While one might have very easily complained that some of the applications Microsoft chose to bundle in previous versions of Windows--such as Internet Explorer in Windows 95 OSR-2 and Windows Messenger in Windows XP--were somewhat unnecessary in their day, with Windows Vista, the situation has been reversed nicely. Vista includes a wide range of useful bundled applications, from the digital media champions we'll look at in a future part of this review to the Internet utilities we recently examined. In this part of the review, however, I'll focus on those bundled applications that somewhat defy easy categorization. Most of them, as it turns out, are top-notch.

Bundled applications

Operating systems have changed dramatically in the past decade. Where the OSes of the early and mid-1990's were simply platforms designed to host add-on applications and services, today's operating systems offer almost a complete range of end user functionality, thanks to bundled applications that blur the line between pure platform and end user usefulness. Microsoft isn't alone in this regard, of course. Mac OS X, for example, ships with the iChat instant messaging solution, the Safari Web browser, Mail.app, and numerous other applications. Most Linux distributions go even further, offering full suites of office productivity applications in addition to solutions for digital media and the Internet.

Windows Vista, in a somewhat evolutionary move, has extended the range of capabilities Microsoft offers in its OS. While there are no bundled office productivity products per se, Vista has augmented its historical strengths in Internet and digital media functionality with a new set of useful applications that make Windows more valuable than ever.

What's interesting is that many of these applications are actually just conduits to new platform features. Windows Contacts, for example, is available to third party applications, so new version of email applications from third parties could simply integrate with this feature rather than supply their own Address Book functionality. Windows Sidebar, by nature, is a platform on which developers can build useful gadgets, including those that connect to back-end Web services. And the new Games Explorer can interact with Vista-compatible and even legacy games to provide ESRB ratings and even integration with Vista's parental controls features. In Windows Vista, few applications are isolated islands of functionality.

This is an important distinction. Microsoft isn't bundling applications to harm competitors. It's offering users more value from Windows, while providing enterprising third parties with the hooks they need to integrate with these new features. In the end, whatever new solutions arise as a result will further benefit anyone who uses Windows Vista. It's a win-win.

One final point: With the exception of Windows Contacts, which is an update of the Address Book feature in previous Windows versions, every one of these bundled applications is new and unique to Windows Vista.

Windows Calendar

Back in January 2006, I met with the folks responsible for Windows Calendar, the new calendar application in Windows Vista. At the time, I felt that Windows Calendar was attractive and useful, but was painfully similar to iCal, the calendar application that Apple bundles in Mac OS X. Microsoft's reaction at the time was that there were only so many ways to make a calendar application. Besides, they needed to catch up in this market: While Mac OS X and Linux had provided standards-based calendaring solutions to end users for years, Microsoft's only competitive products were fee-based (like Microsoft Outlook) and weren't particularly standards friendly, limiting their usefulness to consumers.

And you know what? They have a point. With these facts in mind, Windows Calendar is an absolutely stellar standards-based calendar application, meaning that it works with the well-established Internet calendaring standard iCalendar, providing users with the ability to subscribe to the massive collection of public calendars available online and publish their own calendars for family and friends to view. And yes, it just works.

To test Windows Calendar, I published my Outlook-based calendar to Office Online and then subscribed to it via Windows Calendar. I also tested a number of public calendars, which I found on Apple's iCal Web site. Windows Calendar works like a charm.

Another nice feature is Windows Calendar's ability to print calendars in a variety of types, including Day, Work Week, Week, and Month, and in a very attractive and professional-looking style that mimics the look and feel of the application itself. There's no way to modify the printing style per se, which is a bit of shame, but I think most people will be quite happy with the results.

Overall, Windows Calendar is an absolutely stellar application and a fine addition to Windows Vista.

My rating:

Windows Contacts

As with Windows Mail, the new Windows Contacts was promised as a major update in functionality over its predecessor, in this case the minimalist Address Book. In final form, Windows Contacts does indeed offer some improvements over its predecessor, though its weird Explorer-based interface (which might be thought of as a "Contacts Explorer," I guess) could confuse some people. Disappointingly, under the covers, some of Windows Contacts' features were clearly lifted from the old Address Book and not updated at all.

While few people will access Windows Contacts directly from the Start Menu, there is an icon in there as you'd expect. Instead, Microsoft figures most will access their contacts database from within the context of a different application, just as Windows Mail or perhaps even Windows Calendar, both of which sport Contacts toolbar buttons for this purpose (but no true integration features).

Windows Contacts is hosted inside a normal Explorer shell window and is, to my knowledge, the only Explorer in Windows Vista that utilizes the Preview Pane by default. As you select individual contacts in Contacts Explorer, their details are displayed in the Preview Pane, which is handy and logical. To edit a contact, you just double-click the contact in the list as you would have in Address Book. Indeed, the dialog that appears is very, very similar to the Address Book Properties dialog, which is a bit disconcerting.

More disconcerting, the Import and Export functions are lifted right out of Address Book and are just as limited in scope. You can only import CSV, LDIF, vCard, and Windows Address Book files, which isn't exactly a stellar or modern collection of address book types. And you can only export to CSV or vCard files. Have these options changed at all since Windows 98?

