Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate Operating System

Think of it as legal steroids for your HTPC.

Plenty of people don't give operating systems a second thought. But they determine what we see and hear and ultimately how we interact with our computer—and everything stored on it. Such software is Microsoft's bread and butter, and they've gone to great lengths to put it at the front of everyone's minds. This is especially true for their radically advanced, new Windows Vista, which is available in several flavors. The guide I downloaded from their Website was more than 300 pages, so there is simply no way to list all the features. Instead, I will quickly point out that the Ultimate version of Windows Vista, which I tested, is the most complete; it combines all the lower-tier functions and adds some unique extras.

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With the exception of the necessary 15 gigabytes of available disk space, the minimum hardware requirements to run Windows Vista Ultimate are not intimidating. The recommended specifications are a full gigabyte of system memory (RAM), a 1-gigahertz or better processor, and a DVD-ROM drive. This has motivated many users to buy a new rig altogether rather than upgrade individual components on an outdated box. Who wants to tank up his 1981 Nissan Sentra with high-test? As with Windows XP several years ago, this is the march of technology nudging us consumers forward, certainly not dragging us thrashing and wailing.

In With the Old
The single most desirable accessory for those making the switch is surely Belkin's Easy Transfer Cable ($40). It's essentially a two-headed USB 2.0 cord that connects an old Windows XP PC to a new Windows Vista box for porting over music, videos, photos, and documents, as well as certain applications with your specific settings and preferences. The necessary software is already included in Windows Vista, so you just need a quick install on the older PC. I personally copied about 40 GB in three hours, and it didn't alter any of the original content. You can also burn CDs and DVDs to transfer files, or use a Flash drive. On that note, another highly recommended accessory is a SanDisk Cruzer Contour USB Flash drive. It has a capacity of up to 8 GB, which is useful for data transfer and also to exploit Windows Vista's wonderful new ReadyBoost feature. If you plug in an appropriately enhanced Flash drive like the Cruzer Contour, the operating system can use it as a fast read cache. This allows for even faster, smoother performance without opening the case for a costly RAM-wafer upgrade.

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The translucent Aero Glass effect makes even a cluttered desktop easier to digest. And it looks really cool.

From the start, you can enjoy faster searches. When I tried out the system, a download didn't ask where I wanted it to go. Later, though, a search window instantaneously gave me the precise location after I typed in only two letters from the file name. I worry only that such helpful tools will give more of us a license to be careless and sloppy. (I've been an unlicensed practitioner my whole life.) Interactivity is increasingly proactive. When you place the cursor over a tab in the tool bar, it opens a miniature representation of that window, including high-quality motion video if a movie is playing. Windows Flip 3D is even better. It can reconfigure all the active windows into a layered, angled display that lets you move from one to the next. It's like navigating a Rolodex, except these are live thumbnails: Video plays, and text and other content is clearly legible. Overall, Windows Vista seems eager to please, asking clear, simple questions. Do you want to connect to the Internet? How so?

Compatibility has long been an issue when considering related purchases such as games, and so Microsoft has created the Windows Experience Index. It's a sort of score for rating the performance of PC hardware that evaluates the processor, RAM, graphics card, and storage on a scale from 1 to 5.9. They're the handiest numbers since the Dewey decimal system. The Index will be incorporated into rebranded games for Windows titles for foolproof matching. The widely varying requirements of PC games in the pre-WEI age inspired me, and others, to lean toward standardized consoles.

Speaking of consoles, cross-platform play is now possible for the first time in gaming history. Certain titles support contests of skill between one player on a PC and another on Microsoft's Xbox 360—even half a world away over the Xbox Live network. Windows Vista PCs can utilize Xbox 360 controllers to further level the once uneven playing field.

Microsoft's next-gen game-programming interface, DirectX 10 is exclusive to Windows Vista. With a DirectX 10–compatible graphics card, your PC yields more detailed and realistic visuals than on any current console. Video editor and HTGamer extraordinaire Geoffrey Morrison will have more to say about DirectX 10 in the near future.

Ultimate Entertainment
Windows Media Player 11 is integrated for desktop movies and music, along with the latest version of Windows Media Center, with its 10-foot user interface. It's ready to work with a variety of optional Media Center remote controls and offers proprietary tricks like the translucent overlay of the Media Center interface atop a movie while it plays. Windows Media Center Extender returns, streaming music, recorded video, and photos from the PC to the home theater via a networked Xbox 360 or other approved device. Media Center also enables high-definition television recording, and it supports up to four tuners—dual ATSC plus either dual NTSC or dual digital cable tuners, with or without a CableCARD. It actively assists in configuring them for antenna, cable, or satellite programming. A comprehensive, Internet-fueled electronic programming guide helps manage both standard and high-def recording. Media Center also serves as the user interface for certain connected DVD megachangers, and you can easily burn play-anywhere DVDs complete with automatically generated menus right here. It's not HD DVD–ready out of the box, but the Windows Vista infrastructure is designed to work with third-party HD DVD applications. And, despite predictions, Microsoft's $200 Xbox 360 external HD DVD drive will not work on a Windows Vista PC—at least not yet.

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Windows Flip 3D (top) lets you sort through multiple layers of content in style. The newest version of Windows Media Center (bottom) offers new and improved features.

There are many audio enhancements. Traditional bass management is provided, and there is reverse bass management for setups with large loudspeakers and no subwoofer. The Speaker Fill function simulates multichannel sound from two speakers via channel manipulations and the insertion of front/rear delays. Room Correction crunches the delay, frequency response, and gain to help determine the ideal sweet spot, along with the help of a microphone. Familiar bass-boost, phantom-center-channel, and all manner of headphone effects are on board, as well.

Anything that conforms so thoroughly to the individual owner requires extensive customization, and the vast features set will take hours to explore and tweak, which is likely more of an opportunity than a chore for most power users. I enjoy a certain measure of automation, however, so Windows Vista's tendency to ask for confirmation before executing my commands can grow tiresome. It exudes an air somewhere between a fawning sycophant and a doubting parent. But would I want any other OS running on my HTPC? I've seen the future, and I can't go back.

* Thanks to Intel, I had an amazing, tricked-out Core 2 Duo HTPC to help me properly experience Windows Vista Ultimate.

Windows Vista Ultimate
Full Version, $399;
Upgrade Version (for PCs earlier versions of Windows), $259
Microsoft
(866) 234-6020
www.windowsvista.com

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