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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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CNET Reviews: Peek at Vista
New features are designed to appeal to nonbusiness users.

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.

Navigation and organization

Using Windows file search has long been the operating system equivalent to searching for your car keys in the morning--you have a hazy idea of where they should be, but it'll take longer than you think it should to find them. As anyone who has ever used Windows search will tell you, if you forget the exact name or location of the file or folder you want, count on wasting an intolerable amount of time waiting for Windows to return your search results and then even more time wading through the barely organized result list.

Being able to find your data quickly is almost as important as having the data itself, and Windows' failings in file navigation have left the door wide open for competitors willing to provide a service the OS can't provide. Last year, search giant Google released a desktop search program that offered lightning-quick desktop search results for finding e-mails, files and even Web sites stored in your Web history.

Microsoft improved its file search system in Windows XP by using indexing to speed up searches, but Windows Vista has evolved file navigation and organization to an entirely new level. Finding your documents, programs, and media files is much easier in Windows Vista. Yes, it's difficult to get excited about a new navigation system, but the change is significant since it impacts how we work and play on the desktop every single day.

Microsoft isn't delivering the whole pie just yet, however. Windows Vista was supposed to come with WinFS, a systemwide relational database designed to make file navigation more enjoyable than playing on your Xbox 360. Microsoft had to cut WinFS out of the release in order to meet the launch schedule, but it should be available as a download for both Windows Vista and Windows XP once it's released. A pervasive database lets users and programmers create deep relationships between files. Imagine instead of just finding a folder full of pictures, you could easily find pictures with only you in them, from specific dates, and even certain events--all at the same time. That's what WinFS is supposed to do.

Windows Vista has a new quick-search bar integrated into the start menu and folder-explorer views. The search tool automatically starts returning results as soon as you type in the first letter and narrows down the results as you add more letters. Start typing, and the results will appear and dynamically change on the fly. Did you narrow down your results field to zero? No worries--delete a few letters to rebuild the results list instead of running the search all over again. The search returns everything, including programs, files and folders. Vista even includes the ability to search through data stores, such as e-mail archives, Word documents and a host of other file types. You'll likely still need to wait for regular, full-system searches when trying to find obscure, seldom-used files not included in the indexing service--you can choose to include them, but we imagine that adding needless files could end up slowing down the quick search.

The quick search will highlight your best match as it narrows down the results, and pressing the Enter key will open the best-match file or launch the best-match program. It was confusing at first, since years of using Web search has taught us to press Enter immediately after typing in text to get a results page. Now, pressing Enter automatically opens or launches the best-match selection. We accidentally launched 3DMark06, a benchmarking program, a couple of times while we were using quick search to look for the application folder.

Windows Vista will also let you save searches as a virtual folder. When you open the folder, it runs the search to populate the folder with items. By running the search in real-time, the virtual folder will be able to catch and display all the new files that meet the search criteria. Virtual folders don't recopy your files, so you can safely delete the virtual folder without losing any data.

Microsoft's new metatag feature will help you better organize your files by allowing you to attach description "tags" to a file to make it easier to find and organize. Metatags provide a magnitude of improvement over the simple file/folder organization scheme that hasn't changed much since the DOS days. You can tag any file with just about any word. For instance, you might have some videos, photos and planning documents all related to multiple projects. Under the traditional Windows file system, all these files might go into one main folder, with subfolders for each different project. Then you have to deal with the conundrum of sharing the same file across multiple projects. Should I maintain one file, or drop copies of the file in each folder? What happens if I make changes?

With the new tagging features of Windows Vista, you can easily give files multiple attributes. When you search for "blue flame experiment," you're sure to get all the files associated with that project on the first try. If you have files that are relevant for more experiments, just tag them to make sure they also show up when you search or create a virtual folder for "red flame experiment." You can use the built-in tags, such as author or rating, or you can use your own custom keywords. As long as your files are tagged correctly, gathering your financial or legal files should take no more than a single search even if the actual files are spread throughout the system.

