Windows Vista includes a decidedly mixed bag of built-in apps and utilities. The new Backup tool, for example, may be one of the worst applications ever packed into an operating system. It doesn't let you choose to back up individual files or file types--you have to back up every file in a generic group of files, such as "Documents" or "Pictures." This can make for much larger backups than you might have intended. In contrast, the Time Machine backup feature in the coming Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) will do incremental backups.
Not all built-in applications and system tools are this disappointing. Windows Calendar, for example, goes well beyond the basics: You can create group calendars for family members who use your PC, and publish your calendar on the Web. The utility is compatible with the iCalendar standard for syncing appointments with Outlook and other iCalendar-compliant calendars.
Windows Mail, the e-mail program previously known as Outlook Express, has received a face-lift that makes it easier to use. Windows Contacts--the new Address Book--integrates well with Windows Mail and the Windows Calendar.
Additionally, Vista offers support for several new hardware technologies, including some that depend on Vista-aware devices. Windows Rally, for example, is a set of technologies designed to make networkable devices easier to set up and connect. Windows SideShow will allow manufacturers to include a secondary display--an LCD in the lid of a laptop, say, that can display information such as recent e-mail, phone numbers, and so on--even if the laptop is off or in sleep mode. These auxiliary displays can also be built into keyboards, remote controls, PDAs, and cell phones.
Vista also includes technologies intended to enhance performance. The two that sound most intriguing are SuperFetch and ReadyBoost.
SuperFetch builds on the prefetch capability in Windows XP, which preloads frequently used apps into memory to speed up launch times. Microsoft says SuperFetch not only knows which applications you use most frequently, but which ones you're most likely to use on different days of the week and at different times of day.
ReadyBoost lets you use a USB 2.0 flash drive to augment system RAM; it improves performance by working in concert with SuperFetch. Instead of having to search your relatively slow hard drive for programs and files, Vista can keep them close at hand on your speedy flash drive. This also frees up RAM that Vista would otherwise use to prefetch data.
ReadyBoost works only with USB 2.0 flash drives that support certain data read and write speeds; we'll be testing this feature with shipping code.