Digital World: Just the facts, man

Shamah's take on Vista.

Is it or isn't it? Like Shirley Polykoff (, who wondered aloud about whether young ladies in the 60s did or didn't, I'm asking the questions here about Microsoft Vista, which officially is released today. Does it or doesn't it perform better than Windows XP, the OS it comes to supplant? Is it or isn't it worth the effort (and cost) to upgrade - with all the risk that implies? And, most important - should you or shouldn't you? Note before we begin: I broach this topic for two reasons - one, because I used a copy of the Vista RC1 beta ( in order to get a sense of how the Next Big Thing worked in the "real world" (i.e. the computers I already own), and two, in order to cut through the propaganda, both pro and anti, that readers of the computer press have been subjected to in the last few days. Unlike some, I have no problem with Microsoft trying to make a living by selling its first update since 2001 (in computer years, six years is like 100 human years!). That span makes Windows XP one of the longest lived "up to date" operating systems (i.e. primary OS offering) on any platform. So you can't say they haven't earned the right to hawk Vista as "new and improved." But considering Vista's pricing structure - the cheapest (and least useful) upgrade for current XP owners is $100 - trying to determine how Vista is going to work on your computer in advance of your purchasing and/or installing it is worth researching. Just because Vista is "new and improved," does that make XP "old and crappy?" Or is an OS that has proven pretty serviceable for six years deserve to be chucked out like yesterday's trash, just because an upgrade has arrived? Just the facts, ma'am - or, in my case, sir. Vista has, in fact, quite a few enhanced features, and the five years of development that went into it was time well spent. The question is - do you really need it? Here are some of the highly touted features of the system: Networking: In an office that uses Vista solely, the employment of that fellow known as "the network guy" is likely to be in jeopardy. Vista's Network Map implements a feature I have long wished for in Windows - the automatic identification of any computer or device connected to a network. Whereas all previous versions of Windows required you to set up a computer or printer before it could be used on the network (i.e. assigning an IP address), Vista takes the opposite approach, informing you that there is a TCP/IP device that you can configure for use on the network. And when a device you're trying to reach is unavailable, you get a little graphic that shows you where the glitch is. And, connecting to a wireless network is more or less automatic with Vista. But: In order for devices to be discoverable, they must be equipped with a new MS doohickey, the Link Layer Topology Discovery (LLTD) protocol. Most older (i.e., manufactured before September 2006) devices aren't going to have this, although Microsoft promises to develop software for popular routers, digital cameras, etc. to connect to the system. There is already a piece of software you can download and install on XP computers to make them discoverable ( Graphics: No question that the Aero Glass interface will make you feel like you're using a super-futuristic computer. The translucent and transparent dialog boxes that grow or shrink as your cursor approaches them, as well as the Flip 3D method of switching between open windows (you see them in sort of a flying stack when you want to switch between them) are among the most advanced graphics interfaces on any PC system. The "regular" flip (where you hit alt-tab to switch between "live" windows), as well as the Vista Sidebar and Gadgets (aka widgets) will be familiar to Mac users, but there's no reason Windows users can't have fun too. But: A--s has been strongly rumored, a highly powerful graphics system is necessary to take full advantage of all the Aero features. A computer with a single display of 1280-by-1024 pixels or less, for example, must have 64MB of graphics memory. For a larger screen, 256MB may be needed, as well as additional memory for secondary displays. If your PC has shared memory (graphics and RAM using the same chips) plan on putting in at least 1 GB of memory. In addition, the hardware requirements for Vista are heavy, to say the least. According to Microsoft ( a "Vista-capable" computer must have at least 512 MB of RAM and a processor of at least 800mhz speed (it doesn't specify whether Celerons qualify, but I would imagine Vista to be very slow on such processors). "Vista capable" means that the system will "be able to run at least the core experiences of Windows Vista," which I take to mean Vista Basic Home edition (, which, according to the features included, doesn't look all that different from XP - although it costs $100 to upgrade to this most basic version of Vista. Parental Controls: Responding to concerns expressed by many Windows users, Microsoft has streamlined the procedures for limiting and monitoring access to Web sites, downloads and other aspects of the overall computing experience, which can be implemented for any user - specifically kids. By setting up a separate account for each user, parents can specify or limit the sites that can be visited under that account (using any browser software), as well as limit the time spent on the computer by each user. You can also generate a full report on the on-line activities of any user on your PC, making it easy to keep an eye on what your kids are doing in cyberspace. But: Like any other software-based surfing limitation system, enterprising kids will figure out a way to beat the program (example: getting one-time access to administrator accounts in order to set up non-restricted user accounts for themselves). Vista's contribution to internal Windows safety configuration is to make the process easier to manage, but the tools to set up similar limitations have been a part of Window since the 2k edition. Then, as now, security hinge on setting up separate user accounts, something most users are not going to "get," regardless of how easy Vista has made it. In fact, there is plenty of software - some of it free - to accomplish the same thing Vista does for parental control, making the MS offering a case of "too little, too late." And, in addition, there are serious DRM (Digital Rights Management) limitations built into Vista, that could cause lots of pain and heartbreak for users of the OS trying to play MP3s or video clips ( I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Vista may really be fantastic and it certainly is pretty to look at. And, if you're willing to buy new, up-to-date hardware, you'll probably have a great time with it. And eventually, Vista will be the only game in town for Windows users as Microsoft slowly, but surely, edges XP out. But if your system isn't up to the task, you might want to wait on Vista. I've taken great pains to let the facts speak for themselves - and from what I hear the facts saying, for those whose computers aren't spanking new with lots of memory, you're better off sticking with XP, at least for now.