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Windows Vista Feature Focus: Windows Aero User Interface

Windows Aero is the premium user interface available in most mainstream Vista versions. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, Windows Aero is highly compatible with virtually all graphics chipsets, and it is also the most likely user interface you're likely to see with Windows Vista, regardless of your hardware. Yes, Aero does require specific minimum hardware specifications, which we'll discuss. But most PC hardware produced since 2006, including the integrated graphics chipsets common in laptops, is powerful enough to display the Aero interface.

Unlike other Vista user interface types--Windows Vista Standard, Windows Vista Basic, and Windows Classic--Windows Aero utilizes the graphics processor in your video card to composite and render the display. This design leads to two main advantages over the other Vista interfaces. First, the display is more reliable and seamless, with none of the weird tearing effects that can mar the other interfaces. Second, by offloading the display from the system microprocessor to the GPU, Windows Aero frees the microprocessor to perform other tasks, leading to better overall performance.

Visually, Windows Aero provides glass-like graphical elements, which you'll see on window frames (or "chrome"), the taskbar, the Start Menu, and the Start button (or "Start orb" as it's sometimes called). These elements are translucent by default, allowing you to see other graphical elements are logically arranged below.

Additionally, window controls on Aero windows visually appear to "light up" when you mouse over them, one of several subtle effects that makes this interface more desirable.

The level of translucency used by Aero is configurable via the Window Color and Appearance control panel, as is the color of these elements. Microsoft provides several default colors, such as Graphite, Blue, Teal, and Red, but you can also manually configure on-screen colors using a color mixer. A color intensity control and a way to turn off translucency (which is identified as "Enable transparency") are also provided for further fine-tuning.

In addition to changing the overall look and feel of the system, Aero also enables a few other unique features, including Windows Flip 3D (triggered with the Windows Key+TAB shortcut combination), and Live Taskbar Thumbnails. Aero also improves the look of Windows Flip, the standard task-switching shortcut (which is typically enabled via the ALT+TAB shortcut combination). These features are all shown below.

Live Taskbar Thumbnails.

Windows Flip.

Windows Flip 3D.

Windows Aero requirements

In order to use Windows Aero, you will Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate. That is, Aero is not available on Windows Vista Home Basic or Starter. Previous to Windows Vista Sevice Pack 1(SP1), your Windows install had to be certified as valid by the Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) technologies: If it was not, you were forced to use Windows Basic instead. This restriction was removed with SP1, however.

Technically speaking, Aero requires a DirectX 9-class video card that supports a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver, Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware, and 32 bits per pixel. That sounds scary, but as noted above, that's virtually every graphics card made since 2006, and certainly every one sold today, including the latest integrated graphics solutions, which use system RAM rather than their own dedicated video RAM.

For a 1024 x 768 or 1280 x 1024 display, you will need a graphics adapter with 64 MB or more of video RAM. Those with 1600 x 1200 (or lower) displays will need 128 MB or more of video RAM. For 2560 x 1600 and below, at least 256 MB of video RAM is required. Note that these figures are for single-monitor setups. If you drive two or more displays, your needs will increase.

Performance concerns

Late in the development of Windows Vista, a number of online sources began to question whether Windows Aero would cause an overall performance hit to the system or reduce battery life on mobile systems. Indeed, Microsoft had originally planned to configure Vista-based notebooks so that Aero would be disabled when the system was running on battery power, though that functionality was dropped.

The truth is, Aero doesn't measurably decrease performance or battery life, contrary to these fears. According to recent performance tests, Vista does perform 5 to 10 percent poorer than Windows XP on identical hardware, but this hit is the same whether Aero is enabled or not. And Aero doesn't demonstrably affect batter life either, according to a Microsoft-commissioned study.

Frankly, the non-Aero UIs in Windows Vista are so unattractive compared to Aero that most users will simply want to leave Aero running when using battery power, even if there is a performance hit. However, those who would like to disable Aero on battery power should know that the Power Saver power management profile does disable Aero by default when the system is running on battery power.

Incompatibility issues

Very rarely, you may run into an older application that is incompatible with Windows Aero. When you run these applications, Vista visually switches to the Windows Standard UI while the application is running, and then switches back to Aero when that application is closed. This has become much less of an issue since Service Pack 1 (SP1) arrived in mid-2008. I'm not currently running any applications that cause this problem.

Fun fact: Aero was originally an acronym, though Microsoft has since dropped that meaning. And what was that acryonym, you ask? Authentic, Energetic, Reflective, and Open.

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