The truth about Windows Vista

It’s the most important OS launch since Windows 95, it’s been five years in the making and it’s here – Windows Vista is finally at Release Candidate stage, but is it fit to unleash upon your PC?

The truth about Windows Vista

In this feature, we’re going to fully explore the OS that’s pivotal to the future of the software giant. We’ll examine whether Vista lives up to its promises, test its series of new applications and reveal exactly what version of the OS you should be running – and whether your current hardware is up to the job.

So what’s Microsoft trying to achieve with Vista? The company’s long-stated top priority is to improve the security problems that have blighted XP. Crippling virus attacks, hundreds of flaws and the monotonous regularity of Patch Tuesday have further damaged Microsoft’s (already tarnished) security record. It simply has to get it right this time – and there’s no doubt it’s making a huge effort to get its house in order, with features such as User Account Protection and advanced cryptography.

Aside from security, Vista is introducing loads of new features, so in a bid to simplify its marketing message, the company has grouped these functions into three themes: Clear, Confident and Connected.

Clear covers the significant work that has been done on the Windows user interface, including the new focus on search, the Desktop gadgets available from the newly implemented Sidebar, and the sophisticated Aero interface.

Confident encompasses all those enhanced security features discussed earlier, plus stability and the much-improved backup facility.

Lastly, Connected is the umbrella term for features such as the rejuvenated networking facilities, laptop- and tablet-specific features (including the option for auxiliary screens on notebooks for an instant glance at email messages) and innovations such as Meeting Place that promise to end the tedium of photocopying handouts before meetings.

In the following pages, we scrutinise each of these three categories to determine whether Vista users really will be Clear, Confident and Connected or Muddled, Mistrustful and Marooned.

One thing that isn’t in doubt is Vista’s significance. After spending more than a decade in Microsoft’s shadow, Apple is beginning to gather momentum with Mac OS X. Apple shipped more than 1.3 million Macs in the last quarter, which, while still small beer compared to Windows shipments, was an impressive 12% up on the same quarter in 2005. More worryingly for Bill Gates, over half of the Mac buyers from Apple’s retail stores were new to the platform – suggesting that people are being seduced by Apple’s switch campaign.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs also takes great delight in pointing out that Apple has produced four OSes (or upgrades of OS X, to be more accurate) in the time it’s taken Microsoft to build one (he conveniently forgets about the Tablet and Media Center versions, not to mention SP2). However, Jobs really will have bragging rights if Apple manages to get Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) out before Vista, which is likely if Vista experiences any further delays. Wags in Apple’s marketing department are already referring to Leopard as “Windows Vista 2”, claiming it improves upon many features Vista is poised to introduce.

So the stakes are high for Vista. Get it wrong, and Apple could capitalise on Microsoft’s misfortune and potentially erode its position as the dominant OS. If it’s a success, however, then the very future of Mac OS could be under threat, given that Intel-based Macs are now capable of running Windows. Either way, it’s going to be one hell of a scrap.

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