After years and years of waiting, we finally have a reasonably stable Windows Vista beta build to work with. Windows Vista Beta 1 (see my review) doesn't feature many end user features per se, but it does include a nearly complete next-generation Windows shell, instant desktop search, a preliminary version of the new Aero user interface, and other useful functionality. For Windows enthusiasts, Windows Vista Beta 1 is a much-needed demonstration that Microsoft can still churn out valuable Windows releases, after years of doubt. For Mac OS X users, however, Windows Vista Beta 1 engenders a sense of d?j? vu. Isn't a lot of this stuff already in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my review)?

Yes and no. For accuracy, I think it's important to compare Windows Vista Beta 1 to both Mac OS X Tiger and the promises that Microsoft made at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2003 (see my show report), at which the company publicly revealed its plans for its next-generation Windows version. After all, Apple was clearly influenced by some of the technology Microsoft showed off back then and knew that it could come to market much more quickly than the software giant.

And before you fire up your email client to tell me about Apple patents, ideas from Copland, or other nonsense, relax. I'm not claiming that Microsoft "invented" anything. What I am claiming, however, is that Microsoft legitimatized certain technologies at PDC 2003 by announcing that they will be included in Windows, and that Apple seized on the opportunity to add those features--whether they were previously planned or not--in Tiger, which it knew would ship well before Windows Vista. For Apple, time to market is a competitive advantage and no one should begrudge them that.

However, you should also realize that, for Microsoft, size of market is a competitive advantage. Features like instant desktop search are great for any operating system, but they only truly "matter" when the mainstream market is using them. And today, that only happens with Windows and its user base of several hundred million active users.

Too, I'd like to remind you that Windows Vista is only in Beta 1. Lots of things are going to change, and many, many features will be added by Beta 2 and beyond. This stands in sharp contrast to Apple's approach with Tiger. If you go back and look at the WWDC 2004 keynote video, you'll see Steve Jobs demo virtually every single major new feature in Tiger. A year later, when the product actually shipped, little had changed and nothing major was added. This isn't how Microsoft works. Beta 1 is a minor subset of the overall functionality we're going to see in the final Windows Vista product.

OK, let's see how Mac OS X Tiger and Windows Vista Beta 1 stack up.

Look and feel

Though Windows XP features a much nicer and more colorful user interface than Windows 2000 and previous Windows versions, it's still a far cry aesthetically (depending on your taste) and technologically from the Aqua UI in OS X (Figure). Indeed, Mac fans have often sneered at the "Fisher Price" look of the XP UI, which is a bit unfair (I find it highly usable and attractive enough) but understandable. OS X, by comparison, is clean, nicely rendered, and features many interesting transitions and other eye candy.

Windows Vista Beta 1 closes the gap, though I don't think the beta Aero UI we're seeing now is quite as nice looking as Tiger's Aqua. In Vista Beta 1, Microsoft has added a number of visual effects that Mac users have enjoyed for four years, including translucencies, high-resolution icons, and animation effects that are both attractive and functional.

Because Apple has had four "major" OS X revisions to fine tune the UI, the OS X Finder is cleaner looking and better implemented than is Aero in Vista Beta 1. For example, while Apple has subtly fixed problems with the display from underlying windows bleeding through to the windows above them (Figure), Microsoft is clearly suffering from some growing pains. In Vista Beta 1, underlying windows can often cause a muddy-looking display that is distracting and sometimes even ugly (Figure).

Icons in Windows XP are generally rendered at 32 x 32 pixels or 64 x 64 pixels in some cases, but the 128 x 128 pixel icons in OS X Tiger are much nicer (Figure). That said, Windows Vista Beta 1 utilizes some 256 x 256 pixel icons (Figure), offering four times the resolution of the icons in Tiger. But we'll have to wait and see whether the icons in the final Vista version are true resolution-independent vector graphics as promised. This would offer even better quality and would be better-suited to the high-DPI displays of the future.

Both Tiger and Vista Beta 1 offer various animations in the shell. For example, Tiger includes a "genie" effect when you minimize windows and a "poof of smoke" when you delete an icon from the Dock. These animations are visually attractive, but they're not just eye candy. Instead, the point of these animations is to provide visual feedback to the user that something has happened. When you minimize a window, the genie effect shows you "where" the minimized window went so you can more easily find it later. Vista Beta 1 offers similar animations. When you animate a window, it visually appears to minimize to the appropriate taskbar button.

In short, though there are some bizarre inconsistencies in the Tiger UI, it is far more elegant looking than Aero in Windows Vista Beta 1. That makes sense, as Vista is still in a very early beta version and will likely be improved dramatically in future releases.

Desktop search

When Microsoft announced that it was adding integrated desktop search functionality to Windows Vista (then called Longhorn) in October 2003, the race began. Since then, various companies, including Apple, Copernic, Google, and Yahoo have all released desktop search products and all of them, except for Apple's, are free (Microsoft even got into the game with MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search, see my review). But all of these products have one thing in common: They never would have been announced during 2004 had Microsoft not first revealed that it was making the feature a standard feature of the next Windows. The company's competitors had wisely gambled that Longhorn wouldn't ship on schedule and that their solutions would benefit from time to market.

Apple's solution--called Spotlight--is particularly excellent. As I noted in my Mac OS X Tiger review, Spotlight is well-implemented and helps users stop worrying about where files and folders are located in the file system: If you can't find something, simply launch a Spotlight search and, chances are, you're good to go (Figure).

