Digital World: Vista for the 'cheap-seats'

Are non-Vista users set to be relegated to a no-man's land of growing alienation from the mother MS ship?

windows vista 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
windows vista 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It didn't have the gaga atmosphere of the launch of a Harry Potter book (, but then again laptop sales were up last week (, the first that Microsoft Vista was on sale. In fact, it was the best week for laptops in many a week, retailers said, with sales having been slow in recent months because buyers were apparently waiting to purchase Vista-equipped machines - and given the opportunity last week, they apparently lapped them up. So, anyone who believed /thought/hoped that Vista would be DOA ( has apparently been proven wrong. The thing is here to stay, and eventually all us cheapskates are going to have to break down and buy a computer powerful enough to handle its demands: ( But what about until then? Are non-Vista users set to be relegated to a no-man's land of growing alienation from the mother MS ship? Are we now to be considered the bastard step-child, the family black sheep, the prodigal son? Is this the way a democracy is supposed to work - that only those prepared to invest in a majorly expensive new PC are to be privileged to experience the new useful features built into Vista? In a capitalist democracy, the answer would be - sure! That's why they have first-class on airplanes - and why they make the people sitting in the cheap seats parade through the rarefied environment of the better section before flight attendants herd us towards our cramped space. How do they manage to make people pay double or triple for the same transportation they can get in coach? By giving the top payers better service and conditions - and pointing out to them that, but for the grace of their credit card, there go they. But just like there are discount deals that can give you a good flying experience for the same price as the cheap seats, there are ways to get the goodness of Vista without having to upgrade your operating system, as well as your computer purchasing budget. There are a number of free tools - some offered by Microsoft itself, believe it or not - that duplicate or provide an otherwise reasonable facsimile of key Vista functions, useable as is on your current XP system. Look and feel: Interestingly, the most visible thing about Vista - the Aero desktop that you have heard so much about that gives the system a "glassy" look - is, if you ask me, the biggest waste of time. Fancy graphics just means fancy trouble, and the majority of your computing experience is spent inside applications and not on the desktop. The cost/benefit ratio for semi-transparent folders or icons just doesn't add up for me. Not to worry, though - if you're into Vista-style eye candy, there's an XP application that will Aero-ize your desktop to the max, called Vista Transformation Pack ( It's got the animations, the icons, the skins and the overall look and feel of Vista - for free! One thing it doesn't include, however, is transparency - a condition that can be remedied with the addition of a program called Window Blinds ( which costs $20. Note: I have seen extremely mixed reviews for Transformation Pack, with some users praising it to the heavens and others complaining of major issues. However, those negative comments could have been referring to the beta versions, and its official release last month may have eliminated those problems. Windows Sidebar: One of the pluses of the lengthy stop and start development of Longhorn (the original working name) Vista is that a lot of features were announced, or were released as beta applications by Microsoft, or otherwise leaked, giving other developers the opportunity to produce similar products (of course, all these developers had to do was check out Mac OS X for an idea of what Vista was going to look like, as this instructive video, at, points out. But that's neither here nor there). Among these developments are applications modeled on the Mac Dashboard, known alternatively as Widgets (Yahoo), Gadgets (Google), or gadgets (Microsoft - they used a lower case "g" on their official site, as opposed to Google). "Windows Vista offers a panel," the site ( says, "that displays your selection of Windows gadgets-mini-applications that perform useful functions, such as a clock, a calendar, a Microsoft Office Outlook inbox representation, and currency exchange." There are actually lots more, downloadable from But for non-Vista users, the Yahoo Widget Engine (, with its thousands of mini-applications, offers the same or better functionality at a fraction of the price (free). As it happens, Vista's conception of gadgets/widgets changed a bit over time, and the earlier version was more of a Sidebar than the final version that was included in Vista seems to be. If you like having stuff displayed at hand on your desktop without having to press a key combination or click the mouse in a certain way, you might prefer this approach - enshrined in the free Desktop Sidebar program (, with panels (their word for the mini-programs) sitting on the side of the screen,waiting for your click or mouse-over to do their stuff. Windows Search: Another great idea "borrowed" from the Mac (Spotlight, Apple calls it, although some say it was Apple that filched an idea that was first broached by MS), Windows Search features a fast search engine to find anything on your computer in seconds, with the search engine integrated at all levels of the file system - so that indexing is instant, incremental, and constant. Other programs, most notably Google Desktop Search ( - which also will install Google Gadgets (see above) for the same money (free) - do the same thing, as do other programs, notably Copernic ( However, if you want the pure Windows experience, you can have the very same search engine technology MS is using in Vista installed in your XP system. With Vista out for about a week now, I would have expected this (and the following MS goodie, Parental Control) to have disappeared for XP users - after all, Gates is in business to sell operating systems, not run a charity for needy computer users - but the links are still there. I guess it's a marketing method for Vista, or a way to get people used to the features they will eventually have when they upgrade to Vista. Whatever - you can download it for free from Parental Control: Here is one feature that, although duplicable in native XP or with third-party software (as mentioned last week), is a real breakthrough for Vista. The ability to spy on the kids by generating user reports of where they surfed and what they did on-line is definitely a new approach, and is likely to be a real selling point for many parents who are mulling a Vista upgrade. Amazingly, however, you can get the same exact functionality (via a Microsoft monitoring site) within XP. All you have to do is surf to the Windows Live Onecare Family Safety Beta (, sign up and install the software on your PC, and you're in business. Anytime one of your selected users (who must have their own accounts on the computer you're monitoring) go on-line, the site will record their actions and report yo you on demand - besides preventing site connections based on criteria you provide. The service is free, although it is in beta - but because this is a social service effort, it's likely to go on for awhile. If you've been searching for a way to monitor your kids' on-line wanderings, this is a great service, Vista or not. So there you have it - Vista on the cheap. By trying before you buy, you get to keep an open mind, as well as a full wallet. And who knows - maybe you'll find yourself joining the legions of "the others" ( and/or