Thereís a lot to like about Windows Vista ó good looks, strong security features, improved stability, effective troubleshooting tools and some excellent new applets, to name but a few examples. But letís be realistic; as with previous versions of Microsoftís operating system, Vista is not without its faults. Spend some time with Vista and youíll begin to spot the hidden flaws, the technical issues that really need to be addressed, and the areas in which the operating system still compares unfavourably with rivals such as Linux or Leopard (Mac OSX). That sounds a little depressing, but itís only the start. Once youíve identified the weaknesses in Windows it becomes much easier to patch them up with third- party tools and so deliver a faster, more efficient and productive PC ó often for little or no extra cost. In this feature weíll show you how to compensate for Vistaís shortcomings using free software that youíll find on our cover CD.
The most common complaint about Windows Vista is that itís a poor performer. Thereís some truth in this, but in part itís because the operating system is doing more than ever before. It takes lots of memory and system resources to run the stylish Aero interface, for instance, and this may have a noticeable effect on older PCs and notebook PCs. Still, if your system seems sluggish then you can always turn Aero off. Simply right-click the Desktop, click Personalise > Window Colour and Appearance > Open Classic Appearance Properties... and choose Windows Vista Basic in the Colour Scheme box. There are many other performance-related settings that need to be carefully checked to ensure your system is running at its best. Replacing Windowsí tools with third-party add-ons can help, too. Some users report that copying files seems slow with Windows Vista, for instance, but we have found Teracopy (www.codesector.com/teracopy.php) can often move data more quickly. If you find searches in Windows Vista are not as fast as youíd like, try Copernic (www.copernic.com). It locates files in a flash, and uses minimal system resources so wonít interfere with other programs. The ultimate performance tool is Vlite (www.vlite.net), which builds a custom Windows Vista installation that includes only the components you need. It can deliver great results, but beware ó it may also cause problems of its own if you accidentally remove something important. This is one for Windows experts only.
Thereís no doubt that Windows Vista looks a lot better than XP. The excellent new wallpaper images, high-resolution icons, transparent windows and clever graphical features all help to create an attractive working environment. And yetWindows Vista is still lagging behind the competition in several important areas. Take the Desktop, for instance. Linux users can have several virtual desktops, perhaps with a full-screen browser running in one, word processor in another, and smaller applications in a third, then switch between them at a click. Windows Vista users must manage all their applications in a single desktop, which is limiting by comparison. Still, there are utilities that can be of use. Dexpot (www.dexpot.de) and Virtuawin (http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net) let you arrange your apps across anything up to 20 desktops, and Microsoft has even released a similar tool of its own in the shape of its Desktops utility (http://technet.microsoft.com/enus/sysinternals/cc817881.aspx). Maybe it will find its way into a future version of Windows. Flip 3D ó Vistaís three-dimensional alternative to switching through open apps using the Alt and Tab shortcut ó looks good, but application windows overlay each other, which can make it hard to pick out the program you need. Switcher (http://insentient.net) tiles the windows for better visibility, and throws in searching, shortcuts and other productivity-boosting tweaks. Not everyone is keen on the new-style Start menu, and itís easy to use the XP version instead (right-click the Start button, select Properties, choose Classic start menu). This doesnít have a search box, but you can get that by installing Launchy (www.launchy.net). Or, if you prefer the keyboard to the mouse, try Start++ (http://brandontools.com/content/StartPlusPlus.aspx). It lets you create easy keyboard shortcuts to quickly perform just about any task.
Taming User Account Control
Some people see User Account Control (UAC) as a big Windows Vista flaw. Theyíre annoyed by all those prompts asking for permission to do just about anything, so they turn it off at the earliest opportunity. But this is a mistake. Not only does UAC help make your PC safer, itís also the power behind Internet Explorerís Protected Mode (a handy security bonus in itself) and several other features. Disable UAC and youíll lose them all. Your system may even develop mysterious new instabilities as a result. The best solution is to leave UAC turned on. But if youíre tired of the prompts, launch Regedit and go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\ SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\ Policies\System. Double-click ConsentPromptBehaviorAdmin in the right-hand pane, set its value to 0 (use 2 later to restore the default setting), and click OK. You wonít see any more alerts, but UAC will continue to run in the background, which means youíll still benefit from Internet Explorer Protected Mode and its other useful features.
