The moment Windows Vista starts, some of its biggest changes are in plain view: It is distinctive and eye-catching. Colors are subtler and the overall look less cartoonish than Windows XP's.
Dare I say it's Mac-like? In fact, it is. Microsoft has always stolen from the best. Key to a lot of what's new in Vista is the much-anticipated Aero interface--but to use it, you'll need adequate hardware and one of the pricier versions of the OS. (For details on these editions, see "How Much Will Your Vista Upgrade Cost?" )
Within Aero, screen windows maximize and minimize with a kind of visual "swoosh." The <Alt>-<Tab> command for switching between open windows now invokes Windows Flip, which displays thumbnails of open windows. Flip 3D (<Windows>-<Tab>) ups the ante, stacking windows so that you can flip through them like playing cards.
Some may say this is mere eye candy that won't affect your real productivity. Maybe so. But it makes life at the keyboard fun again. And for my money, that's right up there with productivity.
Two other notable new interface elements are the Sidebar and Live Thumbnails. Hover your mouse over a minimized window on the taskbar, and a thumbnail pops up with its contents, plus the program and document name or Web site.
I'm particularly fond of the Sidebar gadgets, interactive applets that display information--RSS feeds, stock tickers, clocks, weather, and so on. Vista ships with about a dozen of them; there are more online. While similar to Google Desktop Gadgets or Yahoo Widgets, they're actually more like the Mac's Gadgets in that they're built directly into the operating system and so may use its underlying architecture. For example, one gadget displays RSS news feeds you've subscribed to using Internet Explorer 7's RSS Reader.
The Start menu is more compact and useful; and Control Panel is more logically organized than in XP--it has several new "Centers," such as the Network and Sharing Center and the Sync Center (which handles functions of ActiveSync desktop software you previously had to install for Windows Mobile devices).
But for some odd reason several differently named links bring you to the exact same location. For example, in Control Panel, Network and Internet, if you click 'Network and Sharing Center' or 'View network status and tasks' or 'Set up file sharing', each of these choices will take you to...the Network and Sharing Center. This can make using Control Panel feel like getting directions from a dotty old aunt.