Microsoft has made a concerted effort to imbue Windows Vista with a holistic user experience that was only hinted at in previous Windows versions. To understand what this means, consider the evolution of Windows: Not the pixels, widgets, and other onscreen interface elements so much as the overall "feel" one gets from Windows. Over time, Windows has evolved from a clumsy graphical user interface (GUI), built on top of MS-DOS, to a cohesive and complete environment of its own. The current Windows version--Windows XP--is reasonably stable (and, with Service Pack 2, reasonably secure) and provides a number of user-friendly touches that enhance and simplify certain experiences, such as the act of acquiring photos or movies from a camera. Windows isn't perfect--and maybe it never will be--but it gets the job done.

What Windows has really lacked, besides pervasive and effective security controls, of course, is an emotional attachment with users. Unlike rival computing platforms such as Linux and the Mac, there aren't fanatical groups of Windows enthusiasts roaming the Internet and striking down non-believers with unnecessary religious zeal and bias. In fact, if you think about it, the closest we have to that scenario in the Windows world are guys like me, and I couldn't care less if you choose not to run Windows. Instead, Windows guys tend to be more pragmatic than Linux and Mac fanatics. First, we're not fanatics, and while I can't speak for the rest of the community, I completely understand why someone might want to run Mac OS X, and I'd never ridicule them for making that choice.

Second, the system we use is already dominant, so we don't get defensive over every perceived slight. Oh, we laugh at the Bill Gates jokes, because we're pretty sure he's as creepy as you think he is too. And we circulate those "If Microsoft built cars" jokes just like Mac users. We're comfortable with our choice, sure of our technological manhood, if you will.

And third, we're positive (if not militantly so) that Windows is, in fact, superior to rival systems. And while that last bit might not be true across the board--everyone should face up to the notion that Apple is kicking Microsoft's butt in the digital media realm, for example--it's true enough in the broad strokes. Many Microsoft customers choose Windows because it's the dominant platform, but they're not lemmings: Windows is honestly the best solution for most people. Don't confuse that with "technological superiority" or whatever.

Microsoft can never completely emulate the qualities that make Mac OS X and Linux attractive to certain people. (On the flipside, Mac OS X and Linux will never credibly challenge Microsoft's OS market share either, if you think about it.) After all, part of the attraction of the Windows alternatives is quite definitely the fact that these systems are not made by a company that is so dominant it's been embroiled in antitrust battles around the world for over a decade. But what Microsoft can do is examine the qualities of these systems, Mac OS X in particular, and try to duplicate the admittedly touchy-feely and ephemeral qualities of these products and see if they can't improve Windows. With Windows Vista, we're seeing the first fruits of that labor.

So does Windows Vista challenge, say, the Macintosh experience? Not quite. But for the nearly 1 billion people in the world who are used to previous Windows versions, Windows Vista will feel revolutionary, even if it's more fundamental improvements are, in fact, evolutionary. From Setup and installation through the first boot and initial glimpse of the new Vista desktop, as users exploit more and more of the functionality and capabilities that Microsoft has built into this system, from the unseen intangibles such as the pervasive security features that silently and effectively protect them from the evils of the online world, people are going to be blown away by how much more sophisticated and, yes, "complete" that Windows Vista seems.

Like its predecessors, Windows Vista is ultimately just a tool, of course, but it's one that provides you with an emotional relationship that you just didn't get from Windows XP. Those new qualities extend from the packaging of the system, to the new system sounds, to the new visual capabilities and glass-like icons, to the subtle animations, and other features. And in this part of my Windows Vista review, I'd like to take a walk on the touchy-feely side of technology and explain why Windows Vista might just make you care, for the first time, that you're using Windows. It's good enough, in fact, that you might just find yourself proselytizing it in public. And you thought I was a geek.

New Windows Vista experiences

While this isn't a complete rundown of all of the ways in which Windows Vista provides a more holistic user experience, these examples do exemplify what Microsoft is trying to accomplish in this release. The software giant has cold business reasons for making these changes, yes. But I like the work Microsoft is doing to make Windows more sophisticated and lovable. They don't always get it right--this is a company that just doesn't understand consistency, in my opinion--but this is a major step in the right direction.

