Vista Mythbusters #5: Aero isn't rocket science

Vista Mythbusters #5: Aero isn't rocket science

Summary: To hear some reviewers talk about it, Vista's new Aero interface is so demanding that it will make your old video card burst into tears. That may have been true a yewar ago, but it certainly isn't so today. In the latest Vista Mythbusters post, I explain what Aero is (a handful of flashy visuals), what you need to run it (even video chips integrated on cheap motherboards can handle Aero these days), and why it's not a make-or-break feature.

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TOPICS: Windows
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Myth: You'll need heavyweight hardware and a premium Vista version to use the new Aero interface, and without Aero there's no reason to upgrade.

Reality: The Windows Vista interface is essentially identical with all Vista versions. Aero describes a set of visual enhancements that will run on relatively modest hardware and are hardly a make-or-break feature.

No single aspect of Windows Vista is more confusing than the new Windows Aero user experience. Microsoft has encouraged this confusion by mixing and matching terminology using the same set of words so that even a certified Redmondologist can barely make sense of it. For starters, there's the confusing Windows Vista Basic theme, which runs on any Vista version, not just Home Basic. But if you have a decent video card and you're running Vista Home Basic, then you get the Windows Vista Standard theme, which isn't available at all on the premium Vista versions, although you can choose the Windows Standard theme on any edition of Vista, and...

Oh, I give up.

Today's myth is actually a three-fer. Let's break the whole thing down, starting with what Aero really is. It's not the Vista user interface. It's one of three visual themes that are available in Windows Vista.

  • Windows Vista Aero: This is the most advanced visual display in Windows Vista. It combines desktop composition (managed by the Desktop Window Manager) with a bunch of whizzy visual effects, including transparent glass windows. live thumbnails on taskbar buttons and in the Alt+Tab window switcher, and a new Flip-3D window switcher. This theme is available in all versions of Windows Vista except Home Basic and only with suitable display hardware. (Confusingly, you can disable transparent glass from the Window Color and Appearance Control Panel, but you can't disable any other visual effects here.)
  • Windows Vista Standard: Think of this as Aero minus the glitz. It uses desktop composition for smooth video performance, but lacks the real-time previews and visual effects. The glass windows are identical in appearance to those in an Aero-equipped machine, but they're opaque. The Windows Vista Standard theme is available only in Vista Home Basic and only if hardware meets the Aero specs.
  • Windows Vista Basic: This theme is available on every Vista version and is the only option on systems equipped with older, underpowered video hardware. The window controls are flat, similar to those in Windows XP. It doesn't use desktop composition, a difference you can readily see if you drag a window around on the screen using the Standard or Aero theme and then switch to the Windows Vista Basic theme and do the same thing. With the latter option, you'll see a jerky motion instead of the smooth gliding that the DWM provides.

At the top of the list of available color schemes, a Vista user with hardware that meets the Aero specs will see either Windows Aero and Windows Vista Basic or Windows Vista Standard and Windows Vista Basic. If your video hardware isn't up to snuff, you'll see Windows Vista Basic at the top of the list.

(Long Zheng has put together an excellent page that shows the different interface options - Aero, Windows Vista Standard, Windows Vista Basic, and Windows Classic.)

So, do you need high-end video hardware to run the Windows Vista Aero or Windows Vista Standard themes? In August 2005, the answer was yes. Today, just about any video hardware except the very cheapest is capable of displaying the full Aero interface. When I looked at one popular online merchant's site, for example, I found 626 video cards. Of those, all but 41 had at least 128MB of video RAM, the minimum required to be Windows Vista Premium Ready. And exactly 500 cards from that list - some as inexpensive as $25 - support DirectX 9, another Vista Premium Ready requirement.

These days, even budget PCs using graphics chips integrated on the motherboard are capable of Aero effects. Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator 3000 and Graphics Media Accelerator 950, for instance, are both capable of handling the full Aero interface without an add-on graphics card. Nvidia and ATI both have Vista-ready graphic solutions for motherboards as well.

On an older computer, especially one that came from a budget line and was designed more than a year ago, you may need a video card upgrade to get the full Aero effects. But in 2007, when Vista is shipping on mainstream PCs, you'll be hard pressed to find a system that isn't capable of delivering all those fancy graphics.

Finally, without Aero, is Vista worthless? Hardly. The Start menu, Explorer, taskbar, search, Control Panel, and other interface elements are identical no matter which Vista version you use. When you use Windows Vista Standard instead of Aero, you lose a few visual elements. With Windows Vista Basic, the experience doesn't have a lot of flash, but it's clearly different and arguably more attractive than Windows XP.

