Just when I had Windows XP Pro working exactly the way I wanted, my laptop computer blew up and I had to buy a new one (HP Pavillion Entertainment PC). Unfortunately (or fortunately, the future will tell) all the new laptops I could see in stores were equipped with the new Windows Vista operating system. Sometime later, I had to replace my desktop computer running the Windows XP Pro operating system by a new one: a HP Pavillion a1745n Desktop running the Windows Vista Home Premium operating system, the same system as my laptop.
Since Windows Vista was unavoidable, I decided to document it from various sources in order to tame it. Here follows what I gathered.
Microsoft released Vista, its first new Windows operating system in five years, on January 30, 2007 (November 30, 2006, for businesses). The name Vista replaced "Longhorn", the codename in use for the beta version of the program. Some new features include security improvements, new graphics, and a new means of searching and organizing information. The use of virtual folders now prevents users from having to remember the single folder where something is stored. Microsoft is also trying to simplify a variety of other tasks, such as adding a PC to a home network or connecting a laptop to a projector.
Microsoft calls Vista "a breakthrough computing experience." That's marketing hyperbole, for sure, but it's not entirely unfounded. The new OS is far more than Windows XP with a pretty new face. Many aspects of Vista are substantive improvements: stronger security, better built-in applications, networking enhancements, parental controls, and DirectX 10 graphics support, to name just a few.
As a whole, Vista feels more evolutionary than revolutionary. That's not all bad; one of Microsoft's strengths has been its commitment to backward compatibility (though Office 2000 is no longer supported), which continues with Vista.
Vista's User Account Control security feature which requires even administrators to confirm attempts to "escalate" privileges to perform administrative tasks can be intrusive at first. But in the long term, running Vista without administrator rights most of the time should reduce security risks.
Windows Vista versions and capabilities
Vista seems to come in so many versions that you need a scorecard but in fact the consumer need consider only a handful of them. There are four editions that are relevant to US/Canada home PC owners and some slight variations for European users that are tailored to meet some anti-trust rulings dealing with Media Player. The four common editions are listed hereunder:
- Windows Vista Home Basic is the edition of Windows for basic home computing needs. If you only want to use your PC for tasks like browsing the Internet, using e-mail, or viewing photos, then Windows Vista Home Basic may be the right edition for you. While it won't provide as many benefits as Windows Vista Home Premium, it will help you use your PC more easily and more safely than you could with Windows XP. It is sufficiently limited that only those on a very tight budget should consider it
- Windows Vista Home Premium delivers the productivity and entertainment that you need from your PC at home or on the go. It includes Windows Media Center, which helps you more easily enjoy your digital photos, TV, movies, and music. Plus, you'll have the peace of mind of knowing that your PC has a whole new level of security and reliability. All together, Windows Vista Home Premium redefines enjoyment in home computing.
- Windows Vista Business is the first Windows operating system designed specifically to meet the needs of small businesses. You'll empower your entire business to work more efficiently with a stunning and improved, simple-to-use interface that makes it easier to search and find the information you need quickly and easily, both on your PCs and on the web. With powerful new safety features, you're in control and can better protect the key information that is the life of your business and that builds the trust of your customers.
- Windows Vista Ultimate offers all of the features found in Windows Vista Home Premium, including Windows Media Center, Windows Movie Maker with high-definition support, and Windows DVD Maker. It also offers all of the features found in Windows Vista Business, including business networking, centralized management tools, and advanced system backup features. And Windows Vista Ultimate has all of the new security and data protection features that help take Windows Vista to a whole new level of dependability.