Packaging

The cheap cardboard box that Microsoft provided with previous retail versions of Windows is gone, replaced by a more organically shaped container for Windows Vista that both provides better protection and conveys the swoopy "Aurora" visual accents that Microsoft created for Vista marketing purposes. (See my showcase, Windows Vista and Office 2007 Packaging Revealed, for more information.)

The new packages don't even open up like conventional software boxes. Instead, a hard plastic tray rotates out from the curved edge of the container, providing access to the Vista install DVD and documentation. Each Vista product edition gets packaging with a unique color scheme, so that users can tell at a glance which version is which. I give the packaging high marks for its originality and usefulness: Though the packages look, at first, like the packaging Microsoft used for its Mac Office products, in fact, they work quite differently and are much more durable.

Setup

For that minority of the Windows population that actually installs Windows Vista from scratch on a new or used PC, they will discover a Setup routine that is vastly simpler and quicker than its predecessors. (See Part 3 of this review for more information.) What most people will see (that is, those who acquire Windows Vista as part of a new PC purchase) is just the final phase of Setup, where they need to enter a single user name (and, optionally, a password), select a user account picture, enter a PC name, select a wallpaper, and then configure Automatic Updates and networking.

The irony of this simpler Setup is that users will later need to manually go and configure features that previously were prompted during XP's Setup (like choosing a workgroup name). But since the new Welcome Screen provides a handy front-end to these tasks, most users won't miss their omission during Setup. The point here is that simplicity trumps completeness, and it's almost certainly the right decision: If you require too much of users during Setup, they might never get the system set up correctly. They'll certainly get started with their new OS in a frustrating fashion.

New boot screen

During the Windows Vista beta, testers often complained that Microsoft was purposefully not revealing the "real" Windows Vista boot screen and was instead taunting them with a plain boot screen that displayed only a simple progress bar and a copyright message (Figure). Well, here's the real surprise: That Spartan boot screen is in fact the final boot screen and it looks like that by design. Here's the story.

Over the past few years, an alarming number of companies have released products that slow down the Windows boot process. BIOS makers, PC makers, and video card makers are among the companies that have begun adding superfluous advertisement screens at system boot, trumpeting their products, curiously, to the people who had already bought them. Working with the industry, Microsoft asked these companies to cut down on their pre-boot screens. And to do its part, Microsoft has created this simple new boot screen for Windows Vista.

Microsoft tells me that the new boot screen reduces Vista's boot time by an average of 6 seconds compared to the graphical screen they were originally planning to use. 6 seconds may not sound like a lot of time, but in the context of a PC booting, it's the difference between a near-appliance and an aging 286 that last wheezed its way along with Windows 3.1.

As a result, Windows Vista should boot much more quickly on the same hardware than does Windows XP. And in my own experience this is quite definitely the case. (There are other Vista technologies that help this system boot more quickly as well, of course.)

The Windows desktop

When you first boot into your Windows Vista desktop for the first time, you will be struck by the wonderfully professional-looking translucencies of the new Start Menu, taskbar, windows, and other onscreen elements. On-screen windows, especially, appear to pop onto the screen, and thanks to glass-like translucency effects, they visually appear to hover over other windows and objects, giving a sense of depth that was missing from previous Windows versions.

This movement towards what Microsoft internally calls "Aero Glass" is, for better or worse, the zenith of the PC's desktop metaphor. Now, windows in Windows Vista are literal representations of real-world windows, with "glass" you can peak through and see what lies beneath. Silly? Perhaps. I've always doubted that real world metaphors were necessary to the success of PC user interfaces and have wondered why no abstract UIs have appeared that offer unique and superior benefits. But given the pseudo-3D environment that today's PC operating systems do provide, the translucencies and other effects provide a nice (if evolutionary) improvement over the less sophisticated interface in Windows XP.

I should point out here that Vista isn't the first mainstream operating system to provide these types of effects: Apple's Mac OS X has offered similar functionality since 2001, and over the years, Apple has been able to refine its OS' visual appearance thanks to experience and feedback. In Windows Vista, we're getting Microsoft's "1.0" attempt at this type of interface, and the immaturity shows in windows that are, perhaps, a bit too translucent, with muddy fade-through of windows lower in the z-order. But Vista provides a few niceties that Mac OS X, even in its most current form, does not. For example, thanks to a handy Control Panel applet, users can apply different color schemes to the glass-like user interface and even turn up or tune down the translucency effects, or just turn them off all together. As is often the case, Apple supplies a nice default look and feel, but very few customization features. Meanwhile, the default look and feel in Windows is nice, but it can be almost infinitely modified to the whims of each users. I feel the second approach is superior.

Also, OS X application windows do not follow a single user interface guideline. Some use the standard Aqua interface, while others use a variety of metal-like interfaces. Still others use an older, striped version of Aqua. In Windows Vista, windows tend to be far more consistent across multiple applications and utilities. There are exceptions, of course. Custom-built applications like Windows Live Messenger are visually out of sync with other windows in Windows Vista, and even some bundled Vista applications are woefully out of touch with common sense interface guidelines. (I'll look at these issues more in Part 7 of this review.)

In any event, the new Windows desktop, with its translucencies and other effects, is a warmer, more welcoming place than that provided by previous Windows versions.

High-quality wallpapers

You may downplay how important it is for Windows to ship with a collection of high-quality background images, or wallpapers, but Microsoft wisely does not. While Windows XP included several medium resolution, decent-quality photographic images, Windows Vista ships with a much larger collection of high-resolution, professional-quality photographs and other pictures which you can use as wallpaper or otherwise enjoy. These images span the gamut from black and white photographs, abstract light auras, classic paintings, natural textures, and, of course, several photographic vistas, all of which are quite nice. A number of these images are available in widescreen aspect ratio as well, though of course of any of them can be stretched automatically as required by the needs of your system.

Microsoft tells me that the inclusion of these images was all part of its campaign to help Windows users have a more emotional connection with their PCs, and that customers enjoy configuring their systems with a background image they find attractive. Clearly, many users will choose to adorn their desktop with a personal photo, but the collection of images in Windows Vista will allow almost anyone to get up and running with a wallpaper image they enjoy right away.

New system icons and mouse cursor

The Windows User Experience team at Microsoft had long planned to come up with a set of high-quality, near-photographic system icons in order to take advantage of Vista's new Extra Large Icon style, which dramatically increases the native (and maximum) size of Windows icons from 64 x 64 pixels to 256 x 256 pixels. (Mac OS X's icons, long the standard for graphical quality, are 128 x 128 pixels, incidentally, or one-quarter the resolution of Vista's icons.)

The final Vista icons, which weren't added until very late in the development of the product, are extremely attractive, if a bit on the orange side, owing to a decision to base the icon designs on the default Windows Vista logon icon, which is an orange flower. They also reinforce the glass-like design of the Windows Aero user interface. For example, the Windows Calendar icon features a calendar on a glass-like stand; the Windows Mail icon now includes a stack of mail held in a glass container. And so it goes.

Whether the new icons are to your liking or not, you have to admit they're new looking and of high quality. And ultimately, that's the goal: Windows Vista should, at every possible turn, remind you that you're using something new, even if what it does--run applications--works just as with Windows XP.

Vista also includes new document icons, which often provide a live preview of the underlying document. So if you've got a Word document, text document, or a PowerPoint presentation (and in the case of Office applications, have Office installed), the icons for these data files will feature live previews, giving you a peek at the underlying documents. And if you have Windows Vista's new Explorer Preview Pane open, you will see the actual document displayed there. It's pretty impressive.

Likewise, a new high-resolution Windows Aero mouse cursor provides a welcome respite from the jagged, low-quality mouse cursor used by previous Windows versions. It's available in three differently-sized versions, all white, though you'll have to revert back to low-quality if you prefer a black cursor. Fun aside: The Windows Aero mouse cursor looks suspiciously similar to the default cursor in various Linux distributions such as Ubuntu Linux.

