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Windows Vista Review, Part 5: Windows Vista Features: Other Features

And it all comes down to this. A month and a half after beginning part 5 of this review, I can finally wrap it up with a look at some of the other features in Microsoft's next operating system. These are the features that are less easily categorized than those I've written about in the previous 9 sections of this part of the review, and the only thing that really ties them together is that I wasn't sure where else to put them, but I did want to make sure you knew they existed. That's not to say that there aren't other features I've neglected to mention throughout the course of this review. If there's one thing I've learned over the past several weeks, it's just Vista is both broad and deep, and OS that has something for everyone. In the months ahead, I'll try and round up everything important in Vista through various Feature Focus articles.

Other Windows Vista features

I was interested to see that the features that ended up in this part of the review are among the most interesting in Windows Vista. Windows Anytime Upgrade and Windows Ultimate Extras are, of course, new to Windows Vista and are widely heralded as examples of some of the new thinking at Microsoft. Other features, like Windows Fax and Scan and Vista's speech recognition support, are much less well known but are equally valuable additions to the OS. However, don't be fooled into believing that this is an all-star cast. I'm somewhat ambivalent about many of these remaining features, and we'll have to wait and see how they evolve over time.

Windows Anytime Upgrade

The sheer number of ways in which customers can acquire Windows Vista is outnumbered only by the number of product editions Microsoft has made available this time around. You can, of course, purchase both Upgrade and Full versions of most Vista product editions in retail stores (aside from Vista Starter). You can acquire various Vista versions with a new PC purchase, as you could with previous Windows versions. You can buy a PC with Windows XP and get a free or low-cost upgrade to Vista via the Express Upgrade program. Or, you can purchase certain Vista versions and upgrade to certain other Vista versions via the new Windows Anytime Upgrade service.

This service is available only in Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Business. It's designed to let you upgrade, electronically, to more upscale Vista versions. So, for example, you can upgrade to Vista Home Premium or Ultimate from Vista Home Basic. Or you can upgrade from Vista Home Premium to Ultimate. Or, you can upgrade from Vista Business to Ultimate.

Windows Anytime Upgrade seems like a great idea. But I've been told that the cost won't be substantially different than the cost of buying a retail upgrade product. And if that's true, this service is almost pointless, unless you're an immediate gratification junkie. I'll have to reserve judgment on this one until Microsoft announces pricing. I'm hoping that comes as soon as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2007.

More problematically, imagine the bizarre series of ways in which a user could pay Microsoft for Windows Vista. You buy a Windows XP Home Edition-based PC now and get an upgrade to Windows Vista Home Premium for about $129 via Express Upgrade. Then, via Windows Anytime Upgrade, you pay again to upgrade to Windows Vista Ultimate. If the cost of Vista Ultimate is just 50 percent of the Upgrade version of the product, or $130, you just paid $259, or the exact same price as the Upgrade version of Vista Ultimate. That's not totally shabby. But if it's more expensive than that, we're going to have issues. Let's see how it pans out before complaining.

My rating: TBD

Windows Ultimate Extras

Starting with Windows 95, Microsoft has typically offered a Plus! pack for its various Windows versions, an inexpensive add-on package that provides a number of fun and useful utilities that extend and enhance Windows in various ways. I've always been a big fan of the Plus! packages, not because they've necessarily proven to be particularly useful, but because I feel that anything that makes your computing experience more enjoyable is worthwhile.

In Windows Vista, Windows Ultimate Extras replaces the Plus! pack, and that's too bad, because unlike the previous Plus! Packs, Windows Ultimate Extras are only available to users who pony up for the most expensive Vista version of them all. That's right: Even if you acquire Vista Home Premium or Vista Enterprise, you'll get no access to Ultimate Extras.

Ultimate Extras are distributed in Vista Ultimate via Windows Update. And while we won't know the exact utilities and add-ons that will be made available via Ultimate Extras until CES, two features are known now: Motion Desktop, which animates the windows desktop image like a screensaver, and Hold 'Em, a new Vista game based on the popular Texas Hold 'Em variant of poker. Those fond of technology trivia will be interested to know that Hold 'Em was originally supposed to be included with Windows Vista but had to be removed because this kind of game is considered objectionable to certain cultures. I'm sure that's because of the gambling and not any association with Texas.

Anyway, the problem with this system, of course, is that it's exclusive. And in a day and age where Microsoft is making previous exclusive technologies like Media Center and its Tablet PC features available to a wider audience, it's a shame to see it taking a step back with Ultimate Extras. I'd like to see these features offered to other Vista users, even if it had to cost extra. That way, Microsoft could still claim it as a benefit to Ultimate edition users, but not screw everyone else out of its unique features.

My rating:

Windows Speech Recognition

As a writer who can type quickly but still stumble over many keyboards because of my gorilla-sized fingers, I can tell you quite honestly that speech recognition is the holy grail of computer interfaces. I often imagine what it'd be like to dictate articles to my computer, instead of having to sit in front of the computer keyboard. With the Tablet PC, Microsoft talked about a new era of "casual computing," and while using a stylus is certainly more casual than using a keyboard, it's not as efficient. Now, talking: That could be both casual and efficient, if the system had decent speech recognition.

Windows Vista seeks to do just that. And while I can't claim that I will be able to move to a completely speech-based computing experience anytime soon, Windows Vista's speech recognition functionality is quite a bit better than anything that's ever been bundled with an operating system.

As with all speech recognition solutions, you must first train Windows Speech Recognition, using one of those familiar Microsoft wizards. Once you do so, however, you can control the system with only your voice, open applications and menus, access onscreen controls, and dictate text into documents, emails, and other data files. Basically, if you can do it with the keyboard and mouse, you can do it with Windows Speech Recognition.

As you might expect, Windows Speech Recognition works better over time, and you'll experience more than a few "Doonesbury" moments, where the system mistakes what you say for something far more comical. You'll get best results with a headset, of course, but it supports any microphone, including the lousy built-in mics you see on notebook computers.

You can also configure various speech recognition features, including setting up the microphone, taking the speech tutorial, training, and a speech reference card (really some Help entries), via the Control Panel.

So, you're going to run into some stupidity, but if you're interested in this sort of thing, check out Windows Speech Recognition. I think it will surprise a lot of people.

My rating:

Accessibility Settings and Ease of Access Center

While I've been fortunate enough not to need any of the accessibility features in Windows, I have been at least partially aware of the improvements Microsoft has been making over the years. In Windows Vista, a new Ease of Access Center, available via the Control Panel, provides a handy front-end to all of Vista's accessibility features, including the Magnifier, Narrator, On-Screen Keyboard, and high contrast display settings. But it also offers a nice list of plain English options, like "Use the computer without a display," "Make the computer easier to see," and "Use text or visual alternatives for sounds," that should make these features--wait for it--more accessible.

My rating:

Windows Welcome Center

When you boot into your Windows Vista desktop for the first time, and every time thereafter unless you disable it, you'll see one of the system's most obvious new features, Windows Welcome Center. This new bit of UI provides some basic info about your PC, including the version of Windows Vista you're using, as well as links to various commonly-needed configuration options and various offers from Microsoft (like Windows Messenger and other Windows Live services) and, in the future, from third parties (like your PC maker).

By itself, Windows Welcome Center isn't particularly interesting, but it represents an attempt, at least, to help users get up to speed with commonly-needed post-install tasks such as adding new users and connecting to the Internet. If you're familiar with Windows Server 2003, you might recognize Welcome Center as a friendlier version of the Post-Setup Security Updates and Manage Your Server tools. Sort of.

Windows Welcome Center also provides a big, brightly-marked link to the new System Information window, where you can find such things as your PC's Windows Experience Index and other settings.

Anyway, I like the idea of the hand-holding here, and let's face it: Most users need this. Those that don't can't simply turn it off.

My rating:

XPS document support

No idea is too good to be copied, and Adobe's PDF is apparently so successful now that Microsoft has belatedly decided to try and emulate it in Windows via new feature called XML Paper Specification (XPS). Snappy, eh? In Windows Vista, XPS is a platform for describing documents in everything from digital files to printers. And like PDF in Apple's Mac OS X, you can actually print to an XPS file even if you don't have any actual printers installed. Big deal, right?

What's really silly about XPS is that there's no dedicated or integrated XPS viewer application. Instead, you need to use IE 7 to view XPS files. I'm sure this will get more impressive over time, but in Windows Vista, XPS only provides a tiny subset of the functionality provided by PDF. On the plus side, XPS is royalty free and an open standard, unlike PDF.

For now, the case for XPS is unclear. But this is a feature to keep an eye on in the years ahead.

My rating:

Windows Fax and Scan

In the same way that Microsoft intends for users to utilize Windows Mail as their front-end for email, the new Windows Fax and Scan application is provided as a front-end for your faxing and scanning needs. In fact, Fax and Scan presents a very email application-like interface that provides fax sending and receiving functionality as well as document and image scanning features. I'm curious why Microsoft didn't provide something like this before, and assuming it's successful, maybe we won't have to deal with custom scanning and faxing applications in the future. (In this sense, perhaps Windows Fax and Scan will do for faxing and scanning what Sync Center and Windows Mobility Center will do for document synchronization and mobility, respectively.) Stay tuned.

My rating:

Final thoughts

While I'd like to think that this exhaustive ten-part rundown of Windows Vista's feature set is complete and accurate, the truth is that any product as complex as Vista cannot easily be communicated. Vista is, of course, more than just the sum of its features. In the final few parts of this review, I'll examine other important factors that should go into your upgrade decision, including Vista's hardware and software compatibility issues and the problems I think are most glaring in this new and untested system. It's been a long ride, but we're finally nearing the end.

Next: Compatibility

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