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The Essentials of the Next Windows

This is the first of a new series of weekly reports by PC World to help you become acquainted with Windows Vista, Microsoft's newest version of its Windows operating system. Windows Vista becomes available to consumers this month, after an extensive testing period and gradual rollout to businesses.

When is Windows Vista finally coming out?

Unlike previous Windows launches, Vista's debut has been divided into two extravaganzas, presumably in part because the upgrade will miss the holiday 2006 season due to scheduling delays.

On November 30, Microsoft unveiled the corporate version of the new OS (along with Office 2007), and companies with volume license agreements got a jumpstart on obtaining Vista and installing it on PCs they already own.

But the bigger Vista rollout can't happen until Microsoft duplicates millions of DVDs, puts them in boxes, and ships them to retailers--and until PC companies design, manufacture, and ship systems with Vista preinstalled. So for home users, small businesses, and anyone who wants to buy a new Vista PC, the date that matters is January 30. That's when Vista will officially be launched as a consumer product.

Getting Acquainted

On the continuum of Windows-upgrade importance, where does Vista belong?

Placing Windows 95 as a giant leap forward and Windows Me as a step backward, Vista falls somewhere in the middle: Call it a medium-size stride in the right direction.

In terms of new features, it offers lots of small yet worthwhile improvements--but no breakthroughs. On the other hand, if the upgrade's new emphasis on security makes it less susceptible to viruses, spyware, and hacker attacks, that would be a strong argument in its favor.

Windows Vista offers better support than XP for today's powerful hardware, such as 64-bit CPUs and cutting-edge graphics cards, providing the structural basis for potent applications that could never have been written for Windows XP. As those applications begin to appear, Vista should grow into a more compelling upgrade than it is on day one.

How does Windows Vista stack up against the most recent Apple OS?

In our 2005 World Class Awards, we named Apple's OS X 10.4 ("Tiger") the third-best product of the year, while Windows XP wasn't mentioned at all. But Windows Vista at least narrows the gap between operating systems that hail from Redmond and Cupertino. In part this is because Vista adds so many features--from decent integrated search to Gadgets (aka Widgets) to fancy 3D effects--that Tiger already has.

With Leopard, Apple's next generation of OS X, due out next spring, Mac owners will get some new features that may put Windows users farther back in their rear-view mirrors. For instance, judging from previews, Leopard's Time Machine continuous-backup utility may be superior to Vista's Backup, System Restore, and Previous Versions data-recovery features.

For more information on Vista, see our "Windows Vista FAQ" and our extensive, in-depth preview, "Everything You Need to Know About Vista."

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