It's hard to put Windows Vista in perspective. On the one hand, the product has been in development for over five years, which means that Vista had one of the longest development cycles in the 20+ year history of Windows. (See my Road to Gold series for an exhaustive breakdown of that time period.)

Paradoxically, Windows Vista is both revolutionary and evolutionary. While it includes modern OS features, such as a new hardware-based graphical user interface (GUI), Vista will also feel like familiar territory, for the most part, to anyone that's already familiar with Windows XP. And Mac advocates can claim, truthfully, that many of Vista's best features appeared first on Mac OS X, sometimes years ago.

More problematic, over the past five years, many of Windows Vista's best features have been jettisoned, and it's unclear whether they'll ever appear in future Windows versions. Other features, like Internet Explorer (IE) 7, the Avalon and WinFX programming interfaces, the RSS platform, and more have been back-ported to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, watering down the uniqueness of the Vista platform.

Does any of this really matter to the typical PC user? Perhaps not. As someone who's been dissecting Windows Vista for several years now, the novelty has frankly worn off. So it would be a disservice for me to base my opinions of this system on my belief that it should have shipped two years ago. After all, to the average PC users out there in audience (i.e. most people), Windows Vista is something new. Under the hood, Vista is, in fact, quite different from its predecessors, despite the surface similarities. Indeed, it is to Microsoft's credit that hundreds of millions of Windows users will be able to upgrade or otherwise move to Windows Vista, install and run almost all of their existing applications, hook up and access almost all of their hardware peripherals, and access all of their critical data files and other documents, all without any understanding at all of the major changes that Microsoft has wrought. Microsoft once described Vista as the Windows platform for the next decade. I'm no longer sure this was hyperbole.

These are the things to keep in perspective when considering Windows Vista. It is a complex product, a big product. It's a major Windows update with lots of new functionality and oodles of new features. It's the first Windows version to provide developers with a major new programming model in a decade. It's got an unbelievably long list of extensibility points so that Microsoft and its partners can build off it for years to come. It is, as promised, the biggest new version of Windows since Windows 95. Chances are, if you're reading this site, you're going to upgrade to Vista sometime soon regardless of my opinion. As for the rest of the world, I suspect their next PC purchase will include Windows Vista as well. By this time next year, over 100 million people around the world will be using Windows Vista.

It's incredible, isn't it? The sheer size and scope of Windows Vista makes it difficult to review, to digest, and to understand. If you step back too far, it doesn't look very impressive at all: It's like XP with a spit-shine. But if you get too close, it's easy to get lost in the seemingly never-ending lists of new features. Yep, it's a major Windows version all right. And now it's complete. Let's dive in.

Reviewing Windows Vista

In this multi-part review of Windows Vista, I will attempt to provide you with the information you need to decide whether you want Windows Vista now, in the near future, or later. (Let's face facts: Not ever upgrading isn't really an option.) I'll explain the differences between the various product editions, discuss each of the major new features, and tell you which I think are valuable and which you can safely ignore. I'll discuss Vista's hardware and software compatibility prowess (or lack thereof) and explain why you may want to hold off on that x64 version you've been considering. And by the time I'm done--sometime in the days ahead, but well ahead of Vista's general availability--I hope I'll have communicated why this major new Windows version is so important and, ultimately, so desirable.

The review will be broken down into several parts, which I'll publish over time. This first part of the review is largely introductory material. In Part 2, I'll explain the different Vista product editions and provide you with the simple information you need to determine which version is for you. Part 3 covers the installation process, including interactive setup, upgrading from XP, and even corporate deployment. In Part 4, I'll highlight what I think of as the Vista experience, explaining what you get in the box, the overall look and feel of the new Vista UIs, and how its performance compares with that of previous Windows versions.

Part 5 of this review will focus on new Windows Vista features, including the advances Microsoft has made in digital media, networking and Internet, and security. In Part 6, I'll look at compatibility, both hardware and software, and on both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) systems. Part 7 will discuss the dark side of Vista, the inconsistent and undesirable features that will leave you shaking your head. And finally, I'll wrap it up in Part 8 with information about availability and pricing and my conclusions.

A quick look back over the past five years

In mid-2001, my son Mark was three and my daughter hadn't even been born yet. We lived in a different, smaller, home, and the tragedies of 9/11 were still ahead of us. Today, over five years later, much has changed. My son is now over 8 years old and his soon-to-be-five-year-old sister Kelly is like a bossy buddy he can't quite shake. We live in a different house, and though it's supposed to be a better neighborhood, I'm haunted daily by the never-ending sounds of lawn machines, leaf-blowers, or snow removal equipment, depending on the time of year. Put simply, a lot has changed.

