Windows Vista

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Windows Vista is unlike any past Microsoft operating system. The new release is described as “the most reliable, secure and easy-to-use product in the history of Microsoft Windows products.” Does this mean you have to have it?

As a Microsoft partner, I’ve been reviewing beta releases of Windows Vista since July 2005. Microsoft has come a long way in reaching the goal of reliable, secure and ease-of-use since then. I was a critic of the company’s attempt to create Windows Vista by rewriting Windows XP, which was the first operating system I wholeheartedly embraced since Windows 98SE. In truth, I wasn’t looking forward to another operating system that was more trouble then it was worth, such as Windows Millennium. However, with the largest beta test that Microsoft has ever done, the company has released a surprisingly clean new operating system.

Versions

Microsoft Vista comes in six different flavors to best match each user’s needs and budget:

Ultimate: Windows Vista Ultimate is the choice for those who want it all. Easily shift between the worlds of productivity and play with the most complete edition of Windows Vista. Ultimate provides the power, security and mobility features needed for work, and all the entertainment features you want for fun. List Price: $399.95 

Home Premium: This is the preferred edition for home desktops and mobile PCs. It provides a breakthrough design that brings your world into sharper focus while delivering productivity, entertainment and security from your PC at home or on the go. List Price: $239.95 

Home Basic: You’ll find this is ideal for homes with basic computing needs like e-mail, Internet browsing and viewing photos. Easy to set up and maintain, it enables you to quickly find things on your PC and the Internet, while providing a more secure environment to protect against an unpredictable world. List Price: $199.95 

Business: Windows Vista Business is the first edition of Windows designed specifically to meet the needs of small businesses. You’ll spend less time on technology support-related issues, so you can spend more time making your business successful. It’s the definitive choice for your business today and tomorrow. List Price: $299.95 

Enterprise: Designed to significantly lower IT costs and risks, Enterprise meets the needs of large, global organizations with complex IT infrastructures. List price is dependant on number of licenses purchased.

Starter: This version was designed specifically to help anyone in developing technology markets learn valuable computer skills and reach new opportunities. With the goal of addressing digital-divide challenges around the world, Starter is the most affordable edition in the Windows Vista line-up. It’s not available in developed technology markets such as the United States and is only sold on new computers in developing countries.

The majority of business owners will find the business edition suitable, but the Home Basic version should also be considered for small operations not needing extensive features. Finally, anytime I see a new software package, there’s always a “wow” moment for me. For Office 2007, it was the new tab menu system. For Windows Vista Business, many moments really impressed me, such as the new security features, improved reliability, robust recovery and the great search feature.

Security

Using sophisticated data protection and auditing capabilities, Vista can help simplify management. Besides having an improved firewall and new security features in IE 7, it features Address Space Layout Randomizer, which eliminates certain types of remote system attacks and ensures system files are loaded at random memory locations at every system boot. Although a small change, it will cause a majority of remote attacks to fail since they rely on files to be at a fixed location. What does this mean for the average business owner? Greater protection for computers with Internet connections.

Vista has also incorporated a Mac OS feature called User Account Control (UAC). Reviled during the beta process, UAC proves to be one of Windows Vista’s best security features for the business world. This is user security at its most basic, protecting users from themselves.

In previous Windows versions, virtually all users set up administer-class accounts for themselves, ensuring they could make any change to the system they wanted, including installing applications, software updates and drivers, modifying key system settings and so on. In fact, Windows users are so accustomed to this level of control most don’t even understand how unsafe this is. The UAC stops users from making changes to the system if they are not entitled to do so. For you, it means employees can’t make unauthorized changes, offering you more reassurance.

In Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), Microsoft introduced the Windows Security Center, a dashboard for the system’s various security features. In XP, however, Security Center was somewhat limited with only three features—Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates and anti-virus—and couldn’t be accessed in an elegant fashion by third-party tools.

With Windows Vista, Security Center improves dramatically. It still has Windows Firewall, Automatic Updates and anti-virus monitoring capabilities, but now integrates nicely with Vista’s many other security features (such as spy-ware protection and UAC) and can be controlled or replaced by third-party solutions. If any of these security features are out of date or disabled, a notification pop-up and a red Security Center icon in the system tray will indicate so. Overall, this common-sense protection is a nice improvement over Windows XP SP2.

Business owners will be delighted to know Vista has a USB Device Lockdown feature to prevent users from connecting iPods, USB flash drives and other USB-based storage devices to corporate PCs. Why? With iPods and other similar devices offering up to 80 GB of storage space, and USB-based hard drives scaling past 500 GB, it’s easier than ever for a disgruntled employee to wipe out a business by stealing all critical internal data and bringing it to a competitor. The new feature prevents this and protects business information.

Reliability and Performance

In addition to improved security, Vista also improves reliability and performance over Windows XP with faster start-up times, quicker returns from the sleep state, and easier diagnosis of issues.

Fast Boot and Resume: Processes login scripts, startup applications and services in the background, getting users to work more quickly. The sleep state combines the speed of standby mode with the data protection and low-power consumption of hibernate, so resuming requires only seconds.

Improved Responsiveness: New technology can detect deteriorating performance and tune the performance automatically. Detailed performance counters help administrators isolate and fix complex performance problems more quickly and easily, saving money and helping users stay productive.

