New Vista for Windows users, but is it worth the cost?

Many PC users are looking forward to the new year, which sees the mainstream launch of the new Microsoft Windows operating system called Vista.

The last major upgrade to the Windows desktop operating system was at the end of 2001, with the launch of Windows XP. At that time, most small and medium-sized organisations were still running Windows 98 (having never adopted the ‘business platform’ of Windows NT/2000), so an upgrade to Windows XP with its security-based user accounts, better file system, more robust networking capability and 32-bit operation was a virtual necessity, despite the costs involved.

Whether upgrading to Vista can be justified in the same way is currently a matter of some debate. To help answer that question, let’s have a look at what the new system offers.

In Vista the whole Windows user interface has been redesigned and replaced by Windows Aero, a new interface that is intended to be cleaner and more aesthetically pleasing than previous Windows, including new transparencies, animations and ‘eye candy’.

The new Windows shell is significantly different from Windows XP, offering a new range of organisation, navigation, and search capabilities. To help us all manage our rapidly proliferating collections of data, Vista offers significantly faster and more thorough search capabilities, similar to what is offered by Windows Desktop Search and Apple’s Spotlight.

A new Windows Sidebar in Vista provides a transparent panel anchored to the side of the screen where a user can place Desktop Gadgets, which are small applets designed for a specialised purpose, such as displaying the weather or sports scores.

Utility-wise, Vista includes better backup and restore software, built-in speech recognition, better utility programs for disk management, monitoring system performance and scheduling tasks.

Vista also sports new versions of built-in software such as Internet Explorer 7, Media Player 11, Meeting Space (replacing Net Meeting), and Windows Mail (replacing Outlook Express). New applications for making DVD videos and managing image collections are also included.

Upgrading to Vista

If those features sound like just what you’ve been waiting for, you can upgrade to Vista from January 2007, at which point the software will also start shipping on new computers. Consumers and businesses purchasing new hardware in the weeks prior to the Vista launch will receive upgrade coupons.

Current Windows XP users can go to the Microsoft Vista web page (www.microsoft.com/windowsvista) to download an application that will check to see if their system is Vista-capable. To run with all the new capabilities requires at least 1GHz in processing power, 1GB RAM, 40GB of free hard disk space, and a powerful graphics card. It’s not worth even checking anything older than a PC that originally shipped with Windows XP.

Criticism of Vista

Critics of the new system argue that, unlike moving from Windows 95 or 98 to XP, the move from XP to Vista is not essential, making the £250 price tag (for the Business Edition) very expensive for a few bells and whistles. And given that a number of Vista’s features are only available on higher end equipment, the cost of upgrading hardware must also be factored in.

Vista’s detractors also point out that some of the most critical ‘updates’ and software applications, including the essential and long awaited Internet Explorer 7 browser, can already be downloaded free of charge by Windows XP users from the Microsoft website.

Not-for-profit organisations will be able to avail of reduced academic pricing, but the cost and time involved in upgrading an entire Windows XP network is still substantial and difficult to justify in terms of the benefits gained.

Critics are also upset that Microsoft continues to increase the amount of ‘digital rights management’ code in its products. High definition DVDs, for instance, will only play in high definition on Vista PCs equipped with monitors with built-in copy protection.

Are there any alternatives?

Microsoft may have a stranglehold on the desktop operating system market, but Apple diehards argue that anything that is good about Vista is already in the Mac interface, that Aero is just an expensive knock-off of their beloved ‘Aqua’ interface. And with Macs easier than ever to integrate into an existing Windows network, it’s not impossible to imagine a shift in the Apple direction.

While the new Intel-based Macs can run Mac OS X and Windows, Mac OS X can’t replace Windows on existing PC hardware. Given that from OS X onwards Macs essentially run UNIX under the hood, anyway, another alternative to living on the expensive treadmill of commercial software would be to switch to one of the many open source variations of UNIX such as Linux. User friendly editions of Linux like Ubuntu or Xandros work very well on existing PCs and make the transition from Microsoft fairly easy and painless.

For most network users, though, it’s important to keep in mind that Microsoft still offers a perfectly good alternative to Vista called Windows XP. Vista and XP will interoperate very well, so older PCs can be retained while newer ones are purchased with Vista preinstalled.

So, for now, the bottom line is: Vista offers an attractive interface and some nifty features, but it’s probably not worth the effort of upgrading existing PCs.