Usability and interface

Vista’s most notable feature is its “new” user interface, but it’s based on the same principles that underpin every version of Windows since Windows 95 – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Microsoft may not have invented elements such as icons, menus and hierarchical folders (hence the lawsuit filed against the company by Apple in 1988), but it deserves credit for implementing them effectively and consistently across almost every version of Windows for the past 12 years, making basic operations, even on an unfamiliar version of Windows, comparatively painless.

Yet while Vista’s interface may be fundamentally similar to XP’s, it boasts numerous cosmetic and functional innovations, which Microsoft advertises on its website as “breakthrough computing experiences… both visually exciting and intuitively designed”. Does Vista really improve on a tried-and-tested formula? Or is it a case of change for its own sake?

Aero Glass

Perhaps the most conspicuous novelty in Vista is the Aero Glass transparency effect. Opinions are divided as to how “exciting” it really is compared to the classic Windows theme – and it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you maximise a window and suddenly the border goes dark -but overall it’s certainly nicer than XP’s default theme of chunky blue window borders with a lurid green Start button. Vista’s way also reduces the load on your CPU, since Aero windows are composed by the graphics card, although it isn’t enough of a saving to make a visible difference in everyday use. Both operating systems allow you to revert to the Windows 95 style, but if you don’t want to go down that route Vista is a clear winner (if you’ll excuse the pun).

The Start menu

Early Vista testers, particularly power users, were delighted by the new feature that lets you filter the contents of the Start menu simply by typing. Type “calc”, for example, and the calculator instantly appears. It’s far quicker than navigating via Start, All Programs, Accessories and clicking on the Calculator option.

Vista’s new Start menu, which replaces the classic Programs fly-out menu with a scrolling list, has been less endowed with praise. Although Vista’s approach is neater, scrolling to find the programs you want means more mouse work and less speed, and some consider it a step backwards in terms of usability. Vista’s Start menu has also been criticised for its overcomplicated shutdown options, which are spread out across two buttons and a menu.

That’s not to say XP’s Start menu was brilliantly conceived: the default was a confused two-column affair, with the Programs menu flying out to the right but confusingly launched from the left-hand column. It also moved icons around depending on when they were last accessed, flouting the cardinal rule of interface design – consistency. Between this and Vista’s foibles, it’s a score draw,

Little touches

Some of Vista’s new features are less conspicuous, but still worthy of note. A new windowing engine means it’s finally possible to move and minimise non-responsive applications, making it much easier to remain productive when a single program freezes. And the task-switching menu now shows live thumbnails of your open applications and windows rather than mere icons, and you can switch immediately to a previewed window simply by clicking on it – a feature flagrantly copied from Mac OS X, but still one that warrants a usability thumbs-up.

For fashion junkies, most versions of Vista also offer a prettified 3D version of the task switcher, known as Flip3D, which does everything its 2D cousin does, only more ostentatiously. XP has nothing to compare with any of these handy features.

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