Windows Vista's three killer features

Windows Vista's three killer features

Summary: Should you upgrade to Windows Vista? Sorry, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I can put to rest some myths about how well Vista runs on older hardware, and I've found three killer features that haven't received nearly the attention they deserve.

TOPICS: Windows

In the 21st Century, the very idea of reviewing an operating system is, well, quaint. Are you really going to let someone at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or even ZDNet tell you whether you should buy a new operating system? The notion that any person can give a one-size-fits-all recommendation for such a complex product is amusing, to say the least.

Windows Vista's three killer featuresInstead of taking one person's opinion, you could gather the facts and make up your own mind. There's certainly no shortage of raw data. Over the past year, experts and enthusiasts have sliced, diced, and analyzed Windows Vista with an overwhelming, almost obsessive amount of detail. Two million people downloaded beta releases, and the final code has been available for business buyers, developers, and MSDN/Technet subscribers for nearly three months.

I've added my contributions to that massive body of knowledge with extensive looks at Windows Vista as it hit various milestones, including preliminary opinions and an image gallery of the code that was released to manufacturing back in early November. Today, I've posted a new gallery highlighting three killer features that have been lost in the noise and deserve a little extra attention.

So, what's changed in the 12 weeks since then? Microsoft and third-party hardware companies have been releasing updated drivers by the thousands. Whether you upgrade an old PC or purchase a new one with Windows Vista preloaded, don't be surprised to see Windows Update pull down new drivers immediately to replace the ones on the Vista DVD.

Despite some world-class efforts to gin up controversy over Vista, there's nothing scandalous to report. No devastating security breaches, no data-destroying bugs. A few pieces are still missing, including Windows Mobile Device Center, the software that replaces ActiveSync to connect Smartphones and PDAs to Windows Vista. As of this morning, it's still in beta, with no announced date for the final release. Likewise, the hardware to connect digital CableCARD devices to Vista Media Center has been announced and demonstrated but still isn't available for sale.

You've probably already got a pretty good idea of whether you're interested in Windows Vista or whether you want to steer clear. In lieu of a review, I'll share some of my experiences and answer a few questions that I've been asked repeatedly in recent months.

If you're buying a new PC, do you want Windows Vista?

Of course you do. When you purchase a new PC, the price for Windows Vista is essentially the same as the equivalent XP edition, but you get a more robust, attractive, usable, and secure operating system with some very compelling extras. About the only reason to deliberately avoid Vista is if you use a critical software program or a hardware device that isn't supported.

So where are the killer features?

If you go through the mainstream media and read reviews of Windows Vista, the absence of a "killer feature" is the criticism you'll find the most often. Fair enough. Most of the features in Vista are improvements, not completely new. I'm not sure exactly what would qualify as a killer feature for a computer operating system in 2007, but if I had to pick three features to highlight these would be at the top of the list:

  • Windows Photo Gallery. Ho-hum, right? Just another lightweight program to import photos from a digital camera? What most reviewers miss is Photo Gallery's support for the Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), developed by Adobe and used in a variety of professional-strength photo-editing applications. When you tag a JPEG or TIFF photo with keywords in Windows Vista, those tags are stored directly in the file as metadata, which you can use to search, sort, and filter images in Photo Gallery. That's a great leap forward from Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa, both of which store metadata in sidecar files rather than in the image itself.
  • Windows Speech Recognition. You probably haven't heard much about speech recognition in Windows Vista. If you did, it was probably thanks to a demo that went awry last summer and was widely reported. That's a shame, because the built-in speech-to -text conversion software in the final release works exceptionally well for controlling the Windows interface and dictating text.
  • Windows Desktop Search. Yes, you have lots of third-party desktop search options for Windows XP. I've tried them all and never found one that was reliable enough for daily use. What makes Vista's search so useful is the fact that it's integrated directly into the operating system, so you can search in the Start menu, in Control Panel, in Explorer windows, and in common dialog boxes. I miss this capability most when I sit down at a Windows XP machine and try to find a specific Control Panel option. It also just works. I haven't had to rebuild indexes or mess with search settings on any Vista PCs in my office.

What all these features have in common is that they're legitimately part of the operating system. Metadata and search are tied directly into the file system, which is a core feature of an operating system, and speech is just another form of input replacing or augmenting the keyboard and mouse.

How much hardware do you need?

The myth is that Vista requires a hefty, expensive new PC to work properly. The reality is any edition of Windows Vista will work very well indeed on relatively inexpensive hardware. In the week leading up to the official consumer launch of Vista, I've seen name-brand notebook PCs with dual-core Intel CPUs, 1GB of RAM, and Aero-capable graphics hardware selling for $599 or less with Vista Home Premium edition.

