Vista Mythbusters #5: Aero isn't rocket science

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.

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.