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Windows Vista

Released in 2007, this version of Windows expanded on XP's functionality and adds increased security and reliability, improved digital media functionality, and the dazzling Aero 3D user interface.

Figure 11 Windows Vista—with the snazzy Aero interface

Let's start with the interface, which requires enhanced graphics horsepower to run, thus limiting Vista's upgradability from many older PCs. The Aero interface displays true 3D elements with a see-through, glass-like look. And everything else in Vista looks a bit different, too.

Folder and file icons now show thumbnails of their contents. When you switch between open applications, the windows twist and turn to display in a three-dimensional stack. And the windows are smoother and rounder and translucent, heightening the sense of depth when you view multiple windows onscreen. There's even a translucent Sidebar that holds Gadgets, mini-apps dedicated to a particular task.

Under the hood, Vista is designed to run more securely and more robustly than Windows XP. One of the security features—much maligned by users—is User Account Control, which interrupts even the most mundane operations to get user approval. The intention was good (to prevent unwanted access to the system), but the implementation was simply too intrusive for most users.

Even worse, many users had problems upgrading older equipment to Vista. Many older peripherals didn't have Vista-compatible drivers (a problem with any Windows upgrade, to be honest), and some XP-era programs never did work right in the Vista environment.

While most users didn't have any problems, the ones who did were quite vocal about it, creating the general perception that Vista was a failure. I certainly don't feel that way about it, but this perception did lead Microsoft to fast-track Vista's successor—the upcoming Windows 7.

Windows 7

The latest version of Windows is due to be released in October of 2009. That's only two short years after the release of Windows Vista, which means it's not a major upgrade. (There simply wasn't enough development time for that.)

Instead, think of Windows 7 in relation to Windows Vista as being similar to the way Windows 98 upgraded Windows 95. It's a minor release, more akin to a service pack than a wholesale upgrade.

Figure 12 Windows 7—complete with new Taskbar

What changes in Windows 7? First, it fixes a lot of what people didn't like about Windows Vista. Older hardware and software are more compatible, and there's even a Windows XP Mode that lets you run XP-era apps in their native environment—actually a virtual PC running the real honest-to-goodness Windows XP operating system. And User Account Control is a lot less invasive, which is a good thing.

Next, Windows 7 makes a few nice little interface changes. The Sidebar is gone, and you can now place Gadgets directly on the desktop. There's a new Aero Peek mode that lets you look "behind" all open windows to what's on the desktop below, as well as new Aero Snaps operations that let you easily move and maximize windows.

The biggest change, however, comes in the taskbar, that strip of screen real estate first introduced in Windows 95. The new Windows 7 taskbar lets you dock both open windows and your favorite applications and documents. The taskbar is a tad taller and holds smaller buttons with icons only, no text. Right-click a taskbar button and you now see a Jump List of recent documents and useful operations; hover over a taskbar button representing an open application and you see thumbnails of all open documents. It changes the way you do things, but in a good way.

The upcoming release of Windows 7 concludes the history of Windows—so far. The folks at Microsoft are constantly working on new versions of their core operating system, so expect new and exciting things in the future. Windows never stands still.

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