One of the most highly-touted changes in Windows Vista is its new Windows Aero user interface, which provides high quality translucent "glass" effects, animations, and a smoother desktop experience than was possible in previous Windows versions. However, Windows Aero requires hardware-based 3D acceleration with certain performance characteristics and isn't available to users with Windows Vista Home Basic or Starter editions. To satisfy customers who are looking for the most of the benefits of the new Vista user experience but on systems that don't meet Aero's hardware requirements, Microsoft has created the Windows Vista Basic user interface. It's a viable alternative for any Vista user and, for mobile users, can provide better battery life.

The Windows Vista Basic user interface forms the basis for what Microsoft calls its Basic user experience (UX) in Windows Vista. This user interface includes most of the new features that users equate with Windows Vista, including the streamlined Start Menu with instant search, the completely overhauled Windows Explorer with Live Icons and Preview and Reading panes, the new Start button (or "orb"), and the new wizards and dialogs. At a technical level, Windows Vista Basic does not require any special hardware: It will work properly on any PC that can run Windows, and uses similar display technologies to Windows XP.


Windows Aero (left) and Windows Vista Basic (right)

On the other hand, several key Vista features--such as Live Taskbar Thumbnails and Windows Flip 3D--are unavailable with the Vista Basic user interface. Other features behave differently in Vista Basic. For example, the user picture that appears in the top right of the Start Menu is moved to the edge of the menu while using Windows Aero. But while using Windows Vista Basic, the user picture is embedded inside the Start Menu as it is in Windows XP.

Windows Vista Basic also brings with it some technical problems from the past. Because it is based on the GDI+ display libraries used in Windows XP, it cannot take advantage of the hardware acceleration capabilities in modern video cards. That means that you can experience visual "tearing" and glitching issues, such as when you drag a window around that is playing back video. And because Windows Vista Basic does not require a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver, systems running this user interface can be less stable than those running Windows Aero. Non-WDDM Video display drivers are a leading cause of blue screens in Windows, according to Microsoft.

The Windows Vista Basic user interface is available in all Windows Vista product editions, including Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, Ultimate, and even Starter.

Enabling Windows Vista Basic

If you're running Windows Aero and would like to enable Windows Vista Basic, you have to jump through a few hoops. You can choose Windows Vista Basic from the Appearance Settings dialog, which offers much of the functionality of the Appearance tab in the Display Properties dialog in Windows XP. To access this dialog, right-click a blank area of the Vista desktop and choose Personalize. Then, click Windows Color and Appearance. Finally, click the link titled Open classic appearance properties for more color options. Select Windows Vista Basic from the Color scheme list box and click OK.

Tip: If you are already running Windows Vista Basic, the Windows Color and Appearance link noted above will directly launch the Appearance Settings dialog.

Secret: Microsoft originally provided a handy way to switch between Windows Vista Basic and Windows Aero on the fly: You could use the CTRL + SHIFT + F9 keyboard shortcut. However, beginning in Windows Vista Beta 2, this shortcut was removed from the product, and it's unavailable in the final shipping version of Vista.

Fun Fact: Windows Vista Basic was originally codenamed "Aero To Go." It was envisioned as a user interface that would most often be utilized by mobile users because of its more battery-friendly characteristics. Microsoft also promised that notebooks running Vista would drop into Vista Basic mode automatically when on battery power, but this feature has been dropped from the product. Instead, if you select the Power Saver power management scheme, Vista will jump into the Windows Vista Standard UI when the system is on battery power. The other two power management schemes do not change the UI when you move between battery and power.

Fun Fact: Before the release of Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), Windows Vista Basic was part of Microsoft's fight against software piracy. The Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) service would check to ensure that your copy of Windows was valid. If it was not, the Windows Aero interface would become disabled, and the user was forced to use Windows Vista Basic instead. So there you have it: Windows Vista Basic was envisioned as a punishment.

Fun Fact: The shipping version of Windows Vista Basic is much more attractive than the original version Microsoft supplied during the Vista beta. You can find out more about Microsoft's Vista Basic make-over in my Showcase, Microsoft Updates Windows Vista Basic User Interface.