This article appears as part of our comprehensive guide to Windows Vista in the March 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents. Click here to visit our dedicated Windows Vista forum.
Simply opening and closing windows and tweaking your system gets dull after a while. The following are the high (and low) points of the most notable new apps.
Sidebar and gadgets
We've found ourselves constantly using Vista's Sidebar and onscreen eye candy. Gadgets are miniature applications that can grab and display information from the internet, from a network or from your PC. They can display stock quotes, the time, weather reports, your current RAM use and so on. They are unashamed rip-offs of Mac OS X's Widgets, but are no less useful for that.
Gadgets live in the Windows Sidebar, to the far right of the screen, but can be dragged to anywhere on the desktop. Windows Vista comes with about a dozen straightforward examples, of which the CPU Meter and the scrolling RSS feed headline gadgets are the most notable.
You can acquire more gadgets online and they've been designed so that anyone and everyone can easily create and share more of them. Expect oodles to be available within the next year.
The clock is one of the widgets that come as standard
This may be the best new application included with Windows Vista. It's remarkably easy to use, yet offers surprisingly advanced features. These include the ability to send out invitations to meetings directly from within the program, set reminders and create to-do lists. You can create group calendars to share with other users of the same PC or publish your calendar on the web. Usefully, it's compatible with iCalendar, the main group calendar standard. So when you send or receive invitations, you can automatically sync yours with others. You can also subscribe to calendars posted on the web.
Outlook Express has been renamed Windows Mail. The interface is cleaner and far more pleasing to the eye, while a new toolbar makes it easier to accomplish common tasks such as creating, sending and replying to mail. Otherwise, it varies little from Outlook Express. Bizarrely, however, you can't use Windows Mail to send and receive mail from a Hotmail account, which Outlook Express lets you do.
Backup and Restore Center
The backup program in XP was universally reviled, for good reason. You couldn't do something as simple as backing up to a network folder or a CD drive. Backups in Vista manage to be even worse, so you'll need a third-party program for this important task.
You can't back up individual files, individual folders or even individual file types with Backup and Restore Center. If you want to back up, say, 40 or 50MB .doc files, .jpg files and .zip files, you can’t do that. Instead, you have to back up every single data file, every single graphics file and every single compressed file on your entire hard disk. This idiocy even extends to the files that make up Windows. So you'll have to back up several hundred megabytes of files you will never use and never want to back up.
Windows Movie Maker and Windows DVD Maker
The anaemic Windows Movie Maker built into Windows XP has been given a huge makeover for Vista. This useful multimedia tool makes it easy for anyone to create videos, and burn them to DVD. You can import directly from digital video cameras, digital cameras or other devices, or from a hard disk. Creating a video is as simple as dragging and dropping clips on to a timeline, adding effects transitions, soundtracks and so on.
You can use Windows DVD Maker to burn them to DVDs that can be played on any DVD player. It may not turn you into Martin Scorsese, but if you've ever wanted to upload a clip to YouTube, it'll be your free tool of choice.
Windows Photo Gallery
This program provides a simple way to organise and view photos and other media, as well as do some basic and effective photo edits. You can tag and rate pictures so they're much easier to organise and find; quickly scroll through thumbnails and play a slideshow of them. Quick photo-editing tools include adjusting exposure and colour, cropping and fixing red-eye.
An auto-adjust button cleans up a photo with a single click.
Vista Photo Gallery organises and displays photos
Windows Meeting Space
Meeting Space is supposed to be a good way to hold virtual meetings over a network, so that you can share documents with others, view everyone's markups, chat and talk while you're all in different locations.
Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to its billing. It lets people create ad-hoc virtual meetings over a network, including those at Wi-Fi hotspots, but it lacks so many features that it's hard to imagine anyone using it. There's no common whiteboard, no built-in VoIP feature and its chat module is pretty much worthless. Best left well alone.
Windows Vista includes a two-way firewall. The firewall in Windows XP blocked only dangerous inbound connections, but did not provide any protection for unwanted outbound connections. So if your PC was invaded by a Trojan or spyware, those programs would be allowed to make outbound connections unimpeded.
Windows Vista's Firewall includes outbound protection as well.
As with Windows XP, you can customise how inbound protection works by opening and closing ports, blocking and unblocking programs and so on, through Windows Firewall Settings. You can do the same for outbound connections, but you'll have to do a bit of digging to find out how. You need to run Windows Firewall with Advanced Security. To do it, at a command prompt, type 'wf.msc' and press Enter.
The Windows Defender antispyware tool built into Windows Vista is no different than the one available as a free download for Windows XP, or the one built into Windows Live OneCare. It's a solid, serviceable antispyware application that includes live protection as well as automated spyware scanning.
Windows Defender doesn't give a whole lot of advice in helping you decide which programs you should let run – but on the other hand, if Windows Defender allows a program to run, it considers the program safe. You can always do a Google search to track down any application about which you're suspicious, and Windows Defender gives you plenty of information about each app, so it should be easy to do such a search.
One of Defender's more useful features is its Software Explorer, which provides help beyond spyware. Software Explorer lets you see programs running on your PC in a variety of categories, including Startup Programs and Currently Running Programs. It provides in-depth information about each tool, including its name, executable file, publisher, path and file size.
The best thing about Windows Defender is that it was designed not to pop up frequently, requiring user decisions. The worst thing about Windows Defender is that compared to products such as Webroot's Spy Sweeper or Safer Networking's Spybot Search & Destroy, it offers limited protection. Spy Sweeper and Spybot Search & Destroy are both included on the cover DVD.
If you're a parent, you're probably worried about how your children use the family PC and the internet and believe that a software tool for blocking access is part of the answer to your worries. You'll therefore be pleased with the Parental Controls feature built into Windows Vista.
Microsoft has managed to give you exceedingly fine-trained control over all aspects of how the computer is used. This ranges from internet access and games to the exact times and days the computer is being used. And it's all controlled from an easy-to-use interface.
There are four sets of controls. These filter web use, control when a child can use the PC, restrict games based on a rating system, and allow and block specific programs. Each control is simple and intuitive to use. Parents need not worry that they'll need their children to teach them how to use Parental Controls, which would defeat the purpose of such a feature in the first place.
For people who want to keep a virtual eye on their children, activity reports can be automatically generated and viewed. The reports include the top 10 websites visited, the top 10 websites blocked, applications used, games used, when each child logged on to the PC and much more in-depth information.
Vista parental controls