Microsoft Vista: Should you buy now? (cont.)

By Peter Lewis, Fortune senior editor

Even so, Vista is destined to repay Microsoft's massive investment in it. Most of the half-billion people around the world who use a version of Windows today will move to Vista eventually, mainly through the purchase of new PCs. Here's what's best about what they'll be getting.

Look and feel

Vista's Aero 3D interface is refreshing, although strikingly similar to Apple's (Charts) Mac OS X. Transparent windows make it easier to see files and other windows cluttering your desktop, and with the Ultimate Extras free download (also available Jan. 30), the desktop itself can be a movie or an animated image, like ocean waves or a rippling pond. Microsoft has also added a feature it calls Windows Sidebar, an area of the screen where one can stash mini-applications called Gadgets, such as clocks, stock tickers, calendars or RSS readers. You know, sort of like Widgets on Apple's Dashboard.

Searching

Vista's Flip 3D shows all the open windows in a fanned-out, playing-card view, sort of like the 3-D album covers view in Apple's iTunes. It saves time and makes navigating your desktop easier and a bit more fun. Navigating within the hard disk is also much improved with the new Windows Explorer, the graphical interface for finding and organizing directories, folders and files. Live Icons are a nice improvement too: Instead of static icons, like the W for Word files or E for Excel spreadsheets, you'll see little thumbnails of what's in documents without opening them. The new search feature is woven throughout all Vista applications and is a huge improvement over its counterpart in Windows XP, and sort of like Apple's & well, you get the idea.

Security

Microsoft has recycled the Windows XP line "Most secure Windows ever" for Vista, and it's true. The core code, or kernel, has been barricaded to prevent rogue software from commandeering your computer. As a result, though, Vista may drive you crazy with warnings every time you install a new program, download a file or otherwise mess with your system.

The new User Account Protection requires entering a password for various actions, which, along with a feature called Windows Defender, keeps out (in theory) viruses, Trojan horses, spyware, phishing attacks and other nasty programs.

Even so, Microsoft's built-in firewalls and other protections still fall short - no anti-malware program is perfect - and I strongly recommend adding a third-party security program like Symantec's forthcoming Vista version of Norton Internet Security. The Vista Ultimate and Vista Enterprise versions have built-in BitLocker Drive Encryption, which keeps data safe and private even if you leave your laptop in the taxi. Ultimate users can store their BitLocker passwords on a secure Microsoft server, just in case.

Memory

Another snazzy feature, especially for laptops or desktop machines with limited memory, is ReadyBoost. Just plug in a USB 2.0 flash memory stick (say, a $50, one-gigabyte device) and Vista uses that memory to speed PC performance.

Fun stuff

Vista has improved versions of Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker, and new applications like Windows Photo Gallery and Windows DVD Maker. Better alternatives exist from third-party software developers, and Vista can't touch Apple's creative software apps (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, etc.) for ease of use and tight integration. But for built-in Windows programs, Vista tops XP.

The good and not-so-good news is that for all the changes in Vista - most under the hood - it will be mostly familiar to users of earlier versions of Windows. That means that some users will see Vista simply as Windows XP with lipstick and Botox. The Home Basic version, in particular, even does without the lipstick.

Vista is definitely not the end of the line for Windows; there's plenty more to do to make it run better. But just as the nuclear carrier George H.W. Bush is the end of the line for Nimitz-class warships - which first took to sea in 1975, the same year Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft - it may be time for Microsoft to say hasta la vista to big, multiyear, complex software projects. It has to move faster to keep up with changes in today's computing world, where more people will link to the Internet through cell phones than through desktop PCs.

It could lose customers to a new generation of browser-based applications that don't rely on any particular operating system. Google (Charts) is clearly Microsoft's biggest challenger in such systems. It has to move faster to keep up with Apple, which has fewer programming resources yet cranks out innovative annual upgrades to an operating system that, like Windows, now runs on Intel-based PCs. And with most computer growth coming from emerging countries, Windows has to compete with Linux, a rapidly growing, community-built operating system that is cheaper than Windows, but less easy to use.

On top of all that, it has to compete against Windows XP, the current version of Windows, which Microsoft will continue to sell for another year. Many of the features touted in Vista are available for XP through third-party programs. Even the forthcoming 2007 version of Microsoft Office will run on XP.

Bottom line: Microsoft's Windows Vista delivers better security and usability, from the home to the road to the enterprise. But since you've already waited five years for it, it won't hurt to wait a little bit longer, until it's time to buy your next PC.

Research associate Doris Burke contributed to this article.

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