Control Panel With XP, Microsoft introduced a new organization scheme for its Control Panel, in which the classic Control Panel layout-where all available configuration tools sat together in a single window-was broken up into categories. Microsoft preserved the option to revert to the classic layout, which we tended to do because it seemed to take more time to figure which category your desired tool lived in than to simply scan a list-even if that list had grown rather ungainly. In Vista, Microsoft has paired the configuration tool categorization efforts it began in XP with integrated search, which makes finding the tool you know exists a lot faster than scanning through a big list or spelunking down through Control Panel categories.Helpful as well is the Control Panel's knack for offering up links to configuration tools related to the one you're using. For instance, in the screen on which we could select a power management plan, a panel listed links for requiring a password on wakeup, choosing what the power buttons would do, choosing what would happen when we closed our laptop screen, creating our own power plan and choosing when to turn off our display. While Vista definitely makes it easier overall to find configuration options, there are a few places where the interface changes have, to our displeasure, added extra steps to perform some common operation. For instance, we are accustomed in XP to checking the IP address and other status information for our network adapter-and to request a new IP address from our DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server-by right-clicking on the network adapter icon in the task bar. In Vista, these options are missing, buried instead in a new Network and Sharing Center thats decently helpful but less immediately accessible than we'd like. Probably a better place to conduct these sorts of quick-hit information checks and operations, anyway, is Vista's command line, the state of which Microsoft has improved considerably in Vista. Vista's directory naming conventions, for instance, are much improved from a command-line users perspective: Gone is "Documents and Settings" and the "My" prefix for "Documents," "Pictures" and other folders of their ilk. Microsoft has also introduced Unix-style symlinks in Vista. These links direct applications aimed at those bygone, multiword directory names to their new and simpler-named successors. Microsoft's search folders also make use of Vista's new link capability. Microsoft has created an impressive-looking add-on terminal shell for Windows, called Powershell, which should bring Windows closer to Linux in terms of command-line usefulness. At the time this review was written, the Powershell was available only for XP and Windows Server 2003. A Vista version of Powershell is slated to ship at the beginning of 2007. Vista inherits from Windows Server 2003 a nifty feature known as Previous Versions. We could right-click on a file or folder, choose the Previous Versions tab, and check out a list of earlier versions of that file or folder, each coinciding with one of Vista's periodic system restores or with a backup operation. For example, we consulted the previous versions of our Desktop directory to find items that were on our Desktop but had since been moved or deleted. We could browse that past Desktop through Explorer and copy items we wanted to restore. We could also restore a file or folder to one of its previous states. We expect to see this feature of Vista reduce a portion of the restore-from-tape chores that IT staffers must perform as part of their duties, which is better both for the IT staffers and for the users looking to restore lost or changed data. What does eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza think about Vista? Find out here. Vista includes a new volume mixer tool that allowed us to control independently the volume of Windows system sounds and those of individual open applications. This will come in handy as the number of sound-producing applications on ones system continues to multiply. Vista also now includes a new control dialog, called the Mobility Center, which collects configuration options related to Tablet PC or notebook PC use-such as battery, Wi-Fi radio and file synchronization controls-into a single location. Vista ships with built-in support for speech recognition, a feature that helps fill out a generous suite of accessibility tools. We spent limited time with Vista's speech recognition tools, but we were impressed by some of the solutions Microsoft has pursued with the goal of making speech recognition useful. For instance, with speech recognition turned on, we could say "Show numbers," and the application in the foreground would appear with numbers superimposed on all of the applications buttons and fields. We could then press a button or enter a field by speaking the number associated with it. While dictating to our Vista test machine, we could correct words and phrases that Vista had recognized incorrectly by choosing from a list of similar words or phrases. We could use Vista's dictation tools not only in applications that shipped with Vista, but in any application we were running. For instance, we dictated our way through part of a chat session using the open-source Gaim instant messaging client. Another new feature on the Vista usability front is the system's Sidebar, which hosts mini-applications much like those that reside in Mac OS X's Dashboard. There's probably opportunity here for some interesting, in-house-developed applets, but we've taken to disabling the Sidebar because we've not yet found it-or the relatively small number of so-called gadgets for it-particularly useful. Next Page: Security.
Vista's Control Panel also tracks recent configuration tasks users have undertaken, keeping a list of the last three in the lower left corner of the Control Panel.