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Opening The New Vista

The release of a new version of Microsoft Windows is like the launching of a new aircraft carrier. It’s a major, ponderous event whose ripples affect everything around it. So Microsoft’s planned launch of the next version of its Windows operating system, called Windows Vista, currently set for January 2007, will be a big deal.

Vista is the biggest revision to Windows in over a decade. It will be a major change, not only for consumer and corporate Windows users, but for computer makers, software creators and many others downstream.

But what’s in Vista? How will it be sold? And what kind of computer will be needed to run it? Here’s a rough guide to the new Leviathan of the digital seas.

WHY VISTA?

Even after a major overhaul a couple of years back, Windows XP is a security nightmare. With Vista, Microsoft claims to have built in better security from the start, reducing — though not eliminating — the need to buy, learn and maintain add-on security software. The company says better security is Vista’s biggest advantage.

For instance, with the new program you’ll have to type in your administrator ID and password before installing software, to stop malicious software from installing itself silently. And Vista will have built-in parental controls.

Vista’s next big feature is built-in desktop search. Think of this as the Google Desktop search on steroids. From any screen, you’ll be able to start typing a search term and Vista will comb your hard disk for every document, photo, email, song and video that meets that criterion. It should be much faster and better than add-on search programs.

In addition, you’ll be able to save searches in “virtual folders,” which will automatically continue to collect files that meet your search specifications. So if you save a search for “Fountains of Wayne” as a virtual folder and check it a month later, it will contain every e-mail that mentioned the pop band as well as any photos you took at their concert and new songs by the band that you downloaded — even though none of these things existed when you first did the search.

The last major new feature is a rich new user interface. Called Aero, it includes a powerful new graphics system that enables such new extras as transparent windows, animation of certain screen elements (similar to the “funnel” effect Mac users are familiar with when closing a file) and the ability to see reduced, live views of all your running programs at once.

There are lots of smaller changes as well. For instance, there’s a dashboard with small programs (calendar, weather updates and stock tickers, among others) that run quickly, called Gadgets. There’s also new music and video player software; a new built-in Web browser with tabbed browsing; a new, free email program with junk-mail filtering; and a new photo-organizing program.

Many of these features are already available on the Apple Macintosh — some have been for years — but they will seem fresh to most Windows users.

HOW WILL YOU BUY IT?

Like past versions of Windows, Vista will be sold in two ways: The vast majority of people will get it by buying a new PC with Vista preloaded at the factory. That way, they’ll know the hardware and software are compatible. And a small percentage of people, either brave souls or those with PCs too new to replace, will buy Vista in a box and upgrade their computers manually.

Either way, Vista won’t be simple to purchase. That’s because it will come in at least five different flavors, compared with two versions when Windows XP launched in 2001. There will be two consumer versions of Vista, two business versions and one version that includes everything, called “Ultimate.” Also, two current special editions of Windows, the Tablet and Media Center versions, will be folded into some, but not all, of the five Vista editions.

For consumers, the biggest issue will be choosing between the Home Basic and Home Premium versions of Vista, either on new machines or in boxes. Home Premium will include the new Aero user interface along with all the security, search and other features described above. It will also have updated versions of the features currently included in the Media Center and Tablet editions of Windows XP. But Home Premium won’t run on most Windows PCs currently in the hands of consumers, and it also won’t run on new, low-end PCs. That’s because it requires hefty hardware to work right.

Most current PCs, and all the bargain-priced new ones preloaded with Vista next January, will be able to run only Home Basic, which is a stripped-down version of Vista. Microsoft insists that Home Basic will have the same security system and search features as Premium, but it won’t include the new Aero user interface and will probably lack some other features. In essence Home Basic will look and feel like a modestly improved version of Windows XP, even though Microsoft says there’ll be major improvements under the covers.

Power users, and those who want every option just in case, may go for the Ultimate version of Vista. It not only will roll up everything in the consumer and business versions, it may also have some added bells and whistles. Microsoft hasn’t announced prices yet.

WHAT HARDWARE WILL YOU NEED?

The stripped-down version of Vista, Home Basic, will run on fairly routine PCs, albeit ones with plenty of memory.

The Premium and Ultimate versions will likely require at least a midrange model or a high-end configuration.

Microsoft hasn’t officially released the recommended hardware specs. But I expect the company to recommend 512 megabytes of memory for Home Basic and a gigabyte of memory for Premium. Based on past experience, I advise doubling those amounts, to a gigabyte of memory for Basic and 2 gigabytes for Premium.

Another crucial hardware factor will be the computer’s video system. Basic Vista can run on any graphics hardware that creates a screen resolution of at least 800×600. That covers most bargain computers with graphics chips that are integrated with the machine’s motherboard and which share main memory. But Premium and Ultimate will run best on machines with a full-blown graphics card and dedicated video memory of at least 128 megabytes.

You will be able to run Home Basic on the slowest processors available, but for the better versions of Vista, you’ll need a processor running at a speed of at least 1 gigahertz. I would opt for as fast a processor as you can afford and for one with two “cores” rather than one. (A dual-core processor is essentially like having two processors on one chip.)

Vista will also support so-called 64-bit processors, which can gulp down more information than current machines. But I wouldn’t worry about that for now, unless you’re a power user. There’s very little 64-bit software available for consumers.

Vista may not be something to leap into right away. You may want to wait a while to see about defects and, especially, to see if it seems more secure, as promised.


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