An inside look at Windows Vista

CNET's GameSpot takes an in-depth look at the new operating system from the perspective of a hard-core PC gamer. Screenshots: Vista's got game

Now set to ship in January 2007, Windows Vista will be Microsoft's first major operating system release since it introduced Windows XP in 2001.

The new OS is designed to offer a shiny new user interface, better security, improved data organization and near-instantaneous search. It will be a major gaming platform release because it includes DirectX 10, an upgraded and rebuilt collection of application programming interfaces (APIs) that, according to Microsoft, will offer six to eight times the graphics performance of DirectX 9.0. We're opening our series of Windows Vista features with a look at the most striking feature of Vista, the 3D desktop and the new Aero interface.

Look and feel

Windows Desktop Manager
The next version of Windows brings an end to 20 years of 2D desktop rendering. Windows Aero is actually just a theme, or skin type, used by the Desktop Windows Manager, a new graphical system built into Windows Presentation Foundation. While Windows Vista is Microsoft's DirectX 10 vehicle, the 3D Desktop Windows Manager requires only DirectX 9.0. The switch to 3D rendering means that Windows will now have a use for that fancy $400 graphics card on the desktop.

The use of a 3D accelerator gives Windows Vista much more flexibility in creating imaginative interface displays on the desktop, such as animated wallpaper. In past Windows versions, the desktop could display graphics only in 2D. Youngsters may not believe this, but the very first 3D graphics cards were actually add-on cards that worked in conjunction with an existing 2D graphics card already in the system. The Windows Presentation Foundation uses DirectX to take advantage of your 3D graphics hardware to convert the 2D windows surfaces into textures that can be rendered onto the desktop.

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Instead of displaying plain old windows, the new 3D user interface elements will be able to scale, rotate, and be manipulated with ease. The new desktop paves the way for new navigation features, like Flip3D and an improved Alt-Tab application-switching interface. Flip3D lets you navigate through all your application windows by pulling your open windows together and arranging them into a 3D rolodex format that you can cycle through and select by using your mouse or arrow keys.

The new Alt-Tab interface presents thumbnail shots of the contents of each window, as opposed to the Alt-Tab interface found in Windows XP, which provides only an icon of the program. As is the nature of beta software, nothing is set in stone; the look and functionality might change considerably.

Windows Aero
Aero is Microsoft's new default 3D desktop theme. Gone are the bright blues and smooth color gradients of Windows XP. The new transparent Aero theme features subdued colors and unobtrusive, rounded corners ready for the Web 2.0 era. Transparencies and soft fade effects give Aero a polished look. The borders of each window blur objects lying under them, leaving the window you are working on in focus while giving you a hint of what lies beneath. It's all very pretty.

Mouse over a navigation button, and the button will glow and spill light onto neighboring windows or onto the background. New windows slowly materialize into existence, and, when minimized, they fade and shrink downward.

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To accommodate for no-frills power users, Microsoft will include a classic Windows theme that closely resembles desktop elements found in Windows 2000. However, in our hands-on testing with Beta 1 we noticed that the austere theme doesn't feel as snappy as the Aero interface, which is strange considering that the Aero theme has a lot more visual complexity. We'll chalk that up to the beta status of the product--performance tweaks will likely wait until the end.

3D performance

Graphics card requirements
Windows Vista doesn't have official minimum system requirements yet, but Microsoft has recommended at least 512MB of memory, a "modern" Intel or AMD processor and a DirectX 9.0 graphics card for the current Windows Vista Beta 1. You'll need to have the right hardware to get the full Windows Vista experience. Yes, your system can run Vista if you don't have a DirectX 9.0 card, but you won't be able to enjoy the full Aero desktop effect because the system will default back to 2D mode.

You can't have just any DX9-compatible card either. According to Andrew Dodd, product manager for ATI's software group, the quality of the graphics card can impact the performance of the Aero desktop because it's now just like any other 3D application. Using a new Windows Vista driver from ATI, we tested a handful of ATI DX9 video cards on Windows Vista to see if we could get the system to lag on the desktop. Our 256MB Radeon X1900 XTX and Radeon X850PE cards performed flawlessly when we dragged a window over 10 open Internet Explorer windows. Our 128MB Radeon X300 SE showed some slight hitching when we got up over seven windows, but we had to frantically whip around the mouse to make it noticeable--we wouldn't have seen any signs of strain with normal usage. Current discrete DirectX 9.0 video cards should be able to handle Aero without a problem.

If you're thinking about upgrading your video card for Windows Vista, consider waiting a little while for ATI and Nvidia to release their DirectX 10 graphics cards. DirectX 9.0 cards will work great on the desktop and in legacy DX9 games, but you'll need DirectX 10 hardware for advanced Windows Vista games.

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