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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Even better, the arrows between folders are also clickable. When you click one, a drop-down menu opens that offers all the other folders and files it contains. So if you click the arrow to the right of the Program Files folder, you'll see a drop-down menu displaying all your installed application folders.

This is a very simple user interface that makes graphical navigation much faster than in previous versions of Windows, which usually defaulted to editing the path statement in the Address bar or opening a new window and starting over. Speaking of which, you can also still do that. Just click the icon that's inside the address bar all the way to the left (if Computer is the first item on the bar, it will create a mini-rendition of the Computer icon). By doing that, you make the address line text editable, and you can type in any traditional path statement you want, using backslashes as separators. A type-ahead feature helps you to type the exact spelling or lets you click to advance. The only drawback with this feature is that it's not obvious how you get back to graphical bread crumbs mode. Resorting to the Escape key works; nothing else we tried did. It's not even on the context menu.

Another thing we missed was the lack of an up-level button. The new Back button steps you back to where you've been. But it is possible to arrive at a place in the graphical bread crumbs that doesn't show a top level, like Desktop or Computer. Microsoft's solution for this is a little too subtle. There's a small downward facing area wedged in between the graphical bookmarks bar and the Forward button. The assumption is still that you've started in Computer or somewhere like that, which may not always be the case. But assuming you have, this downward-pointing arrow shows Recent Pages on a drop-down. Wouldn't it be better to always display a default top level in the path?

Other changes to folder windows make them smarter and more context sensitive. The minimalist toolbar isn't customizable; it's context sensitive, showing different drop-downs or functions depending on the folder contents you're viewing or that you've selected.

A folder window in Vista is a two-paned Explorer-type window. (In fact, though context menus still exist that say Open and Explore, they both appear to open the exact same window.) The new Windows Explorer shows the Favorite Links area at the top of the left pane. Favorite Links is user-customizable. You can drag and drop folders or objects from the right pane into the Favorite Links area, where they serve as shortcuts to the folders you frequently access. You can even rename them there the way you would shortcuts. Your Favorite Links customizations will appear in all your folder windows. It's an extremely handy feature.

Keep your favorite links in the left pane of all your folders.
Keep your favorite links in the left pane of all your folders. (Click image to see larger view)

You can also access a menu of your actual folder hierarchy on the left side of the Folder window, which gives you the interaction that made the two-paned Explorer Windows popular. You can walk through your folder structure and see the contents of what you click there quickly displayed in the right pane.

See your folder structure in the left pane of Explorer.
See your folder structure in the left pane of Explorer. (Click image to see larger view)

The left-pane folder hierarchy is resizable vertically by dragging and dropping its name bar, which reads, simply, "Folders." A good way to work with the new Explorer is to drag the Folders bar all the way to the top. This way you can double-click it to open it all the way when you want to walk your folder structure. When you find what you want, double-click it again to close it, revealing your Favorite Links. This aspect of the new Windows Explorer is thoroughly thought out.

The Views menu, which controls the right pane, scales the file and folder objects there up to extremely large, and down to very small. As it does so, it also delivers the same views you've come to expect in the folder window, like Details, List, and Tiles, and there are three different sizes of icons. Since the icons show the contents of the files and folders they represent, the larger icons actually have some value to you.

The only other new aspects are the search functionality (covered later in this story) and the information pane that runs along the bottom of the new Explorer. It provides text information, in context, of the object currently selected.

All in all, the Windows Explorer is a pretty slick upgrade that makes working with your folders and files much easier.

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