Steven Levy: Microsoft’S Slick New Vista

Last night the giant billboards of Times Square lit up with the long-overdue news: Vista, Microsoft's endlessly awaited new version of the Windows operating system, is finally on sale to consumers. CEO Steve Ballmer and chairman Bill Gates both contend that it's the best operating system that Microsoft has ever produced. That's not necessarily so impressive: after five years and billions of dollars of development (including five million beta testers pounding on prototypes of the system) it would be pretty shameful if Microsoft turned in something worse than one of its Windows predecessors. But Gates and Ballmer can rest easy on that count. While the operating system is not the "wow" generator that its marketing campaign promises, it is definitely an improvement over the Windows of yore.

If you are a Windows user, the question is not whether you will use Vista, but when: a solid majority of people will not upgrade their machines to run Vista but will get the system when they buy a new PC. (If you are a Macintosh user, the whole issue of which Windows you use is of no interest to you, and Vista really isn't going to change your mind. In fact, you'll have a field day noting things on Vista that have been in the Mac OS for years.) If you do upgrade, you must choose between several versions of Vista, depending on whether your computer is up to the task of running the system's sophisticated "Areo" graphics system. If you don't have a fairly recent machine with at least 1 gigabyte of memory (preferably 2) you'll be stuck with the drab $100 Vista Basic; otherwise you have to figure out whether you're a candidate for the $159 Home Premium version or the full-featured $259 Vista Ultimate. (Those are the prices for upgrades; if you're starting from scratch, the prices are a whopping $199, $239 and $399.) Those are just the consumer models: there's also a set of business-oriented versions you might consider. Just the challenge of making a choice might dissuade some from taking the upgrade path. (Those wondering whether their hardware is up to the task can upload the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor .

So what do you get when you take the plunge? A whole grab bag of stuff, certainly too much to cover in one review. I've been using a beta version for several weeks (loading Vista on my recent Dell computer, which is just around the baseline for Areo graphics, took a couple of hours, with no hitches). With the exception of a few glitches—Vista hasn't warmed to the presence of the Google desktop on my machine—I'm generally pleased. It may not have rocked my world, but it certainly makes using Windows more enjoyable.

The most noticeable difference is in the spiffed-up look. Vista's Aero engine exploits translucency as nicely as, well, the Macintosh OS X, where it has appeared for some time. But in certain areas, Vista takes ideas familiar to Macintosh users and improves them. For instance, when you open a folder in Vista, you view the files as thumbnail depictions of the actual content—great for photographs and uniquely formatted documents. Vista also offers a cool way of viewing all your open Windows: a "flip 3D” function that spreads out the windows like a blackjack dealer spreading the cards before a deal, letting you flip through them until you find the one you want to work with. Another nice touch: mousing over the taskbar at the bottom of the screen gives you a post-it-size view of the document. But the best way to find things with Vista is using the built-in search function, a valuable feature Microsoft has offered separately for a while but is finally integrated into the system itself.

Another way to enliven your desktop is something called the "sidebar," allowing you to install a suite of "gadgets," small content windows that can be constantly updated with pictures or information, either from the Internet (weather, Flickr photos, news headlines) or from your own computer (photo slideshows). This is similar to the "widgets" offered on Apple's OS X, but in this case show up persistently on the desktop, whereas Apple makes you press a key to make them appear.

Other Vista features include a mightier means of handling photos—offering editing and organizing features like you find in Apple's iPhoto or Google's Picasa, along with the ability to quickly burn photos on a DVD disk. There's also movie editing and burning. Handling music on Vista is a knottier task, since Microsoft now offers competing systems—its own Windows Media player (version 11, in case you're keeping count) and a different program that goes with its Zune player. Meanwhile, many people , mainly iPod users, will want to simply download Apple's iTunes music player.

Gamers, especially those who are aficionados of Microsoft's Xbox 360 system (and its accompanying Xbox Live service), will appreciate the fact that they can play a new generation of Windows games, in some cases using an Xbox-style controller. And there's even a way to play a Windows game over the Internet against an Xboxer who has the program on that platform.

The most important aspect of Vista, though, is one that may not be apparent in day-to-day use, but ultimately will determine its success—security. Microsoft has taken pains to address many of the vulnerabilities in previous systems, to strive for something that, if not perfect, avoids the miserable pitfalls of systems bogged down in spyware and blue screens of death. A big part of using Vista is a steady stream of dialogue boxes telling you when a program has been added to your computer. Another part is Windows Update, which keeps Vista current, adding patches to shore up newly discovered wormholes that malfeasants have uncovered. There's an anti-phishing feature that supposedly nails bogus sites that mimic banks or e-commerce sites. One part of Vista that lamentably does not exist, however, is virus protection: You have to (and you should) add a separate program to keep out those software infections. Though it's way too soon to tell how much difference these improvements make—and whether the bad guys will manage to gut-slash Vista as easily as they have previous versions of Windows—the evidence so far indicates that Vista is a significant step forward.

Certain Vista users will also appreciate parental controls that either let you limit the computer or Internet activities of little Tommy and Janey or simply monitor their every move like a bedroom Big Brother. On the downside, Vista has built in some digital-rights management rules that, in the assessment of some technical observers, might limit even some legal uses of things like watching or backing up high-definition movies. (Digital-rights activists were actually picketing Vista's high-profile New York City launch on Monday.)

In short, five years after Windows XP, Microsoft has done a reasonably good job in pulling its operating system a bit deeper into the 21st century. If you're the kind of person who gets a kick from taking advantage of all the stuff on your PC, or feel that some of the features described above will make a difference to you—and you have a fairly recent, fairly powerful computer—do consider an upgrade now. Otherwise, there's no problem with letting nature take its course and welcoming Vista on your next PC.