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Five Great Features in Windows Vista RC1

If you're an Average Joe (tm) using Windows XP right now and wondering what the big deal is with Windows Vista, please, read on. If you picked up the Beta 2 version of Windows Vista and were shocked--shocked, I say--at how horrible it was, please, it's time to give Vista another chance. Seriously. RC1 is a huge improvement. Huge.

Microsoft can point to hundreds of new features in its next client operating system--indeed, if Apple was handling the marketing, I'm pretty sure they'd trumpet an estimated 571 new features. But once you get past the obvious stuff like the new user interface, Aero animations and effects, and the absolutely massive security improvements in this release, there's plenty of "there" there. You just need to know where to look. And let me tell you, I've been staring at this thing for far too long.

There are all kinds of great new features in Vista. In fact, I'm curious what your favorites are, so drop me a note and I'll compile them right here as well. Until then, here are five of my favorites, in no particular order. These aren't necessary the "five best" or "top five" new features in Windows Vista RC1. They're just five absolutely great features. Barn burners. No-holds-barred, gotta-have-'em, may-not-have-even-heard-of--'em features. And if you're going to be testing Windows Vista RC1, you should know about them. You should play with them. And you should ask yourself if these features, and many others like them, will justify the cost (see my showcase) of upgrading to Windows Vista.

Let's get started.

5. Windows ReadyBoost

It sounded like science fiction the first time I heard about it: Windows Vista includes a feature called ReadyBoost that lets you use a USB 2.0-based flash memory device--typically a USB memory key--to speed up the performance of virtually any Vista PC. After grinning like an idiot for an uncomfortable amount of time, I realized the Microsoft rep telling me about this feature was serious. Huh. Hmm.

Now, there are prerequisites, of course. The USB memory device must meet certain performance and storage characteristics (2.5MB/sec throughput for 4K random reads and 1.75MB/sec throughput for 512K random writes; 64 MB to 8 GB of free space; 256 MB of overall storage or more) which virtually no human being understands or knows how to discover. Don't worry about that stuff too much unless you're literally shopping for a new memory key: Just plug one of your exiting keys into a Vista machine and see if it works.

ReadyBoost works by augmenting your system's memory with the memory on the USB device. The first time you plug in a compatible device, the Vista AutoPlay dialog will present "Speed up my system" as an option (Figure). You can then access the Memory tab of the device's property sheet to determine how much storage space to set aside for ReadyBoost (Figure). Note that this storage will no longer be available for other uses (unless you format the device or change the properties in Vista). You can't use a single key on two or more Vista machines. You can't use two or more USB keys on one PC. And, yes, Vista will recommend how much to set aside. (It typically wants a lot of space, so it may be a good idea to dedicate a USB memory key entire to this project. Hey, they're cheap.)

Why is this good? With a typical desktop PC, it's not necessarily hard to add RAM, but that's not true of most notebooks, and in either case, you may be limited by technical ability and desire, corporate restrictions preventing you from mucking around with your system, or actual hardware limitations where you've already maxed out the system RAM. In any case, you can simply improve the performance of your system by plugging in a compatible USB memory key, configuring it, and getting back to work. Bliss.

There have been some concerns that ReadyBoost will shorten the lifespan of the USB memory key because they're only rated to a certain number of reads and writes. My attitude is, who cares? These things are cheap, and if you're wise, you'll dedicate one solely to this purpose. If it dies, it dies. Get another one. (Besides, Microsoft refutes these claims, noting that its research shows that you will get at ten or more years out of life using ReadyBoost.)

ReadyBoost will give the biggest improvements to low-RAM PCs and, of course, the more storage on the key the matter. Adding a 1 GB USB memory key to a PC with 512 MB of RAM (ugh) will provide dramatic results. Adding the same key to a PC with 4 GB of RAM, well, not so much.

So the bottom line is this. ReadyBoost is a set-it-and-forget-it feature with no downsides at all, a small financial outlay (assuming you don't have a compatible key sitting around; I understand they come in cereal boxes now), and it delivers a nice performance boost. Who could ask for more?

4. Integrated search

When Microsoft first legitimized operating system based integrated desktop search back in 2003, it sounded like such a great idea that Apple jumpstarted its own efforts and was able to rush Spotlight to market as part of Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my review) in 2005, a full year and a half before Vista. Too, companies like Google started shipping desktop search products to capitalize on Microsoft's tardy operating system and the huge installed base of XP users. That's what happens when you broadcast your plans and then don't follow through quickly, I guess.

But here we are now in late 2006 and Vista RC1 is here. And you know what? Vista's search technologies are better than that offered by competitors. That's good, because a lot of people wrongfully assumed that the removal of the WinFS storage engine from Vista was going to cause a major step back in this department. Instead, Vista offers virtually all of the functionality end users would have gained from WinFS, albeit using the same older index-based search technology that is available in tools like Spotlight and MSN Desktop Search (see my review). But who cares "how" it works. It works.

