$$ - An introduction to Microsoft Windows Vista

Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system was released in January 2007, the fruits of a development cycle whose commencement predated the release of Windows XP. With such a long time in development, readers may be led to assume that Vista must be a significant and impressive piece of software. But is it?

Advantages

To help you weigh up whether Vista is a sensible purchase for your own home or practice, let’s look at the features likely to effect performance, productivity and usability.

Improved memory management

Vista has made minor changes to the way that applications are handled in memory. If you look at your Task Manager in Vista, you’ll find that you have very, very little physical memory free. Compare the exact same hardware configuration, with the same applications running in XP, and you’ll have significantly more memory free. The reason for this is that Vista uses a technology called “SuperFetch” to predict what you are going to do by preloading parts of commonly used applications into memory. This is an evolved version of the ‘Prefetching’ technology used in Windows XP, except that it is far more aggressive and sophisticated in Vista.

Built-in file protection

At some point in every PC user’s life, they will be confronted with the accidental deletion of an important file. Vista tries to lessen the chances of this problem impacting people adversely by backing up their files automatically. In the event that the user overwrites a file, or “permanently” deletes it, they will have the opportunity to retrieve a backed up version of the file.

Although most modern productivity applications already have similar recovery methods, this new safety net should decrease the chance of lost data.

Increased security

The promise of increased security is one of the main Vista features touted by Microsoft to organisations looking to upgrade operating systems.

Unfortunately, the main method they have employed in upgrading security in Vista is through a feature called User Account Control (UAC). The practical result of UAC is that whenever an application tries to perform system level functions, the user will be forced to authorise the action. The effect of this on the user is that during typical (and at times fairly benign), computer use, you are confronted with an endless stream of dialogue boxes prompting you to enter your administrative username and password credentials. One of the risks with this approach to security is that many users are likely to simply disable UAC, thereby nullifying the feature entirely.

Shiny interface

Most people agree that the Vista user interface looks nice, and for many, this appears to be one of the major selling points for the operating system. It should, however, be noted that the Vista interface can easily be replicated in Windows XP by using a simple application like “WindowBlinds”, which completely alters the user interface. The obvious benefit of Vista is that the operating system has the theme applied by default, whereas to get the same effect in another operating system requires the installation of a third-party application.

Improved search functionality

The process of finding files in Vista is quite simple. The Start Menu has a search field embedded that gives you the option to look for files in one click. Vista indexes all the files on your computer, so that you can find files not just by looking for file names, but also by other attributes, or words contained within documents.

This approach has been available in third-party software products such as Google Desktop for a few years now, and is comparable to Apple’s MacOS X Spotlight functionality.

Again, the main advantage here is that with this feature being installed in Vista by default, you do not need to recruit third‑party applications for what are considered fairly key features of a modern computing environment. A drawback of the system is that the file index consumes space on your hard disk, and will slow down your system functionally whilst indexing is taking place.

Built-in DVD burning support

One of the frustrating shortcomings of Windows XP is that third-party software like Ahead Nero is required to burn DVDs. Conveniently, Vista supports DVD within the operating system natively.

Hard disk level encryption

Vista has a hard drive encryption tool called ‘BitLocker’. This is another security feature which Microsoft has touted, however the feature is only included in the pricey Vista Ultimate edition. Additionally, volume encryption can be performed by freeware tools like TrueCrypt, so although it is a very powerful tool, it doesn’t fare as a particularly strong selling point for Vista.

Issues

Despite the aforementioned improvements, Vista has been derided for its shortcomings, some of which are detailed below:

System requirements

Many customers who have bought Vista pre-installed on laptop computers have complained passionately about how slow their systems run. The reason for this is simple: Vista has higher system hardware requirements than any other operating system.

Many benchmarks have been conducted, the results usually demonstrate that on computers with higher specifications, Vista and XP perform fairly similarly in common tasks such as starting up the computer and opening applications. On computers with lower specifications however, Vista runs much slower than the operating system it has been designed to replace.

There are a large number of features that Vista provides, but a large number of these features are never touched by an everyday PC user.

Software support

Across the entire software spectrum, many vendors have been working hard to release updated versions of their applications that are compatible with Vista. Despite their efforts, there are still many that have not yet completed this process.

Cost

Vista comes in several flavours, the “Business Edition” being positioned as the equivalent of XP Professional. However, the prices are vastly disparate. Vista Business is priced at $AU565, whereas Windows XP Professional can be had for $AU190. When evaluating the costs and benefits, many would agree that Vista Business is not three times the product Windows XP Professional is!

The high price of Vista and competitive pressure from the Apple platform has been flagged as reasons several major computer hardware manufacturers have started to offer the free Linux operating system as a bundled alternative to Vista.

Laptop battery life

Vista uses a feature called “Aero” to improve the visual style of the user interface. However, this feature is quite resource intensive, causing many internal computer components (CPU, graphics card etc) to draw significantly more power than an identical laptop running Windows XP. It is possible to switch Aero off, but having to disable functionality to achieve acceptable performance is not an attractive proposition.

Conclusion

Vista’s biggest strength is that it brings together a large number of incremental improvements and tools attractive to the everyday user and bundles them under a refined interface.

From a cost-benefit perspective however, it is hard to justify the purchase of a Vista licence unbundled from new computer hardware, as many of the touted improvements present in Vista are available to Windows XP users via free and low cost third-party add-ons.

As tends to be the case with new operating systems however, the choice to upgrade is usually not “if”, but “when”. With most PC hardware manufacturers having made Vista the default shipping operating system over a year ago, and Windows XP becoming increasingly difficult to find, the number of computer users switching to Vista is going to steadily increase in the coming months. While currently, this does not necessarily mean that existing Windows XP licences can’t be installed on newly purchased hardware, there is no guarantee that Windows XP will be compatible with hardware released in the months and years to come.

With this in mind, Microsoft Windows users are advised to ensure that all the important software applications that they use in their organisation are (or will soon be) available in versions that are Vista compatible.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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