Over the years, Windows has evolved from a system that could be used in mobile system to one that is ideally suited for mobile scenarios. With Windows Vista, these capabilities come full-circle. Now, Vista inherits the Tablet PC functionality that was previously isolated in the hardware-specific Windows XP Tablet PC Edition while adding an exciting array of new mobility features that will benefit users of all kinds. As is the case with many Vista features, however, the best mobile features in this new system are only available in the premium and business-oriented versions, so be careful if you're purchasing a Vista-based machine that you're getting the capabilities you want.

Mobility features

In Windows Vista, the mobility features can be divided into two categories: Those that are improved versions of capabilities that Microsoft first introduced in XP Tablet PC Edition and those that are completely new and unique to this Windows version. For example, while Microsoft has honed its Tablet PC features over two releases of XP Tablet PC Edition--the original (see my review) and XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (see my review)--these features are improved yet again in Vista and bolstered by additional features such as a new touch-screen system that lets you forego a stylus on compatible hardware.

In this section of the review, I'll provide an overview of the new mobility features in Windows Vista, while pointing out the features that require certain Vista product editions. Note that many mobility features actually require mobile hardware; Windows Mobility Center, for example, will not appear on desktop PCs, even if you're running a Vista version that includes this feature.

Windows Mobility Center

Anyone who's purchased a notebook or Tablet PC over the past several years has probably seen the often bizarre and poorly-designed mobility controls panels that hardware makers include with their systems. Well, Microsoft has finally had enough. In Windows Vista, the company has added its own control panel for mobility features, and it's made it extensible so that hardware makers--including PC makers as well as component makers--can add nodes for their own special hardware devices. Dubbed Windows Mobility Center, this new control panel is very much needed, and if hardware makers respond as expected, it could very well grow to be one of the best new features in the OS.

Out of the box, however, Mobility Center is welcome, if not stellar. It ships in a non-sizable window in which various mobile features, like volume, battery status, wireless networking, external display, Sync Center (see below), and Presentation Settings can be quickly configured. Each feature gets its own cube-like node, and the options that are available depend on the feature. So, for example, with volume you can change and mute the volume. Since this capability is typically available from the system tray, that may not seem too exciting. Other features, however, are not so easily accessed, such as Sync Center and Presentation Settings.

Now the bad news: the full Mobility Center is only available on Vista Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. However, Vista Home Basic and Premium can access a lesser version of Mobility Center that features fewer features/nodes, since those versions feature fewer mobility features.

I'm curious to see how this feature is extended by third parties over time.

My rating:

Sync Center

While previous versions of Windows supported simple file synchronization services, Windows Vista is the first to include a centralized control panel for synchronizing data between your PC and various devices, network shares, and upcoming third party applications that will, purportedly, support this service. The idea here is to prevent the flood of synchronization solutions that bog down many PCs: In the past, every device would have to ship with its own synchronization solution, each with its own specific features. Hopefully, Sync Center can do for synchronization what Windows Mobility Center seeks to do for mobility features. We'll see.

In the meantime, Sync Center is pretty slick. I've used it to interact with my Motorola Q, a Windows Mobile 5.0-based smart phone that uses the new Windows Mobile Device Center application, a replacement for the lousy ActiveSync. (Still in beta, Windows Mobile Device Center is one of those as yet-rare Sync Center-compatible applications.)

You can also use Sync Center to control media synchronization with USB memory keys and MP3 players, as well as network files you'd like to make available offline. In Windows XP, as you may recall, a separate Offline Files and Folders feature provided this functionality.

I like the idea of Sync Center, though we'll have to wait and see how well its supported. If you stick in the Microsoft world, with Windows Mobile-based devices and PlaysForSure-compatible MP3 players, you should be all set.

My rating:

Tablet PC functionality and touch input support

It's curious to me that Tablet PCs have never really taken off in the market. There are probably a number of factors that contributed to its uneventful time in the market, including the lack of support from tier-A PC makers like Dell, premium pricing, and Microsoft's decision to limit this functionality to a specific XP version that couldn't be purchased separately. With Vista, most of these wrongs are righted: You can now get Tablet PC functionality in all mainstream Vista versions except Home Basic.

While I'll be discussing Vista's Tablet PC features in future Feature Focus articles, it's worth a quick overview here of these features here. A Tablet Input Panel, or TIP, helps users interact with the system using a stylus (or, thanks to a new feature in Vista on compatible hardware, their finger). This onscreen panel provides three input interfaces, including handwritten text, handwritten characters, and an on-screen keyboard.

A new handwriting recognizer helps you teach the system about your personal handwriting quirks, so it can be more accurate. Vista also includes automatic learning technology that gathers information about the words you use so it can understand your vocabulary and, again, provide better results over time.

Vista also adds a new pen flicks feature that will be familiar to users of Windows Mobile or Palm-based PDAs: With this system, you can quickly navigate through windows and perform shortcuts and other tasks by flicking the stylus in particular ways.

On new Vista-compatible Tablet PCs, notebooks, and desktop PCs, a new touch input feature lets you interface with the system using your finger. This feature requires specific display hardware, of course, and it negates the need to use a stylus. Interestingly, it works quite well with non-mobile systems. Expect to see some interesting Media Center systems, for example, that provide this functionality in the coming year.

Finally, a new version of the Snipping Tool, a Power Toy that was previously made available separately from Windows, helps you capture areas of the screen, such as portions of Web sites, and share them with others in emails, documents, and anywhere else that can accept a pasted graphic.

There's a lot going on with Vista's support of Tablet PC functionality, and my guess is that Microsoft will finally popularize this technology by making it so widely available. What's interesting is that many of these features will ultimately benefit non-Tablet users as well: Features like the Snipping Tool and touch input work just fine on desktop PCs too.

My rating:

Windows SideShow

One of the most misunderstood features in Windows Vista, Windows SideShow could one day prove to be one of the more innovative advances Microsoft has ever made in its operating systems. Windows SideShow is a platform for displaying information from Windows Vista in software gadgets--very similar, actually, to the gadgets that run in Windows Sidebar--that run in a device that is external to the PC. The classic SideShow example is a color auxiliary display, which we'll see in new notebook PCs, Tablet PCs, Media Center PCs, and, eventually, even servers in the coming year. But SideShow doesn't need a large color display to be useful: Some SideShow-compatible devices will be simple monochrome LEDs on the exterior of notebook computers, while others will be Windows Mobile-based devices that can operate separately from the PC. Microsoft's hardware partners are also working on SideShow-based remote controls for Media Center PCs.

Out of the box, Vista includes gadgets for Inbox (Windows Mail) and Windows Media Player, but others will become available from Microsoft and its partners. For example, Office 2007 adds a Office Outlook 2007 Calendar gadget to the system. You can also download other gadgets online, as you can for Windows Sidebar.

Because SideShow requires hardware I can't yet write about, I'm going to have to hold off on this discussion until a further time. For now, understand that SideShow, like so many Vista features, will require a lot of third party support to become truly useful. From what I can tell, that support is happening, and 2007 should prove to be an interesting year for Windows users as a result.

My rating:

Final thoughts

Naturally, this short list doesn't complete Windows Vista's mobility picture. A number of other features, including new power management modes, power plans, screen DPI scaling, Sidebar, wired and wireless networking improvements, and much more, all combine to make Windows Vista the most impressive operating system Microsoft has ever made for full-featured mobile systems. Across the board, this is just good, solid stuff. I don't see any downsides here at all.

Next: Windows Vista Features: Other Features