The Age: Enjoy the Vista

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Pretty pictures ... Vista's new-look desktop.

David Flynn
August 26, 2006

David Flynn takes a sneak peek at the new versions of the Windows and Mac OS X operating systems - one of which will run your next computer.

Whether you're using a Windows PC or an Apple Mac, running a desktop or laptop, next year will be one of life's more significant technology changes.

By the middle of 2007, each of the IT industry's big wheels will have moved forward considerably - helping users and in turn enhancing their own spheres of influence.

Intel will have released its second generation of Core 2 Duo processors, enabling computer makers to craft smaller and quieter desktops, and notebooks with longer battery life.

Two new high-speed wireless technologies will finally break cover. The 802.11n enhanced Wi-Fi standard will turbocharge home and office networks, while WiMax will deliver city-wide wireless broadband, reaching homes not served by ADSL. This will remove the need for notebook users to hunt down a cafe hotspot when they need to hop online.

New hard-disk drives released by Samsung and Seagate will include slabs of flash memory, the same as found in a common USB memory key, to act as a superfast storage buffer so PCs can start up more quickly and retrieve files faster.

Underpinning it all will be the foundation stones of the next-generation operating systems from Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft's Windows Vista will replace Windows XP early next year. Apple's Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard (a cumbersome and somewhat confusing name) supersedes the current 10.4 Tiger edition and is expected to pounce by May.

If a mighty microprocessor is the brain of the personal computer, then the operating system is its heart and soul as well. Each update to the operation system (OS) lets the computer do more by adding features and tapping into the latest technologies.

In many ways the continued evolution of the operating system reflects the development of the personal computer, the way we use it and the world it lives in.

What we consider as everyday tasks for today's computer - playing music, watching movies, working with digital photos and home videos, surfing the web, email and instant messaging, hooking up to a home or office network or a wireless hotspot - were barely on the menu 10 years ago. But the modern computer is expected to do all that, and plenty more, right out of the box. That's when the operating system takes its turn in the spotlight.

And now, with far more powerful computers than just a few years ago, and new ways to use that power, it's time for an operating system overhaul.

The fresh-baked editions of Windows and Mac OS X won't be only for the fans and power users who queue up at midnight to buy the new software (sad but true) or eagerly upgrade their systems within the first few months of its release. Almost every PC sold from early next year will come with Windows Vista. And if Vista remains "the latest Windows" for even half as long as XP, then it's almost a certainty that the next machine you buy will be running Vista.

So, for Windows and Mac users alike, here's a sneak peek at your next operating system and the friendly face of your next computer.

What to expect

It's hard to guess who will breathe the greatest sigh of relief when Vista touches down. Will it be the harried staff of Microsoft, who've been working on it through seemingly endless delays?

Perhaps it will be the hardware manufacturers who are pinning their hopes on Vista to kick-start computer sales and unleash a new wave of upgrades? Or maybe the enthusiasts who've been waiting and waiting as Vista has morphed from a short-term XP update to an all-new OS codenamed Longhorn to something in between.

Five years in the making, and with key features tossed in the "too hard" basket along the way, Microsoft Vista is nonetheless a long and confident leap ahead of XP. It takes a little getting used to after years of working in Windows XP, but there's plenty to enjoy in Vista.

Most immediately noticeable is the fresh interface and stunning graphics. The streamlined desktop sports a stylised "orb" replacing the Start button, a redesigned Start menu and program windows, richly detailed icons and subtle visual cues such as glows and transparencies.

The best effects are reserved for computers with specialised graphics cards. Formerly a favourite among gamers, graphics cards are now common on most mid-range systems. But it's not just about eye candy. By taking care of the graphical side of Vista, Microsoft has lightened the load on the main processor to boost overall system performance. Not all machines have dedicated graphics cards or even the same performance capabilities, so Vista adjusts its visuals to match what your system can handle, but even today's budget computers will enjoy the fresh look of the new Windows.

Putting this Fab Five makeover aside, there's plenty in Vista to improve the day-to-day experience.

Foremost is its built-in "instant search" engine, which works like Google on your desktop. Start typing a word into the Search box that appears at the bottom of the revamped Start menu, or in the top right corner of almost any window, and Vista runs up a list of all matching files, which can range from documents and emails to digital music tracks and even photographs "tagged" with descriptive keywords. The list progressively narrows as you type each letter of the word, while a preview pane shows the contents of each file to save you opening the wrong one.

