Over the past five years, Microsoft Corp promised its most advanced operating system ever and then yanked key features to meet deadlines that were then missed anyway. Details of what would later be known as Windows Vista sounded suspiciously like Apple's Mac OS X.
Yet Vista, which finally will appear on store shelves and new PCs on Tuesday, manages to largely overcome its long, tortured prelude. Though it duplicates some of the feel and functions of Mac software, Vista includes its own improvements that take security, reliability and usability to new heights.
Vista is by far the most robust and visually appealing version of Windows yet. It is similar enough to its predecessor, Windows XP, to make the switch easy, but different enough to make the price almost bearable.
That's not to suggest Vista is perfect or even as polished as Mac OS X. In more than a month of testing on multiple PCs, I've run into a number of rough patches. Then again, I was able to run my systems longer between restarts, experienced fewer crashes and generally found the new operating system more informative than its predecessor.
Overall, Vista is a worthy upgrade, though one that most users will probably want to delay until the kinks are worked out.
Be forewarned: The hardware requirements for the best features are high.
Though a low-end version is offered -- the Home Basic Edition, US$199 for the full version or US$99 if the user is upgrading from XP -- it lacks high-end graphics and multimedia functions.
Most consumers will likely want the Home Premium Edition -- US$239 or $159 if upgrading from XP -- that includes the visuals and entertainment tools and requires a heftier PC with at least a 1 gigahertz processor and 1 gigabyte of memory.
Windows Vista is set for worldwide release on Tuesday. Home Basic Edition: US$199 (US$99 if upgrading from Windows XP). Home Premium Edition: US$239 (US$159 if upgrading from XP).
The visuals, for obvious reasons, are the most noticeable improvement, though the software doesn't hesitate to downgrade the experience if your PC is too weak. Programs appear in semi-transparent frames that pop open and close with an animated swoosh. Icons can be instantly resized with a slider.
The flourishes aren't just eye candy. They also help get the job done, particularly if you're a multitasker.
In previous Windows versions, minimized programs were something of a mystery: You knew they were there but it wasn't easy to find them. In Vista, live mini-previews of each window pop open when the cursor is moved along the task bar.
Switching between programs using the Alt-Tab key combination is easier as the live previews appear there, too. A new key combination -- Tab-Windows -- flips through all your programs like a 3-D stack of playing cards.
The start menu, which has wisely lost the word "Start," has also been renovated. It now sports a search box that returns results instantly as you type. No more dancing dogs or grinding hard drives.
In fact, the improved search -- which had been available for Windows XP users through add-on programs -- is fully integrated throughout Vista, much like the latest version of Mac OS X released in April 2005.
Windows that display the contents of hard drive folders, for instance, all have a search box that can filter whatever is inside.
Search results also can be saved into folders that get populated by future files that meet the original search criteria, though the feature isn't easy to find.
By default, the right side of the screen is filled with small programs known as gadgets, displaying headlines, weather, microprocessor loads and memory utilization. The idea is not new: Mac OS X has "Widgets," and other companies have offered similar lightweight application layers for years.