The table below shows the variations in features among various editions:
|Features||Home Basic||Home Premium||Business||Ultimate|
|System image backup and recovery||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Volume Shadow Copy||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Group policy support||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|BitLocker (drive encryption)||No||No||No||Yes|
|Media Center (with HDTV/cablecard support)||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Windows Movie Maker (with HD support)||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Windows DVD Maker||No||Yes||No||Yes|
|Remote Desktop||Client only||Client only||Yes||Yes|
|IIS Web Server||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Meeting Space Interaction||Limited||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Encrypting File System (EFS)||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Tablet PC Functionality||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Fax and Scan||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Virtual PC Express||No||No||No||Yes|
Changes in Windows Vista
After having described the features that the various versions that Windows Vista exhibits, I will review the improvements that it supports. Two of these changes are considered as major changes and several other changes that I list as minor changes. Because of its importance, I have put networking as a separate topic.
Windows Vista has introduced two major changes to its previous operating system, Windows XP: one obvious, the User Account Control (UAC) the other one hidden, the Digital Right Management (DRM). We will review those major changes in the forthcoming sections.
The User Account Control
The User Account Control (UAC) is a new security component Windows Vista. UAC enables users to perform common tasks as non-administrators, called standard users in Windows Vista, and as administrators without having to switch users, log off, or use Run As. A standard user account is synonymous with a user account in Windows XP. User accounts that are members of the local Administrators group will run most applications as a standard user. By separating user and administrator functions while enabling productivity, UAC is an important enhancement for Windows Vista.
When an administrator logs on to a computer running Windows Vista, the user is assigned two separate access tokens. Access tokens, which contain a user's group membership and authorization and access control data, are used by Windows® to control what resources and tasks the user can access. Before Windows Vista, an administrator account received only one access token, which included data to grant the user access to all Windows resources. This access control model did not include any failsafe checks to ensure that users truly wanted to perform a task that required their administrative access token. As a result, malicious programs could install on users' computers without notifying the users. (This is sometimes referred to as "silent" installation.)
Even more damaging, because the user is an administrator, the malicious programs could use the administrator's access control data to infect core operating system files and, in some instances, to become nearly impossible to remove.
The primary difference between a standard user and an administrator in Windows Vista is the level of access the user has over core, protected areas of the computer. Administrators can change system state, turn off the firewall, configure security policy, install a service or a driver that affects every user on the computer, and install software for the entire computer. Standard users cannot perform these tasks and can only install per-user software.
To help prevent malicious programs silent installation and computer-wide infection, Microsoft developed the UAC feature for Windows Vista. Unlike previous versions of Windows, when an administrator logs on to a computer running Windows Vista, the users full administrator access token is split into two access tokens: a full administrator access token and a standard user access token. During the logon process, authorization and access control components that identify an administrator are removed, resulting in a standard user access token. The standard user access token is then used to start the desktop, the Explorer.exe process. Because all applications inherit their access control data from the initial launch of the desktop, they all run as a standard user as well.
After an administrator logs on, the full administrator access token is not invoked until the user attempts to perform an administrative task.
Contrasting with this process, when a standard user logs on, only a standard user access token is created. This standard user access token is then used to start the desktop. Whenever someone is presented with the Windows needs your permission to continue message, it creates the impression that UAC is looking after the user, and protects the vital system settings from being destroyed or corrupted. The user is probably thinking, If a virus or spyware gets into my system and attempts to do something dangerous, UAC will alert me, right? Wrong.
There is only one single moment of truth when it comes to malware getting unlimited access to your system, and it occurs when you attempt to run a program you have downloaded from an unknown web site:
Digital Rights Management (DRM)
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the most controversial technology implemented in Windows Vista. The term is very general and does not apply only to computing: it includes all forms of media [Electronic Frontier Foundation]. Microsoft and media producers claim that Vista includes content protection infrastructure specifically designed to help ensure that protected commercial audiovisual content, such as newly released HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs, can be enjoyed on Windows Vista PCs.. That is, the newest version of Windows is being designed with playback of protected digital content in mind, including both audio and video content. On the surface, this looks like a wonderful feature; after all, more and more people are beginning to use their home computers as media centers. The implications of Microsoft's implementation of content protection schemes, however, have far-reaching effects on both the future users of Windows Vista and on users of computer technology in general.
