By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2006-11-26 Print this article Print

Usability Probably the best way to sum up the usability improvements in Vista is to say that the operating system makes it easier for users to find things-be they documents, e-mail messages, applications or configuration settings.

Central to Vista's new facility for finding things is the system's overhauled indexing engine, which improves upon elder Windows versions indexing services with much greater speed, the capability to index a wider variety of data and pervasive integration though the Vista interface.

We found that the fastest way to find what we were seeking in Vista was to open the Start menu and type into the Search box at the lower left corner. As we typed, Vista returned results right in the Start menu pane, from which we could select one of the results or view all results and further edit our query in an Explorer window.

We could also save our searches as virtual folders that would update themselves as new results appeared in the index.

Vista ships with a few premade search folders, such as the Recently Changed folder, which returns recently modified files. We found, however, that this search folder will only return changed files for which Vista supports indexing. We created a Word-formatted document in 2.0, which Vista could index and would list in search results. The same file saved in's ODT format, however, didn't show up in our search.

Its understandable that Vista would ship with filters for searching certain file types and not others, but we expected Vista at least to recognize that our ODT file existed and had been recently modified.

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Vista's indexing service depends on the same IFilters for parsing different file types as do Microsoft's other indexing engines, such as the engines for Office SharePoint Server and for the Windows Desktop Search add-on for XP.

We found and installed an IFilter for adding indexing support for documents (from here), but our Vista test machine still would not recognize these files, even after we rebuilt our index. We hope to see this wrinkle ironed out soon, as extensibility is key to the usefulness of Vistas new search capabilities.

Vista's indexing engine takes advantage of a new Vista feature that provides for I/O prioritization: During tests, the indexing service throttled back its I/O usage while we were doing other things with our test system so that it wouldn't be disruptive.

The indexing service rightly raises battery life concerns for Vista on laptops, as reading from changed files on disk and writing to the index mean more activity and shorter battery life. We were pleased to see, therefore, that we could opt to curtail indexing from Vista's Power Options configuration dialog.

In Vista, a handful of other background-type applications, such as Windows Defender and the systems SuperFetch memory optimization function, also employ I/O prioritization to stay out of the way-and developers may use these features in their own applications for Vista as well.

New Explorer

Vista sports a heavily overhauled Explorer file manager that offers up several ways to view and organize files based on their metadata. We could assign bits of metadata-such as tags, stars or author names-through a new pane at the bottom of an Explorer window. We could opt to view these bits of metadata in columns alongside traditional attribute columns, such as file type or date modified, and we could view our files split into metadata-based groups or stacks.

We see a lot of potential in this approach, but metadata-based organization techniques aren't much help without metadata with which to organize. Until applications begin doing a better job of automatically creating metadata for the files they create, users will have to spend time adding this information themselves. We'd like to see a product that can scan through a directory of documents and create tags automatically for the directory's files. For certain applications, Vista includes a new File Open and Save dialog that enabled us to apply tags to files as we saved them.

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One trouble spot we encountered using Vistas Explorer metadata organization tools was the lack of support for some of the file types we commonly use. For instance, JPEG files happily take attributes under Vista, but PNG files do not.

Along similar lines, Vista would not apply metadata to files we had created in the format. And, strangely, our attempts to apply metadata to documents created in Microsoft Office format-were greeted with an error message. We didn't experience the same problem with an Office-formatted document we created using Google Docs & Spreadsheets-we could apply metadata to that document as expected.

Another potential issue for those making a switch to Vista is that Explorer's interface has changed enough to make it initially confusing to use. The familiar Explorer menu bar-File, Edit, View, Tools, Help-is hidden by default in the new Explorer, and we found ourselves fumbling around a bit in search of the old ways of getting things done.

Also, Explorer now features a new address bar that made it easier to navigate around in the nest of folders in which we found ourselves, but only once we'd gotten used to it. Expect to spend a bit of time adjusting to the new Explorer.

Next Page: Control Panel.

As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. JasonÔÇÖs coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at

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