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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 17:27 GMT
A quick tour around Windows Vista
Vista logo, Microsoft
Vista makes a lot of changes to the familiar Windows display
Software giant Microsoft releases Windows Vista to consumers on 30 January.

The new version of the venerable Windows operating system has been more than five years in development and much hangs on its success.

Below is a brief tour of Vista's new looks and a guide to some of the key features in the software.

A New Look

The Vista Aero interface

One of the biggest changes in Vista will be obvious as soon as users set eyes on the main display.

Gone are the flat Windows panes in favour of a 3D display called Aero. The flexibility of this will be familiar to anyone who has played a recent PC game. In this inteface the separate panes for each program you have running can be displayed in different ways and at different angles. They can even be stacked or staggered.

As the interface is hardware driven if users do not have a decent graphics card they may not see all the improvements. To get the most out of it Microsoft recommends a graphics card that works with DirectX9 and has a minimum 128MB of graphics memory.

Without this graphical ability, Windows Vista will look very like Windows XP does now.

Graphic effects

Smarter Windows

The improvements in technology behind the Vista interface makes possible all kinds of special effects that can be applied to the Windows you have open.

For instance, Windows no longer need to be solid and the edges of each pane can be made translucent to give a better idea of what lurks behind the program you are working on.

Other changes to the main interface include live thumbnails for each application on the main desktop taskbar. Hover over minimized applications and the thumbnails will pop up giving you an idea of what is happening with that program.

Helping hand

Search tool

In some respects Windows Vista helps Microsoft catch up with many of the technologies that rivals, such as Apple and Google, have been touting long before now.

A case in point is the instant search tool found in Vista. Searching in Windows XP is an exercise in frustration and the only way to do it better was to download and install an add-on program.

With Vista the search tools are constantly running, logging what you are doing and what you are doing it with. The result is that, as you type in search terms, Vista starts populating a list of what you might be looking for.

Not only can you search for files you can look for applications too. No longer do you have to remember where something is on a menu, the search tool will take you there. It is an acknowledgement of how important searching has become.

The search tool can be refined to only look for applications, specific file types or just on the net.

Side swipe

The Vista sidebar

Another feature seen for the first time in Windows but long ago in other applications, such as Apple's OS X software, is the sidebar.

As its name implies this is a section of the main desktop that can be populated with a variety of small, helpful applications. In the sidebar Vista users will be able to have weather watching programs running, keep live "to do" lists or keep an eye on any feeds they want to monitor.

Microsoft expects that many amateur coders will produce extras for the sidebar just as people have produced widgets for Mac OS X and extra programs for Google's personalised web pages.

File finders

Changes to Windows Explorer

Many of the changes put into Vista, such as the Aero interface, are obvious from the moment you first switch the machine on.

Other changes are more subtle but could make it less of a chore to navigate around the Windows operating system.

A good example of this is the refinements Microsoft has made to Windows Explorer that many people use as their main way to navigate around their computer.

Opening up a location, such as where you store your pictures, will make Explorer populate the top taskbar with common menu choices. The options you are presented with are tuned for what you are dealing with.

It might help speed up many common tasks and means you don't have to play around with menus to navigate your way to what can be elusive.

Drive time

Navigating Vista

Welcome changes have also been made to the way you can get around Windows.

Before now, moving around Windows has often been a case of navigating down one directory tree and up another to move things around or get things done.

Vista changes this with the help of another context specific taskbar. Along this taskbar are listed all the hard drive locations you had to navigate past in order to reach your destination.

Clicking on the arrows on this bar opens up a list of other directories that hang off the same place.


Onboard security in Vista

One of the many features that Microsoft is trumpeting in Vista is the improvements it makes to the security of your computer.

Over the last few years the forerunner to Vista, Windows XP, has been updated with a lot of add-ons and updates that try to make it less prone to being compromised.

Vista continues this trend and comes ready fitted with a few security programs including anti-spyware and a firewall.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, which ships with Vista, will also have on-board an anti-phishing system that tries to warn people when they stray on to a fake site and are about to unwittingly share confidential information with the bad guys.

I've just bought a new laptop which included a free upgrade to Vista, but I'm not sure whether I should upgrade just yet
Pierre Yardin, London, UK

Vista will also work hard to ensure that people keep their copy of Windows up to date as attackers are getting much better at exploiting unpatched loopholes.

Reports from beta testers suggest that Vista will also do a more comprehensive job of warning users when they are about to do something potentially dangerous.

A look at Microsoft's newest operating system

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