Review: Windows Vista Business (Upgrade)

Windows Vista ReviewSo you're thinking of upgrading to Vista? Is it worth it? Is the upgrade painful? What do you get for your money, and will it actually improve your productivity? Read on to see a full review of the upgrade edition of Windows Vista Business.

Before you even part with your cash you need to decide which version of Vista you're going to upgrade to. Yes, this review is concentrating on the Business Edition, but you may want to consider one of the alternatives. There are four main versions - Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. Home Basic will eventually replace XP Home as a lower end solution, which is still being shipped with many systems. Most PCs are now being offered with Home Premium, which includes the new 'Aero' interface, better support for laptops & tablet PCs, Windows Meeting Space and Windows Media Center. Vista Business excludes Media Center but includes a better backup facility and Remote Desktop (for connecting to your PC remotely). Ultimate includes all of the above plus BitLocker drive encryption technology for securing data.

So, in short, unless you want the Media Center interface on your PC and need to encrypt data Vista Business will offer a cheaper alternative.

{{mosgoogle}}

What is Aero and Flip 3D?
Aero is essentially a prettier alternative XP's interface, with a translucent glass effect around all windows. Flip 3D is an alternative to the 'Alt and Tab' method that you may currently use to flick between applications. You cycle through your applications in a 'Rolodex' fashion using the Windows Key and Tab keys. The Desktop is also included, so you can quickly minimise all applications. Using Alt & Tab will now display a thumbnail image of the selected window rather than just the title bar information that XP provided.

Aero with flip 3d

What's in the Box?
Before we look at the contents, you will no doubt have noted the new plastic box styling. It's smaller than previous OS boxes, although my case was decidedly snug, and it took me about 5 minutes to open it!  You don't get a great deal inside - there's a 34 page booklet showcasing the new features, a leaflet offering different media formats (CDs instead of DVDs and 64 bit instead of 32 bit version), and the DVD itself. There is also a separate product key and certificate of authenticity label (both of which were already adhered to the box, so at least they cannot get lost).


PC specification
Microsoft cite that Vista will run on an 800MHz processor with 512MB RAM and 20GB hard disc (with 15MB of free space), but if you're going to spend this sort of money on a powerful new OS then it is false economy not to have a system man enough to take advantage of it. Personally I'd recommend nothing less than a mid-range P4, 1GB RAM and 100-200GB hard disc, which equates to a mid-range PC from around 2005-2006. Ideally you'd be running 2GB of RAM - the memory will make all the difference.

For this test I installed Vista on a 2.4GHz P4 with 1GB RAM and a 350GB SATA hard disc. Microsoft provides a tool (unfortunately only after you've installed Vista) to give a yardstick to measure performance buy - the Windows Vista Experience Index. The test, available under Control Panel runs a series of tests on the system and provides a rating for hard disc, memory and graphics performance, with an overall rating based on the lowest rating for the various components. This gives users an instant view of potential bottlenecks in their system which might be removed with a relatively low cost upgrade.

{{mosgoogle}}

The Installation Process
Microsoft have paid a lot of attention to this. With XP there were two places within the installation where it would ask you for information - Vista gets all of the information up front and then just chugs through the installation process, which in itself took about 30 minutes - I was expecting longer! The reason is that the installation disc contains a semi -pre-installed version of the OS that it literally just decompresses and tweaks as required. It does, however migrate existing XP user settings, applications and preferences.

You can run the Vista upgrade from within XP, but I simply rebooted my machine and allowed it to boot from the CD. After selecting regional settings, entering the product key, accepting terms and clicking on Upgrade you can then select the partition to install on, which should be a formality of selecting the C:\ drive unless you have a non-standard configuration. After this you can sit back - the system will reboot twice over time before prompting you for a username and password., plus computer name and other general settings. Again, Vista will chew data for a little while before finally displaying the desktop. If Vista has detected an Internet connection it'll download any updates automatically. You can also configure it to automatically validate the license during the installation, which will also take place now.


First Impressions
Given that the PC Vista was installed on was not state of the art I was remarkably surprised at the general speed of it. Booting took a similar time to XP, although shutdown took a little longer.

Visually, Vista can only be described as sumptuous. The glass effect makes the previously blue bars semi-transparent (except when windows are maximised). When maximising or minimising any windows they shrink down and fade out simultaneously giving everythin a more liquid, organic feel.

When you click on the Windows logo (formally the Start icon) you are greeted with a significantly different start menu to previous versions. The search field is the major change here, and you will soon wonder what you did without it. Enter a keyword and the menu will display a list of files that contain it. Vista; this includes emails, documents, spreadsheets, presentations - any file that can be scanned for a piece of text, or can be linked to the keyword (for example, pictures in a folder that may contain the keyword). Whilst you may say 'Windows has always had a search', this is different - it's fast and it works. It intelligently provides results that are most likely to be what you want first, giving you a link to view more results, either in a particular media category or of all types.

Vista Search

The next visual enhancement you'll notice is Windows Sidebar. This can either sit underneath all windows or can be permanently docked at the side of the screen. There is an ever-growing number of 'gadgets' that can be freely downloaded and plugged in - from weather forecasts, horoscopes and calendars through to system/network monitors, airline flight information and news readers, and the list is growing daily. I'd previously tried the Google Desktop, which includes an almost mirror image version of the Sidebar, and while I found it useful ended up uninstalling it as it had a detrimental effect on performance. Not so with the Vista Sidebar, which loaded quickly and responded in a timely fashion whenever I interacted with the gadgets.

