More than five years in the making and—according to Jim Alchin, co-president of Microsoft’s Platforms & Services Division—boasting more than a thousand new features, Windows Vista is a landmark OS, and IT pros would do well to ensure that they’re prepared for its launch. Even if you have no explicit intent to rapidly upgrade to Vista, you’ll inevitably need to understand the OS as it begins to creep into your organization through new hardware purchases. With Vista poised to charge headlong into the IT arena in the next year or so, now is the time to delve into the OS’s essentials and coolest features.

Which Edition for You?
Were you ever confused by the differences between the various versions of Windows XP? If so, you’re going to be confounded by Vista, which Microsoft will release in five basic versions—three that provide business-oriented management features and two that are intended for the home. Here’s a look at the five versions, from the bottom up.

  • Vista Home Basic—At the low end of the Vista product line, you’ll find Vista Home Basic, the counterpart to XP Home Edition. Vista Home Basic won’t support the new Aero UI, which I discuss a bit later.
  • Vista Home Premium—Usurping Windows XP Media Center Edition, Vista Home Premium includes all the features of the previous OS, including the ability to view and record TV and to create, edit, and burn DVDs. This version includes the new Aero UI, as well as Tablet PC support.
  • Vista Business. The counterpart of XP Professional, Vista Business offers support for using Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy to join domains and perform management activities. This version of the OS also includes the Aero UI.
  • Vista Enterprise. A superset of Vista Business, Vista Enterprise includes all the features of Vista Business as well as new enterprise-oriented features such as Bit- Locker (a new drive-encryption technology) and Virtual PC Express (a single-session Virtual PC edition for running legacy applications). Vista Enterprise will be available only to customers who buy Microsoft Software Assurance or have a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement.
  • Vista Ultimate. As its name implies, Vista Ultimate includes all the features of all the other Vista editions, including the business, mobility, and entertainment features.

To get an idea of the main features you’ll find in the Vista business editions but won’t find in the Vista home editions, check out Table 1. To see the features of the home editions that aren’t in the business editions, see the sidebar “Vista at Home,” page 36. European customers will be able to buy Home Basic N and Business N versions, which amount to the OS minus the media player. At the time of this writing, the pricing for the various editions has yet to be announced.

What About System Requirements?
Microsoft has been vague about Vista’s hardware requirements, leading to speculation that these requirements will be far beyond those of XP. However, early experience with the Vista Customer Technology Preview (CTP) builds squelches that speculation. Microsoft’s minimum requirements are a modern CPU (i.e., 800MHz or faster), 512MB of RAM, and a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) with DirectX 9 support.

Vista’s interface requirements scale according to the hardware it runs on. For Aero support, Vista requires systems that support DirectX 9, Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM), a minimum of 32-bit-per-pixel graphics capability, and an adapter with adequate graphics memory per screen resolution. For example, 1280 × 1024 resolution requires a minimum of 64MB of graphics memory, whereas 1920 × 1200 requires a minimum of 128MB. If systems don’t have that level of support, Vista will provide a more basic Aero-less UI. The bottom line is that Vista will run well on the vast majority of current systems but will likely run slower than XP on older systems that have less than 512MB of RAM.

Tell Me About the Aero UI
The Vista UI features larger, more graphical icons than XP does. In my tests, the desktop definitely benefited from additional screen real estate: Vista’s desktop is sparse, showing only the Recycle Bin. The Start menu is also redesigned; a rounded Windows icon replaces the word start. Vista’s new Start menu no longer uses a hierarchical menu format in which submenus appear when you click and follow a sequence of right arrows. Instead, each new set of menu items replaces the contents of the new Start menu. Figure 1 shows the new Vista Start menu.

The new Vista interface contains a number of changes, most of which remind me of Apple’s OS X or various Linux distributions. The UI is a departure from XP’s interface—in some aspects, that’s good, and in others, not so good. The good news is that the new Aero UI’s rounded windows and transparent pop-ups are undeniably cool. The bad news is that many familiar and commonly used tools are now hidden and difficult to find.For example, right-clicking the desktop no longer lets you configure the display’s properties. To change the display properties, you now need to use the new Appearance and Personalization applet in Control Panel.