And what about older hardware? Here's a snapshot of my upgrade experience from three different PCs of varying vintages:

  • Dell Latitude D505, vintage 2004. This basic business laptop was purchased for roughly $700 in the spring of 2004. Its only upgrade was a $100 stick of RAM to bring it up to a total of 1.5GB. It ran Windows XP Home Edition for two-and-a-half years until November 2006, when I updated it to Windows Vista Home Basic. Its integrated video hardware wasn't capable of running Vista's Aero graphics, but this machine's primary user still found the Vista Basic interface "handsome" and a big improvement over the XP look and feel. Its 1.5 GHz Pentium M had no problem running Office 2003, Firefox 2.0, and a handful of small apps. The Reliability Monitor graph shown here testifies to its smooth operation.

  • Dell Dimension 8300 – March 2004. This system built around a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4, was a cut below the top of the line when first purchased for under $1000. I've upgraded it with a larger hard drive, an extra 1GB of RAM (taking it up to 2GB), and a $50 Aero-capable video card. This machine, which will celebrate its third birthday in a month, is running Windows Vista Home Premium and has an impressive set of numbers in the Windows Experience Index.

  • Homebrew system, built 2002. My most interesting upgrade story is a machine that I built from scratch in 2002 and have upgraded nonstopsince then. The motherboard is the original Abit BL-7 (based around an Intel 845 chipset and all the rage in 2001, but not particularly pricey when I bought it a year later). This machine has run every release of Windows XP Media Center Edition and is currently running Vista Home Premium. Over the years, I replaced the original 1GHz Pentium 4 with a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 ($70), maxed out the three memory slots with a total of 1.5GB RAM ($150), and replaced the AGP video card with a $60 Radeon 9600. Its Windows Experience Index numbers aren't pretty, but it's been a workhorse just the same, doing full-time Media Center duty with two TV tuners and dishing up video and a massive digital music collection to a pair of Xbox 360s in other rooms.

Should you wait for Service Pack 1? That's the conventional wisdom, and for businesses of even modest size and complexity it's probably good advice. But if you're looking for a PC for use at home or in a small business – especially if digital media is high on your priority list – there's little advantage to waiting.

Based on my experience with Windows Vista, I think it's a very solid release, arguably the best version of Windows ever. But is it right for you? And if so, is right now the best time to make the switch? There's no one-size-fit-all answer to those questions.

Topic: Windows

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  • Windows Vista killer features

    Windows Vista has those three killer features? Wow!!! I bet it can also start up and shutdown. Amazing!!! These are things we can do without, NO!!!!
    Honestly, these are lame reasons to switch to Vista, probably taken from a Microsoft Vista overview or something like that. And this is clearly not quality journalism, to say the least.
    • NO Doubt!

      WELL SAID!!!

      "Windows Vista has those three killer features? Wow!!! I bet it can also start up and shutdown. Amazing!!! These are things we can do without, NO!!!!
      Honestly, these are lame reasons to switch to Vista, probably taken from a Microsoft Vista overview or something like that. And this is clearly not quality journalism, to say the least."
    • Paid Advertising

      These stories and blogs on Windows Vista look exactly like the positive spin on Zune,
      bought and paid for!! The unbiased and unpaid analsysts aren't this positive. Most
      importantly, no customers lined up to spend their $$, that is the ultimate arbiter of
  • Windows Vista killer features

    Windows Vista has those three killer features? Wow!!! I bet it can also start up and shutdown. Amazing!!! These are things we can do without, NOT!!!!
    Honestly, these are lame reasons to switch to Vista, probably taken from a Microsoft Vista overview or something like that. And this is clearly not quality journalism, to say the least.
  • Best feature of all

    The best news about Vista is that their vaunted DRM system has already been cracked, making it a much more palatable system to use. Funny how millions of dollars and thousands of man hours can disappear in a matter of minutes after release. Shows you the futility of DRM. More here:
    tic swayback
    • The funny thing is

      this 'vaunted DRM' is just about everywhere that can play hi-def content

      the relevant part is : same issues will be present on Windows and Mac and any consumer electronic devices

      Funny how you only think it is a problem in Vista...
      • Hmmm

        The article is about Vista. It isn't about anything and everything that uses DRM. I guess I missed reading the part where Tic thinks it's [i]only[/i] a problem in Vista. Maybe it was between the lines somewhere.
      • The problem isn't with Vista or with the Mac

        ---Funny how you only think it is a problem in Vista...---

        Actually, no, it's not a problem in Vista at all. If you'll re-read my post, the immediate cracking of the DRM vastly improves the user experience with Vista, making it a much more compelling product than it once was.

        And if implemented for Macs, it's also not a problem, as it will be immediately cracked as well.

        The only people it's a problem for are those paying large sums of money to create, develop and maintain such DRM systems. They're the ones who are being harmed here, as they're spending far too much for something that will never, ever work.
        tic swayback
        • And IF implemented???

