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The year of the OS

It’s been five years since Microsoft released Windows XP, itself following up on the much reviled Windows Millennium Edition.

It’s been five years since Microsoft released Windows XP, itself following up on the much reviled Windows Millennium Edition.

By all accounts, XP is/was a pretty good operating system, although you wouldn’t know it from all the bad press it has received over the years as a result of all the security gaps, patches and upgrades that have become too routine in the Microsoft world.

Still, XP was much more intuitive and easy to use compared to previous Windows operating systems, and did a pretty good job anticipating the emergence of the computer as a multimedia platform for storing and editing pictures, music and video. It was also a harder system to crash than previous Windows editions, even though it required more memory, to run more applications and handle the various plug and play demands of users. Unlike Apple — which has a limited number of peripherals to choose from — XP simply had to work with virtually every electronic device on the market.

Two service packs and hundreds of patches and upgrades later, XP is finally being kicked to the curb. A lot of people won’t miss it.

In its place we’re about to witness the launch of a new operating system this January called Vista. It’s more than two years late, but only because Microsoft was not content merely to update their existing platform — instead they elected to design a whole new operating system from the bottom up that is tailored to the next era of computing — dual core processors, 64-bit processors, faster bus speeds, the Direct X 10 developer platform, and all forms and functions of next generation capability and software.

Vista is also designed to be more secure, although some minor flaws have already been uncovered by security firms like Symantec. Considering the amount of scrutiny this software has received, turning up just a few minor bugs at this stage is actually good news for Microsoft. Every hacker in the world is going to try to find security flaws in Vista to exploit, and to be the first one to break Microsoft’s new security protocols, but so far they’ve been shut out.

While security is always the big question mark, you’re still going to want to upgrade to Vista providing you can at least meet the minimum technical specifications — 800 MHz 32-bit or 64-bit processor, 512 MB system memory, SVGA graphics processor, 15 GB free hard drive space. Most computers sold in the last three years or so won’t have much trouble meeting the minimum.

In a way the minimum requirements are less important for Vista than the system’s maximum potential, and Vista was designed to take full advantage of the performance available on the most high-end computers. For example, a 64-bit processor is capable of crunching packets of code that are twice as big as 32-bit processors, but since very few programs are written for 64-bit processors a lot of that capacity for performance is never used. Not so with Vista’s 64-bit edition.

While the guts of Vista are solid, there are other intangible benefits.

The look and feel of the new Aero interface is a huge improvement over XP — always a search window where you want one, interactive 3D windows, new ways to browse open windows, customizable functions, and buttons always where you need them — but the real appeal will be in the host of new features available.

One feature you’ll notice right away is Windows Shell, a new type of file organization system that lets you choose how you want to group, stack and link files and folders in your system. Shell recognizes that sometimes users want files to be in two places at once, or serve more than one function.

It’s also easier to move up and down your file hierarchy, retracing your steps as you move around.

The new Desktop Search tool will also be helpful for finding files, with a high degree of specification. A new indexing engine will make it faster to find key words on your hard drive, and sort the results in a way that they’re easier to sift through.

The Sidebar feature is pretty much the same thing as Apple’s Dashboard, essentially allowing the use of little java applets that do everything from tell time to provide updated weather reports.

Other features include a new Windows Mail program, a new contacts application, a new calendar application, a new fax and scan application, the Windows Meeting Space application where you can easily collaborate on applications and files with other users, and various other helpful tools.

Several reviewers have already pointed out that many Vista’s features copy the features already included in Apple’s OSX series of operating systems. Rather than argue against that, I’d say that the similarities are a good thing even if Microsoft loses points for originality — OSX is widely recognized as the best of all the operating systems out there, and it would be silly if Vista couldn’t at least match that functionality.

Vista versions will start at around $129, for people upgrading from the latest version of XP, and will be around $259 for a new version. It should hit the stores on Jan. 30.