When I started writing this review almost two months ago, I plotted out the how the review would be structured, in eight parts, and then immediately set out to write this final part first. I often write lengthy reviews out of order, which can get me in trouble if I get bogged down in the middle sections, but I knew I'd eventually finish this one up. After all, I didn't just spend the past five years of my life covering Windows Vista only to give up on the final review.

Anyway, the point behind writing the conclusion first was that Microsoft had, at the time, just completed development of Windows Vista, and I had a bunch of thoughts about this product I wanted to unload. But you won't find the words I wrote in that original conclusion here. The reason? At the time, I was too focused on the negative aspects of the product's numerous delays, what I took to be Microsoft's inept handling of the development of Vista, and features the company had promised that weren't in the final version.

Here's the thing. Over the course of actually reviewing Windows Vista, I've had to come face-to-face with features I'm quite familiar with, thanks to years of testing. But I wanted to approach this from a fresh perspective, and as I categorically moved through each of the numerous features in Vista, something occurred to me: None of my original complaints matter. Within several months, hundreds of millions of people around the globe will be using this operating system, and none of them--literally none--will care that it was delayed a few months at one time. They won't care that the original Sidebar and WinFS were stripped from the product in order to prevent further delays. And they certainly won't care that Microsoft reorganized its Windows division around a new team that will guide future product versions.

No, what these people will care about is how this new Windows versions works compared to its predecessors. And it's funny, as I worked my way slowly through the enormous number of features in Windows Vista, I could see with new eyes that there's a lot there. No, there's no one major new gotta-have-it feature, though Vista's pervasive and amazing new security features come close. Vista is hard, maybe impossible to summarize on a three-bullet-point PowerPoint slide. There's just so much there.

To arrive at a final score for Windows Vista, I thought about grading each and every feature and then averaging the total. I thought about developing a system that measured the worth of features to different customer groups and supplying different grades for different types of users. Heck, I had all kinds of ideas. But in the end, that's all pretty pointless. You're going to be using Windows Vista. It's just a question of time. And what I can tell you now, as 2006 dwindles away and the first year of Vista's wide scale availability begins, is that you're going to like Windows Vista. You're going to like it a lot.

Vista is both broad and deep, with major new features and functionality. Architecturally, it's based on the NT platform that has provided the underpinnings of all mainstream Windows versions for more than a half decade. That suggests that Windows Vista is only an evolutionary upgrade over Windows XP. But don't be deceived: In Vista, Windows has been completely deconstructed and rebuilt as a more elegant componentized system that can be secured and deployed far more easily. The ramifications of this work will reach far into the future, but what all this means to me is that Windows Vista is a major Windows update that deserves your attention. It is, at turns, both revolutionary and evolutionary.

Windows Vista: The good and bad

Bad: Windows Vista ships in far too many product editions, requiring users to make hard decisions about which to get and, ultimately (pardon the pun) spend too much money to get all the features they want. For consumers, there are really only two choices: Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. Both are expensive, but both are also feature-rich. To choose, simply look at the Ultimate features that aren't available in Home Premium and decide whether you can live without them.

Good: On the other hand, Microsoft is now making previously niche features like Tablet PC support and Media Center available to a much bigger audience than ever before. More to the point, these features are now available in retail versions of Windows for the first time. I cannot imagine why they waited this long.

Good: Windows Vista is easier and faster to install than ever before, and that's true if you're an individual user or a corporate admin seeking to deploy the system automatically across numerous desktops. Vista's componentized design makes this possible.

Good: Vista is beautiful, and all that FUD you read about needing new hardware to run the Aero user interface is false. If you have a reasonably new PC (i.e. one that is less than two years old), Vista should run just fine, and it will look wonderful doing so.

Bad: Like all Windows versions, Windows Vista is a memory hog, and you should take Microsoft's minimum RAM recommendations as the comedy they are. You will want at least 1 GB of RAM to run Windows Vista, and 2 GB is the sweet spot if you're a heavy multitasker like me, a gamer, or a frequent user of creativity applications. That said, RAM is cheap, so this isn't the huge problem some will make it out to be. But it is an inconvenience.

Good: The Windows Vista user interface is a big improvement over that of XP, with integrated search features that really work. It's also instantly familiar, because it uses the same Start Menu/taskbar scheme you learned years ago. It's also a bit inconsistent at times. Microsoft needs help with fit and finish as always, though Vista is more solid in this regard than previous versions.

