How Windows Vista Works

Windows Vista: Aero

In some ways, Windows Aero is similar to recent versions of the Windows GUI, like the one used in Windows XP. Aero organizes information in on-screen windows and uses icons to represent files, folders and applications. But Aero also has several features that you can think of as upgrades to the Windows XP GUI. Its windows are three-dimensional objects that you can move and adjust in any direction. Aero Glass makes the borders of each window translucent so you can see the desktop or other windows behind it. Microsoft asserts that the clear border lets you focus on your work instead of on your interface [Source: Microsoft].

Vista also replaces the simple, static icons that represent many files in older Windows GUIs with more elaborate Live Icons. Live Icons give you up-to-date thumbnail previews of each file. When you look at a document's Live Icon, you see what the document actually looks like rather than seeing an icon for the program that created it. You can also look at the contents of files before opening them by using the Explorer preview pane.

Similar thumbnails also replace the icons you see when you use the "alt" and "tab" keys to move through open windows. Aero's more basic version of "alt + tab," called Flip, lets you choose from 2-D thumbnail previews on a menu bar. Another feature, Flip 3D, lets you choose from three-dimensional, moving thumbnails rather than 2-D images. In addition, if you hover your mouse over items on your taskbar, you'll see 2-D thumbnails of each window instead of text listing the applications and filenames.

Many elements of the Aero GUI, including the Start menu and the windows themselves, incorporate new search capabilities. While a computer is running, Vista scans the disc drive for changes and maintains a running index of its files. You can search this index from multiple locations within the GUI. For example, rather than moving your mouse through a series of cascading windows in the Start menu, you can simply type in the program or file you're looking for. You can also create search folders -- saved searches that you can return to when you need to find particular files or folders. Adding metadata, or tags, to your files can make these searches more efficient. When you search for a file, the computer examines filenames, tags and document contents to find relevant results.

The Start search menu The Start search menu
The Start search menu

In addition to the GUI, Vista comes with several new applications. Different versions include different features, but here's a sample of what's new:

  • Sidebar allows you to access mini-applications called Gadgets. Sidebar is similar to Konfabulator or Macintosh OS X's Dashboard, which call their mini-applications Widgets.
  • Meeting Space is a teleconferencing program for small groups of Vista users.
  • Speech Recognition lets users control their computers and create documents using their voices. Vista has a speech-activated user interface as well as a general voice dictation application.
  • Windows Mail replaces Outlook Express for home users and includes anti-phishing tools.
  • Windows Calendar, also for home users, is an interactive calendar application. In addition to allowing users to keep track of appointments, it can be used to send e-mail invitations to events.

Vista also has a few new tools intended to improve performance:

  • SuperFetch pre-loads frequently-used applications into the memory so they can start up faster.
  • ReadyBoost lets people add RAM to their system with a USB thumb drive.
  • Sleep lets you quickly resume working by storing files that are currently in use. On desktop computers, these files are saved in the computer's RAM and on the hard drive. On laptop computers, the files are saved to the hard drive only when the battery power wanes.

Because of its new features, particularly its 3-D GUI, Vista has different hardware requirements than previous versions of the OS. We'll look at these requirements and explore how Vista creates the 3-D desktop next.