Looking below the surface for more Vista secrets
By Jay Dougherty May 26, 2007, 3:59 GMT
Washington - Last week we looked at a few of Windows Vista's best undiscovered features - ReadyBoost, Flip3D, and Windows Photo Gallery. But there's much more beneath the surface of Vista that's worth understanding. These features, unlike the much ballyhooed Aero interface and beefed-up security, haven't received much attention. But they're the type of enhancements that just may end up meaning the most to your daily enjoyment of Microsoft's latest operating system.
--- Vista Explorer
First, Vista gets a significantly overhauled file manager, dubbed the Vista Explorer. The Windows Explorer of previous versions of Windows was visually unfriendly and buried frequently-used activities, such as creating a new folder, behind cryptic icons or within menus.
Vista's Explorer almost makes file-related operations fun - and it certainly makes them easier to perform. Open Vista Explorer the same way you opened Windows Explorer. The keyboard shortcut Windows Key+E does the trick.
You'll notice improvements right away. Simply opening Vista Explorer takes less time than it did to open the old Windows Explorer. On some systems, particularly those with lots of network drives attached, Windows Explorer could try your patience as you waited several seconds for it to appear.
Once opened, Vista Explorer gives you a much friendlier and more informative view of your drives and your computer. You'll see at a glance how much used and free space you have on each drive, and handy, clearly-labelled buttons along the top of the Explorer window allow you to perform common tasks such as creating a folder and navigating.
Explorer's Instant Search feature is always available and gives you ready access to the powerful search capability built into Vista. A new navigation pane on the left side of Vista's Explorer gives you new ways of organising your data and finding files.
Gone is the thumbnail preview option from older versions of Explorer because in Vista's Explorer you can see a thumbnail of each document or graphic simply by clicking through the files. This will be a time-saving feature for anyone who has ever scrolled through a list of documents with cryptic names, wondering what was inside them and not wanting to open each one because of the time involved.
The new Explorer will be a shock to users of earlier versions of Windows because it looks so different. Spend some time exploring it, though, and you'll see familiar concepts and lots of new features that make working with your files productive, if not downright enjoyable.
Search has been entirely overhauled and improved in Vista. In previous versions of Windows, you had to open the unintuitive Search dialog box, specify whether you were looking for a file or something in the file, and finally figure out exactly how to type your search phrase so that you had any chance at all of actually turning up something relevant.
The process was nothing like what folks use on a daily basis when searching the Web - and certainly was less effective. So Microsoft rebuilt search from the ground up in Vista, and the results are impressive.
There are many ways to launch a search in Vista, but opening the Start menu and clicking Search will take you directly to the Search pane. That's where the fun begins. Instead of having to choose multiple search options to specify what you're searching for - and where - you can just start typing, as you would when you open up Google or another search engine.
What happens next is even better than Google, however. Search results are returned immediately, in real time, as you type. Start typing 'annual report,' for instance, and you'll see a list of documents either named or containing the words 'annual report.'
Vista's search is so smart because the operating system catalogues the entire contents of your hard drive - and all drives attached to your computer - from the moment it is installed. By doing that, Vista has the ability to display search results instantaneously, without having to ask you a bunch of questions and then executing a laborious and time-consuming search.
--- Media Centre
Another well-kept secret in Vista is the new Windows Media Centre - Microsoft's one-stop entertainment application that combines video and music playing as well as digital entertainment cataloguing. Media Centre had promise in previous iterations but always fell short in usability. Figuring out how to do simple things like burn a music CD or organise your music collection was not intuitive.
The Windows Media Centre shipped with Vista Home Premium and Ultimate changes a lot - and for the better. The application's menu structure has been streamlined, the interface itself does not overwhelm with complexity, and best of all, the whole program just works much more smartly than before.
For example, if you start playing one or two MP3 files from a folder on your hard drive that contains all the songs of a particular CD, Vista's Media Centre will use the Internet to find album and artist information for those songs, show you an image of the album cover, and automatically catalogue that album for easy retrieval later using either the artist's name or the album. That's the kind of automation that Microsoft's founder Bill Gates had in mind when stating that his vision for the PC is to make it smarter.
Vista's Media Centre can do more than just play and catalogue music and videos, however. Because it's a roll-up of the full-blown Media Centre Edition of Windows, formerly a separate product, Media Centre can turn any PC on which it's installed into a home entertainment control panel.
Media Centre has built-in support for archiving television shows directly to DVDs. It's also optimised for widescreen displays, both televisions and computer monitors, although it works just fine in standard format. Perhaps best of all, all this power can be downsized to a tiny window that doesn't distract you from getting your work done while enjoying whatever Media Centre is doing.
In short, Media Centre is probably the most sophisticated entertainment application running on personal computers today. Note that it comes only with the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista, however.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur