On Wednesday, November 8, 2006, Microsoft released its new operating system, Windows Vista, to hardware manufacturers, marking the end of its development phase and the beginning of the distribution phase. For more than a year, we have seen various builds--most of them private but some public--with ever-increasing build numbers. Although CNET received a build that is technically a pre-RTM build, all of the markings, both internal and external, read Windows Vista RTM build 6000 and reflect all the final fit-and-finish enhancements expected in a final software release.
Before installing Windows Vista, there's an option to go online and use Microsoft Vista's Upgrade Advisor on your current PC. The downloadable ActiveX component will inventory your current hardware and determine which version of Windows Vista is best suited for you: Windows Vista Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business, or Windows Vista Ultimate. On our test laptop, an Acer TravelMate 8200, Microsoft recommended Windows Vista Business.
For us, the installation took a little more than an hour. It's pretty much an automated process, with the installer first copying the ISO image onto the new hard drive or partition, then expanding that image. Once again, we experienced an uncomfortably long plateau at Expanding: 27 percent; as with previous builds, we waited about five minutes before the expansion continued. About halfway through the process, the installer reboots and continues the installation in Windows Vista.
Other than a rounded, more stylized Start menu, the changes in the Windows Vista desktop aren't immediately apparent to longtime Windows XP users. But look closely. For instance, within the Start menu there's no need to use All Programs; instead, simply type the name of the app you're looking for and a shortcut will appear as a search result. If you miss All Programs, it's still there, but now it's a hierarchy with expandable sections; instead of application lists building out onto the desktop, they push down the Start menu list.
This a paradigm shift from Windows XP; now you can create folders of similar content, even if the content resides within different physical folders on the system's hard drive. There's no longer a need within Windows Vista to move files among various folders in the directory.
The new Aero graphics engine within Windows Vista is dynamic, so file icons not only show you the contents of the file but also scale to the size of the page. And now you can view thumbnails of any open task across the bottom of the screen. These, too, are dynamic; you could, for example, monitor the progress of a sporting event just by passing your mouse over the open application.
Two stand-alone features currently available for Windows XP, Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Media Player 11, get their own Windows Vista versions. The changes are subtle. In Internet Explorer, for example, there's better ActiveX control within the new operating system that's not available in the Windows XP edition.
You don't need a Tablet PC to use its features in Windows Vista. The Tablet PC functionality in the Windows Home Premium edition and Windows Business editions is cool, since you can use your mouse to write--albeit poorly--text on any screen for ad hoc note-taking.
Included within Windows Vista Business is Windows Meeting Space, used for setting up secure ad hoc wireless peer-to-peer meetings or collaboration sessions--useful, say, while on an airplane ride with colleagues.
Even old favorites such as Solitaire and Minesweeper get a fresh face. Each game now includes built-in system performance and age-appropriate game recommendations. A game called InkBall is a new addition.
The release of Windows Vista RTM does not mean that Microsoft is finished--far from it. In fact, they'll continue to work on Windows Vista code up until the business release on November 30, 2006, and also the retail release, slated for some time in late January 2007. During the installation process, Microsoft has included the ability to download last-minute patches and updates to the Windows Vista software. That said, we find the current Windows Vista RTM build to be stable, and we look forward to reviewing the final release.