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At Home With Windows Vista
First, unlike some bloggers in the US, I didn’t get a free, powerful laptop from Microsoft to try and write on Windows Vista. At my request and before the hubbub over freebies, they lent me a laptop so I could preview their new operating system before it was released to consumers in late January.
The laptop, a Compaq Presario V3000, used an Intel Core 2 processor running at 1.66 gigahertz (GHz). To ensure that Vista had the space it needed to run smoothly, Microsoft increased the onboard memory to 1 gigabyte (GB). The version of the operating system installed is called Windows Vista Ultimate, which has all the features you will need for home and office use.
To get an idea of what Vista looks like, I used the laptop as I normally would in both environments.
Compared to Windows XP, Vista is easy on the eyes, thanks to its Windows Aero interface. Each window has a glassy, translucent frame and casts a soft shadow on the desktop. Images behind glass are blurry, giving windows a frosty look. The buttons glow when the mouse pointer hovers over them, and the progress bars fill with a green gel reminiscent of the blue gel bars on the Mac.
The task switcher presents small preview screens of all programs running in a 3D stack that you can browse. The taskbar also gives you a small overview of programs that have been minimized.
Vista’s cool visual effects require a minimum of 128MB of video memory on your graphics card, 1GB of system memory, and a 1GHz processor. On a less powerful system Vista will revert to a simple vanilla look called Windows Vista Basic which throws away most of the bells and whistles.
Sometimes an incompatible program will also kick you from Aero to Vista Basic. Among the programs that did this in my testing were the file sharing program LimeWire and the instant messaging application Trillian. However, Vista returns you to Aero once the offending program is closed.
Although Microsoft claims to have done extensive testing, expect to run into compatibility issues from time to time. I had no problem installing and running a bunch of non-Microsoft apps, including Firefox, WinAmp, ObjectDock, and uTorrent. But I had problems when my daughters tried to launch Sims 2 game.
Launching The Sims 2 from the desktop shortcut led to this warning: “This program has known compatibility issues.” Vista offered three choices: search online for solutions, run the program, or cancel it. I ran it and Sims 2 quit with a useless error message: “Unspecified error”. All I could do was press the OK button. I checked the solutions online. After a minute or two, another message: “No solutions found for The Sims 2.” OKAY.
Quite by accident, my 12 year old discovered a tricky workaround. To get The Sims 2 to work, she found, you need to insert the playback disc and run the installer when prompted. Then the program will run. Later I found another way: right click on the shortcut icon, open its properties and choose to run it in XP compatibility mode and as administrator.
Of course, to do all of this, my daughter needed an administrator – me – to type in a password, thanks to Vista’s improved security. On a computer shared by many people, those with standard accounts cannot install programs or access certain directories without administrator approval – good protection against accidental introduction of viruses and spyware into a system.
This feature is useful at home, where parents may wish to set up standard accounts for their children. Parental controls – new to Vista – also let you easily set limits on days and times of computer use and block certain websites. It worked fine for Internet Explorer, but even blocked unspecified sites when I tried to use Firefox.
Out of the box, Vista is more multimedia friendly than XP. Insert an audio CD and one of Windows Explorer’s options is to rip the tracks to MP3 files. Windows Media Player will play – ahem, “budget” DVDs – without asking you to validate the player in a particular DVD region, at least on the test machine I used. It still doesn’t play most downloaded AVI files or automatically pick up the DivX codec you need, so you’ll still have to configure it yourself.
A curious issue I ran into reminded me that it will take some time before all issues are resolved, even on Vista-capable machines.
After using the HP Presario V3000 laptop for a few days, the built-in Altec Lansing speakers suddenly and mysteriously went silent. No amount of tinkering with the speaker controls and the mixer would bring it back.
A number of online forums attributed the problem to the computer’s high-definition audio speakers, for which no Vista driver was yet available. Microsoft suggested I use the XP drivers, but when that failed to revive the speakers, they just sent me a working replacement laptop – alas, also a loaner.
Next step: Vista on the desktop
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