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Hasta la Vista

When it came out in 2001, Windows XP was a very nice operating system, far slicker and more reliable than previous versions of Windows. But XP is getting long in the tooth. It has been patched so often to plug egregious security flaws that it is barely recognizable as the sleek, stable product that debuted five years ago. Its basic features have been matched by the techie-oriented Linux operating system. And it has been overtaken in most major respects by Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, which also came out in 2001 but, unlike Windows, has had four major feature upgrades since then.

This year, however, Microsoft will up the ante with a new version of Windows called Vista. Due in the fall, in time for holiday computer shopping, Vista is an effort to make Windows truly secure from the ground up, while also making it easier to use and pretty enough to rival Apple’s current version of OS X, Tiger. (Apple is planning yet another new edition, called Leopard, due around the same time.)

Vista will be the most dramatic upgrade to Windows in more than a decade. But there will be a price for Vista’s improvements — most current PCs won’t be able to take advantage of all its features. To get full use out of the new system, you will very likely need to upgrade or replace your current computer. Vista will adapt to older or less powerful machines by disabling some of its features, but that’s likely to be unsatisfying for many users. Also, as of this writing, Microsoft is planning to sell Vista in as many as seven different configurations for different types of users. That will be not only confusing, but if you select the more capable configurations, probably expensive, too. (Microsoft hasn’t released pricing yet.)

So here’s a preliminary look at Vista’s major new features, as well as some guidance on hardware. Microsoft’s mantra for Vista is “Confident, Clear and Connected.” By “Confident,” the company means that it promises to clean up the security mess that has been the main headache for users of Windows. Microsoft says Vista will be much harder to hack into, and much less prone to viruses and spyware, than today’s Windows. For instance, Vista users will be asked for their user name and password anytime software is being installed –designed to prevent the surreptitious software installations that plant spy-ware on a PC. And Vista will have built-in systemwide parental controls, so you can limit what your child can see and do on the computer. Both features are already built into Apple’s Tiger and work well, so if they are executed properly on Vista, they should be a boon.

By “Clear,” Microsoft is referring to new ways of finding and visualizing your files. Vista will have rapid, modern, built-in desktop searching. And it will have something called “virtual folders” that capture all files meeting certain criteria you can set, no matter where you store them. For instance, you could set up a virtual folder to show all files and e-mails mentioning a certain person or topic. Again, both features are already in Apple’s operating system, where they have proved popular. Some editions of Vista will also incorporate the features of today’s Windows Media Center edition, including the ability to play and record TV programs.

The “Connected” promise from Microsoft includes a centralized synchronization feature, like the one already present on the Mac, that can keep data in sync on cell phones and PDAs. Vista will also look dramatically better — and more like Mac software — with 3D icons, transparent windows and tiny previews of file contents.

So what kind of hardware will you need for all this? Well, Vista won’t work well with the processors sold in today’s budget PCs. I suggest you consider a new computer with at least a midrange processor, and preferably a so-called dual-core processor, which packs two brains into its innards, though a single-core model will do. You might even look for a processor capable of handling future software called “64-bit,” though it’s not absolutely necessary.

Memory will also be crucial for Vista. I expect Microsoft to recommend 512 megabytes, but since the company tends to understate memory requirements, I suggest a full gigabyte, far more than what’s on the average PC today. You’ll also need a bigger hard disk, especially if you want to use the new TV-recording capabilities that will be built into some editions of Vista. I suggest at least 160 gigabytes. Luckily, large hard disks are now pretty inexpensive.

Likewise, video capability will be key to utilizing Vista’s new visual effects. Today’s PCs often use integrated graphics chips, which are pretty basic and drain memory. That won’t cut it for Vista, at least until integrated graphics chips are beefed up next fall. If you seek a Vista-capable machine before then, look for one with a separate graphics card with its own dedicated memory, preferably 128 megabytes, though 64 will do.

Vista will boost DVD recording — it will support the new, high-definition DVDs currently in development and make it easier to burn DVDs for both multimedia and file backup. You’ll need a high-end DVD-recording drive to reap the rewards.

I can’t say how good Vista will be until I test and review the final, or near final, product, in late summer. But from the demos I’ve seen, Vista has great promise — if you have the right hardware.

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