{{mosgoogle}}

The user accounts facility now has the ability to restrict access to the system or individual programs. This is particularly useful for shared computers, especially as more people work from home. For example, you could create an account with time restrictions, or with access denied to specific applications - great for ensuring the kids cannot be on MySpace when you need to be writing that urgent report.

Parental controls

Microsoft stated that Vista was (and is) the most secure version of Windows yet. While that may be true it doesn't stop security updates being downloaded with a similar regularity of XP. That said, Vista will prompt you for authorisation when anything potential harmful takes place, which can be annoying after a while. I try to remind myself it's there for my protection , but still. The firewall has also been supercharged, now working on both outbound traffic as well as inbound - a welcome upgrade.

There are many other enhancements, most of which fall out of the scope of this review's target audience. Items notable of mention are improved accessibility, better power management for notebooks and improved tablet PC support. The Windows SideShow, currently only supported by very few laptops allows a second, smaller LCD panel, fed by a 1GB flash memory, provide instant access to email, calendar, photos and music - for many this will be little more than a gimic, however it will significantly improve battery life.


Additional software
Many of the programs that shipped with XP have seen a significant upgrade, or have been replaced altogether. The photo viewer of XP is now replaced by Photo Gallery. If your familiar with Media Player then you will immediately feel at home. The left hand pane allows you to drill down through your photos and videos by media type, keyword, date, rating or folder name.The omni-present search field provides more immediate searching. Basic photo editing tools are also included, such as crop, brightness/contrast adjust and red-eye removal, although it falls short of some of the features found in free products such as Google's Picasa. Nevertheless it provides a quick, slick way to view, categorise and manipulate your visual media.

Photo Gallery

Where XP shipped with Windows Movie Maker Vista includes an additional app that will take your edited efforts and burn them on DVD. The editing aspect has also been beefed up, with more visual effects and interface enhancements. HD video is also supported, and in fact Vista won where a third party application failed - it successfully connected to my Sony HD camcorder where a current leading video editing package failed to. While the video and DVD editing may lack the finesse of applications such as Adobe Premiere Elements they will be more than enough for the casual user and include enough templates and special effects to make even the most mundane of videos stand out from the crowd.

{{mosgoogle}}

Vista Business and Ultimate include an enhanced backup and restore application, which for me is a real plus. Backing up data is one of those tasks that we all hate, but we've all had that  moment when we realise that we've lost a precious file that there's only one copy of. Vista can back up a complete image of the computer - OS, applications and settings - in one go. This can be scheduled to occur automatically and can also back up to a network location. Shadow Copy, another feature of Vista automatically creates copies of files while you work, saving incremental changes. Just right click on a file and select 'Restore Previous Versions' to roll back.

Enhanced Backup Centre

Vista Alternatives
There are a number of plugins available for XP that will emulate some of the features of Vista. Google Desktop not only provides a desktop search facility but also mimics Windows Sidebar. There are several free apps that will replace the XP start menu with the new Vista menu and can emulate the aero interface. Parental control and logging can also be handled by applications such as CyberSitter or NetNanny, and Windows Defender is one of many security programs freely available (SpyBot or Adaware, anyone?). Google's Picasa provides much greater functionality for photo viewing and editing than the Vista offering.


Summary
With the Vista Business upgrade available online for around £130 it's not a cheap upgrade, and many users will require hardware upgrades such as more RAM. There are also several applications that mimic many of the visual aspects of Vista, which for many will negate the reason for upgrading in the first place. But when you add up features such the greater security, parental control, integrated search, better photo editing, movie AND DVD editing software, backup software to name but a few, and then you start to use it in anger you can see that Microsoft listened to many of its critics. The Redmond golliath comes in from a lot of flack, but with Vista they have produced an OS that does actually improve the way you work. A word of warning - do your homework before installing: check that all of the software you use is compatible, or you may have to update that as well - there's a free system check on the Microsoft website for this. Also, make sure that your system well exceeds Microsoft's minimum spec or you'll end up with a state of the art tortoise!

{{mosgoogle}}

Do I recommend Vista? That really depends on how you use your system. If you present to others regularly, then Vista will add that extra polish just in general navigation. For day-to-day working you will find it quicker to get to what you want. For those that just want to 'use' a computer, or for a shared computer that needs more security and tracking then again Vista beats XP. The Sidebar provides useful and customisable information (and in my experience is faster than the Google offering). So if you have a reasonably fast computer, want to impress and want to benefit from a user interface designed to get you were you want to go quicker, with the security and backup facilities to save you should the worst happen then the answer is yes.

Vista Review - 4 starsPros: Beautiful interface, enhanced security, excellent backup facility, more applications, much improved user interface, desktop search.

Cons: Will require a hardware upgrade on older PCs. Some software may not work with Vista.You can get many of the elements of Vista for free from other applications.

All content is copyright of Martin Bailey unless otherwise specified. Text or images may not be reproduced without permission.