As the entire universe is no doubt aware, Windows Vista – the successor to Windows XP on the desktop – has now launched amid trumpets and webcasts from Bill Gates. In an attempt to stoke up the hype, Microsoft has been particularly tight about supplying copies; so just how exciting is this beast?

The version we plumped for was Business Edition, as it’s the version that most of our readers are likely to be interested in. The range of editions feels almost endless, though. At the bottom we have Home Basic Edition, which is the equivalent of the Home edition of Windows XP – you get the basic OS, but not a lot more. Home Premium Edition is where the majority of home and SoHo users will want to be, as you get all the nice toys that modern users want such as a DVD-building suite, Windows Movie Maker, Windows Media Center [sic] and a whole load more.

In fact, one can’t help thinking Microsoft had one eye on MacOS X in this respect – Apple’s iMovie and iDVD packages ship as standard when you buy a Mac. With the Business Edition you lose the natty multimedia tools but gain the business-oriented stuff such as some better backup tools and Remote Desktop, and finally the Ultimate Edition has ticks in every box on the feature list. If you’re a big Windows user with a volume agreement, there’s also the Enterprise Edition that has a few extras such as a licence to run multiple virtual OS sessions on each PC (in case you have to use a previous Windows version to run a legacy app). Finally, there will also be further versions that ship without Media Player in order to satisfy the anti-competition rulings.

As someone who remembers the time when OS installers made the switch from a pile of floppies to one of those newfangled CD things, it came as no surprise to me that Vista has taken the next step and has become waaayyy too big for a CD. The choice we went for was a single DVD, though if your kit isn’t up to such modern technology the alternative is a pile of five CDs. We shouldn’t really mock Microsoft in this respect, of course, since other OSs such as Linux have been shipping on piles of CDs for ages now; it has to be said, though, that the leap from one CD for Windows XP to five for Vista is rather a big one.

The installation process for Vista is dead simple. Just like all Microsoft’s other operating systems you shove in (in my case) the DVD, walk through the various wizards, adding your licence key along the way, and then wait for it to copy all its files. Now, anyone who’s ever installed Windows XP will know that once you’ve got the basic OS on the machine, you then have to install the various drivers for the bits of hardware that are installed. Although XP offers to go and find the drivers via the web, in my experience it simply can’t find them most of the time. Not so for Vista, whose driver finder was successful for all the built-in hardware in my Dell Latitude, along with all but one of the stack of connected peripherals (a Canon scanner).

Once you’re up and running, you get the first view of the new GUI. And it is indeed new, but Microsoft seems to have got the balance of new versus old about right. Yes, the layout of stuff has changed, and yes, the various icons are pretty different, but you still have concepts such as the main menu at the bottom left of the screen, with options located so they’re still pretty easy to find. Much of the re-organisation is sensible, it must be said – for instance, the Mobility Center brings together options that were previously spread across multiple control panels, such as screen brightness, wireless LAN connections and battery status. And of course you still have the niceties that were added to Windows XP in Service Pack 2 such as the Windows Firewall and AV protection monitor, along with oldies such as automated software updates.

There are, of course, several new bits and bobs with Vista. Although I was using a fresh, lab-based machine and didn’t need to pull my documents across from an old machine, I could if I’d wished have used the new Easy Transfer to copy my files, user accounts and settings from an old system. The wacky new Windows Aero GUI is a natty 3D way of looking at things, and may appeal to some users, and the Windows Sidebar, where you can view on-screen "gadgets” showing stuff like clocks, weather information and the like (which I’m personally unlikely to use), seems a pretty blatant equivalent of Apple’s “Dashboard” (which I don’t use on my eMac) that came along in Mac OS 10.4. On a more businessy front, the in-built backup tools are improved, there’s the new Windows Defender (an anti-spyware package which, incidentally, is also available for Windows XP SP2), BitLocker (drive encryption), and Meeting Space (for peer-to-peer collaboration). And of course, when you’re part of an Active Directory world you can use the various neat things you may or may not be used to from Windows 2000 and XP – roaming profiles, global policies, and so on.

Along with the new features, though, there’s plenty that’s not particularly unique to Vista. Yes, there’s a new release of the .NET Framework (version 3.0) but you can run this on previous Windows releases too. Yes, the new control panels such as the Mobility Center make life easier than in XP, but the only difference is that items are accessible from a single place instead of the user having to open three or four different control panels. This said, they’ve done a lot of catching up with the times, and so the search functionality is much improved (instead of just searching your disk for files, the search function is nicely integrated so it scans contacts, emails and network-based stuff too. The Sync Manager exists in recognition of the fact that most of us have some portable device or other that we’d like to sync with something PC-based. And the Network and Sharing Center, although it doesn’t do much that you couldn’t do with XP, makes it easier than before to share files without knackering your computer’s security.

So will I be switching to Vista? Nah, not for the moment. The problem with Vista isn’t actually anything to do with Vista at all. No, the problem is that Windows XP is simply too darn good for Vista to hold any significant benefits.

Think about it. With Windows 2000 Server, Active Directory became the order of the day for business Windows computing, and Windows Server 2003 improved a bit on that. With Windows 2000 and then XP on the desktop, you can exploit all this nice corporate functionality, and it has all the stuff you could ever reasonably want – remote installation, remote control, security management, a nice GUI, and so on. And Microsoft has shot itself in the foot in a way, too, because loads of the nice new stuff they’ve put in Vista (Internet Explorer 7, .NET 3, etc) has had to be made available for XP as well so that XP users aren’t disadvantaged too much.

As a home computer OS, Vista rocks – thanks mainly to the cool new GUI and the multimedia tools you get. In the enterprise, though, Windows XP will be a fully supported product for many years yet – and so it’s hard to justify moving to Vista based on the relatively modest clump of new features it provides.

OUR VERDICT

Business users with Windows XP really don't need to upgrade to Vista - XP, with the extra Vista-like bits you can download such as .NET 3.0 and IE7, is perfectly adequate and Vista really doesn't give you a great deal more. If you're buying new PCs then Vista may well be your only option; the main tip is to make sure you don't scrimp on RAM (Vista is hungrier than XP).