Inside Windows Vista

After five years and millions of lines of code, Microsoft has finally released the latest version of their flagship Windows operating system. So how does it stack up? We’ll look at the pros and cons and tell you our opinion.


After years of bad press and dozens of updates for Windows XP, a major design goal for Vista was improved security. The most controversial feature, User Account Control (UAC), blocks unauthorized changes to the operating system by running programs at a low privilege level. UAC detects when an important change is made to the system, such as a spyware program trying to install itself, or changes are made to the network configuration, and prompts the user to verify the change. However UAC tries to block any conceivable risk, asking the user for permission when opening everything from System Restore to Disk Defragmenter and adjusting font sizes. Unfortunately experts fear users may get so used to clicking on myriad prompts they gloss over one that really matters.

Other changes have been made as well. Under Vista (and unlike Windows XP), Internet Explorer 7 runs in Protected Mode which isolates the browser and its add-ins, so any malware cannot infect the system. Windows Firewall can now be set to block unwanted outbound connections, which could be used to detect and block spyware from communicating with the Internet. Windows Defender is bundled in to Vista, however reviews have been lukewarm since other programs provide better spyware protection. Defender does help users detect and configure running programs, as well as which programs run automatically at startup.

Parental controls are now built in to Vista. Parents can control when and how a PC is used, from the applications run to the times and days the computer can be used, in an easy-to-use interface. Vista also provides reports on usage history.


Network setup, configuration, and management is much easier in Vista’s new Network and Sharing Center. The Network Map provides a graphical view of the network with details about each PC, switch, router, and wireless access point. Network Map works best when other PCs run Vista as well, but Microsoft plans an update for Windows XP that should help.

Wireless networking is much easier as well. Vista shows nearby networks along with details of each, such as the speed, security settings, and so on. Vista will remember which wireless networks you use and can automatically connect to each when they are in range. Vista will also detect when a laptop has two connections (wired and wireless) and use the faster one.

Business Features

Businesses can use Vista’s expanded support for Group Policy to lock down certain aspects of the operating system. Administrators can prohibit use of USB memory sticks yet allow users to connect USB printers. Just like Windows XP on a Windows Server domain, Group Policy can also be used to require screen saver passwords, prohibit access to certain programs, and more.

Security-conscious companies will also love the new BitLocker drive encryption in Vista Enterprise and Ultimate. Originally designed for laptops, BitLocker encrypts the hard drive contents, blocking thieves' access to sensitive data.

Microsoft packed in improved diagnostics, recovery, and monitoring, to reduce help desk expenses. Vista also improves the upgrade process, making it easier to upgrade an existing PC or migrate to a new PC.

Power Management

Power management has been overhauled, with a new Sleep mode mixing features of Standby and Hibernate. Sleep maintains the system memory for a period but also saves the memory contents to the hard disk to let the computer completely power off. This allows fast access to the PC if it is accessed after only a short period. Unfortunately it appears laptop users will need to manually tweak their power options to tell Windows to enter Sleep mode faster in order to maximize battery life. The new Sleep mode takes about 5-15 seconds to activate, wakes up very quickly, and takes about 5 seconds to wake up from the Hibernate state.

File System Changes

Windows Vista will also support "hybrid" disk drives that combine memory with a hard disk. By accessing data from the drive’s memory rather than constantly reading and writing to disk, battery life is extended in laptops. Hybrid drives (H-HDDs) that support Windows ReadyDrive, as it is called, promise faster access and lower power usage.

A new file system debuts in Vista - now if a save operation is not fully completed due to a system or program crash, Vista can roll back the disk writes to revert to the original un-damaged file. This should help prevent file corruption due to power loss or a STOP error.

Many things have moved around on the hard disk. For instance the "Documents and Settings" folder is gone, replaced by a much more friendly-named "Users" folder that contains user settings and documents. A "Public" folder on each PC holds data to be shared over the network. There are many changes, but suffice it to say that Microsoft is trying to divest documents and data from non-user-writable folders containing things like programs. Blocking normal access to program folders should help secure Windows from several types of malware and viruses.

32-bit vs. 64-bit

All retail editions of Windows Vista will include code for both 32-bit and 64-bit systems on the DVD. There are some major differences however! The 64-bit version is the only way to use over 4 GB of RAM in a workstation, but it will not run DOS or Windows 3.1-compatible programs. In addition the 64-bit versions of Vista use different drivers than the 32-bit version, so make sure older printers, scanners, and all other hardware devices are supported. As with any operating system upgrade, carefully check out compatibility with older software and hardware before upgrading.


As we discuss in our online article detailing the five editions of Vista, the new OS eats up RAM and loves fast video cards. Don't plan to upgrade existing PCs that have less than 1-2 GB of RAM (depending on the edition of Vista) or have integrated video adapters. For PCs that have the hardware, however, Vista's improved security make it worth the upgrade.

Microsoft has a downloadable Upgrade Advisor to assist with assessing hardware compatibility.

January 2007

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