Built-in Diagnostics: Hardware diagnostics detect error conditions and repair the problem automatically or guides users through a recovery process. For example, Windows Vista detects potential disk failures and directs users through backup to minimize downtime and data loss.

Fewer Hangs and Crashes: More reliable than Windows XP, reducing both the frequency and impact of user disruptions. Windows Vista includes fixes for known crashes and hangs, and new technology to prevent them.

Automatic Recovery: For occasional unpreventable failures, there are fast, easy solutions. For example, one of the most challenging troubleshooting problems is corrupted system files that prevent the operating system from starting. Vista automatically diagnoses and recovers an unbootable system to a usable state with the help of the Startup Repair Tool, a step-by-step, diagnostics-based troubleshooter with guided recovery for no-boot situations.

Recovery

In Windows XP, Microsoft shipped a half-hearted solution for creating backups. With Vista, the backup and restore situation is a bit more complicated, but with a more robust, impressive set of features.

Backup and Restore Center is a nice front end to all features, using links for backing up and restoring files and folders from previously backed-up data.

Windows Backup is a wizard-based utility to back up files and folders to a hard drive, CD, DVD or network share. Choose the files (pictures, music, videos, e-mail, documents, recorded TV shows, compressed files, etc.), set a backup schedule (but not in Home Basic, which only supports manual backup), and restore entire backups. This is a more streamlined process than the one that shipped with Windows XP.

Windows Complete PC Backup is a unique addition from previous versions. It stores a compressed version of your entire PC installation, called an image. This image is a snapshot of your PC’s configuration at time of backup, including configured options, documents, installed applications and everything else. You can restore your PC anytime something goes horribly wrong, bringing it back to its state when the image was first created. Of course, doing so will wipe out anything that’s been added since the image was created, making the Complete PC Backup for restore emergencies only.

You’ll need a second hard drive (formatted with the NFTS file system) or a large collection of recordable DVDs to use this utility. If you do choose to restore a Complete PC Backup, you’ll boot the PC with the Windows Vista DVD and click Windows Recovery Environment.

Despite some silliness with the home-oriented versions of Windows Vista, these backup and restore utilities are all excellent and collectively provide much more elegant functionality than Windows XP without purchasing third-party utilities.

In Windows Server 2003, Microsoft added an amazing file-server feature, Windows Volume Shadow Copy, which helps end-users storing files on the server to recover changed or deleted files without an administrator or support call.

With Windows Vista, Microsoft has added this highly useful feature to its client-side operating system as well. Known as Previous Versions, it recovers previous document versions or accidentally deleted files. Previous Versions works with the Windows Backup tool mentioned previously. It’s a great feature only available in the non-consumer versions of Windows Vista: Vista Business, Enterprise and Ultimate.

Search

Vista introduces “Instant Search,” an enhanced desktop search and organization to locate files and e-mail messages on your PC. If you remember anything about a file, Windows Vista can quickly find it. With Instant Search, you’re never more than a few keystrokes away from whatever you’ve lost.

Simply search for a file name, property or even text contained within a file from anywhere in Vista and it returns pinpointed results. Instant Search is also contextual, optimizing its results based on your current activity—whether it’s searching Control Panel applets, looking for office documents or files and applications on the Start menu.

Requirements

Before upgrading to Vista, you must answer two important questions: Is your hardware compatible? And, are your business-related software packages compatible? Microsoft’s “Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor” will automatically test your PC to see if it the hardware is compatible with Windows Vista.

One feature worth noting is Vista will downgrade itself automatically to work with almost any hardware. Unlike Windows XP that had to be manually tweaked to run on less than desirable hardware, Vista rates hardware and automatically tweaks settings for maximum performance. If you improve your hardware later, Vista automatically rerates and tweaks, enhancing user experience and speed.

Minimal requirements:

  • 800 MHz Processor (CPU) 
  • 512 MB RAM memory 
  • 20 GB hard drive memory with 15 GB free 
  • Video card capable of 800x600 graphics 
  • CD-ROM to install 

Recommended requirements:

  • 1 GHz Processor (CPU) 
  • 1 GB RAM memory (1 GB = 1024 MB) 
  • Video card that is Aero capable with 128+ MB video RAM.
  • 40 GB hard-drive memory with 15 GB free 

This compatibility question is more difficult to answer for your software packages. Contact each software vendor and get written replies about Vista compatibility. You’ll probably have to upgrade to their latest versions to correct any issues.

As to Microsoft licensing, you can downgrade any Microsoft product to a prior release of that same software product, meaning if you purchase a new computer that came with Windows Vista, you are allowed by Microsoft to downgrade the license to a compatible version of Windows XP.

Final Notes

Windows Vista is a great operating system. It offers grand new features, solid performance and improvements to existing features. I’m always slow to embrace new software packages and typically wait until the first service pack comes out before using them in a production environment.

I’m holding off installing Windows Vista for my business until Microsoft works out some known issues, which is most likely when the first service pack is released. On the other hand, I’ve already installed Office 2007 because I like certain features and didn’t want to wait. You be your own judge. If the new features of Vista outweigh the risks of installing a new operating system, you probably already have your answer. 

Tredd Barton is the owner of Tredd’s Software Solutions, which has been developing self-storage software for the past nine years and recently released version 6.6.8, which is Windows Vista compatible. For more information, call 724.484.7801; e-mail sales@tredd.com; visit www.tredd.com

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