What sets Vista's integrated search apart from the competition is that it's truly integrated into the system. In Mac OS X, for example, Spotlight is only available in key places, like Mail and System Preferences, but not in other logical areas like Help. In Vista, search is more pervasive, owing largely, no doubt, to its longer gestation. When you open the Start Menu and start typing, search will find applications, documents, and other files, without having to click anywhere onscreen. (Figure) (Indeed, you don't even need to touch the mouse to make this happen.)

If you want to search the system for files, click the Search entry in the Start. This launches the new Search window and, as with the Start Menu, you can just start typing. Vista's search is immediate, and it returns results as you type. And an Advanced Search button drops down a visual query builder through which you can specify a slew of options to narrow down your search results (Figure). Nice.

If you access the Search box that's in any Explorer window throughout the system, Vista's search will begin search from that location, as you would expect. That way, you could open Documents and just search within your document collection (Figure). Or open Pictures and find images. You get the idea.

Want to search Help? It's there. How about the Control Panel? Yep. In fact, you can type such things as "uninstall program" to find out where to go to perform that action (Programs and Features, Uninstall a Program). Search the Web? IE has integrated search now too, of course. Find a network location? You bet. It's integrated search, folks, not superficially integrated search. It's all just part of the system.

Oh, there's one more thing, though I have to give Microsoft a black mark for not making this more obvious: You can save searches too . These saved searches appear as special search folders in the Searches folder (by default), though you can place a search folder anywhere you'd like, including the Desktop (Figure). To save a search folder, you have to access the File menu of the Explorer window, which is hidden by default (Just tap the ALT key to see it). When you open a search folder, it behaves as a normal shell folder, albeit it with one major difference. Search folders are dynamic. So files and folders will be added or removed automatically as the underlying file system changes. Neat.

3. Media Center

I've been a Media Center advocate since I saw the first Freestyle demo in January 2002, and I've been using Media Center since the first beta version hit in April 2002. Since then, my children have grown up in a world where Media Center is television, and they skip over the commercials in their collection of ever-updated prerecorded TV shows with a recklessness that would sour any advertiser's heart. Media Center provides all of your memories--photos, home movies, and music--right up front and center on the biggest TV in the living room, and it's just gotten better and better with each release. You will never find a bigger fan of Media Center anywhere. Ever.

Since the new Media Center version began appearing in beta Vista builds, however, I've been a bit put-off by the direction in which this generally wonderful solution has taken. Early problems notwithstanding--I once described the Vista Media Center UI as "ugly, crowded, and indecipherable" and concluded that "Microsoft is killing Media Center by making it too complex and too ugly." Since then, Microsoft has both improved the Vista version of Media Center to be more attractive and usable (and, it should be noted, a UI to which current Media Center users should easily move forward to) and communicated to me where it's going with Media Center in the future.

Put simply, the Vista version of Media Center is a half-way house between the previous version, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with Update Rollup 2 (see my review) and the version that will follow Windows Vista, which I'm told will almost certainly be released in time for the holiday 2007 selling season. (And no, Microsoft isn't talking about delivery vehicles yet, though I'd point out that Windows Vista Service Pack 1 [SP1] is due roughly around the right time.)

So why am I pointing out a half-baked feature as one of the top ten features in Windows Vista RC1? Chances are most Windows users haven't yet seen Media Center. My guess is that they're going to get excited about it once they do, especially if they can connect their PC to a large HDTV television set and use it to record TV shows (TV tuner hardware is required). It's absolutely a window to the future and one of the few areas where Microsoft can claim to be both innovative and ahead of the market. Apple talks digital media--endlessly, actually--but Microsoft is delivering it--and in the living room, no less--with Media Center. Don't discount this claim. Media Center is excellent.

But back to the "half-baked" claim: From a usage perspective, Media Center has only been partially migrated to the next-generation, more scalable and adaptable Media Center UI. The Media Center Start screen (Figure) and each of the top level experience screens (Recorded TV, Music Library, Picture Library, and so on) have all been updated significantly, with a multi-directional UI that is based largely on that first introduced with the Portable Media Center devices (see my review). Deeper parts of the UI, however, are still largely based on XP MCE 2005 and haven't been yet updated to the new UI. For example, Settings, Video Details (Figure), Picture Details, and Picture Touch Up, just to name a few, are all old-school, and just colored to match the new UI. Microsoft tells me that the entire UI will be moved over to the new style by the time of the next Media Center release.

Don't be put off by a product in transition. Media Center, still, is simply unparalleled. And its one of the best features in Windows Vista. No doubt about it.

2. Windows Photo Gallery

As you can probably tell by my love of Media Center, I'm a big digital media guy and have been for years. If there's one digital media activity that's benefited enormously by digitization, it's gotta be photography. I switched to purely digital photos six years ago and haven't looked back. Now, thanks to the easy nature with which such photos can be shared, my family can look back on years of memory via our Media Center PC or our family Web site. It's just good stuff.

