Let's get this out of the way right up front: Windows Vista is big. It's big in a way that Windows XP was not. No more single CD installation of Windows, folks - Vista requires a DVD drive. Now, that's not particularly uncommon in operating systems these days (or in latter days - the various versions of Linux have come on multiple CDs and DVDs for years), but it's a change from the gang in Redmond.
So, with that in mind, is this super-sized edition of Windows worth the room that it takes up? We'll find out.
This review is of Windows Vista RC2 (Build 5744). As of this writing, Vista has been released to manufacturing, but only the business version is actually available. Other versions are slated for release in January. Keep that in mind, because by the time the final version of Vista is released, some features may have changed.
As mentioned before, Vista comes on a single DVD. Installation is quite straightforward, virtually unchanged from XP's installation process. Very little user intervention is required, apart from entering the serial number and a bit of computer information. On my test platform, a Toshiba Satellite M45, the operating system was installed in about an hour.
The test platform is a notebook computer that is about two years old. It is Intel Centrino-based, with a Pentium-M 1.6GHz and 2GB of RAM. It has a 70GB PATA, 5400RPM hard drive. Graphics are by ATI and it has a 15" widescreen display. I selected this computer because I felt that it would present the biggest challenge to Vista - it is a fairly average system that I think represents a typical upgrade path from Windows XP.
I initially started the installation process as an upgrade from Windows XP Home Edition. As the upgrade started, Vista picked out a number of programs that it said would be incompatible with the OS. Virtually all of them were utilities that Toshiba provided with the computer. Since they were programs that I never used, I wasn't particularly concerned. Vista successfully upgraded the computer in about 45 minutes. After some post-upgrade testing, I decided to perform a "from scratch" installation. This took about an hour.
In both cases, the installation went without a hitch. Vista recognized all of the hardware on the computer, which seems reasonable - nothing is particularly proprietary here.
After about five minutes of poking around Vista, I could sum my experience up with one phrase: "Man, this thing is slow!" And it was. Processor use sat at around 30% all of the time and memory use was over 65%. At the time, I had 1GB of DDR memory installed. I added another module, for a total of 2GB and found that memory usage dropped to around 35% and the CPU use would actually go to zero at times. On this platform, at least, Vista wants memory - and lots of it.
Vista doesn't appear to be significantly changed from Windows XP. I imagine that Microsoft doesn't want to make huge changes in a user interface that is familiar to most of the computer using world. The desktop has the familiar taskbar at the bottom, with a redesigned "Start" button. The default icon set is somewhat redesigned and does look prettier to me. A new feature on the desktop is something that Microsoft calls "Gadgets". If you're a Mac user, you'll recognize them as something like Apple's Widgets. Gadgets are little applets that sit on the side of the screen and perform tasks like displaying the time, date, CPU and memory use, that sort of thing. There are a variety of them and Microsoft promotes independent development of more. Think of Firefox plugins, but for the desktop.
What else did I notice? The Start menu is arranged differently. How to explain? It appears that the idea behind the somewhat new Start menu is to shield us from some of the internals of the operating system. Vista's Start menu replaces the slightly jargonized Start menu of XP with what can best be described as more friendly labels. I honestly can't say whether this is a good thing or not - most of the same stuff is there, it's just friendlier, I guess.
File browsing is a bit different as well. The Explorer interface has received quite a bit of work here. All of the icons are there, but the interface is rearranged and more functionality has been added into the same amount of space. After some initial difficulty switching to this new interface, I found that it was quite easy to use and allowed me to do more with Explorer than previously - or at least to do what I've done before, but a bit faster.
Vista includes the same applications that I expected, just like Windows XP, plus a few extra games. Wordpad, Notepad and the usual suspects are all there.
Not All Wine and Roses
Vista is a pretty smooth ride, given enough memory and, I suppose, processor power. However, not everything went smoothly. Some programs and some hardware didn't make the grade. As I mentioned earlier, some of the Toshiba utilities would not work under Vista (and, to Vista's credit, the OS told me about them at the beginning). But other things didn't work and the big potential show-stopper was my anti-virus program. Not just the program that I use, but any anti-virus program. In fact, it appears that any program that requires access to the Vista kernel will not work in Vista without a rewrite. The anti-virus guys know that and they're all working on new versions of their software that will be compatible with Vista. As a side note, I'm using a beta version of Symantec's product and it seems to work quite nicely.
The other stumbling block is my printer. Try as I might, I cannot get my Hewlett Packard Deskjet 6940 to work with Vista, either through its network connection or directly via USB. Hopefully HP is working on new drivers - although the XP drivers install, the printer just won't work.
But those are really the only issues that I ran into with Vista. Admittedly, I haven't been able to put its new visual interface, Aero, through its paces (the ATI notebook video just isn't up to the task), but that will come in a later review on a much more beefy desktop machine.
On the Net
Networking is a breeze with Vista, and it probably should be, since it's pretty easy to get set up with XP. Vista detected the notebook's internal wireless interface and easily negotiates a connection with the router at home or at work without any prompting from me. Once the connection is selected and established, the OS is smart enough to use whichever one it detects as the default. And, faced with the choice of a wireless or wired connection, it will use the wired connection as its primary network connection.
Something for Everyone
In earlier articles, I mentioned that Vista will come in several different versions, from Basic to Ultimate. Basic is probably most analogous to Windows XP Home (or maybe even a little more stripped down than that), while Ultimate is sort of a cross between XP Professional and Media Center.
The Bottom Line
Should you get Vista? Bear in mind that this is just a quick look at the OS. There probably isn't enough information to give you a definitive answer. On the other hand, you may not have a choice. New systems shipping after January 2007 will almost certainly come with Vista by default. So, should you upgrade? To be honest, I can't really say. If you've got a thoroughly modern system, then you'll probably want to, at some point. If you've got something less beefy than this test system, maybe not. Vista is resource intensive, there's no doubt about it, particularly with memory, but also with CPU.
Microsoft has provided a helpful utility that will gauge your Vista upgrade potential. You can download it here. For comparison, the test system rated a 1.0 on the "Windows Experience Index" (mostly due to the very slow graphics). Run the utility and perhaps that will help you decide.
In the meantime, stay tuned - a more in-depth review is in the works, chock full of pictures and technical information!