Frequent users of the Administrative Tools menu will be surprised by its transformation. You now perform tasks such as adding ODBC data sources and adding users directly from Control Panel. You’ll also find Network Connections in Control Panel, but just try reconfiguring your TCP/IP properties—you’ll feel as if you’re on an Easter egg hunt. To reconfigure your TCP/IP properties, you must use Vista’s new Network Center. First, you select the View Status link to display the familiar Local Area Connection Status dialog box. Then, you click the Configure and Allow buttons to get to the TCP/IP settings, which now appear under the self-explanatory Internet Connection Protocol IPv4 heading.

Windows Explorer has a completely new look, and I’m not a big fan. I figured out how to use it pretty quickly, but I think XP’s Windows Explorer is more intuitive. In Vista, the familiar, easy-to-navigate tree structure is gone. To determine where you are in the disk structure, you now have to rely on the menu bar at the top. Figure 2 shows the new Windows Explorer. The clock still won’t show both the date and time on the standardsized taskbar, but you can display both on Vista’s new Sidebar feature.

Apparently, Microsoft has tried valiantly to make Windows Explorer more Mac-like and has put a lot of effort toward improving its searchability by adding a more accessible search capability to the new Start menu. As a power user, I’ve always taken explicit control over my hard disk’s organization, and I’ve found most of the new improvements to be of little value. (I also found Vista’s ubiquitous Is this copy of Windows Legal message to be an extremely irritating aspect of Windows Explorer.) In all fairness, the new Windows Explorer will probably be very helpful to novice users.

Is Security Improved?
Windows has always been plagued by the necessity to run many programs in the context of the Administrator account. Although you can run most applications under more limited profiles, all sorts of programs—including Microsoft Office and Microsoft Visual Studio—will install and work properly only when they run in the context of the Administrator account. This necessity is at the core of the vast majority of XP and Windows 2000 security problems.

Vista’s User Account Control (UAC) is a step toward improved desktop security. The UAC setup lets the administrator grant onetime permissions when necessary to run programs that require higher security privileges. Perhaps more important, when UAC is enabled, the administrative user runs at a normal security level, and when elevated privileges are necessary, Vista prompts the administrator with a Windows needs your permission dialog box. (In the CTP editions I tested, this warning is all too frequent; Microsoft has worked on this problem for Beta 2 and promises to fix it.) UAC is enabled by default.

Another important Vista security enhancement is its updated Windows Firewall implementation. Unlike XP’s firewall feature, the Vista firewall offers protection for both inbound and outbound connections. The simple process of configuring outbound security is quite similar to the process of configuring inbound security. However, unlike some popular personal firewalls, Windows Firewall doesn’t offer pop-up notifications to let you know when a program attempts to make an outbound connection. To monitor connection attempts, you still need to manually peruse the Vista firewall log files (i.e., C:\windows\ pfirewall.log). A couple of freeware viewers can help you monitor these logs.

For spyware protection, Vista also includes Windows Defender, which is enabled by default and continuously scans for many types of spyware attacks. This feature also automatically scans files that you use Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to download. IE also includes several new security features. In addition to its new Mozilla Firefox –like tabbed interface, IE 7.0 includes phishing and spoofing protection. Another welcome IE security enhancement is the new protected mode that lets IE run at a lower privilege, thereby reducing the possible exposure to malicious Web-based software.

Vista also features a new BitLocker drive-encryption feature that can help ensure that the data on your laptop isn’t compromised in the event of loss or theft. To do so, the feature encrypts all but your hard disk’s boot sector In the early betas, BitLocker required a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip. Fortunately, Microsoft gave up on that idea. In later builds, BitLocker also works with a password or USB drive—a welcome change for users who run systems that don’t have the TPM chip. Vista also still offers the NTFS Encrypting File System (EFS) feature. BitLocker works for the volume on which Windows is installed, whereas EFS also works on other volumes.

Another new Vista security feature is Windows Service Hardening. Because Windows services are always running—often under elevated system privileges—they’re one of the largest open attack surfaces in Windows. Windows Service Hardening restricts critical Windows services from performing unwanted activities in the file system, registry , and network infrastructure. Windows Service Hardening uses a per-service SID to control service access to system resources.