Mac enthusiasts will say this apes the Spotlight search facility already rolled into Mac OS X 10.4. Well, they're right, and there's no reason Vista shouldn't offer a similar feature. Fast and accurate searching through scores of files and folders is something we should expect from the modern, well-mannered OS.

There are other examples of Mac mimicry, such as Windows Calendar for tracking appointments and to-do tasks (think Apple's iCal) and Windows Photo Gallery (think iPhoto). The latter is particularly impressive for organising and editing digital snaps, with great auto-adjustments for exposure, colour, cropping and removing red eye.

The Windows Mail program (a rebadged Outlook Express) gains junk-mail filters to help slam spam along with a spell checker and fast searching.

The bundled Windows Media Player 11 is a major update that has a cleaner interface, better handling of album art, easier management of your library, smoother CD ripping and burning, plus sharing of your music across a network.

Vista also introduces parental controls that let adults set restrictions on how children use the computer, for example, the websites they visit, the programs they use (including games) and what times of the day they can log on.

Microsoft promises Vista will be more secure and more reliable than Windows XP. Mind you, they have said that with every Windows release since version 1.0. There's no doubt Vista will be more stable and more secure than XP, but don't expect any foolproof system. While it's better at slapping down ill-behaved software that can lead to slowdowns and sudden shutdowns, Vista will still rely on regular downloads from the Windows Update website to plug holes and squash bugs.

The firewall has been toughened up to keep hackers at bay, while the Windows Defender program detects and blocks spyware.

Vista still doesn't include anti-virus software, although Microsoft has its own virus solution as part of the Windows Live OneCare package, but Vista will of course work with your favourite anti-virus sentry.

However, Vista does deliver the much-enhanced version 7 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser. IE7 gives you tabbed browser windows, support for RSS news feeds and site alerts plus a "phishing filter" to warn of suspect websites that pretend to be something they're not (typically an online banking service) in order to steal your account details and password.

Windows XP users won't be completely left out in the cold: IE7, the Windows Defender spyware sentry and Windows Media Player 11 will be available as free downloads for XP systems.

There's much more in Vista, and still more news to come. As it remains a work in progress, Microsoft won't sign off on its next-generation OS until later this year.

When it finally does arrive, it won't be a must-have upgrade. The XP experience showed that many users, in homes and offices alike, stuck with earlier versions of Windows (most notably the 98 and 2000 editions) for a good few years. Their "upgrade'' to XP came only when they bought a new computer that had Windows XP pre-loaded.

We expect the same to hold true for Vista. A computer that is more than two years old will be best kept running Windows XP, and many of the most compelling demonstrations of Vista will rely on the latest hardware.

For those reasons, we'd suggest that the very best desktop or laptop for Vista will be the one you buy with Vista already installed, and that'll be sometime early next year.


Shoppers will see four versions of Windows Vista when it arrives on the shelves. There will be a Home Basic edition comparable to XP Home, and a Home Premium package with extra features including the Windows Media Centre front end. Microsoft will also release Vista Business for office desktops and laptops, while a Vista Ultimate edition will roll everything together into one shiny box.

Apple's Leopard ready to leap

Microsoft's full makeovers for Windows are relatively few and far between, but Apple has rolled out an update to its Mac OS X every year on average. However, unlike some of the free Service Packs that Microsoft has released to enhance Windows XP, every edition of Mac OS X comes with a price tag and no "upgrade" discount.

That said, Steve Jobs manages to make every new version hard to resist, especially in the jumps from OS X 10.2 Jaguar to 10.3 Panther to the current 10.4 Tiger.

(Apple likes to name its operating systems after jungle cats. They have already done Puma and Cheetah so we reckon they'll soon run out of ferocious felines.)

Also, unlike Microsoft and its constant product demos, blogs and widespread releases of beta software that lets the public kick the tyres, Apple plays its cards very close to its chest. The company has only just revealed the first few features of Leopard and is leaving plenty more unsaid until closer to the release date.

Some of the new features include the ability to run several "virtual" desktops to group-related programs and avoid clutter, a back-up and restore facility with an eye-catching yet rather kitschy "time machine" interface, plus letterhead stationery and notes in email.

Leopard will also include Apple's Boot Camp software for running Windows on your Mac, while its support for Intel's 64-bit Core 2 Duo processors will deliver significantly improved performance to those who pay for the latest hardware.

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