Microsoft has overhauled the Windows Start Menu to make it easier to find and access programs. The left side of the menu displays the most recently used programs, and the All Programs menu selection at the bottom now transforms the entire left menu area into a program-navigation menu, instead of opening an unwieldy navigation menu that expands rightward. Clicking on a folder in the new program-view menu expands it downward to reveal executable programs contained inside, making it easier for those using a notebook touch pad to find and run programs from the Start Menu.

Windows Vista also features explorer shells that are customized to provide more useful displays for specific file types, including media files, such as pictures, music and videos. The explorer will display a preview of the currently selected item in the bottom part of the window, and the toolbar displays actions specific to the file type. The music explorer window, for example, offers the basic window layout, views and file organization menus, but it also offers a Play All option and a Public Settings menu, which lets you set network sharing from right inside the music explorer.

The Windows games explorer features similar customized options to make gaming easier. You no longer need to hunt through the Program Files menu to launch a game, because Windows Vista will have every game you install on the system in the games explorer. If you happen to have a lot of games, the explorer lets you filter them by publisher, developer, rating, last-played date and product version. Additionally, the explorer has a Hardware button in the action bar, which gives you direct access to your hardware system profile in case you need to tweak your system for gaming.

Security and networking

If you've used Windows XP in the last few years, you know security hasn't exactly been its strong suit. Numerous folks have shown that an unprotected PC with a fresh install of Windows XP can be compromised within minutes of being connected to the Internet. Microsoft has released a series of security updates and service pack releases over the years, but it has been tough keeping up when all the black hats are gunning for you. You can find a plethora of antivirus, antispyware, and malware companies shilling their wares to make up for the inadequacies of the PC operating system.

Microsoft hopes to walk down a more secure path with Windows Vista. Jim Allchin, co-president of the Platforms Products and Services Division at Microsoft, stated that security will be one of the top reasons to upgrade to Vista. The new OS comes with an upgraded, built-in firewall, new user-access protocols, a more secure version of Internet Explorer, a new version of Windows Defender, and sports new features like parental controls, full-drive encryption, and device-driver blocking.

User Account Protection, originally called Least Privileged User Account, helps users safely operate their computers by making non-administrator logins more appealing. Similar features existed in Windows XP, but they didn't offer enough power to wean users off logging in as an adminstrator, since many programs required the use of an administrator account, and simple things like adding a WEP code or a printer required full access to the computer. As a result, most users opted to log in as the administrator to get their work done. Logging in as the administrator is a double-edged sword. The user has total access to the OS, but it also gives spyware and malware programs unfettered access to core system files, which makes it all too easy for them to gain a foothold in the system.

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A secure Vista
Windows' chief gives tour of antiphishing and parental-control tools.

For Windows Vista, Microsoft tweaked the user accounts to offer extra privileges, while reserving critical privileges for special use on the administrator account. Users should now be able to run all programs and change minor settings without being logged in as the administrator. To enhance security further, even if you log in as an administrator, Vista will automatically prompt the user for the proper credentials before continuing with a program's request.

Microsoft released Windows AntiSpyware to tackle the growing spyware and malware threat a couple years ago. The system, now called Windows Defender, acts as an always-on monitoring service; it constantly checks for suspicious activity and prevents unwanted software from installing. You can install Windows Defender right now, but expect to see a considerably more advanced version with the release of Windows Vista.

For the past few years, one of the largest weak spots in Windows XP's defenses has been Internet Explorer. Competing browsers, like Firefox, gained considerable market share simply because IE became a serious security risk with new IE exploits appearing seemingly every day. Microsoft has changed many of Internet Explorer's core functionalities with respect to security for Vista. IE will be "sand boxed", meaning it will have just enough privileges to wander the Web, but not enough to cause any real harm to the OS as a whole. Microsoft will also include new protective measures, such as constantly updated phishing filters, and quick cache clearing.

Windows XP currently offers a built-in firewall, but you'll get an improved version in Windows Vista that gives you more control over what gets in and out of the system. You'll be able to set what programs get access to the Internet.You can even block all IM and P2P applications across certain users. The firewall relies on rules set forth in the Windows Service Hardening platform. These rules limit how applications can access core system files, and whether they can access them at all. Windows Service Hardening acts to protect the core system in the event that a malicious program manages to get into the system.