Let’s Talk Manageability and Compatibility
As you might expect, the Vista Business , Vista Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate editions support essentially the same Active Directory (AD) and Group Policy management capabilities that XP does. However, Vista enhances many of these features. For example, Vista has more than 3000 Group Policy settings—a vast increase from the 1500 settings in XP. The new settings give you more granular control than ever before, letting you, for example, configure Windows Defender, block USB devices, and configure Windows Firewall. And Vista is the first Microsoft OS to ship with Group Policy Management Console (GPMC), a tool for managing Group Policy Objects (GPOs).

Task Scheduler, Backup Event Viewer, and Performance Monitor are all redesigned in Vista. The new Task Scheduler is backward compatible with XP’s Task Scheduler. The Task Scheduler improvements impressed me. You can schedule tasks at certain times as well as according to certain system events (e.g., a user-logon event), low-disk-space events, or computer idle times. You can also schedule tasks to run in sequence. You can use the new Task Scheduler as an alternative to logon scripts, and you can use it to run system-maintenance tasks when the system is idle. Figure 3 shows the new Task Scheduler. I consider the changes to Backup Event Viewer to be essential: That application has been nearly unusable since Microsoft revamped it for the Win2K release. XP’s backup functionality is difficult to use, doesn’t like reusing tapes, and is especially difficult to run from the command line.

Vista also includes a new file-based, hardware-independent imaging format called Windows Imaging Format (WIM). Because WIM is file-based, it allows you to reduce the number of images you need by letting you create a base image with different sets of add-on components. Unlike physical image files, in which the entire image is duplicated, WIM uses file compression to reduce the amount of storage space that each image requires. A new Ximage tool lets you capture and edit WIM images. With the Windows System Image Manager, you can create customized Vista images for deployment. Also, Vista includes an updated User State Migration Tool (USMT) to help you migrate data and settings to a new Vista system.

As I mentioned, the Vista Enterprise and Vista Ultimate editions will also include Virtual PC Express. Like the full-blown Virtual PC product, Virtual PC Express lets you run applications that might be incompatible with Vista because they’re written for earlier Windows versions. Virtual PC Express is limited to running a single virtual machine (VM). The VM images are completely compatible with Virtual PC and Virtual Server 2005.

How About Communications and Connectivity?
One of the most basic communication capabilities that Vista shares with XP and the other Windows OSs is the ability to share files and printers. For small-scale file serving, Vista—like XP— allows a maximum of only 10 simultaneous small-tomidsized business (SMB) connections.

Vista offers a number of revamped connectivity and Internet utilities. The new OS ships with IE 7.0, integrated Really Simple Syndication (RSS) support and a new mail client called Windows Mail. Some of the most important IE improvements (beyond the phishing and spoofing protection I mentioned earlier) include tabbed browsing, a streamlined menu bar, a new print-preview function, and integrated RSS feeds. Vista’s RSS support isn’t limited to IE. Vista itself provides support for RSS content through the use of APIs, which let you incorporate RSS into your own applications. Windows Mail is essentially an update of Outlook Express. The only difference I noticed right away is the integration of Microsoft Passport authentication. Windows Collaboration replaces NetMeeting, but unlike Windows Mail, Windows Collaboration is all-new. Windows Collaboration lets you share presentations and files among small groups of Vista systems. Using Windows Collaboration, you can use your Wi-Fi–enabled notebooks to create an ad-hoc peer-to-peer network, with no need for an existing Wi-Fi network or other Internet connectivity. Another useful communications tool is the new Sync Center. As its name implies, Sync Center lets you synchronize the contents of multiple folders on two networked PCs.

A New Vista to Desktop Computing
Vista is far more than a minor XP upgrade. The new OS is a huge step forward for Microsoft, providing many more new features than I can cover in this space. I haven’t even mentioned Vista’s new programming support in Windows Workflow Foundation, the new WinFX presentation-layer APIs, and the new XML for Applications (XAML) markup language. Despite the plethora of new features, though, you might still find that some features you were excited about didn’t, in fact, make it into the final version. The sidebar “What’s Not Included?” gives a quick overview of the features that are missing. Nevertheless, Vista is a compelling new desktop experience. As it steadily and inevitably approaches your environment, you need to start gearing up for its bevy of new features.