Since the much ballyhooed debut of Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system (OS) at the beginning of 2007, both trade and consumer media outlets have tested and reviewed just about every aspect of the product.

So, if you’re looking for head-to-head comparisons with other OSs, in-depth analysis going function-by-function, or more technical specifications, a quick Google search will provide more than you could possibly hope for.

This evaluation, on the other hand, will seek to give you an idea of what it’s like for the average user to tackle Windows Vista–how it differs from previous Windows incarnations, what features are neat, and which are useful.

First, let me assure you that if you are reasonably facile with Windows XP, you will have no trouble learning to use Vista. With absolutely no instruction from me, my wife, who is well-acquainted with XP, was able to sit down at my Vista machine and use it to retrieve e-mail and do other common tasks. In fact, Vista could accurately be described as an easier-to-use version of Windows XP–with added security and search features thrown in.

I tried Vista on a Dell XPS M1210 laptop with the new OS native–that is, Vista came with the computer and the unit was designed to run it, having the requisite amount of memory and the proper graphics card.

I evaluated Windows Vista Ultimate, top of the line for this OS, which carries a retail price of $399 if you’re buying it off the shelf.

By the way, if you’re thinking of upgrading to Vista on a currently-XP machine, do a lot of research first. While upgrading is definitely possible, it can be difficult under some circumstances, but that’s a subject for another article.

In case you’re wondering, most late-model, reasonably well-equipped XP machines can probably run Vista, but a memory upgrade and/or a new graphics card may be required to get the most out of the newer OS.

Vista, the voyage begins

The first thing you’ll notice about logging on to a Vista machine is the stunning graphics. Microsoft has gone to a lot of trouble to make this OS look different from XP, and the 3-D capabilities of Vista help give it a distinctive look from the get-go. Hard as I tried not to be impressed by the visual aspects, I nonetheless was.

You’ll also see a host of on-screen gizmos like real-time, analog-style meters that track how much of the computer’s resources are currently being used; a chronograph-style watch face, and currency checker that compares the U.S. dollar against a variety of world currencies–something that might be quite useful in this age of dollar depreciation. The desktop also provides links from Microsoft to helpful information and tutorials on Windows usage.

Before you even get to those screens, however, you will be able to set up separate accounts for anyone who uses the machine. This lets you determine the level access for individuals as you see fit, which is really a good idea. Microsoft touts Vista as having more robust security features than its predecessors, and that certainly seems to be true.

If children–or anyone you don’t want to have full privileges–try to download and install new programs, for example, the new security features on Vista will ask for verification from someone with full administrator privileges. Knowing that security problems often originate from within an organization, this should make business users breathe a little easier.

Speaking of security, one thing you’ll have to get used to is that Vista will ask for your OK to do a number of things in addition to downloading and installing programs, and even when you give permission for the download, you’ll still be asked about the installation.

In some respects, the amount of questioning will depend on the online security level you set when signing onto the Internet. Vista will automatically set a firewall security level based on the kind of connection (wired, wireless, secured network or unsecured) you tell it to make. You can change that level, but I found that Vista usually makes the safest and most appropriate decisions here.

I have to admit that I found the constant security questioning a little annoying at first, but I soon got used to it, after telling myself repeatedly that this was, as mom used to say, “for my own good.”

One feature I enjoyed and found quite useful is the ability to click on a toolbar icon and have every screen you have opened displayed like fanned-open pages of a book, allowing you to choose where you want to go. Each of the pages is a thumbnail of what the screen contains, and clicking on the thumbnail gets you to that page.

If you normally find yourself opening multiple pages and programs in XP–only to forget which of those little boxes at the bottom represents where you want to go next–you will definitely appreciate the “switch between windows” capability in Windows Vista.

Perhaps the most useful feature of Vista, however, is the Desktop Search found at the Start menu. If you want to get to a file, but can’t remember its name or where you saved it, just type in part of the name or even a word contained within the file, and Vista will pull up all the choices that match your search.

Maybe you need to bring together everything on your computer relating to “insurance agents” or some other topic. Desktop Search is useful here as well, bringing together disparate materials in a single spot from which they can be accessed.

You can use this feature to search your computer, to search the Internet, or to search both.

I also liked the “hover” feature for decoding what is contained within a file or icon without having to necessarily click to open it. Just hovering over the item on the screen yields a thumbnail representation of what it contains–again a useful time saver.

So what’s new?

By now you may be asking yourself, “Can’t I do some of these same things on XP?” The answer is often “yes,” but just as often it is more difficult to accomplish on the XP platform. You could make a case that there aren’t enough new features on Vista to call it anything more than an XP upgrade, yet the improved graphics, security and ease of use would argue against you.

In summary, Windows Vista is a flashier, 3-D, feature-rich and more secure version of Windows XP, which is still a solid and robust performer. (Witness the fact that Microsoft still offers XP on new machines, despite the fact that Vista is widely available.)

The upgrades do make it an attractive alternative to XP, but one troubling fact remains, which is that Microsoft has said it will only support Windows Vista for 5 years (now almost down to 4 years).

Another thing to think about is that Vista, like any new software, has its flaws. Many of these have been corrected, but like any new product, tweaking–especially for security reasons–is an ongoing process. XP, on the other hand, has been updated and tweaked for years, thus offering a bit more stability.

Given these facts, individual businesses and larger corporate enterprises will have to provide their own risk-benefit analyses when considering purchasing new machines with Vista native. Vista definitely has its advantages, but these must be weighed against possible drawbacks.

This article is part of a series dealing with technology products for use in the agency environment. The evaluations offered in these articles are based on our experience with and impressions of the review units provided by the manufacturer. For in-depth reviews of technical specifications, we recommend consulting technology publications that carry such evaluations.