As Microsoft has endeavored to make Windows more user-friendly over the years, one of the areas in which the company has focused a lot of energy is the so-called out of box experience, or OOBE. The idea is that a user who purchases and installs a new version of Windows, or acquires that version of Windows with a new PC, should have a good experience from the moment they first turn on the PC.

In previous Windows versions, Microsoft tried a number of things to make the experience friendlier. Way back in Windows 95, for example, a "Welcome to Windows 95" dialog appeared (Figure), giving users a tip about the new system and providing them with a link to find information about new features. In Windows Vista, this functionality--and more--is provided by the new Welcome Center, a large window that appears the first time you boot into your new desktop, and every time after that unless you disable it.

Note: If you disable Welcome Center at logon, you can always run it manually by finding the Welcome Center icon in the Start Menu. Or, type wel in the Start Menu's Search box. Or, visit the Control Panel and navigate to System and Maintenance.

Welcome Center provides three core features. First, it provides at-a-glance information about your PC, including the currently logged-on user, the Vista product edition, some hardware, and the computer's name on the local network. Second, it provides getting started links related to Vista itself. Third, and finally, it provides a number of links to related offers from Microsoft (and, if you acquired Windows Vista with a new PC, from third parties such as the PC maker and various application makers). We'll examine each of these areas in this overview.

Information about your PC

In the top portion of the Welcome Center windows, you'll see the name of the currently logged-on user, along with the picture you chose to represent that user account. Below that is a picture of a computer (which likely looks nothing like your system and doesn't vary for different PC types) along with the following information:

Windows Vista product edition. On my systems, this reads as "Windows Vista Ultimate." This will vary depending on the version of Vista you're using.

CPU type. Here, you'll see the name of the microprocessor in your PC. My main desktop is identified as "Intel(R) Core(TM)2 CPU 6600 @ 2.40GHz" (an Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.4 GHz). The CPU in my main notebook is identified as "Intel(R) Core(TM)2 Duo CPU T8300 @ 2.40 GHz".

RAM. Here, you will see the amount of RAM in your system. A computer with 2 GB of RAM will typically be identified with the text "2.00 GB RAM". Note, however, that systems with integrated video, which use part of the system RAM for the display, will show a different value. For example, my MacBook displays "1.96 GB RAM". Note: Microsoft made a slight change to this display in Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1). Previous to SP1, 32-bit versions of Windows Vista with 4 GB of RAM would display the amount of available RAM, and not the full 4 GB, because 32-bit versions of Windows cannot access that much memory. So you might have seen a RAM reading like 3.1 GB or 3.5 GB, depending on your system. With SP1, this display has been changed to simply read 4 GB.

Video card driver. You might wonder why your system's video card driver information is so prominently displayed. Because Vista's high-end Aero user interface requires certain video card types with so-called WDDM (Windows Device Driver Model) drivers, Microsoft wants to display this information right upfront so you can easily read it off to a support technician. My desktop machines tells me that it is using a "Radeon X1600 Series (Microsoft Corporation - WDDM) " driver, which makes sense as it contains an ATI Radeo X1600 video card. My notebook reports that it is using "Mobile Intel(R) 965 Express Chipset Family".

Computer name. Here, you will see the computer name you provided for your system. This name--which is always presented in all caps thanks to legacy networking issues--is used by other Windows computers to identify the PC on a network. My desktop is currently named VIIV, while my notebook is called PENRYN.

While none of the preceding information is interactive in any way--you can't click, right-click, or double-click on any of it to make something fun happen--there's a link on the right side called "Show more details." If you click this link, the window will change to display Vista's new System Properties window, which largely replaces the old System Properties dialog from XP and previous Windows versions.

Secret: You can still display the old dialog by clicking the Advanced system settings link in the left side of the System properties window.

The System properties window provides much more information about your system, including links to change values that can be changed (such as your PC's name).

Get started with Windows

In the middle section of the Welcome Center window, you'll find the "Get started with Windows" links. This is a set of icons that provides you with frequently-needed configuration and help information. By default, only the first six selections are displayed, but you can click the "Show all items" link to display the rest. There are 14 items on a stock Vista Ultimate system, which we'll examine here. Note, however, that PC makers can modify this list to include their own additional items, and other Vista versions may include fewer items by default.

You have to double-click an icon to trigger its functionality.

View computer details. This link launches the System properties window, just as does the "Show more details" link, described above.

Transfer files and settings. This launches Windows Easy Transfer, full-screen utility that lets you transfer files and settings from your old PC to your new Vista-based PC.

Add new users. This link switches the window view to the User Accounts and Family Safety Control Panel, from which you can perform a number of user account-related configuration tasks (and not just add new users).

Connect to the Internet. Click this, and you'll see Vista's new Connect to the Internet utility, part of the system's reworked networking functionality. If you've got a wireless network, you can use this utility to pick and configure that network.

