Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.