In the wider technology world, by mid-2001, Microsoft was getting ready to ship Windows XP and Apple had recently shipped the first version of Mac OS X, a product that was so woefully inadequate that even it's most ardent supporters ruefully referred to it as a public beta. Every year, it seemed, the Linux desktop was poised to take off. That, still, has never happened.

Apple and its supporters will tell you that Apple spent the past five years churning out major new Mac OS X versions while Microsoft fumbled around trying to finish Windows Vista. This is completely untrue. Though I use and respect Mac OS X, virtually every version Apple has shipped since 2001 has been a minor update, akin to a Windows 98 SE or Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2). Meanwhile, Microsoft has pushed an amazing variety of Windows versions out the door since 2001. Some highlights include Windows XP Embedded, Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE), Windows XP MCE 2004, Windows XP MCE 2005, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (TPC), Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition. It has also shipped major updates to its digital media software, including three major updates to Windows Media Player, a major IE release--IE 7--major new client-based security applications and services, including Windows Defender and Windows Live OneCare. And this is just a partial list. The point here is simple: Microsoft hasn't sat still, contrary to the FUD you read online.

So why did Vista take so long? Microsoft will tell you that Vista has really only been in active development since mid-2004, when it "reset" the original Longhorn project and restarted development on the Windows Server 2003 code base. I'd argue that this is a convenient misstatement of the facts: Windows Vista is Longhorn and Longhorn is Windows Vista. In short, Microsoft did take five years to bring Longhorn--sorry, Windows Vista--to market.

As it turns out, the reason why is simple. Microsoft screwed up, plain and simple. Each version of Windows is based on the version that came before it and because Windows Vista was envisioned as a kitchen sink release that would include every major new feature imaginable, it eventually teetered and fell under the weight of the technology Microsoft was heaping upon it. That Vista is now based on the Windows Server 2003 code based and not that of Windows XP is meaningless. When the project started, back in 2001, it was based on Windows XP.

After the reset, Microsoft scaled back the Vista feature-set dramatically and ensured that features were added in a more logical fashion. The two year development time that Microsoft refers to in this case is the most recent two years, the period of time during which Vista got back on track. This is a period of time that Microsoft should be justifiably proud of. The previous three years? Trust me, we'd all like to forget that.

But the problem with the five year gestation isn't that OS X and Linux have caught up and in some ways surpassed Windows, which of course they have in some respects. The problem isn't even that Microsoft promised us the world and then failed to deliver. No, the problem is that there's another OS out there that runs just fine on over 400 million computers around the world. That system is stable, secure, and gets the job done. It's Windows Vista's biggest competitor. To be fair, it's Windows Vista's only competitor. Maybe you've heard of it: It's called Windows XP.

Good enough: The problem with Windows XP

Windows XP is still good enough for most people, and that's got to be a bit alarming to Microsoft at the dawn of the Windows Vista era. Three years ago, when you talked about features like instant desktop search, integrated RSS capabilities, safe Web browsing, and security, Windows Vista was an easy sell. Today, all of those features and more are available on Windows XP (and in other OSes), so the argument for Windows Vista is somewhat diminished.

Too, Windows XP is 100 percent compatible with all of the PC hardware and software out there. While there is little doubt that Windows Vista will improve over time--for example, Microsoft tells me that many hardware drivers will ship between Vista's November 2006 RTM and its January 2007 consumer launch--for the short term at least, it's a distant second to XP in those categories that matter most to many consumers. If you're a gamer, you want to purchase a new game title and not have to worry whether it will run more slowly on Windows Vista, or not at all. And while that honking new PC is really pretty, if the version of IE 7 included on Windows Vista doesn't work with your bank's private Web site, all you'll know is that Microsoft let you down.

The truth is, Windows XP's successes are a problem because Microsoft now has a user base that's gotten used to the company not shipping major OS upgrades that they can purchase and install. (Major Windows versions over the past 5 years, such as XP MCE, TPC, and XP Pro x64 have all typically only been sold with new PCs.) What's another year or two?

Microsoft's job, now, is to convince you that its previous Windows system, XP, is not good enough. I don't envy them that task. And I don't really have a stake in this argument either way. I'm sure Windows Vista will be a blockbuster release because of its many new features, cool new user interface, and enhanced security. And I'm sure that people who really care about computers will gravitate towards Vista like moths to a flame. It's hard to ignore something this good.

On to Part 2: Understanding the Vista Product Editions ...