New system sounds

Microsoft has heavily promoted the fact that it had hired prog-rock guitar legend Robert Fripp of King Crimson to record hours and hours of material that would later be used as Windows Vista's new system sounds. Now, in the final shipping version of Windows Vista, we can hear those sounds for the first time. Amazingly, it seems as if only several seconds of Fripp's work made it into the final product, and most of the new system sounds are quite short and, frankly, unexceptional. However, they are new and different, and therefore do further reinforce the notion that Windows Vista is something different. In my opinion, however, this is one area in which Microsoft has failed, largely, to create something truly unique. The new system sounds appear to have been created by a teenager on a Casio keyboard and are nothing special. Maybe they should have contacted Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman instead.

Animations and graphic effects with a reason

As with Windows XP and Mac OS X, Windows Vista includes various system animations and other graphical effects designed to help users understand the results of their actions. For example, when you minimize an application, the application's window fades away as it visibly minimizes to its button in the taskbar. The point is clear: Vista is showing you where the window went, and where you need to go if you want to get it back.

Vista's animations are more consistent than they were in XP and they are far less gratuitous than they are in OS X (though, to be fair, Apple has toned down its animation defaults in the latest OS X version). Other graphical effects, like the Aero Live Taskbar Thumbnails, provide handy evolutionary visual cues over what was previously available in Windows.

Digital memories

While I'll spend a lot more time on the particulars of Windows Vista's various digital media applications in the next part of this review, it's worth noting that these applications, collected together, represent what Microsoft thinks of as its "digital memories" work. And these applications now provide a much more complete digital media experience than was available with Windows XP.

A couple of points here: Microsoft's decision to extend the scope and prowess of its Windows-based digital media solutions was no doubt influenced by the success of Apple's iLife suite of Mac OS X applications. However, iLife isn't included as part of Mac OS X (users can purchase the suite for $99 or acquire it with a new Mac). So Vista, suddenly, provides a better digital media experience, out of the box, than any other operating system. (Fear not, Mac fans: iLife is still the top dog overall.)

Second, while some of Vista's digital media applications are upgrades of applications that first debuted in XP, all have been significantly updated, and others are brand new to Vista. For example, Windows Media Player 11 now includes a free DVD decoder (previously, you had to purchase DVD playback software). And applications such as Windows Photo Gallery and Windows DVD Maker are both new and unique to Vista: You won't find them showing up on XP.

By improving the standing of its "digital memories" applications, Microsoft isn't just pandering to recent market trends: It's once again strengthening the bond users will feel with their PC. If Windows supplies excellent and easy to use applications for managing digital photos, editing home movies, and creating DVDs, users will be more likely to actually store their digital memories there. And thus, users will begin to feel a more emotional connection with the PC, and with Windows. (Especially if they don't backup and something goes wrong. Fortunately, Windows Vista includes excellent backup tools as well.)

Keeping you safe

As Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin said during a Windows Vista RTM (release to manufacturing) conference call with the tech press, if you had to pick just one reason to upgrade to Windows Vista, it would have to be security. I'll examine these exact features later in this review, but for now, consider how pervasive security controls--assuming they're proven effective over a period of time--will affect the Windows user base. Will Windows Vista keep us safe? Honestly, only time will tell. But for now, there's little doubt that Windows Vista includes an unprecedented number of security advancements. Check back in a year and we'll discuss whether this work paid off.

Removing performance degradation

One of the biggest problems with Windows today is that PCs often seem to slow down and degrade, from a performance perspective, over time. Sophisticated Windows users know to reinstall Windows every so often, while less sophisticated users simply suffer through it, unaware that there's anything they can do. To fix this issue, Windows XP users can purchase Windows Live OneCare (see my review), which includes a system tune-up feature that automatically defragments your hard drive, scans for viruses and spyware, backs up files, and runs Automatic Updates. Windows Vista includes all but one of these features out of the box. (Anti-virus, curiously, is not included.) The net result is that Windows Vista performance shouldn't degrade over time, though of course this is another area where we're going to have to wait and see.

Final thoughts

There's a lot more, but I think you get the idea: While we can (and will) break down Windows Vista into individual features and examine them in isolation, it's equally important to look at the whole of Windows Vista and understand how the experience of using this new system will affect users in new and positive ways. My guess is that PC users will indeed begin caring a lot more about Windows than they ever did before. It will be interesting to see how this change affects the wider Windows user base.