Is DRM a feature that users want? Opponents [polishlinux.org and DRM.Info] call it "Digital Restriction Management" and describe it as a technology that computer companies try to impose on us all, in order to have control over how our computers are used. DRM is enforced by technological barriers. You try to do something, and your computer tells you that you can't. Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called premium content, typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it's not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server) [see "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection" for more on this].
Aero User Interface
For the first time since the release of Windows 95, Microsoft has completely revised its user interface guidelines, covering aesthetics, common controls such as buttons and radio buttons, task dialogs, wizards, common dialogs, control panels, icons, fonts, user notifications, and the "tone" of text used. Unlike prior versions of Windows, Windows Vista provides two distinct user interface experiences: a "basic" experience for entry-level systems (Windows Home Basic), and a more visually dynamic experience called Windows Aero (all other versions) and its name is an acronym for Authentic, Energetic, Reflective and Open. Both offer a new and intuitive navigation experience that helps you more easily find and organize your applications and files, but Aero goes further by delivering a truly next-generation desktop experience. Intended to be a cleaner, more powerful, more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing user interface, it includes new transparencies, live thumbnails, live icons, animations and eye candy. It replaces the Luna visual theme of its predecessor, Windows XP. Aero also encompasses a set of user interface design guidelines for Microsoft Windows.
A noticeably new element of the Aero experience is the translucent effect of Aero Glass, featuring dynamic reflections and smooth animations. The glass windows create an open, lightweight environment?and more importantly, help you to better focus on your content, rather than on the surrounding interface.
Two exciting new Aero features, Windows Flip and Windows Flip 3D, provide a new way to confidently manage the windows on your desktop, so you can see them in a new visually striking, yet convenient way. Beyond the new graphics and visual polish, the Windows Aero desktop experience performs as elegantly and professionally as it looks, with smoother window handling, increased graphics stability, and glitch-free visuals. All of which give you a simple, comfortable, and high-quality experience.
Micro soft's Vista/Longhorn OS is changing the way roaming profiles work. One of those changes is where profiles will be stored on the disk. The well know Documents and Settings path is being replaced with Users. All Users is being replaced with Public. The standard paths now are:
- APPDATA=C:\Users\«user name»\AppData\Roaming
- HOMEPATH=\Users\«user name»
- LOCALAPPDATA=C:\Users\«user name»\AppData\Local
- TEMP=C:\Users«user name»\AppData\Local\Temp
- TMP=C:\Users\«user name»\AppData\Local\Temp
- USERPROFILE=C:\Users\«user name»
These changes can cause some issues with login scripts (especially those that may use hard-coded paths).
Other minor improvements
Windows Vista exhibits other minor improvements and the list that follows provides only a few of them:
- Advanced search and Organization - Windows Vista gives you more flexibility when you search and organize your files. New controls, like the Instant Search box and Enhanced Column Headers, make it simple for you to manage large amounts of on-screen data in any way that you want. For example, with Windows Vista, you no longer have to remember where you store every file. Instead, to find a file, you need to only remember something about it, such as a word contained within a document, the artist of a song, or the date a picture was taken. Powerful, integrated desktop search capabilities help you find just about anything on your computer quickly, without having to search for it by browsing through folders. In the new Start Menu, it is as simple as typing a word, a phrase, a property, or any part of a file name into the embedded Instant Search box to instantly find the file that you want.
- Sidebar and gadgets - Windows Sidebar is a pane on the side of the Windows Vista desktop that boosts your personal productivity by providing instant access to gadgets. Windows Sidebar is the perfect complement to wide screen monitors and also works seamlessly on standard displays.
- Remote assistance - Windows Vista itself detects, diagnoses, and helps you respond to common problems. But when incidents that require support do occur, Windows Vista provides centralized support tools and resources to quickly diagnose and resolve issues.
- Improved Windows update - Windows Update not only makes updating your computer easy: it updates without interfering with your work. Windows Update in Windows Vista can automatically download and install both important and recommended updates. Previously, only updates classified as important could be installed automatically, and users had to manually select and download other available updates. Updating occurs in the background, and you have flexible options to choose from to complete the process. If an update requires a restart to complete installation, you can schedule this for a time when it won't disrupt your work.
