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A first look at Windows Vista (finally!)

It's taken years longer than even the most pessimistic Microsoft watcher expected, but Windows Vista, formerly code-named Longhorn, has finally been released to manufacturing. Here's a detailed look at what's inside.
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The Welcome Center keeps appearing until you clear the Run At Startup box. Click Show more details to see more information about hardware, and don't miss the offers for Windows Live services at the bottom.
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This expanded Category view makes it easier to find formerly obscure options. Even easier? Enter a keyword in the Search box in the upper right corner.
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With a premium version of Windows Vista and a decent display adapter, you get the customizable Aero interface with its transparent window frames.
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Vista's audio stack has been completely rewritten, making this versatile mixer possible. You can control the volume for individual programs, including system sounds, by using the individual sliders.
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Upgrading to a different Vista version should be easier than the same task in XP. With a payment to Microsoft or an online vendor, you can do the entire upgrade online.
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The revised Explorer still has a Folders pane, but the customizable Favorites pane is more useful. The Command bar replaces XP's task pane, and the default folders in each user's profile keep different data types segregated.
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On an Aero-capable system, you can hold down the Windows logo key and tap the Tab key to cycle among this stacked 3D list of all open programs. It works surprisingly well.
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It doesn't have a fancy name, but the Previous Versions feature can be a godsend if you inadvertently delete or overwrite an important file. Using the same code base as the System Restore, it keeps track of every change you make and gives you a powerful capability to restore files that aren't in the Recycle Bin.
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Every Vista version has a wide range of backup tools available. The full set, shown here, is found in the Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions, which include the Ghost-like Complete PC Backup option.
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Search tools are built into the operating system and are available in Windows Explorer, in common dialog boxes, on the Start menu, and in supported e-mail programs. After the initial, CPU-intensive flurry of indexing activity, there's little impact on the CPU. You can search using tags (saved as metadata in files) and save any search for reuse.
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Any third-party application (including web browsers like Firefox 2) can register itself with the operating system and expose its default behaviors. The result is much more complete control over your preferred programs.
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The interface for choosing which programs work with different file types is easier than its predecessor, but still makes it more difficult than it should be to undo mistaken associations.
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You can transfer data files and program settings (but not the programs themselves) using this built-in utility, over a network connection, with the help of an external hard drive, or with a specially equipped USB cable. A souped-up (and presumably premium priced) version that transfers programs too will be available for testing when Vista hits retail shelves.
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The 25-digit product ID is required to activate Windows Vista, but you can use any edition for up to 30 days by installing it without a Product ID.
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Vista's Disk Management console includes the capability to shrink or extend a hard disk partition (called a volume in Windows-speak) so you can configure a dual-boot system or move data files to a separate volume. In all previous Windows versions, this required third-party tools.
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The first time Vista detects a network card, it prompts you to define permissions for the network. The default Public Location setting blocks all connection attempts from the outside. Choose the Home or Work options to allow sharing on a private network.
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After initial setup, you can tweak a saved network configuration by adding a custom name and icon and switching between Public and Private settings.
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This hub for network configuration options typifies Vista's approach to complex tasks. There's no wizard to be found; instead, the most common options are available in sliding groups here, with related tasks available via links in the Tasks pane on the left.
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This dialog box replaces the clunky Windows Media Connect feature available as an XP add-on. Multiple computers running Windows Vista on the same network can stream music and videos and view pictures over the network. Media libraries can also be shared with Vista-aware devices like an Xbox 360, with or without Media Center.
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By default, Vista installs support for IPv6 alongside the current IPv4 standard. The benefits will become more obvious when point-to-point networking applications that use the Windows Internet Computer Naming standard are introduced.
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The new default program for managing digital images looks unassuming but can do some advanced tricks. Add keyword tags and edit metadata in the Info Pane on the right, and use the Search box to filter the current view. The pop-up preview appears when you hover the mouse pointer over an image in the gallery.
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Unlike most current consumer-grade photo-editing programs, which store tags or labels in a separate index, Windows Photo Gallery stores metadata directly in the file. You can view and edit tags, ratings, and captions from the Properties dialog box.
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Thumbnail album art and lightning-fast word-wheel searches work well with even extra-large music collections. Note the absence of top-level menus, another Vista hallmark.
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When you connect a supported portable device (sorry, no iPods), Windows Media Player offers these Sync options. This screen shows the one-click Shuffle option for transferring a random collection of tracks to the memory card on a Windows SmartPhone.
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Previously available in Windows XP only as an OEM release, Media Center features are now found in Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions. For a more detailed look at Media Center, see "Vista Media Center: Ready for the Living Room?"

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This updated app is found in every Vista version (premium editions do high-definition formats). It doesn't do the visual tricks that Mac users would expect, but it's well-integrated with Photo Gallery and works well for turning a group of photos into a simple movie file that plays back on any PC or Mac.
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With its limited selection of visual styles, Microsoft's first-ever DVD authoring tool falls short of the Mac's standard. The good news: even a rank novice will find it easy to use.
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The revamped version of Microsoft's auto-updating tool is much more usable than its predecessors. Note the options selected here, which automatically install recommended updates for Windows and other programs (like Microsoft Office) in addition to critical patches.
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Consumer versions of Windows Vista incorporate this feature, which allows parents to restrict use of the computer by kids. You can filter websites, allow or block specific programs, set up a schedule when computer use is allowed, and create activity reports.
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Power users will still scream, but UAC has been greatly toned down since early beta versions. After the flurry of activity that comes with setting up anew computer and installing devices and software, most people will rarely see a UAC prompt. For a closer look at UAC, see Vista Mythbusters #6: Is Vista really more secure?" and its accompanying Image Gallery.

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Microsoft's antispyware solution is included with all editions of Windows Vista. It's almost invisible in operation, and you can disable it if you prefer.
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When you plug in a SmartPhone or other device running Windows Mobile 5.0 (support for earlier Windows Mobile versions is due later), you're prompted to download this add-on, which replaces the old ActiveSync software.
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