I'll let you in on a little secret. Here's a minor behind-the-scenes look into the life of a computer columnist.

Back in early August, I'd been testing Windows Vista in its Beta 2 and build 5472 incarnations, and—to tell the truth—they both seemed awful. Many features either didn't work or had just finally started working—and once I got a chance to play with them, Vista with some of those features started looking worse than Vista without those features. And yet people were talking about Microsoft delivering a release candidate by early September—a mere three weeks after I was hurling foul imprecations upon the heads of Microsoft developers.

So, I thought I'd weigh in on the probability of Microsoft producing a stable RC1 by early September. Referring to build 5472, I wrote, "As a guy who's followed Windows betas through releases to manufacturing from Windows 1.0 to now, I've got to say, 'Senator, I've known release candidates … and you're no release candidate.'" I sat back, feeling that I'd done the world a least a minor service.

About two days later, another interim build—build 5536—arrived. Ready for more battle, I wiped my test machines' hard disks clean and began to install. Only to say, "Oops."

The difference between builds 5472 and 5536 was like night and day. Installation problems had gone away, Vista suddenly had drivers for almost everything, the Help system stopped telling me that I'd somehow lost my Internet connection, and so on. A good 90 percent of my Vista troubles were gone.

With all that said, I'm not surprised that RC1 pleasantly surprises. It feels significantly more like a shippable product than earlier releases did. However, I've tried it on a variety of hardware, and I'm still wondering what sort of computer you need to make Aero Glass work. One of my test machines is a brand-new Acer 5003 laptop with a SiS 760 video chip equipped with 128MB of video RAM, and I still get a performance ranking of 1.0 from picky Vista. But that's not a showstopper for me. To be honest, the first thing I do when I start working at a new Windows XP workstation is run the Classic Windows theme and set the display settings to allow for best performance, so my XP desktops look pretty much like Windows 2000 Professional desktops. I've discovered how to duplicate that experience on Vista, and I suppose I'll end up running all my Vista boxes that way. (Too bad you can't pick themes with Group Policy.)

Owners of tablet systems and Media Center-ready systems will like RC1's Home Premium or Ultimate editions. I don't have any Media Center systems, but associates tell me that Vista's good at finding and employing all kinds of TV-tuner hardware, and when I put RC1 on my ThinkPad X41, I had honestly forgotten that it was a tablet PC—but Vista hadn't. As someone who mainly chooses systems for their speed and hard disk size balanced against portability—I travel all the time but must be able to run several virtual machines on VMware—I tend to not notice whether an OS notices all my hardware, but RC1 reminded me of how comforting it is to load an OS and have all your hardware "just work."

One not-so-pleasant surprise was Amazon's release of the Vista pricing scheme. Vista Ultimate will apparently run $400 per PC. I can remember when buying a new PC always ran about $3000 for the hardware, with the software running around $500 to $700 per machine. When I purchased the Acer 5003 a few weeks ago, I was frankly astounded to find a 64-bit Turion laptop with an 80GB hard disk, so-called Ultrabrite screen, dual-layer DVD burner and 512MB of RAM for $549, with a case, a wireless router, and a printer thrown into the deal. Now, hardware seems to be nothing more than a mere requirement for running software.