- Enhanced Internet Explorer - The upcoming release of Internet Explorer 7 not only adds important new security and privacy features, but makes everyday tasks easier through features such as tabbed browsing, in-line search, and shrink-to-fit printing.
Networking under Vista
Windows Vista includes new features that make networking easier, safer, and more reliable. Whether used at home or in a small business or large enterprise, Windows Vista simplifies connectivity so you can focus on what's most important. Connect wirelessly to your company's network, share printers and a high-speed Internet connection, copy files between PCs, and enjoy your favourite on-line entertainment at home.
Sharing folders and files
File sharing in computer networking is the process of copying files from one computer to another using a live network connection. Several forms of file sharing exist for Windows computers, home networks and the Internet. In Windows Vista, the Network and Sharing Center puts you in control of your network connectivity. It's a place where you can check your connection status, view your network visually, and troubleshoot connection problems.
Remote Desktop Connection is a technology that allows you to sit at a computer and connect to a remote computer in a different location. For example, you can connect to your work computer from your home computer and have access to all of your programs, files, and network resources as though you were in front of your computer at work. You can leave programs running at work and then, when you get home, you can see your work computer's desktop displayed on your home computer, with the same programs running.
You cannot use Remote Desktop Connection to connect to computers running Windows Vista Starter, Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Basic N, or Windows Vista Home Premium. You can, however, connect from those editions of Windows Vista to computers running other versions of Windows (Windows Vista Business or Windows Vista Ultimate).
I am not a frequent traveller but I have two computers running the Vista operating system and I would have liked to be able to maintain part of my data synchronized on both machines using whats known as a two way sync. Good news, Windows Vista was supposed to provide such capability. This means that any time a change is made within a designated folder on either machine, the change will be synchronized. As such, you should take a look at the way that the files are arranged on both machines to insure that they are arranged the same way. If you have folders in different locations on the two machines, then you will end up with two different copies of the information on each machine.
The process of actually establishing a sync relationship was to be fairly simple. To do so, go into your Documents folder. You can synchronize your Documents folder or any sub folder. You will notice that the folders toolbar contains a link labelled Sync With Other PCs. Click this link and you will see an introduction to PC to PC synchronizations. Click the Next button and you will be prompted for the name of the computer that you want to synchronize with. Enter the name of the PC (or its IP address), and click the Add button followed by the OK button. Your PC will now synchronize with the target PC.
I was not able to execute that simple procedure on either of my computers: the folders toolbar did not contain a link labelled Sync With Other PCs. This looked strange until I found out that this feature had been removed from the operating system during beta testing (was removed from Beta 2 in late May 2006).
Until this capability becomes available, I have downloaded and installed SyncToy, a free PowerToy that provides an easy to use, highly customizable program that helps users to do the heavy lifting involved with the copying, moving, and synchronization of different directories. SyncToy, v 1.4 is available as a free download on the Microsoft Download Center.
First and foremost, a lot of people strongly recommend against buying a computer with Windows Vista. It appears to be their experience that the average user will be unhappy at best and totally frustrated at worst. That is if Vista will actually work with their existing hardware and software. Vista is not user friendly, it makes simple tasks take longer, it has lots of networking and compatibility bugs and is a nightmare to support. Yet if you are going to buy a new computer, and you dont buy an XP system, you need to be prepared to use Vista or pay the Microsoft tax to go back to XP.
My experience with Windows Vista remains positive up to now (after about 6-month of use) despite various annoying features such as the DRM and the UAC. I have disabled the UAC and the DRM is no problem to me as I do not use my computer for high definition video. I have had some problem with the installation of legacy software, in particular with the Delphi 6 programming environment and with all the programs which store their data in a subdirectory of its installation directory). Under Vista, FrontPage 2000 which is no longer supported under Vista was fairly unreliable and I stopped using it.