I purchased a new computer this week and specified that it should have Windows Vista Home Premium pre-installed at the factory. I was able to take the computer out of the box, boot up, and start using Vista within a few minutes. I had read quite a bit about Vista's improvements and wanted to try them out for myself. Now that I have about eight hours' use under my belt, I am ready to share my impressions.
By coincidence, I also purchased a new Macintosh system a few weeks ago and have been using it quite a bit. I now find myself in a position to make side-by-side comparisons of the latest offering from Microsoft versus the latest operating system from Apple. I obviously can also compare both against previous versions of Windows.
First of all, the Windows Vista user interface certainly is nicer than that of Windows XP. Premium editions of Windows Vista include a redesigned user interface and visual style, named Windows Aero, an acronym for Authentic, Energetic, Reflective, and Open. Aero strikes me as being easier on the eyes. Various windows fade in and out quickly rather popping into view. The end result seems less "jarring" to my eyes. If you happen to have a high-powered video board in your computer, the visual effect is great.
If you move your mouse over the icons of running programs in the task bar, you will see thumbnail "snapshots" of the programs as they look when maximized. You also see these same images if you use the ALT-TAB keys to switch between programs. Previous versions of Windows simply displayed program icons as you kept pressing ALT-TAB. Vista displays program thumbnails of the program in operation.
I rather like the variable opacity icons and gadgets available within Vista. It's amusing that Microsoft calls them "gadgets" although the same functionality has been available under Macintosh OS X for some time and from third-party Windows XP programs under the name of "widgets." Whatever you call them, these are mini applications that display information on your screen. You can choose from a calendar, clock, yellow "sticky notes," RSS news headlines, a slide show, stock prices, your local weather forecast, and more. You may need a large screen since these things do eat up "real estate space" on your screen. However, you can hide them quickly, should you wish to do so. In any case, it's nice to see Microsoft catch up to the Macintosh.
Vista also now includes excellent multimedia capabilities. If your hardware is powerful enough, Vista will let you watch television as well as capture video. You can edit the videos (you probably will want to purchase additional software to supplement Vista's basic editing capabilities) and then export it in a number of formats. You can now edit and distribute old home movies, perhaps even posting them online where your relatives may view them. You can also capture TV programs live and save them to your hard drive in a matter somewhat similar to Tivo. I must admit, however, that most of the multimedia capability in Windows Vista was also available in the previous Windows XP Multimedia Edition as well as in Macintosh OS X.
Vista allows for frequent data backups and restores. A new type of folder known as a Shadow Folder has the ability to revert its entire contents to any arbitrary point in the past. Not all folders are Shadow Folders, however. You have to explicitly specify that a given folder is to be a Shadow Folder.
Windows Vista features a system-wide integrated search that will quickly find any information stored on your hard drive. Besides searching normal files, this search also works with Help, Control Panel, Networking, and more. In Control Panel, for example, typing "firewall" will instantly return all applets that have to do with the system firewall.
Microsoft brags that Vista is the most reliable and stable version of Windows ever created. Perhaps so, but I had an application freeze on me about 90 minutes after I booted up for the first time. Internet Explorer 7 went to a web page, displayed about half the page on the screen, and then froze. I couldn't go back; I couldn't minimize the application; I couldn't even delete it until I launched the Windows Task Manager and told it to abort Internet Explorer. At this time I only had Windows software installed on my computer. I hadn't yet installed any new software. I was using Internet Explorer 7 and the other software included with Windows Vista. I then re-launched Internet Explorer 7and returned to the same web page, and everything displayed as expected.
I later looked at the same page by using both Internet Explorer 6 and the Firefox web browser on my older Windows XP computer, as well as with Safari and with Firefox web browsers on the Macintosh OS X computer. I did not observe any lockups or other abnormal behavior. I suspect the page was not the problem; it had to be something within Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7.
As a result, I am not impressed with Vista's claimed stability. An operating system or application that locks up within 90 minutes of its first boot while still in an all-Microsoft environment isn't ready for prime time. I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that the Macintosh I purchased a couple months ago has never frozen any application in the several hundred hours it has been used.