Windows Vistaís security has come a long way since Windows XP, but still includes a number of problems that youíll want to rectify as soon as possible. The new firewall, for instance, is packed with features, yet somehow still makes it difficult to trap outgoing connections. Replace it with the excellent free Comodo firewall (www.personalfirewall.comodo.com). And while itís good to see that Windows now includes an antispyware tool in Windows Defender, you really need anti-virus protection too to stay safe online. Avira Antivir (www.free-av.com), Avast antivirus (www.avast.com) or AVG Free (http://free. grisoft.com) will all keep home users safe from a range of malware for no charge at all. The Windows Vista Recycle Bin sees an impressive new icon, but weíd rather Microsoft had addressed a more significant flaw ó namely its inability to securely wipe files. If a Mac user wants to get rid of a confidential file forever then they simply click Secure Empty Trash and itíll be overwritten in such a way that snoopers with undelete software wonít be able to recover a thing. Windows users must simply choose the Empty Recycle Bin and hope no-one else gets access to their system, and thatís not good enough. Doubtless Microsoft will get around to adding this eventually, but in the meantime you can fix the problem for yourself by installing Eraser (www.heidi.ie). File encryption is annoyingly reserved for the Windows Vista Business, Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Microsoft apparently believes that home users donít have any confidential data worth protecting. Still, donít complain, just download a free copy of Truecrypt (www.truecrypt.org). It can create virtual encrypted drives that will keep all your most private files safe from snoopers.
Microsoft promised us a shiny new backup tool in Windows Vista, and we got one ó but it didnít entirely live up to expectations. You can ask the utility to back up all the pictures on your drive, for instance, but canít tell it to pick only the images in a particular folder. That means itís almost impossible to use the tool for quick, selective backups, and thatís a real disappointment.
Windows Vista also delivered Shadow Copies (automatic backups made at the file level) and Windows Complete PC Backup to make an exact copy of your entire drive. But these were only available if you splashed out on the more expensive editions of Vista. Regular Home Premium users would have to do without. Fortunately there are several ways around these problems, especially if you apply some lateral thinking. Why not make use of Windows Easy Transfer, for instance? Sure, itís supposed to be used when youíre moving your settings directly from an old PC to a new one. But so what? The program still effectively lets you save copies of your email, favourites, address book, Windows settings or specific folders to a blank DVD, a USB memory key or a network or external hard disk. And if thereís a disaster you can use these copies to restore everything. Click Start, type Windows Easy Transfer and press Enter on your keyboard to see how this works. For real control youíll want to install something more powerful, though, and there are plenty of free tools around. Cobian Backup (www.educ.umu.se/~cobian/cobianbackup.htm) is a simple yet versatile backup tool, for instance. Driveimage XML (www.runtime.org/driveimage-xml.htm) is amore than adequate replacement for Windows Complete PC Backup that will quickly create a complete image of your drive. And Windows Vista Home Basic or Premium users can gain access to shadow copies by installing Shadow Explorer (www.shadowexplorer.com), although we would recommend trying File Hamster instead (www.mogware.com/FileHamster). This clever program monitors the folders and files you specify, and keeps a copy whenever they are changed or overwritten, so if you lose something important then itís easy to recover a previous version.
The Windows legacy
The real problem with Windows Vista is backward compatibility ó in other words, the need to ensure it runs your old software. A little of this is a good thing, of course; if Windows Vista wouldnít run your copy of Microsoft Office 2003 then youíd rightly be very annoyed. But take backward compatibility too far and thereís a price to pay. One reason Windows can perform poorly is that itís become overweight, a rickety structure full of patches and design compromises, all so that it can run 15-yearold programs and games. Thereís some hope the next version of Windows will see a complete rewrite, drastically improving performance at the expense of breaking old software. If you want a taste of things to come, the best you can do is move to 64-bit Windows Vista. You may have trouble finding drivers for some hardware, but it does take full advantage of modern processors, providing better performance, improved stability, and can use up to 128GB of memory.