And there's a lot more inside Vista than just those visuals. But that's another myth for another day.

For the introduction to this series, see Vista Mythbusters #1. For all posts in this series, see this page.

Topic: Windows

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109 comments
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  • Rocket science isn't that hard

    As a rocket scientist I know once put it "you only need Newtonian physics".
    jorwell
  • Aero

    MS is going to have a lot of problems getting people to jump the XP ship. They made it too good to give up.

    http://opendomain.blogspot.com/
    opensourcepro
    • Not really because

      all of the new pc's will have it loaded up and people will want the latest and greatest features and such.

      Once all of the panic has subsided and the operating system is taken in, new complaints can be made about it on another level.
      Linux User 1
      • New PCs

        Who needs a new PC?

        In case you haven't noticed, just like real estate, PC sales are way down. Prices are extra low and people still don't buy. HP can't give em away and Michael Dell emails me at least 10 times a week just to beg me to buy something.

        When Xmas comes around, Vista won't. So there goes a great deal of potential sales and market bump. Personally I don't plan to buy for several years and I have some loss leader boxes I got real cheap to give away to any family or friends that need one.

        If you're counting on new PC sales to drive the Vista train, don't.
        jacarter3
        • PC sales are down however...

          Laptop sales are way up, so this will generate revenue for the big box retailers and get Vista going. Big Corps will roll out Vista, so the battle is not lost, MS would not be investing unless they knew they would get their money back.
          Linux User 1
          • Return on investment

            You said, [i]"MS would not be investing unless they knew they would get their money back."[/i]

            No company can ever be 100% sure of what is going to happen, especially when it involves such a major shift in their product line. Markets can do unexpected things. While they may have a good idea of what to forecast in terms of sales and return on their investments, there is no guarantee. And with the problems they/ve had getting Vista out on time, I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft runs into more problems than they are expecting getting this "train" moving.

            It's a good bet that copies of Vista will be sold, but who can say when Vista will actually start to turn a profit for them? Remember, this is an operating system that is 3 YEARS past-due. That's three more years of R&D costs, three more years of paying the programmers, three more years of advertising and PR, and all this BEFORE the product is even bringing in ANYTHING in terms of sales.

            I would be curious to see the numbers on what this OS has cost Microsoft, and if at this point it is even worth what they have put into it based on the return they expect.
            phburks
          • An Extra 3 Years?

            [b]It's a good bet that copies of Vista will be sold, but who can say when Vista will actually start to turn a profit for them? Remember, this is an operating system that is 3 YEARS past-due. That's three more years of R&D costs, three more years of paying the programmers, three more years of advertising and PR, and all this BEFORE the product is even bringing in ANYTHING in terms of sales.[/b]

            Not entirely... While it IS true, Vista's been delayed, it's also true that there have been a few side-trips along the way. Security became an issue - so much so that Security became an entire initiative (Trustworthy Computing). No doubt this caused more than a few rewrites of the blueprint for Vista not to mention tons of code that had to be redone to meet the new specs.

            The Advertising budget would have had to have been spent - tho instead of spending it on Vista - their money was spent on XP SP2 and getting people to upgrade to it. The Vista campaign hasn't really even started as yet.
            Wolfie2K3
          • I Disagree

            The costs of rolling out Vista will keep busineses from any roll out of Vista. There are also a LOT of non-Vista compliant boxes in use and businesses will not fork over the costs of upgrading their hardware when the current systems are good enough.

            Vista will sit on the shelves for a long time.
            linux for me
          • You sure about that? . . .

            "MS would not be investing unless they knew they would get their money back."

            . . . Can you say Windows me?
            jlhenry62
        • PC Sales are down, but so what?

          So PC Sales are down, I seem to remember the same thing happening before the release of XP, and Windows 98.. So what does that tell you, people are holidng off for the release of Vista before purchasing a new PC. So as for PC sales driving Vista, I think it will be a bit Vista driving PC sales and vice versa. PC sales will rise again after the release of vista.
          paul@...
          • Vista doesn't offer the incremental benefits of XP

            In the past, each new OS has offered some significant step forward, a practical benefit gain for the average user and the hardware has also been ramping up to meet that need.

            Until now. Both those things have changed. Only gamers and geeks see any real advantage in getting a 500Gb rather than a 20Gb drive; ditto in getting 2Gb memory rather than 256Mb. We no longer need new hardware.

            Vista offers only visual bling, not much else...unless you're in that gaga minority that really believes that the people who gave you the security headaches of IE and Windows in general are really a credible source of all your security software.

