10 Primary Differences Between Windows XP and Windows Vista
1. Security, security, security: Windows XP Service Pack 3 patched a lot of holes, but Vista takes security to the next level. There are literally too many changes to list here, from the bidirectional software firewall that monitors inbound and outbound traffic to Windows Services Hardening, which prevents obscure background processes from being hijacked and changing your system. There’s also full-disk encryption, which prevents thieves from accessing your data, even if they steal the PC out from under your nose.
Perhaps most crucial (and least sexy) is the long-overdue User Account Protection, which invokes administrator privileges as needed, such as during driver updates or software installations. UAP makes it much more convenient for users to operate Vista with limited rights (meaning the system won’t let them do certain things, like load software, without clearance from an administrator). This in turn limits the ability of malware to hose your system.
2. Internet Explorer 7: IE gets a much-needed, Firefox-inspired makeover, complete with tabbed pages and better privacy management. There’s also the color-coded Address Bar that lets you know if a page is secured by a digital key, or, thanks to new antiphishing features, if it’s a phony Web site just looking to steal information about you.
These features will all be available for Windows XP users who download IE7. But Vista users get an important extra level of protection: IE7 on Vista will run in what Microsoft calls “protected mode”–a limited-rights mode that prevents third-party code from reaching your system. It’s about darn time.
3. Righteous eye candy: For the first time, Microsoft is building high-end graphics effects into Windows. The touted Aero Glass interface features visually engaging 3D rendering, animation, and transparencies. Translucent icons, program windows, and other elements not only look cool, they add depth and context to the interface. For example, hover your cursor over minimized programs that rest on the taskbar and you’ll be able to see real-time previews of what’s running in each window without opening them full-screen. Now you can see what’s going on behind the scenes, albeit at a cost: You need powerful graphics hardware and a robust system to manage all the effects.
4. Desktop search: Microsoft has been getting its lunch handed to it by Google and Yahoo on the desktop, but Vista could change all that. The new OS tightly integrates instant desktop search, doing away with the glacially slow and inadequate search function in XP. Powerful indexing and user-assignable metadata make searching for all kinds of data–including files, e-mails, and Web content–a lot easier. And if you’re running Vista on a Windows Longhorn network, you can perform searches across the network to other PCs.
5. Better updates: Vista does away with using Internet Explorer to access Windows Update, instead utilizing a new application to handle the chore of keeping your system patched and up-to-date. The result is quicker response and a more tightly streamlined process. The update-tracking mechanism, for instance, is much quicker to display information about your installation. And now key components, such as the Windows Defender antispyware module, get their updates through this central point. Like other housekeeping features, a better Windows Update isn’t a gee-whiz upgrade, but it should make it easier–and more pleasant–to keep your PC secure.
6. More media: Over the years, one of the key reasons to upgrade versions of Windows has been the free stuff Gates and Company toss into the new OS, and Vista is no exception. Windows Media Player (perhaps my least favorite application of all time) gets a welcome update that turns the once-bloated player into an effective MP3 library. The Windows Photo Gallery finally adds competent photo-library-management functionality to Windows, so you can organize photos; apply metatags, titles, and ratings; and do things like light editing and printing. The DVD Maker application, which was still very rough when I looked at it, promises to add moviemaking capabilities–along the lines of Movie Maker–to the operating system. There are even some nice new games tucked into the bundle.
7. Parental controls: Families, schools, and libraries will appreciate the tuned-up parental controls, which let you limit access in a variety of ways. Web filtering can block specific sites, screen out objectionable content by selected type, and lock out file downloads. You can also restrict each account’s access by time of day or day of the week. As a dad, I can tell you this will be great for keeping kids off the PC while you’re at work, for instance. You can even block access to games based on their Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings.
8. Better backups: When Windows 95 first came out, the typical hard disk was, maybe, 300MB in size. Today, desktops routinely ship with 300GB or 400GB hard drives. And yet, the built-in data-backup software in Windows has changed little in the past decade. Windows Vista boasts a much-improved backup program that should help users avoid wholesale digital meltdowns. Microsoft also tweaked the useful System Restore feature–which takes snapshots of your system state so you can recover from a nasty infection or botched software installation.
9. Peer-to-peer collaboration: The Windows Collaboration module uses peer-to-peer technology to let Vista users work together in a shared workspace. You can form ad hoc workgroups and then jointly work on documents, present applications, and pass messages. You can even post “handouts” for others to review.
10. Quick setup: Beta code alert: There are some Vista features I hope dearly for even though they haven’t been built yet. This is one of them. Jim Allchin, Microsoft’s co-president, says that Windows Vista boasts a re-engineered install routine, which will slash setup times from about an hour to as little as 15 minutes. Hurray! The new code wasn’t in the beta version of Vista that Microsoft sent to me–my aging rig took well over an hour to set up–so I’ll believe it when I see it. Still, any improvement in this area is welcome.