An Introduction to Windows Vista: Part 2

By Joseph Moran | Posted May 25, 2006

Considering how long it's been since a new version of Windows came out, you would expect Vista to have more new features than you can shake a stick of RAM at, and you'd be right. Still chances are that you don't want to run Vista just to have the latest and the greatest, but because you're looking for ways the new OS can help your small business by letting your PCs run faster, more reliably or do things that they couldn't do before.

Part one of our Vista series was an overview of Vista's capabilities and outline the various "flavors" of the operating system. Here in part two we'll focus on features that are either entirely new or significantly improved compared to XP, and that can benefit your small business in the areas of productivity, reliability, or security.

Productivity

Start Menu
At first glance, Windows Vista looks strikingly similar to XP, but the familiar appearance belies significant interface changes just below the surface. The Start menu — which now eschews the word "Start" in favor of the Windows logo — has been reorganized to make it less cumbersome and easier to find applications. For example, as you navigate through Program Groups, Vista's Start menu remains in place instead of expanding to fill the screen the way XP's does. In fact, a built-in search box lets you find an application (or file) by typing it's name so you don't need to wade through layers of menus to find the item you want.

Easier Browsing
Vista also comes with Internet Explorer 7, which includes a host of its own interface improvements. Most notably, support for tabbed browsing lets you reduce desktop clutter by loading multiple Web sites within a single browser window. Even better, Vista's IE can display all your open Web pages as preview thumbnails, letting you easily view a page's contents before you switch to it.

Desktop Searching
Windows XP has never earned particularly high marks for it's ability to quickly and easily find files buried on your hard drive, but Vista's search feature is much more powerful and integrated. There's a search box available in nearly every operating system dialog box, and Vista saves time by starting the search immediately and narrowing it down as you type. Vista's search feature also lets you look for any file without having to know file extensions or type wildcards.

Sync Center
In Windows XP, synchronizing files can be inconvenient because you need to go to one area to synchronize files with a server (Windows Explorer) and another to sync up a handheld device (ActiveSync). Vista simplifies the process with Sync Center, a utility that lets you synchronize data with different sources like PDAs, smartphones and network folders from the same place.

Security

Firewall
Windows XP was the first version of the operating system to include a built-in firewall, which was followed by a much-improved version in XP Service Pack 2. Vista's firewall boasts additional enhancements, like the capability to automatically stop all inbound traffic to a system unless Windows has been updated with all the latest security patches. In addition, it provides better protection than XP's firewall by monitoring not just inbound traffic but outbound traffic as well. This feature lets it prevent unauthorized applications from sending data from your computer.

User Accounts
When setting up systems, small businesses often create limited user accounts for many employees in order to prevent them from installing unauthorized software and to minimize access (and potential damage) to the system's configuration. The catch, however, is that some applications simply won't install (or even run) unless the user is logged in using an administrator account.

There are other unpleasant side effects as well, such as the inability to perform benign tasks like adding a printer or modifying non-critical system settings. The solution to this problem in XP is to give users administrative access to their own machines, in spite of the risk that entails, but either scenario can easily result in lots of support calls.

Fortunately, Vista offers more flexibility with it's significantly revamped user access rules. A new Standard user account replaces the Limited account and allows employees to perform many routine computer tasks for themselves as well as modify many settings related to their own personal profile.


Standard account screen
XP's hobbled Limited account is gone in Vista, replaced by a Standard account that can install software and change personal settings while still maintaining system security.

In cases where an application requires administrative access, the system can prompt the employee to provide valid credentials rather than simply being rebuffed. This also guards against silent or "drive-by" installations of spyware from Web sites, downloads or packaged software.

Data Encryption
Business systems often contain all kinds of proprietary and confidential data and, needless to say, when such a system gets lost or stolen a company can find itself in significant competitive or legal jeopardy.

To help safeguard sensitive data Vista builds on the file-encryption capabilities of XP with it's BitLocker feature, which can automatically encrypt the complete contents of a hard drive rather than just selected files and folders. On systems that include a special chip called a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), BitLocker can encrypt an entire system without even changing the way a user logs into the system.

You don't necessarily need new hardware to take advantage of BitLocker since it can also work with non-TPM systems, but in this case requires a USB flash drive (to store encryption keys and passwords) that must be inserted whenever the system starts.

More Secure Browsing
In addition to the usability improvements discussed earlier, Internet Explorer 7 in Windows Vista also includes a number of security enhancements. A Protected Mode — which debuts in Vista's upcoming Beta 2 and will not be available in IE 7 on other Windows versions — works in conjunction with Vista's new user account rules to limit a Web site's access to the system, which should prevent malicious sites from hijacking browser settings or copying any files to the system.

Whenever you go to a site, a phishing filter automatically checks it against a database to determine if it may be fraudulently trying to obtain a user's confidential information. Finally, clearing the myriad browser caches has been made less cumbersome, requiring only one click to delete your entire browsing history instead of the three or more required in XP.

Performance and Reliability


Startup Repair Tool
When a Windows system refuses to boot, it's often due to a corrupt setting or incompatible driver. In XP, you deal with this kind of problem by booting into Safe Mode and then trying to manually identify and remove (or repair) the offending file.

When a Vista system encounters a problem loading the operating system, it automatically launches its Startup Repair Tool. It scans the startup files to determine the cause of the problem and attempts to fix it, but if the problem can't be fixed, Vista will restore the last configuration that was known to work.

Memory and Disk Diagnostics
Another way Vista improves system reliability is through built-in diagnostics for components like the RAM and hard disk. Memory problems can often be the cause of a host of chronic and frustrating system problems, not the least of which is unexpected and frequent application crashes.


The Vista Start Menu
Vista's Start Menu remains the same size no matter how deep into the menus you go, and it lets you search for an application by typing it's name.

When Vista's Microsoft Online Crash Analysis feature detects that a crash may be the result of faulty memory, it offers you the chance to perform a memory test the next time the system starts (since it can't be performed while the system is in use).

Not to be confused with the superficial BIOS-based memory check that's been around since the earliest days of the PC, Microsoft Memory Diagnostics conducts more extensive tests on system RAM, and if it detects a problem Vista configures itself to avoid using the affected area of memory. Similarly, Vista's disk diagnostics can warn of impending drive failures and, more importantly, immediately prompt you through the process of backing up your data.

Faster Boot Times
For those people who turn off their systems each evening, long Windows boot times can be — depending on your point of view — either a productivity black hole or extra time to savor that cup of coffee.

Microsoft says that since Vista can process many startup -related tasks in the background, it will be ready to use faster than the same system running XP. Vista also has a new Sleep mode that is the default "off" state for both notebooks and desktops. It's designed to provide the best features of XP's standby and hibernate modes, letting the system recover quickly from a low-power idle state while still saving the contents of RAM to the hard disk for safety in the event of a power interruption.

Conclusion
We've only touched on a handful of Vista's capabilities, but we think you'll agree that there are enough new features to make the forthcoming operating system worth considering. In our next installment, we'll discuss how to get ready for Vista, whether you plan to buy new systems or upgrade your existing ones.

Part 1 looks at what Vista, Microsoft's long-promised operating system, will offer small business when it finally arrives.

Part 3 looks at the hardware a PC needs in order to run the various versions of Microsoft's Vista.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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