          [b]And if implemented for Macs, it's also not a problem, as it will be immediately cracked as well.[/b]

          Er.. Fairplay anyone? iTunes?
          • That's not quite the same

            FairPlay is not Mac-only, it's also implemented on Windows. And like all other forms of DRM, it has quickly been cracked, so no, it's not a problem either (although I refuse to buy anything crippled from the iTunes store anyway, just on general principles).

            Sorry if my phrasing threw you off. I was referring to the sorts of system-wide DRM incorporated into Vista, and specifically to the DRM inherent in High Def video, which, as far as I know, are not yet part of the Mac OS (but if/when they are, they will be cracked immediately).
            tic swayback
        • Great day for liberty

          MPAA/RIAA (and other parasite like macrovision) will never learn that DRM will never work. Crack use to take years, now it take seconds. i wonder how much cheaper any DRM infected product will be, if consumer where not FORCED to pay extra to pay for totaly illegal* DRM? my bet is that it will be so much lower that they will no need to get movies/music/software from "alternat" distribution channel.

          * DRM is illegal simply because it punish every single user for a crime thet have not commited (giving away/ distributing/selling copy of music/movie). In almost any contry in the world you can presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Digital Mafia (MPAA/RIAA) have no legal right of any kind to retrict in any way my use of content i have paid for. I have not buy any CD/DVD for the past 5 years, unless there is a way to remove the illegal DRM it come with.
          • Correction

            OK, most of your rant I can generally agree with but this statement:

            "In almost any contry in the world you can presumed innocent until proven guilty."

            Is almost 100% wrong. There are, in fact, very, very few countries where innocence is
      • "Vista Is Worse Than DRM"

        According To this blog:
        quote "Now, we come to the actual problem
        with Vista.
        After the lukewarm response to DRM
        initiatives by big companies, I am positive
        users will not like Vista’s draconian
        features that threaten to take the power
        away from them. Vista is actually worse than
        DRM." unquote

        Read the whole blog here:

        More quote: "Problems Part 2

        Highlights from the Vista user agreement,
        which comes into force once you choose
        accept and install the software.

        7. This agreement only gives users only a
        few rights to use the software. All other
        rights belong to Microsoft.

        8. If you do not like Vista's limitations,
        Microsoft says in the agreement that "you
        may not work around any technical
        limitations in the software."

        9. Microsoft has the right to regularly
        check the legitimacy of the software (which
        you paid for) and CAN DELETE certain
        programs without your knowledge.

        10. Microsoft can revalidate the software
        anytime or it may require you to reactivate
        it if you make changes to ‘your’ computer

        11. Microsoft has set significant limits on
        users’ ability to copy or transfer the
        software. It prohibits anything more than a
        single backup copy and has set strict limits
        on transferring the software to different
        devices or users.

        12. Only Windows Defender, the much-hyped
        anti-virus program –will determine what
        constitutes unwanted software. That means
        Microsoft can install Spyware and Adware
        with impunity.

        13. Vista Content protection only helps Big
        Media: A computer scientist in New Zealand
        found that Vista intentionally degrades the
        picture quality of premium content when
        played on most computer monitors. Microsoft
        wants you to see that content on TV or
        bigger, pricier displays." end quote
        Ole Man
      • Really funny

        because that's what they've been harping about for a year.
      • problem?

        nobody said it was a problem. it sounds like an attractive offer to me... ;)
        Scott W
    • DRM

      Some of the other MS DRM. Emails that you can send, but can't be forwarded, saved, edited or printed by the recipient which then delete themselves from their mailbox after a period of time. And similar Office Document Management features. Easy to use as well. Actually, pretty nice for most businesses when you think about it. They should do the same thing for Blog posts and comments, lol.
  • WOW!

    I must change my hardware (600 ?), buy a Vista license (~200 ?) and.... I will see photos better than ever? It sounds like a joke. (sorry for my bad English).
  • Microsoft eat your heart out !!!

    For all those who are looking to jump from Microsoft's ship and don't know which way to swim , Navigate this way ( and see how easy it is to install Debian over the internet . Microsoft isn't going to like this one , but I did.

    "In a world without walls and fence , who needs windows and gates ."
    • Jumping ship?

      Last year I left MS for Linux (finally), and am quite comfortable with it. I tried Redhat and Debian in the past (around 99/2000) and it wasn't quite ready to be a desktop system. Now, I'm running Ubuntu at home, and like they say, it "Just Works". The days of Linux desktop usability is finally here. Setting it up was simple, and the amount of free software is insane when you compare it to Microsoft. A fully customizable OS that comes with, Gimp, and countless other great apps, all free. Compare that to Vista ($200-$400), Office ($150-$400), and Photoshop ($700).

      If you're tired of paying for Windows and being stuck with all its problems, try Ubuntu's live cd. Run it straight from the cd without having to install anything, and it won't touch your existing Windows installation. You can download it and burn it to a cd, or they'll even send you a free copy by mail.
      • Amen and Halleluah!

        I'm right with you Bro. I only need to get some smarts about Ubuntu and I'm outahere!