Windows Ultimate Extras. Windows Vista Ultimate users have access to a unique set of utilities called Windows Ultimate Extras (see my review). Curiously, this icon triggers Windows Update, which is used to download these Extras, as well as other downloadable software updates. From that window, you can click the link "Learn about Windows Ultimate Extras" to find out more.

What's new in Windows Vista. This link opens Help to the "What's new in Windows Vista" page. From here, you can discover new Vista features, see video demonstrations, and launch related applications. If you truly are new to Windows, this is a great place to start.

Personalize Windows. This link switches the window view to the Personalize appearance and sounds portion of the Personalize Control Panel. Here, you will see links to personalize such Windows features as window color and appearance, desktop background, screensaver, sounds, mouse pointers, theme, and display settings.

Register Windows online. When you click this link, your default Web browser will open and navigate to the Windows Vista Registration Web site. Note, however, that if your default browser is not Internet Explorer 7, this link won't work. Registration, as you might expect, is a surprisingly painless single-step process that does require you to have a Windows Live ID (previously called a Passport account).

Windows Media Center. There's no doubt about it: Windows Media Center is one of the coolest features in Windows Vista, and apparently Microsoft was worried you were going to miss it. This link triggers Media Center (Figure), which can be used to enjoy digital media content such as music, photos, videos, and live and recorded TV (assuming you have the right hardware). Note: You will only see this option on Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions.

Windows Basics. This link opens Help and Support to the "Windows Basics" page. From here, you can learn how to use your computer at a very basic level. I assume that virtually anyone reading this site is beyond the basic help topics here, but you never know.

Ease of Access Center. This link switches the window view to the Ease of Access Center, which is in the Ease of Access Control Panel. From here, you can configure Vista's accessibility features, including Screen Magnifier, Narrator, and On-Screen Keyboard, as well as various high-contrast display modes and other accessibility settings.

Back Up (sic) and Restore Center. Available only in premium versions of Windows, Backup and Restore Center is a front-end to all of Vista's backup and restore features. These include file backup and restore as well as image-based system backup and restore. Lower-end versions of Vista include only a subset of these features.

Windows Vista Demos. This link opens Help and Support to the "Windows Vista demos" page. These demos include videos and articles that explain how Vista works.

Control Panel. This link switches the window view to the Control Panel. From here, you can configure virtually every aspect of your new system.

Offers from Microsoft

At the bottom of the Welcome Center window on a stock Vista install that hasn't been customized by a PC maker, you'll find the Offers from Microsoft section. Here, there are a number of icons--seven on a default Vista Ultimate install, though only six display by default--all of which are Microsoft online services. On a PC maker-supplied version of Vista, you may see some third party solutions as well. Here's what's there by default .

Go online to learn about Windows Live. This link launches your default browser and navigates to a page on live.com where you can find out about the integration of various Windows Live products and services with Windows Vista. At the time of this writing, these products and services include Windows Live Toolbar (for IE 7), Live Search (a Google competitor), Live.com (a Web portal), Windows Live Messenger (free instant messaging), Windows Live Hotmail (free email), Windows Live Spaces (free blog service), and Windows Live OneCare (subscription-based PC protection and maintenance).

Go online to find it fast with Windows Live. This link launches your default browser and navigates to a page on live.com that describes Windows Live Toolbar, Live Search, and Live.com.

Go online to help protect your PC with Windows Live. This link launches your default browser and navigates to a page on live.com that describes Windows Live OneCare. While this subscription-based service requires a yearly fee, you can download a 90-day trial version of the product to test it out.

Go online to Windows Marketplace. This link launches your default browser and navigates to Windows Marketplace, a Microsoft online service that allows you to download free and paid software, purchase commercial software including Windows Vista itself, download IE 7 browser add-ons, access the Windows hardware compatibility list, and so on. Windows Marketplace utilizes a Digital Locker that stores all the software you've downloaded from the service. Note that you must obtain a Windows Live ID to utilize Windows Marketplace's Digital Locker. I purchased a copy of "Call of Duty" in November 2006 from the Windows Marketplace, and now I can re-download it at any time, which is pretty handy.

Go online to find more ways to help protect your PC. This link launches your default browser and navigates to a page on Microsoft.com that provides a limited list of Vista-compatible security software, none of which is free. (However, some vendors, like Symantec, do provide limited time trial offers.)

Sign up online for technical support. This link launches your default browser and navigates to the Microsoft Help and Support site. (Note that you will need to logon with a valid Windows Live ID first.) From here, you can access Microsoft's online support options. I'll pray for you.

Conclusions

Partially an advertisement, partially a useful control panel, the new Welcome Center is a nice improvement over previous attempts at getting users acquainted with an unfamiliar new Windows version. I give Microsoft credit for two things here. First, it does provide a handy, if somewhat jumbled, set of links to commonly-needed information and utilities, and that's appreciated. Second, though an alarming amount of Welcome Center user interface is dedicated to pushing customers to other Microsoft products and services, I would point out that the company isn't trying to bundle any of that stuff directly into the OS as they would have in the past. This, folks, is progress.