The extra security features built into Vista should be nice although I must admit that I haven't had any reason to use them yet. (My system sits behind a hardware firewall on my in-home network and is already rather well protected.)
Vista also has many new security and control features that are useful in the corporate world. However, most of them are missing in the Home Edition, and I doubt if these corporate world features will be of interest to readers of a genealogy newsletter. I'll just skip over them.
I could write a lot more about Vista, but the fact is that thousands of reviews have already been written by others. I doubt if I could write anything that hasn't been written many times before. If you are interested in the nitty-gritty details of Windows Vista, I'd suggest that you read some of the Windows Vista reviews others have written, starting at http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=windows+vista+review.
What I will do, instead, is describe the use for Vista for genealogy purposes. In the next few weeks, I will install a number of today's more popular Windows genealogy programs onto the Vista PC and then write about my experiences in future newsletters. That should be different from the hundreds of other online reviews.
As I started using all the new features in Vista, I kept asking myself, "Is it really better?" I tried to determine how much more productive it made me or if it allowed me to do things that I could not do before. My goal was to determine if Vista is really a worthwhile upgrade or if it is simply "eye candy."
After eight hours' use, I am somewhat unimpressed with Vista. To be sure, the desktop visuals look nice, but this system hasn't yet made me any more productive. Maybe it will eventually as I gain more experience, but I really don't see how. Even though the screens look a bit more pleasing with transparency and fade-in/fade-out capabilities, the changes to the on-screen visuals don't allow me to work any faster or better.
I must say that I have fallen in love with the multimedia capabilities of modern computers. My new Vista computer was manufactured with a TV tuner built in. It can record video from broadcast television as well as video from a handheld video camera or most any other video source. By plugging in a VCR, I can convert old videotapes to modern DVDs, perhaps first editing the videos to select only the best ones that are worth saving. It is rather fun to reduce the size of the displayed video to about the size of a postage stamp and leave it running in the upper corner of the screen as I write newsletter articles, read and write e-mail messages, and perform other tasks on the computer. It's a great way to watch the six o'clock news while multitasking on the web.
All newer Windows Vista and Macintosh computers have similar capabilities. I happened to buy a Vista computer with TV hardware built in while the Macintosh I purchased did not. The fact is that you can obtain similar hardware and software for both operating systems.
So the question remains: Should you upgrade to Vista?
If you already have a Windows XP system that meets your needs today, I'd suggest that you not upgrade to Vista on the present system. Most reviews will point out that Vista requires rather powerful hardware. You can translate this in the reverse direction: Vista will always appear to be slower on your present computer than is Windows XP. Assuming that your present system meets your needs, why would you want to upgrade? However, if you are thinking about increasing your computer usage to include multimedia and other advanced capabilities, you might want to purchase new hardware and a new operating system to go with it.
The expense of powerful hardware never remains static. For the past thirty years or so, whatever the price of the most powerful hardware available, the price drops by 50% or more within a very few years. The hardware requirements for Vista may seem to be very expensive today, but within a few years, typical Vista computers will be cheaper than today's Windows XP systems. Of course, the Vista operating system will be pre-installed on every new Windows computer by that time, so you won't be able to purchase "old fashioned" Windows XP in the future. After all, when was the last time you saw a new computer for sale with Windows 98 already installed? The same will soon be true for Windows XP: it is a dying operating system.
In short, if your primary reasons for using a computer include writing documents, working on your genealogy, reading and writing e-mail, and surfing the web, I'd suggest that you ignore Vista for a while. It won't help you any more than what you probably have today.
If you are interested in multimedia, perhaps I'll offer a different suggestion. To be sure, Windows XP Multimedia Edition already includes 99% of the multimedia capabilities built into Vista while Macintosh OS X does the same and perhaps even a bit more. In short, I'd suggest that you not rush into the upgrade. The longer you procrastinate, the cheaper the price. When the time for an upgrade does arrive, I would encourage you to also consider the Macintosh. You may be glad that you did.