At first glance the bundled Windows Vista applications seem impressive. You can keep track of your schedule with Calendar, run Gadgets on the Sidebar or manage your digital images with Photo Gallery, for instance. And although good old Minesweeper is still there, itís joined by some graphically gorgeous games that you might actually want to play. Look a little closer, though, and the news isnít all good. Builtin apps like Notepad and Paint are still chronically short on features, for example, and the supposedly new Windows Mail is really just Outlook Express with a very thin disguise. The inclusion of Windows Media Centre isnít all it seems, either ó this only comes with the Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate editions. Everyone elsemust rely on Media Player to handle their videos and music. Overall the built-in applications compare poorly with Linux, which includes powerful tools such as Evolution (email, address book and calendar functionality, the Linux answer to Microsoft Outlook) or Open Office (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tools), and provides easy access tomanymore. Thereís no need to buy other software, you can be productive with a Linux system from the first time you turn it on. Still, thereís nothing here that a little judicious downloading canít solve. Swap Notepad for Editpad Lite (www.editpadpro.com/editpadlite.html) and youíll get better performance, unlimited undo and redo, and a tabbed interface that allows you to open several files at the same time. Replace Windows Paint with Paint.Net (www.getpaint.net), a feature-packed image editor thatís still easy enough for beginners to use. Windows Mail is not nearly as configurable an email client as Thunderbird (www.mozilla-europe.org/en/products/thunderbird), which can be extended with hundreds of custom add-ons. Mediaportal (www.team-mediaportal.com) is a Media Center-like suite that can play videos, DVDs, music and internet radio. And if you need a professional word processor or spreadsheet then just grab a copy of Open Office (www.openoffice.org) ó itís completely free.
Easily find updates
You can get around Windowsí feeble bundled applications by installing replacements, then, but that only highlights another flaw ó Windows Vista has almost no software management features. If a Linux user wants to install or upgrade a program then in many cases they donít have to waste time searching online, manually downloading files or running installation programs. Instead they just run their package manager, choose the program they want from a menu, then itís downloaded, installed and later upgraded automatically. Thereís no fuss, no hassle or complications, it all just works. There are no package managers that deliver the same level of functionality for Windows Vista, unfortunately, but weíve found some tools that can at least make it easier to locate updates for your applications. Install the File Hippo Updatechecker (www.filehippo.com/ updatechecker), for instance, and itíll scan your PC checking for installed applications, then report back any that have updates available (thereís even a download link). Itís a simple way to find out about the latest versions of your favourite applications and get their new features, bug fixes and speed improvements, without having to keep popping back to their website to check on whatís available. Updatechecker is incredibly easy to use, but doesnít recognise that many applications, so itís a good idea to install at least one more update manager to offer a second opinion. Updatestar (www.updatestar.com) maintains a database of over 80,000 application versions and is probably the best choice, although Sumo (www.kcsoftwares.com/?sumo) is a close second and Secunia PSI (http://psi.secunia.com) is excellent at warning you about security patches that you really should have installed. Try them all, see which one works out best for you.
Fix almost anything
Windows Vista has plenty of flaws, then, but itís still the best version of Windows yet. And it has one very significant advantage over Linux and Leopard ó its large user base. Most people choose to installWindows on their desktops, and so thatís where software developers focus their attention. As a result there are far more services, tools and add-ons available for Windows than any other operating system, more than enough to solve just about any Windows problem. So if youíre frustrated by some aspect of Vista, the chances are it can be fixed. Tired of Windowsí feeble CD-burning features? Install Burnaware Free (www.burnaware.com/burnaware_free.html). Annoyed you need to access your PC across the internet, but Remote Desktop isnít included with Windows Vista Home Premium? Use Logmein instead (www.logmein.com). Need a more powerful Media Player that doesnít use all your system resources? Try VLC (www.videolan.org/vlc). Check out the applications more ideas, install free tools from software libraries like Snapfiles (www.snapfiles.com) or Freeware Home (http://freewarehome.com) and get Windows working just the way you would like.