That said, digital photos, like any document files, need to be managed and manipulated. In Windows XP, Microsoft pushed a task-based system where the user would work directly in the system shell to manage such things as photos, music, and videos. (Meanwhile, Apple pursued a different strategy, using discrete applications to handle each of these media types.)

Windows Vista is an implicit admission that the shell-based approach wasn't good enough. While Vista still retains the task-based innovations the company started using in XP, Microsoft has moved to an application-based approach for managing digital media. Music lovers can access the wonderfully visual Windows Media Player 11 to manage music, for example (an application that barely missed making this list), and budding video makers can utilize Windows Movie Maker to edit their home movies and Windows DVD Maker to publish them to DVD. As for photographers, we get Windows Photo Gallery. And what a fantastic application it is.

Windows Photo Gallery (Figure) is quite obviously based on Microsoft's Digital Image Suite products. It includes a logical arrangement for managing and arranging digital photos and other images, a system for tagging photos with meta data so that they can be more efficiently managed as time goes on, and nice editing tools.

Windows Photo Gallery is really three different applications or modes in my mind. The application that's literally named Windows Photo Gallery is really a library application (or "gallery"), where you manage your photo collection, adding tags and ratings. The second application is the viewer. If you open or edit most image files from the Windows shell (you old-timer, you), you'll see a minimal version of the gallery that displays just the single image (Figure). This application is like XP's image previewer, except that it can also jump right to the Gallery proper if required and trigger Photo Gallery's third module, the editor (Figure).

In this third mode, which is accessed by clicking the Fix button, you can perform a single-click Auto Adjust (which analyzes the photo and automatically fixes the exposure, and color; your results may vary), or manually edit the exposure, color, crop, and red eye as needed. The red eye removal functionality, in particular, needs to be called out: It is excellent, and is able to remove red eye in instances where even PhotoShop Elements 4 and Microsoft Digital Image Suite fail quite miserably. I'm not sure why Photo Gallery is so much better--indeed, nearly perfect in my tests--but it is. And if you use a camera that is as red-eye-happy as is mine, you'll understand why this is important.

Windows Photo Gallery also includes a bunch of other useful features. You can print photos, of course, and email them to others. You can burn photos to CD or DVD, or make movies out of photo slideshows (an action that triggers Windows Movie Maker). You can also open photos with other applications from within Photo Gallery. So if you choose to use Photo Gallery to manage your photo collection but prefer PhotoShop's editing tools, go nuts. The choice is yours.

Apple fans will point out that Windows Photo Gallery is awfully similar to iPhoto, and while they seem to have a point, the truth is that Microsoft Digital Image Suite predates iPhoto by several years. Too, iPhoto offers some functionality that, quite simply, isn't available in Windows Photo Gallery, such as the ability to generate beautiful photo books. One thing that I would agree with, however, is that Photo Gallery wouldn't be part of Windows right now had Apple not shown how much nicer it is to work with photos in a dedicated application than it is to do so in the OS shell. That said, iPhoto doesn't come free with Mac OS X; you need to buy the $79 iLife suite or a new Mac to get that excellent solution. (And yes, it's money well spent: There is nothing like iLife on the PC.)

In short, Windows Photo Gallery is a huge improvement over XP's photo features. And for many, many users, it will be the only photo tool you ever need.

1. Setup

One of the earliest promises with Windows Vista was that it would install from DVD in about 20 minutes. We're not there yet, but Vista RC1 can install using interactive Setup in as little as 20 minutes, depending on your hardware. Of course, some of that is a cheat, much in the way that some of Amtrak's Acela Express speed gains are a cheat: Just as the Acela simply skips half the stops between Boston and New York to reduce the travel time, Windows Vista's interactive Setup skips half the steps you used to perform in XP Setup. What's silly is that you'll want to perform many of these steps--picking a workgroup or domain, setting up additional users, and so on--after Setup is completed. So much for part of the time savings.

That said, many businesses will simply automate Vista Setup, and of course, Vista's new image-based corporate deployment methods are far better than the tools we used with XP. In the end, Setup is a big win for everyone because it's simpler, it's better technology, it's faster, and it does a better job, overall, of leaving you with a completely configured and properly running system. For guys like me, who have to reinstall Windows regularly because of job demands, Vista Setup is a godsend. Unless of course you were looking forward to an hour or more of downtime.

Final thoughts

Windows Vista isn't perfect. Indeed, in an upcoming showcase, I'll highlight several of the worst features (or missing features) in this operating system just to even the score. But make no mistake: Vista is a major Windows upgrade and a huge improvement over Windows XP in most areas. Love it or not, chances are you're going to be running this new system at some point in the months or years ahead. Hopefully, this short list provided you with a few good reasons for doing so, or at least the hope that it won't all be bad news. Moving to a new Windows is often traumatic. That doesn't mean it can't be worthwhile.

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