Vista feels different even before you log on. The logon process itself has changed: fast user switching is longer disabled when the machine joins a domain. Smart card logon needs Ctrl-alt-del to start it (at least with this build and my smart card reader). Once logged on, the new look – changed fonts to make the best of clear type, “Glass” effects and new default colours - make vista look new .

Of the things explorer controls, the desktop has benefitted from the general facelift, but no more; the task bar too has only cosmetic changes; the start menu has changed, but is still recognisable, and the file explorer beyond recognition

The Start menu, - although no-longer labelled “Start” – is recognisable to most XP users. I say most, because I kept XP’s menu in “Classic” mode: a couple of innovations in Vista have persuaded me to leave classic mode behind – it looks so 1995 now. The configuration of the menu and task bar has been streamlined. As with XP the menu adapts to keep your preferred and recently used programs visible.

The new look menu

The major difference is the presence of search. If the program you want isn’t on recent list, you have a choice, navigate through the program menus or type the name in the search box and let Windows find it. You don’t need to use the run menu, Window Key + R still brings up the run dialog, but run is not on the menu by default. You can add it back through the single dialog which handles options for the Task bar, Start menu, notification area and Toolbars. This easier than XP with finer control over the start menu.

Search is a big thing in vista. With good attention to detail, when it is used from the start menu, it searches for programs, pauses for a second, then displays other items from the index, grouping together files emails and together. And it searches meta data too, so if you want to find documents by Barry, all you need to do is press the Window key and type “Barry”, want to find music by Vivaldi ? Type “Vivaldi”. Start a command prompt ? Type “cmd”. You only need to open a search window from the start menu (or with Window Key + F as in XP) and use it to build complex property searches: if I’m looking for a recent high-res picture of my daughter (without her brother) I can tell search to return pictures, where the tags contain “Lisa” but not “Paul” and the date is this year, and the size is greater than 1MB. Each step of the way I see results being narrowed down. Because search looks at the contents of your mail box and mail properties, you can have searches to view mail.

Windows Explorer as a mail client using search.

Crucially, searches can be saved – they’re XML files, which means they can be shared too, but to any application they look like folders, so Old applications can use saved searches, if they use the built in file-open dialog

Here’s an application from 1999 using saved searches to find files.

The file explorer has seen the biggest changes. In XP the left of the Window was either a mix of shortcuts to folders and tasks based on content OR it showed the folder hierarchy. For Vista, tasks are along the top of the window, and the left has become “places I can go” which is divided between favourites, and folder hierarchy. The Bottom of the window displays information about the file (no need to call up file properties), and the right can display a preview, which very useful as I mentioned before – you can see this in the mail search screenshot above. Each of the Panes can be turned on or off as needed. Stacking files is another new idea in Vista. Stacking is best explained by example; if I stack documents by author, all the documents, in the all the sub folders are arranged in new search folders, one per author. You can stack within stacks, so you can stack by document type within author, and because the stacks are savable searches, I can put a shortcut to “presentations by Eileen” on my desktop. Those presentations might be in 101 different folders based on event, or subject or time frame. My folder hierarchy doesn't matter.

Application vendors need to support search, property display and reading view: it’s the difference between working on Vista and working with Vista. I don’t know what’s planned for application certification for Vista, but I’d require support for all three. Microsoft documents applications do support them as you'd expect, and Windows fetches the information from the EXIF data in JPEGs. By comparison the experience I get with a PDF file and the default Adobe reader looks very poor, I hope Adobe are working on this.