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It’s been five years since Microsoft put out its last operating system, Windows XP. Now, the next step, Windows Vista is finally here.

Windows is by far the world’s most popular operating system, and Vista will eventually become what most people run, like XP is today. Like it or not, you’ll probably be using it too in a few years time.

The operating system is the backbone of your PC. It boots up and shuts down your computer, launches software programs, and makes sure your speakers and other extras work properly. It’s also the thing that gets infected by viruses and other nasties. Windows Vista is better than XP in many ways. It looks better and it’s also easier to use and more secure. But you’ll need a PC with enough grunt to handle its hefty requirements, so Vista won’t be the best choice for everyone.

Vista looks slicker thanks to its “Aero” interface. If your computer can handle it, Vista uses your graphics card to power snazzy 3D extras, like Flip3D which uses a rolodex-type arrangement to show you what’s going on in all open programs. You can also make windows more transparent, or change their colour.

Looking through Windows folders is also easier. There’s a live preview that shows you a snippet of each file, and what’s in each folder in a directory.

The menu bar at the top of each window is gone, though you can still get it by tapping the Alt key. You can quickly jump back to anywhere along the route you took to get there, and easily group and filter files within a folder by type, author or tag.

The Start menu in Vista has also been completely redesigned. There are no more branching menus, like you’ll find in earlier versions. Instead the folders expand as you go through them, a bit like Windows Explorer in XP.

There’s a handy search box right in the Start menu too. Just type a few letters in the box and it’ll start bringing up matches. This is often the quickest way to find programs and documents.

The other big change from XP is Windows Sidebar. This sits on the right side of the screen as a place to put Microsoft’s gadgets – little programs that sit on your desktop and grab information from the web, like weather or news, or show your other software like media players. Windows Sidebar doesn?t offer anything beyond what Yahoo or Google already offer for XP though.

So far, most of this is just eye candy. The most important improvements in Vista are behind the scenes, particularly in its security.

As the most popular operating system on the planet, Windows is a natural target for hackers and other evil-doers. Vista beefs up Windows Firewall to shut down suspicious activity, like your PC sending out spam emails, before it occurs.

It also makes it harder for malware to install itself on your PC. Even if you’re logged in as an administrator, most programs will run at restricted privilege, meaning installing new software requires you to manually enter your password.

Parents can also use Vista to look at where their kids have gone online, limit when they can use the computer, and control which websites and video games they use. Vista comes with the next versions of Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, both significant improvements. It also has speech recognition software that’s worth trying out.

There are more features of Vista, ones we don’t have space to mention. You can download Windows Vista from Microsoft’s website Microsoft’s website and find out just what the system has to offer yourself.

WHICH VISTA IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

Vista Home Basic – If you use your PC for email, internet, and basic Office tasks, this is the one for you. It doesn’t have the snazzy Aero graphics or multimedia features, but it has better design and parental controls than XP.

Vista Home Premium – The upscale version of Home Basic, this version runs the Aero graphics engine and Vista’s multimedia tools, but leaves out the added business or gaming features.

Vista Business – No multimedia features, but it has programs for businesses to help faxing, scanning, backup and encryption.

Vista Ultimate – Includes all the functions of Home Premium and Business, and extras like a collection of games and programs specific to Ultimate users.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Vista’s snazzy graphics put a heavy load on your hardware, and you’ll need a PC with a lot of grunt to run it. A PC branded “Vista Capable” will run Vista Home Basic only, and needs at least an 800MHz processor, 512MB RAM and a graphics processor capable of playing DirectX 9.

A “Vista Premium Ready” PC will run all Vista versions and will have at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and a beefed-up graphics card. Keep in mind these are the bare minimum requirements. Ideally you want more if you want your computer to run smoothly.

SHOULD I UPGRADE?

The short answer is not right away. All operating systems take a while to settle down and iron out the bugs, no matter how much testing goes into it. Using XP was a hassle until the service packs came out, when it became much more stable and secure. Wait until the first service pack comes out before buying it off the shelf.

If you’re using your PC just to surf the web, do email and use office programs you really don’t need the extra functionality of Vista. For a lot of people XP works just fine, and they should keep using it until it doesn’t. If that’s you, wait until you need a new PC, then get one with Vista on it.

If you do want to run the latest and greatest operating system on your machine, the best way to upgrade is to buy a new PC. That way it’ll come pre-installed and you won’t have the inevitable headaches that come with updating an operating system, and you’ll be sure the hardware is up to scratch. If you buy a computer next year chances are it will come with Vista on it anyway.

Most people will need to buy a new PC anyway to take full advantage of Vista’s features, since it puts a lot of demand on hardware. If you buy either a Vista Capable or Vista Premium Ready PC before Vista comes out, you’ll get a coupon for a low-priced upgrade when the new operating system is released. It should cost you about $30 to upgrade. By REUBEN SCHWARZ

   
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