Vista will also provide extra hard-disk security. BitLocker Drive Encryption, a hardware-based data-protection scheme provides full-drive encrypting. Enterprise editions of Vista will come with BitLocker and will require trusted platform modules for maximum effectiveness. This feature is more for the corporate user, but, who knows when a PC gamer might need to protect a Battlefield 2 config from nefarious siblings. Another feature that will only excite enterprise IT security departments, Vista can block unauthorized device drivers on the system. This means that you won't be able to use a USB storage device in a computer that has blocking enabled. The feature, while not particularly useful for home computers, will help companies prevent data theft.

Parental controls will receive a considerable boost in Vista. Parents will be able to monitor the actions of their children with detailed reports and control what Internet sites they can visit. Parents, or precocious administrators, can also limit access to the computer to certain hours of the day. Kids will have to keep an eye on the clock if they're in a 40-person Blackwing Lair "World of Warcraft" raid. We found that the system will automatically log the user out and prevent him from logging back in once the clock hits the time limit. We tried being sneaky by attempting to push the system clock back a couple hours to give us more free time, but the OS stopped us cold by prompting for an Administrator password on the date/time adjustment screen. (We were able to overcome the time constraints by going into the system BIOS and changing the system clock there.) Additionally, Vista will make use of ESRB ratings to help parents determine which games to allow their children to play.

Windows Vista will come with a completely reworked networking stack. The next-generation TCP/IP stack will work with IPv4 and IPv6, and will also support auto-tuning and quality-of-service features. Wireless traffic will receive numerous boosts in technology to better accommodate for lost packets, bad signals, and large amounts of electromagnetic interference. All these features boil down to better, more-consistent transfer rates for your existing Internet connection.

Compound TCP, or CTCP, helps to improve transfer rates by optimizing how the sender and receiver handle data. The software has a built-in feedback mechanism that responds to delays and compensates for latency. As a result, Vista can automatically adjust how much data is sent at a time, even varying how often data is sent, providing for improved data-transfer rates.

Quality-of-service (QoS) features will provide for improved audio and video streaming from local and remote servers. A subset of the QoS modules called qWAVE (Quality Windows Audio/Video Experience) will give priority to audio and video packets, while at the same time monitoring the network's changing conditions to adjust bandwidth usage dynamically. Microsoft is also working on off-network media playback quality. If you launch a new program while playing a media file, Vista promises seamless playback without any video or audio hiccups thanks to smarter resource allocation.

Windows Peer-to-Peer Networking, introduced in the advanced networking pack for Windows XP, will get a makeover for Vista. The additional changes in Vista will enable users to run P2P applications easily, with overall better performance. People Near Me is a new feature within Peer-to-Peer Networking that enables users to share files locally with friends without having to go through multiple complex hurdles.

From a user standpoint, the average person won't notice the difference because things will just work the way they are supposed to. Connecting to other computers, locally or over the Internet, will be easier, faster and hopefully more secure.

Windows Vista and DirectX 10

It's been called DirectX 10, Windows Graphics Foundation 2.0, and most recently, Direct3D10. The naming situation will clear up as we get closer to the official Windows Vista release, but all you have to know is that DirectX 10 and Direct3D10 in particular will introduce a new era in PC gaming.

Microsoft's DirectX APIs are a collection of interfaces that standardize how game developers talk to PC system hardware. It's a lot easier for programmers to write for a single DirectSound or Direct3D API, instead of writing for every single video card and sound card in existence. Microsoft rebuilt its Direct3D API from scratch for Windows Vista, and Direct3D10 will serve as the base for all future Direct3D innovations throughout the life span of the Windows Vista operating system.

Because the Direct3D10 foundation has to serve game developers through the next decade, Windows Vista will streamline and open up Direct3D with several forward-looking features that will help programmers create better games and get more performance out of PC hardware.

All hail the graphics processing unit
Direct3D10 finally completes the break from the legacy fixed-function pipeline. Developers will use the programmable pipeline to emulate the older, fixed-function steps. Additionally, Microsoft had to rethink its display driver model now that the entire desktop is going 3D. The video card isn't just for games anymore. When you have a 3D desktop and give each application its own 3D window, the display driver has to be flexible and stable enough to handle the video card's increased role in the system. Microsoft split up the display driver to increase stability, to ensure that the 3D desktop stays up in the event that a game or another application crashes due to a graphics error. This change also means that Microsoft will not release DirectX 10 for Windows XP, because many of the Direct3D10 improvements will need the new Windows Vista Display Driver Model.

