An Introduction to Windows Vista: Part 1

If you’ve been detecting a stale odor around the office lately, there’s a good chance it might be your operating system. Although there have been a couple of service packs and numerous minor updates for Windows XP, there hasn’t been an entirely new version of Windows since XP debuted way back in October 2001. That was nearly five years ago, and based on Microsoft’s past history it’s practically an eternity — after all, Windows 98 launched roughly three years after Windows 95, Windows 2000 debuted about two years after 98, and Windows XP hit the streets a mere 20 months after Windows 2000.

It’s been a long time coming, but it looks as if the new version of Microsoft Windows is finally just over the horizon. Microsoft’s long-awaited and oft-delayed next-generation operating system, formerly code-named “Longhorn” but rechristened last year as Windows Vista, is due to go on sale late this year or early in 2007 (depending on the version — more on that in a bit.)

Thus begins Small Business Computing’s three-part series on Windows Vista. In this first installment we’ll provide an overview of Vista’s capabilities and outline the various “flavors” of the operating system. In June, part two will delve into some of Vista’s new features in more detail, explaining how they improve on Windows XP and more importantly, how they can benefit your small business. Come July, our final segment will focus on how to prepare your business for Windows Vista, exploring how to make sure both your existing systems — and any new ones you plan to purchase — are equipped to take full advantage of Windows Vista.

Windows Vista Network Center
Windows Vista Network Center
(Click for larger image)

What’s New
Since Vista is still in beta, many of it’s features are still evolving, and exactly which ones make it into which version of the product is also somewhat still up in the air (as are some other product details, like pricing). Nevertheless, based on recent announcements by Microsoft as well as examination of the latest Windows Vista Community Technology Preview also known as build 5308), we have a reasonably good idea of what Vista’s new features will be.

Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of Windows Vista is it’s revamped user interface, dubbed Aero. Aero’s features — which will vary depending on the graphics hardware your computer has — include a host of attractive visual effects like windows with translucent menu bars. Vista includes other interface improvements as well, like the ability to see thumbnails of your open application windows when you put the cursor over Taskbar items or switch between programs using the Alt+Tab keys.

Vista’s Start menu has also been overhauled and simplified so things are easier to find, and it no longer uses the word “Start” (possibly to avoid the oddity of clicking “Start” when you want to shut down your system). Searching your system has also been greatly improved in Vista. It’s now highly integrated into the operating system (a search field is available in almost every window), and you can much more easily search by keyword. You can also save your search results for later reference.

Most people would agree that keeping a Windows system protected from online threats is a major headache, so Vista incorporates a number of improved security features designed to allay those concerns. Vista’s built-in firewall, for example, can monitor both outgoing and incoming network traffic, and Internet Explorer 7 adds a host of security improvements, including a phishing filter that can warn you if a Web site you’re about to give personal data to might be malicious. Vista also includes a utility called Windows Defender to guard your system against spyware (though not viruses), and BitLocker, which can encrypt an entire hard disk to safeguard data when a system is lost, stolen or intentionally discarded.

If your primary system is a notebook, then you’ll probably appreciate Vista’s new Sideshow feature, which takes a cue from modern mobile phones and uses a small secondary display to show certain kinds of important data. In Vista, this display will work when the system is suspended or even off, which can mean not needing to boot up your notebook just to check your schedule or to look up a contact. This can save both time and battery life, but of course the catch is that you won’t be able to take advantage of this feature without buying a new notebook.

Choose Your Weapon
If you bought a new computer or upgraded the operating system for an older PC anytime in the last few years, you may have spent some time trying to figure out which version of XP to buy, because although XP Professional is the version specifically designed for business use, a fair number of small businesses also run Windows XP Home Edition due to it’s ubiquity at retail, or perhaps because although it’s outwardly similar to XP Professional it usually costs $70 to $100 less.

Windows Media Center Music
Windows Media Center Music
(Click for larger image)

A decision regarding which version of Windows Vista to run may be a bit trickier given that Microsoft will offer no fewer than a half-dozen versions of the new OS. Although there are now actually almost as many (five) versions of XP, three of them are designed for specific kinds of hardware, like Tablet PCs, living-room systems, or PCs with 64-bit CPUs. Like XP, all versions of Windows Vista will have certain capabilities in common, but each one will provide a somewhat different mix of features that’s targeted to the needs of specific market segments rather than to particular kinds of hardware.

For corporate customers, Microsoft will offer two flavors of Vista — Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise. The former is a general-purpose operating system that’s roughly analogous to Windows XP Professional, while Vista Enterprise is intended primarily for large and complex organizations (it will add features like a built-in copy of Virtual PC to emulate previous Windows operating systems for older “legacy” applications.)

There will also be three consumer-oriented flavors of Windows Vista — Home Basic, Home Premium and Ultimate. As it’s name implies, Vista Home Basic will be a rudimentary operating system that will provide necessary security and productivity features but will omit many bells and whistles (like the Aero interface, for instance.) Home Premium will add features relevant to entertainment and digital media, like the ability to record live TV or author DVDs. Vista Ultimate aims to be a enthusiast’s or business power user’s no-compromise option; it represents the best of all worlds and includes the features from all other versions of Vista. (The final version, Windows Vista Starter, is a stripped-down and lower-cost operating system designed primarily for emerging markets.)

At the time of this writing, the business versions of Windows Vista are scheduled for release in November, with the consumer versions following (relatively) close behind in January 2007. Since Vista will be here before you know it, the time to start thinking about it is now.

Part 2 looks at the new or newly improved features that could help your small business perform and produce more securely.

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, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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