Say what you will about Microsoft's integration of Internet features into Windows--I've read that antitrust regulators in the United States, Europe, South Korea, and elsewhere feel pretty strongly about it--but one area in which Microsoft can really claim to have innovated ahead of competition from Apple and the Linux community is with its support for the Internet.

Internet features

I'm guessing it's no surprise to any Windows user that Windows Vista continues the Microsoft tradition of Internet integration, albeit with a lighter touch than was exercised in Windows XP. Gone are the Explorer-based links for buying music and printing photos via online services, for example. Even Internet Explorer has been detuned somewhat, thanks to a new low-rights mode called IE Protected Mode that forces the browser to run as an ultra-low-class citizen from a rights perspective. This keeps your system safe from harm while providing all the functionality Windows users have come to expect.

Internet integration

In Windows Vista, you can access Favorites and recently visited Web sites directly from the Start Menu, using the new instant search feature we looked at back in Part 5a of this review. The Windows Sidebar feature is also heavily Internet-based: Many of the gadgets you use in this environment interact with Web-based services to provide the time and weather anywhere in the world and other capabilities. And the new RSS (Real Simple Syndication) platform that Microsoft provided for Internet Explorer 7 (see below) can be access by any application, providing low-level OS support for the Internet's latest communication standard.

Many security features in Windows Vista, obviously, target Internet-based attacks. Windows Defender offers protection against spyware and other malware, as does Windows Firewall. Parental Controls are concerned largely with what you will allow your children to do online. And a new technology called InfoCard lets you maintain digital identities online by helping you store online passwords in a secure, central database, assuming you can actually find a site online that uses InfoCard.

Internet Explorer 7

I've reviewed the standalone version of Internet Explorer (IE) 7 separately (see my review), and I awarded that version of the browser a score of 4 out of 5 stars. The Vista version is even better, adding two vital security features, support for Vista's parental controls and Protected Mode (both of which are discussed in Part 5b of this review, Security Features). So there isn't much to add here other than a bit of news that may surprise you, given my years of advocacy for Mozilla Firefox, the upstart browser challenger that's been steady gaining market share from IE for about two years now: I've switched to IE 7.

I know, I know. But the truth is, IE 7 basically duplicates all of the functional advantages once enjoyed by Firefox, and it's obviously a lot safer than was IE 6, especially on Windows Vista. (I don't like the look and feel of IE 7 on XP, either, for whatever that's worth, but it looks fine in Vista.) And let's face, Firefox 2.0 is a huge disappointment, with an ugly default user interface, a confusing Options dialog, and no major enhancements over the 1.5.x versions. IE 7, somehow, has found its way into my daily routine. No one is more surprised by this than me.

Now, IE 7 isn't perfect. I'd like to see a cleaner toolbar layout and a true inline find feature. (The freeware add-ons are nice, but not quite as seamless as Inline Find in Firefox.) But it's dramatically better than its predecessor, easily as good as Firefox, and it's just built right into Vista. And for the typical user, that's not just "good enough." That's excellent.

My rating:

Windows Mail

When I heard last year that Microsoft was going to replace the buggy and ineffectual Outlook Express email client with a new application called Windows Mail, I was actually pretty excited. Most of the bundled applications in Vista are quite excellent, and the idea that Microsoft might engineer a new email application from scratch was wonderfully positive news.

And then I actually saw the application. Windows Mail is simply the next version of Outlook Express with a new name and a very minor visual overhaul that makes it fit in a bit better with the other Vista applications. Forget any talk of major new features: Windows Mail offers only a few minor enhancements over Outlook Express. And forget any integration between this app, Windows Contacts, and Windows Calendar. Instead of true integration, you get a single new menu item for each application so you can open them from within Windows Mail without resorting to the apparently painful Start button (or "Start orb" as it's occasionally called in Vista). Whoopie, anyone?

As for new features, Windows Mail supports integrated spell checking (Outlook Express required you to install Microsoft Office or any Office standalone application first). It also includes a new storage engine that is more reliable and offers better performance than the version used by Outlook Express. Finally, Windows Mail integrates with the Phishing Filter in Windows Vista and offers a new Junk Mail filter that is very similar to the one enjoyed by Microsoft Outlook users.

One of the worst changes in Windows Mail is that it actually loses support for a key Outlook Express feature: You can no longer access Webmail accounts like Hotmail (or, soon, Windows Live Mail) and Gmail using the free email application built into Windows. Instead, only POP3 and IMAP email accounts are now supported. If you'd like a free email application that supports Hotmail and other Webmail accounts, you can try Windows Live Mail Desktop (currently in beta) or a non-Microsoft product like Mozilla Thunderbird.

Windows Mail also dispenses with the Identities feature found in Outlook Express, but since that feature was designed for unsophisticated Windows versions that didn't really support multiple users very well, I'm sure it won't be missed. (Microsoft included features that help you migrate content for multiple Identities into Windows Mail.)

My rating:

Internet Information Server

Windows Vista includes a new version of Internet Information Server (IIS), version 7.0, for anyone that would like to dabble in local Web development. An optional component (as it was in Windows XP), IIS offers support for both static and dynamic Web content, but not, alas, for the FrontPage Server Extensions that are still quite common. I've had problems getting IIS 7.0 to work with Microsoft's own Web development tools, including Expression Web and Visual Web Developer 2005 Expression Edition, which is a bit disconcerting.

As with XP, IIS is only available in the business-oriented Vista versions.

My rating:

Next: Windows Vista Features: Bundled Applications.