Opening up the video card to more applications will require Vista to give the GPU more system resources and allow applications to share the hardware. The biggest change for game developers will be virtualized memory for the GPU. The video card will now have its own space in system RAM to store information that can't fit on local video card memory. High-end video cards ship with 256MB or 512MB of memory, but games can still use the extra space in system memory to store large chunks of information, like textures.

Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney explains, "Virtual texturing eliminates the video memory bottleneck on texture size; whereas in DirectX 9 the size of textures we can use with full performance is limited by the amount of video memory, in DirectX 10 it is only limited by total system memory." Furthermore, Tim predicts that virtual memory will enable a "2X-4X increase in texture usage in games, which will be great for Unreal Engine 3 games, where textures are often authored at very high resolutions like 2048x2048, and then scaled down on lower-end systems to improve performance."

Setting standards and improving performance
Video cards will now have strict feature-set requirements for Direct3D10. A video card must have the full feature set to be DirectX 10 approved. This isn't a whole lot different from the existing model, in which a card has to have certain features to be DirectX 9.0c or Shader Model 2.0 compliant, but Microsoft has made the specification much more detailed to remove any chance of hardware variation. Differences in how Nvidia and ATI cards handled floating-point precision created extra work for developers in the past, but tighter Direct3D10 specifications will help remove ambiguous areas in hardware design. Having consistent hardware means programmers can avoid spending development time on customizing games for cards that don't have all the necessary features or have odd implementations.

Microsoft plans to accelerate its Direct3D release schedule to keep up as the graphics manufacturers release new GPUs with advanced features. If everything goes as planned, the game developer will have to learn only Direct3D11, instead of figuring out the quirks for two different GPUs when Nvidia and ATI release a new technology round. However, this change might not mean the end of writing code for specific GPUs. While developers can count on DX10 to define card features sets, the Microsoft DirectX team admits that "we may see [hardware vendors] putting in additional differentiating features, which developers may want to natively support."

DirectX 10 will increase game performance by as much as six to eight times. Much of that will be accomplished with smarter resource management, improving API and driver efficiencies, and moving more work from the CPU to the GPU. "The entire API and pipeline have been redesigned from the ground up to maximize performance and minimize CPU and bandwidth overhead," according to Microsoft. Furthermore, "the idea behind D3D10 is to maximize what the GPU can do without CPU interaction, and when the CPU is needed it's a fast, streamlined, pipeline-able operation." Giving the GPU more efficient ways to write and access data will reduce CPU overhead costs by keeping more of the work on the video card.

Here's a list of several new Direct3D 10 performance improvements GameSpot was able to wrestle out of the DirectX 10 team:

• New constant buffers maximize efficiency of sending shader constant data (light positions, material information, etc.) to the GPU by eliminating redundancy and massively reducing the number of calls to the runtime and driver.

• New state objects significantly reduce the amount of API calls and bandwidth, tracking, mapping, and validation overhead needed in the runtime and driver to change GPU device state.

• Texture arrays enable the GPU to swap materials on-the-fly without having to swap those textures from the CPU.

• Resource views enable super-fast binding of resources to the pipeline by informing the system early-on about its intended use. This also vastly reduces the cost of hazard-tracking and validation.

• Predicated rendering allows draw calls to be automatically deactivated based on the results of previous rendering--without any CPU interaction. This enables rapid occlusion culling to avoid rendering objects that aren't visible. Shader Model 4.0 provides a more robust instruction set with capabilities like integer and bitwise instructions, enabling more work to be transferred to the GPU.

• The D3D runtime itself has been completely refactored to maximize performance and configurability by the application.

It remains to be seen just how well actual DX10 graphics hardware will be able to handle the additional work, but we've seen in the past that ATI and Nvidia have been able to deliver whenever games have shifted work from the CPU to the GPU.

Sarju Shah and James Yu report for GameSpot.