Saved Searches like this, it's very easy to lose track of the significance of what you're looking at. But for people who become proficient with this set of tools, spelunking their own data may become noticeably easier.

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Vista's search-results stack feature lets you sort visually

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12.

Windows Photo Gallery

There's a veritable bonanza of new applets, programs and utilities in Windows Vista. Of them all, the one I find the most useful is Windows Photo Gallery. It may sound like a whizzy consumer feature, and it will appeal to home users who are into digital photography. But Photo Gallery is more than just that. Any business that works with any type of screenshots, digital images or video files will find this tool to be a great image viewer that may relegate products like IrfanView and Thumbs+ to history.

What's so great about Photo Gallery? Vista's ability to rapidly scale images and its background search indexing both provide an excellent basic environment for managing, importing, previewing, sorting, recording to DVD, distributing, sharing and even performing basic edits on images and videos of most types. One of the best features is a mouse-hover, large-image preview, which helps you quickly examine pictures for content and quality.

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Photo Gallery is one of Vista's more useful Explorer window improvements.

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One somewhat annoying aspect of Windows Photo Gallery is that, in order to add the search/indexing features, Microsoft opted to localize Photo Gallery's functionality to prescribed folders for storing images. The solution is the ability to virtually add a folder located elsewhere on your system to the prescribed image and videos area. Another surprising glitch is that Photo Gallery doesn't appear to support previews of .BMP files, although it can open and display them fine.

It's not just Photo Gallery, either. Even the Windows Explorer folder window does a very good job of previewing images. (And it has no trouble generating .BMP thumbnails, either — go figure.) It can also initiate slide shows, network sharing and DVD recording. The feature that makes this possible is the fast icon image scaling, which creates useful previews for many file types. Knowing a lot more about what's in a file or folder before you open it is big advantage of Windows Vista.

13.
Smart little things

Microsoft has put a lot of time and attention into many little things in Windows Vista. Over the years, I've learned that tiny little usability tweaks -- not major new features -- tend to please experienced software users. Here are just a few examples:

A. Installing drivers is never a fun experience in Windows, and hardware installation wizards have been anything but wise over the years. Windows Vista's hardware installation is smart enough to differentiate among .INF files and look in multiple subdirectories. That means it can search for the right drive installer in a large directory housing a large collection of subdirectories, each with drivers for different hardware, and find the correct one and install it automatically. I can remember wishing for this more than 10 years ago. The feature doesn't even require Vista-class drivers.

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Vista is smart enough to find drivers if you point it in the right direction

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My Lenovo notebooks all came with a driver subdirectory hanging off the root containing driver installers for all the components that shipped with the system. (Would that all computers followed this practice instead of placing them on a CD, which half the time expects to install all your drivers as part of a batch process.) Even though Windows Vista installs on these Lenovo notebooks with six separate hardware items in Device Manager showing the driver wasn't installed, it's a breeze to install them. Just right-click each yellow icon in Device Manager in turn and choose the Reinstall Driver option. For each, direct the installation wizard to the top level of the Lenovo driver directory and click the "Include subfolders" option. Windows does the rest. It also remembers the target directory, and you can back through the wizard after each driver installs to save steps.

Microsoft also includes a couple of ways that Vista can track down and install drivers, or make drivers install compatibly with Vista. So far, these additional features haven't worked for me. They may work better once the operating system is shipped. Bottom line: Microsoft is making a concerted effort to make this hassle a better experience.

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Vista makes it easier to rename files by smartly selecting only the first part of the filename by default.

B. Though very minor, this one is a real annoyance saver. In Vista, when you go to rename a file in any container object (such as a folder window or a File Open dialog), and you attempt to rename that file by any method, Vista no longer highlights the entire filename by default. It highlights only the characters before the period and file extension. Think of the thousands, maybe tens of thousands of filenames you've changed in Windows. Probably 95% of the time, you didn't want to change the extension at all. But you ended up either carefully selecting just the first part of the filename or selecting it all and just retyping the extension. You always knew there was a better way, but it's so insignificant as to be not even worth complaining about. You just endure stuff like that. It's amazing to me how much a little change like this makes you grin, though. Because it's noticeably easier to name files.

14.
Revised namespace

The names for well-known Windows objects, like Windows XP's My Computer and My Documents, have lost their sugar-coated possessives. They're now simply "Computer" and "Documents." That's the way I like it. But that's just a minor aspect of the changes to the "shell namespace" in Windows Vista. When you dig a little deeper, you'll find more profound change.

To start with, the Documents and Settings folder is just an alias (called a "junction" in Vista file-system speak). Its purpose is to redirect installing programs that aren't hip to Vista's new way of doing things from Documents and Settings to the new Users folder.

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Vista's new Users folder replaces Documents and Settings

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Vista's new \Users folder houses individual user account folders. But there are some differences. The old All Users folder is now a junction to the new ProgramData subdirectory in the root directory. The Default User subdirectory is a junction to the new \User\Default subdirectory. The Application Data folder now redirects to the Roaming subdirectory in the AppData folder, located in the specific account name folders of the Users area. I'm not going to detail every change, but suffice it to say that there are several functionalities that these changes support, including improved security, more logical organization of user data, and the ability to access user data safely and smartly from a variety of places on a network.

There's also a new top-level Public folder, the foundation for a replacement of the old Shared Documents folder from XP's My Computer. The Public folder is designed to be a resource to share things on a local area network. Why store the same 600MB of pictures on every computer on a family network, when you can store it on one public volume accessible to all? The Public area offers public folders for Favorites, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos and Recorded TV.

The Documents folder is no longer the primary locus of user data files. It merely contains documents. A new folder, named the same as your account name (but which should probably be called something like {Account Name}'s Data), offer these folders all at the same level: Contacts, Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Favorites, Links, Music, Pictures, Saved Games, Searches and Videos.

Microsoft is trying to separate the areas where programs are allowed to write data from where programs are stored. That's a very good thing indeed, because the operating system should jealously guard the namespace for applications, and not let just any program write there. By doing so, it prevents nefarious scripts or hackers from trying to create a malware executable that masquerades as a trusted primary .EXE, like iexplore.exe (Internet Explorer's main executable). This has been a huge problem in all previous versions of Windows.

Next page: New Applications

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