            So you only need new hardware if you want to move to Vista. Is that a waste or what?

            When is Microsoft going to offer true innovation rather than copying Apple, Youtube and all the others who are really thinking?
            Langalibalene
          • Horsefeathers...

            [b]Until now. Both those things have changed. Only gamers and geeks see any real advantage in getting a 500Gb rather than a 20Gb drive; ditto in getting 2Gb memory rather than 256Mb. We no longer need new hardware.[/b]

            You're assuming too much... Videophiles - those with Media Center (or some other similar solution) who like to use their computers as a TIVO, also will benefit from having a 500 GB hard drive.

            [b]Vista offers only visual bling, not much else...unless you're in that gaga minority that really believes that the people who gave you the security headaches of IE and Windows in general are really a credible source of all your security software[/b]

            Once again, you're assuming that Microsoft's programmers have a static level of intelligence and ability. That they can't learn a new trick or two or figure out better ways of doing things. Does that mean that Vista is 100% impervious to exploits? Not hardly. But it IS better at security.
            Wolfie2K3
        • There will be over 200 million PC's sold ...

          ... next year and almost every one will have Vista on it. So much for your carefully thought out assessment of whether or not new PC sales will drive Vista.
          ShadeTree
  • Ridiculous!

    I'm pro-Microsoft and even I think this many options for an OS is just plain stupid!
    knoxbury
    • Which one...

      would you like to remove?

      There's a lot of options to try to support as much of the existing hardware as possible.

      If you don't want options, buy a Mac.
      jcg_z
      • Boy, if that ain't . . .

        a "let them eat cake" attitude, I don't know what is.
        jlhenry62
        • Cake ...

          is what capitalism is all about. My guesstimate is that 80% of what your average consumer does (word processing, email, web surfing) can be very easily done on any OS just about as well as on Windows. Increasingly, that remaining 80% is doable with a bit of effort (using Wine or Parallels or whatever). If you're not an ardent PC gamer, there ain't much lock-in to Windows anymore. So, there is indeed plenty of cake out there to eat.

          And I'm sorry, but I have difficulty working up so much sympathy for these complaints about "too many" options. Half of them are disingenuous. Because many of these decisions (like whether you'll run Aero by default or not) will be made by the OEM's when they configure the PC based on the hardware, not by the user.

          So, go eat your cake. Be thankful that your bakery of choice lets you choose your own toppings. If you're confused by the plentitude of the selections, ask the kind man behind the counter to help you out.
          jcg_z
          • Actually . .

            You caught me on a VERY bad day. But my initial reaction stills stands, to a certain extent. I keep hearing rumors that aero is going to be "something" beyond a fancy interface. And if it is, then Microsoft is basically asking everyone to trash what they currently own and buy new pcs every 18 months or so (although, 5+years between OS's is certainly NOT keeping up with the technology, at the least<grin>). I can't afford to keep buying new pcs or constantly upgrading the old one simply because some third-rate programmer is too lazy to optimize his code . . .

            And there are lot's of specific programs that won't run on anything other than windows, so if you're trying to keep currrent with your programs (forget about the OS for now), you almost HAVE to keep laying out tons of cash just to keep up.

            I think I 've started to ramble, (it's pretty late where I'm at) so I'll just close now beofre I staart to get incoherent . . .(although some, my wife included, say I'm that way naturally . . )
            jlhenry62
          • Runs on my Acer laptop

            Two years ago I bought a (then) hot Acer Aspire 1800 laptop, mostly so I could play Rome: Total War and watch WMV-HD DVDs while on business trips.

            Well despite the fact it has only 64M VRAM it runs Aero Glass with full features really well, and I'm now using Vista RC1 as my default O/S.
            A.Sinic
          • Plus . . .

            I just got and downloaded the latest Vista upgrade advisor, and it's looking like my projected outlay to be able to upgrade my systems to vista just went down a lot. On my desktop, I was (at last count) going to have to basically gut a completely operational system in order to upgrade to Vista. Now, it just looks like I'll just have to clean some of the junk off of my Main drive, put a newer Grapics card in it (although mine will now be able to at least run Vista basic, as is), and maybe bump the ram up to a gig, and i'll be fine (I can probably put off the ram upgrade, since I have 512 meg, but . . .). Then come up with the $199 (or whatever) to buy the version of Vista I need (DEFINITELY NOT basic, I can tell you that much. . .) the selling point of the OS is STILL going to be a major sticking point for a lot of people when it comes time to upgrade.
            jlhenry62