Because of its shell-based organization, Contacts are just another data type that can be indexed and searched by Windows Search, so you can do things like type in the name of contact directly into the Start Menu's new search box. That's actually pretty handy, I guess, though you can't really do logical things like launch a new email message to that contact from that Start Menu-based search result; instead, clicking the item will open the Properties dialog for the contact. You can, however, launch a new email from Windows Contacts.

The big benefit to Windows Contacts, from what I can tell, is that it's a much more open collection of data that can more easily be accessed by other applications. So, for example, upcoming email applications could choose to programmatically access Windows Contacts directly and eschew the time-consuming and bug-prone process of creating their own proprietary address books. That sounds like a great idea to me, though there's little end users benefit at this writing.

My rating:

Windows Sidebar

Windows Sidebar is, perhaps, the best example of how I've come full circle on certain features in Windows Vista. As a power user of sorts and someone who was, perhaps, a bit too close to the Vista development process, I watched as the original (pre-2004) design for the Windows Sidebar was first promoted and then, in a sad move, ultimately dropped from the product all-together. The new Windows Sidebar, the version that is actually shipping in Windows Vista, is a pale shadow of its predecessor, and one that is not as powerful or interesting to me as the original.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. The new Windows Sidebar does actually provide a good portion of the most useful functionality that Microsoft had intended for the original version. More important, virtually no one who uses Windows Sidebar will be saddled with any understanding of the features and functionality that were never included. To be fair, they probably won't care a bit.

So I've set aside any pointless bias I've had about Windows Sidebar and have actually started using the thing again. And here's the kicker: I like it. I really like it.

Windows Sidebar is a panel that sits on the right side of the Windows desktop by default, providing an environment in which mini-applications called Gadgets can live and run. These Gadgets often interact with Internet-based services or even local applications and because of their simplified nature, they're not typically full-fledged applications but are instead small notification points. A number of Gadgets--like Calendar, Clock, Contacts, and Weather--ship with Windows Vista, and you can download others from the live.com Web site. For example, Microsoft has created a number of excellent, high-quality Outlook Gadgets that I've found quite useful. And third parties, including individuals, have developed other Gadgets, such as a nice iTunes front-end. It's a pretty rich collection.

I've populated my Sidebar with different Gadgets on different machines. For example, on my main notebook computer, I use Clock (for the local time), Calendar, Weather, Outlook Appointments, and CPU Meter (which provides both CPU and memory meters, actually). But on my desktop machine, which sports a much bigger, higher resolution display, I use a different layout. I do have versions of Clock, Calendar, and Weather for local information. But I also have a second copy of Clock configured for the time in Paris, a frequent travel destination. I also have two more copies of Weather running, one in Fahrenheit and one in Celsius, both configured for Paris: I do this so I can keep up with the weather there, of course, but also so I can get used to doing temperature format conversions in my head quickly. Neat.

Because Sidebar takes up a slice of onscreen real estate, it seems more at home on high resolution widescreen displays, but I've been using it on my 4:3 ThinkPad for several weeks now and it's worked out just fine. Windows Sidebar isn't for everyone, but it's certainly quite a bit more useful than the similar Dashboard feature in Mac OS X, because the Gadgets are visible onscreen and don't need to be accessed via a bizarre separate desktop display. But seriously, give it a chance. I'm glad I did, and I'm curious to see what useful and interesting Gadgets appear in the near future.

My rating:

Games Explorer and Premium Games

After spending years of time, money, and effort pushing its Xbox video game console, it's nice to see Microsoft finally wake up and realize that it already owns the number one gaming platform on earth: Windows. Now, with Windows Vista, we're finally seeing what can happen when Microsoft shows gamers a little respect. There are a number of features in Vista related to gaming, including the new DirectX 10 APIs, which will really bear fruit only when upcoming DirectX 10-compatible hardware shows up in volume, and integrated support for common gaming controller types (including Xbox 360 controllers, thankfully). But the game-related feature that most users will see regularly is the new Games Explorer. It's a thoughtfully-designed front-end for all of your gaming needs. And it's an excellent new Vista feature.

Games Explorer, which is available by default directly from the right side of the Start Menu alongside such stalwarts as Computer and Documents, performs a number of functions. First, it contains links to all of the games that are installed on your system, including the games Microsoft preinstalled (both the regular games and the so-called Premium Games that are available only in the Premium Vista SKUs like Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate) and any games you install yourself. New games--those that bear the "Games for Windows" logo or are created after late 2006 will integrate very tightly into Games Explorer, as do the built-in games. But all games can be accessed through this interface, though older games don't cough up as much useful information as newer titles.

In addition to simply displaying games, Games Explorer can be used in tandem with Vista's new parental controls feature to ensure that your kids aren't accessing that copy of F.E.A.R. or other mature titles while you're off at work. And a new nice Tools toolbar button gives you quick access to game-related control panels, such as Performance Information and Tools, Hardware, Display Devices, Input Devices, Audio Devices, Firewall, and Programs and Features. Like so many Vista features, the true worth of the Games Explorer will become more obvious over time, when more software and hardware fully supports this functionality. But make no mistake: Microsoft isn't giving up on Windows gamers at all. If anything, they've finally woken up. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

My rating:

Next: Windows Vista Features: Digital Media Features