The desktop search functionality in Windows Vista Beta 1 is very similar to that in Tiger. Like Spotlight, Windows Vista's search feature is exposed throughout the shell in various logical places. You get a Search option in the Start menu (Figure), a Search icon in the system tray, and quick search boxes in all Explorer windows (Figure). Where Spotlight offers various ways to find-tune search results using groupings and sortings (Figure), Vista Beta 1 lets you fine-tune the search with various stackable filters (Figure). To get this kind of functionality in Tiger, you need to first create a Smart Folder, which provides the same kind of filtering (Figure). (Or you can press the Apple+F keyboard shortcut.) Smart Folders, of course, are simply saved searches, and Vista Beta 1 lets you save any search as a Virtual Folder, which is essentially identical to a Smart Folder in Tiger.

Unlike with Spotlight, Vista Beta 1's searches are not instantaneous, but this is by design and is arguably a better choice. In Spotlight, as you start typing a search, the search results begin appearing (Figure), which can be both annoying and counterproductive when the first few letters of your search include common letters or words (like "the"). In Vista Beta 1, you need to hit Enter to launch the search (or click the Search button).

Overall, the search functionality in Windows Vista Beta 1 is very similar to Tiger's Spotlight.

Data visualization and organization

Searches are all well and good, but I think Microsoft really nailed it on the head when they began discussing how Windows Vista Beta 1's data visualization and organizational features go beyond simple searching a few months ago. "Search is great," Microsoft Lead Product Manager Greg Sullivan told me in April. "We will have desktop search in [Windows Vista]. But our contention is, if you're searching, you've lost something. We are building an automatically organized system where you don't lose it in the first place. The system is smart enough to understand the data itself and how different types of data relate to each other. What we're doing is much more impressive than the 'Hail Mary' pass of search, which often returns lots of irrelevant results. Don't get me wrong: Search is important. But it's only part of the story. The system we are delivering won't force you to search for your data."

Compared to Windows, the OS X Tiger Finder presents more traditional file system views. There are no "special shell folders" as in Windows per se, but rather specific folders under your Home folder--Documents, Pictures, Music, and so on--with which you are encouraged to store files of specific types (Figure). And though Tiger lets you create Smart Folders (saved searches), this feature is neither easily discoverable nor particularly integrated into the system. Specifically, Tiger doesn't ship with pre-made Smart Folders for commonly-accessed searches.

By comparison, Windows Vista Beta 1 presents you with a well-rounded list of stocked, pre-made virtual folders--such as All Documents, All Pictures and Videos, and All Music--which, in essence, replace similar special shell folders in previous Windows versions (Figure). This is important, because many people store file types (like images) outside of the recommended place (Pictures and Videos).

Vista Beta 1 also takes it to the next level with its support of meta data. To deliver accurate search results, the indexer in both Vista Beta 1 and Tiger must examine both the contents of files (the actual data) and the meta data that describes those files. Meta data--technically, data about data--is most easily explained with an example. Consider a typical MP3 file, which represents a single a single track on a ripped audio CD. Meta data stored within the file describes the song name, the artist name, the album name, the track number, and so on. But all data files can (and do contain meta data). A Word document, for example, contains meta data that describes the author name and when the file was last accessed, among other things.

In Tiger, there is no easy or obvious way to edit meta data for the documents and other data files you create, and you typically have to rely on document processing applications (such as Microsoft Word) to add and edit this information. (Tiger does however have a hard-to-find "Spotlight Comments" section the Get Info box for any document in which you can add keywords or phrases as desired.) In Vista Beta 1, meta data support is rife throughout the entire system, and users that choose to create meta data such as keywords and ratings at the time of file creation will be rewarded with more accurate searches. This is possible because you can easily add and edit meta data for any data file from any Explorer window, including the system-wide Save and Save As dialogs (Figure). Best of all, the feature is easily discoverable.

Why is this important? Well, if I searched my hard drive for files associated with Longhorn, I'd probably receive thousands of search results, which is just about useless when you're trying to pinpoint something. But if you took the time to add appropriate meta data, finding files related only to my upcoming Longhorn book would be very easy to find. Hey, at least it's an option. Microsoft thinks this feature is so powerful that it will change the way that people access data on their systems. I think they might be right.

The visualization and organization features in Vista Beta 1 extend even further, however. In Tiger, you can configure Finder windows to display icons in various ways, which is cute, but then Windows has offered similar features for years (and to be fair, Tiger also offers some unique shell-oriented features, like spring-loaded folders, which have no analog in the Windows world). Vista Beta 1 adds new Live Icons, in which file and folder icons dynamically change to display the underlying data (Figure). So a folder in Vista Beta 1 visually resembles a file folder that's padded with the actual files you'll see in the folder. And a document icon in Vista Beta 1 visually resembles the underlying document. That is, a Word document icon will visually resemble the first page of the Word document it represents. A graphics file visually represents the underlying graphic. And so on.

This type of display makes it much easier to find the data file you're looking for when you're skimming through a folder (or virtual folder) full of files. And there's nothing like it, per se, in Tiger. Like previous OS X versions, Tiger does let you turn on image previews, though it's unclear why this is off by default. (Windows has had this functionality--on by default--since 1998.)

Vista Beta 1 also offers other nice organization touches, like Stacks (Figure), which visually group documents by specific criteria (such as by author or size) and Lists, which let users create collections of otherwise unrelated documents and data files manually. Even in this early Beta 1 release, Windows Vista far outstrips the data file visualization and organizational features in Mac OS X Tiger. It will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with for Leopard, the next OS X release.

On to Part 2...

In part 2 of my comparison of Windows Vista Beta 1 and Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger," I will examine the security, networking and power management features of the two operating systems.