Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

Now that it's gold, here's an inside look at the best and the worst of Windows Vista

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Equally uncertain from testing so far is whether there's any perceptible performance gain from two application-load hastening techniques, SuperFetch and ReadyBoost. SuperFetch is an upgrade to the prefetch capabilities of earlier versions of Windows. It keeps close tabs on the applications you use most frequently, and preloads them into memory. SuperFetch is date-aware, and is even able to differentiate between programs launched on weekdays or weekends. The goal is to speed up the start-up times for the applications you use most. ReadyBoost adds a memory store for SuperFetch by harnessing user-supplied USB 2.0 keys or other flash-based memory, such as CF or SD cards.

This pair of features may sound more cool than they are. To date, we've seen little noticeable difference through the use of these tools. But if you frequently launch AutoCAD or Photoshop, it might be a lot more noticeable.

We'll have to wait and see what's real and what's marketing, but there's at least a good chance that Microsoft will make good on some aspects of its performance and reliability claims for Vista. One of the bog-down points for performance is the Windows System Registry, which among other things, is edited by every application you install, making it susceptible to bloat and corruption.

Largely for security and application compatibility reasons, Microsoft is introducing a Registry virtualization technique that limits installing applications' access to the Registry but fools them into thinking they have in fact edited the Registry. This feature was needed to support Vista's new, better protected namespace (that is, the locations of systems and applications files and special folders). But this Registry virtualization trick may also keep the Registry healthier over time.

Under the Hood

In addition to more obvious changes, Vista includes a number of behind-the-scenes changes. Some are useful, others...not so much.

Microsoft's new antipiracy measure: SPP

One of the most controversial under-the-hood changes in Vista is its new antipiracy system, called Software Protection Platform (SPP). In a nutshell, if the system thinks your copy of Vista isn't valid, it sends numerous warnings and gives you a grace period to resolve the problem. At the end of the grace period, your machine goes into reduced functionality mode (RFM), in which everything except your Web browser is disabled. For the full details on what SPP is and how it affects your system, see The Skinny on Windows SPP and Reduced Functionality in Vista.

Our take on SPP: Microsoft doesn't really care that some percentage of the people whose Windows installations SPP convicts of being pirated or tampered with might be false positives. Those people have absolutely no recourse but to call Microsoft's WPA support number, and they might not get a sympathetic ear. We all know software is imperfect. Yet Microsoft's policy does not allow for handling that imperfection.

A much wider group of people who are stung by SPP may well, in fact, have pirated copies of Windows without having any idea that they do. Three common scenarios include buying Vista from an unscrupulous online retailer, buying it from a small OEM PC maker who is reusing licenses, and bringing your Vista machine to a repair shop that reinstalls Windows Vista with its product ID, not your product ID. Again, there's no leniency to the end user in these scenarios. You may hold a valid product ID for your copy of Windows, but you will need to be able to figure this out on your own. And in most of these scenarios, the product ID you hold may in fact be pirated. You've purchased Vista in good faith -- and Microsoft is going after you, not the person who did the pirating.

From Microsoft's point of view, hitting up the end user will squeeze out the pirates -- and it will educate Vista consumers to be more careful who they buy from. But is the bad will this will generate from customers less important than the additional revenue Microsoft will gain? Would Microsoft be willing to take this step if it had true competition on end-user PCs?

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