Good: Windows Vista's security features are top-notch. It remains to be seen how this will play out in the real world, but my guess is we'll see a lot of security activity in the first quarter of 2007 and then things will settle right down. Microsoft did it right this time.

Good: Windows Vista performs as well or better than Windows XP on identical, modern hardware. No, your Celeron M system isn't going to be a screamer. But let's be honest here. It never was.

Good: Windows Vista is far more reliable than Windows XP, and its new instrumentation capabilities will help find and repair any problems that do arise more quickly.

Good: Windows Vista provides exactly the Internet capabilities that users expect, with a dramatically improved version of Internet Explorer that is no embarrassment (like previous versions were).

Bad: Friends don't let friends use Outlook Express, and despite the new name, Windows Mail is just Outlook Express.

Good: Windows Calendar, Windows Sidebar, and the new Games Explorer (and games capabilities in general) are surprisingly solid additions to Windows and applications that you will definitely want to check out.

Good: Windows Vista's digital media applications are generally excellent, especially the new Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Media Center.

Bad: Microsoft is sending mixed messages by releasing a separate media player application called Zune. Also, the company should have learned from Windows Me that bare bones media applications like DVD Maker are a mistake that reflect poorly on Windows.

Good: As you would expect, Windows Vista's networking capabilities are best of breed, thanks to a rewritten network stack and some well-considered UI work. Nice job there.

Good: Windows Vista is a first-class mobility solution with amazing Tablet PC features, a new Mobility Center, touch screen support, and more.

Bad: Windows Ultimate Extras should be made available to other Windows Vista users, at a price. Restricting these often-fluffy add-ons to only the most expensive Vista version is a slap in the face to users who can't afford Vista Ultimate.

Good: Windows Speech Recognition. Seriously, check it out.

Good: Windows Vista's hardware and software compatibility is excellent, and a major achievement.

Bad: Wait a year on x64 unless you really know what you're doing. Niggling software compatibility issues will dog most users until developers get up to speed with x64-specific issues.

Grading Windows Vista

Looking at the list above, you might notice that the "goods" outweigh the "bads" by a considerable margin. You should also note that none of the items I've listed as "bad" are particularly horrible. This supports my notion that Windows Vista, taken as a whole, will be an overwhelmingly positive experience for most users.

Should you upgrade? Yes, you should. I still prefer clean installs over upgrades, though Microsoft has made progress with refining the upgrade process, and of course you're going to get the absolute best experience buying a new PC with Vista preinstalled. If your computer is more than two years old, you should upgrade to a Vista PC as soon as possible. If you purchased an XP-based PC in 2006, try to get another year out of it. I can think of virtually no Microsoft customers that shouldn't consider Vista per se, though the cost of upgrading can certainly outweigh any potential benefits of doing so.

Some have questioned the demand for Windows Vista. Though it's been five years in the making, I have a hard time imagining users queuing up at CompUSA at midnight on January 29 so they can be among the first to own the new system, as they did over a decade ago for Windows 95. Looking back, you should remember that Windows 95 was a sea change in that the world was moving to 32-bit computing. Even if Windows Vista were to offer a similar shift to 64-bit computing (and, arguably, it eventually will), that shift isn't as dramatic, since the mainstream 64-bit environment, x64, is an extension to the 32-bit technologies we've been using. So we're not going to see that level of upgrading across the board with Windows Vista. The world is just different now. That said, users should move to Vista more quickly than they did to XP.

In conclusion, Windows Vista is both evolutionary and revolutionary, and I know it's great because every time I have to use Windows XP, I feel constrained and miss those Vista features I'm just now starting to take for granted. It's not perfect--what software is?--but it's a compelling and fascinating product that will delight you over time as you stumble onto new features. It's this "spontaneous smile" effect that I like so much about Windows Vista, and it stands in sharp contrast to the refined but stark and unfriendly world of Mac OS X and the raw, me-too copying of Linux. Windows Vista is a better operating system than the competition, for reasons that are both technical and practical. But for the hundreds of millions of people who will move to Vista in the coming years, all that will really matter is that it's a major improvement over Windows XP. And it most certainly is that as well.

Highly recommended.

My rating: