Jan. 29, 2007 -- With the kind of fanfare and revelry usually reserved for summer blockbuster movie premieres and rock tours, Microsoft has released the consumer version of its new Windows operating system with an event in Times Square starring Bill Gates himself.
But as the company embarks on the biggest -- and some would say most important -- product launch in their history, people around the world are asking, "Why should I care?"
The major reason is that after Jan. 30, when Vista is launched, Windows-based PCs will increasingly come equipped with the Vista operating system. So when you buy a new computer, you'd better be prepared to learn how to use it.
If you do care and want to jump right in and get Windows Vista running on your PC, you may need to do a little upgrading, especially if you want to run some of the software's more visual extras. The upgrades, however, might cost you.
This time around, Windows has gone through a major redesign, start to finish. Microsoft even beta tested the software with 50 families across the country who lived with the program for two years and reported back to Microsoft on what they liked and didn't like. You can read about the Vista families and the Living With Vista program by clicking here.
The end result, the company hopes, is a user-friendly experience that's both familiar and different, that capitalizes on technological improvements made since the last Windows operating system was released, and that keeps up with advancements well into the future.
Who Does Your Hair?
A new version of Windows means a new look and this time, your computer's going to get a face-lift unlike any its had before. Vista has a visually pleasing, almost 3-D aesthetic.
Toolbars and windows virtually pop off the page, but also appear slightly transparent so you can see what resides underneath. Open documents, browsers and applications appear as thumbnails, so you don't have to maximize files to see what you're clicking on.
If you're using Windows Vista Home Ultimate and the right hardware, you can bring your desktop to life with moving wallpaper that uses any video you like.
One addition Microsoft is very excited about is the new search feature. Use the simple search window found in the start menu to look up anything on your computer, whether it's a file or a program, with just part of the name.
Looking for solitaire? Just start typing it in and Vista will deliver search results as you type.
To simplify your simple day-to-day tasks, Microsoft has incorporated something called "gadgets" -- small applications that live on the side of your desktop. These programs range from world clocks and day planners to Post-it style notes and weather programs.
But aside from a complete visual makeover, Vista contains a host of media-centric features, like the incorporation of Windows Media Center directly into the operating system. Though it may require some additional hardware, Vista can turn your computer into a digital video recorder, or DVR, and TV into a digital picture frame or your home entertainment system into a home movie theater.
Computer gaming is also simplified and the experience of running a game on a Windows PC is improved with Vista. Instead of being forced to search the computer's program files for the game you want, just head to the "Games" folder in the start menu and it's right there.
Parents will be happy to know that Microsoft has made significant improvements and additions to its parental controls.
Whether parents want to keep their kids from playing games completely or restrict which games they play by title, for example, the power is in their hands. They can even restict game play by based on the rating given to it by the Enterteinment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB.
Three Views for the Perfect Vista
Vista comes in three flavors: Windows Vista Home Basic ($200 for the full version and $100 for the upgrade), Windows Vista Home Premium ($240 for the full version and $160 for the upgrade) and Windows Vista Home Ultimate ($400 for the full version and $260 for the upgrade).
They all feature the same basic set of tools and the Vista operating system, but Premium and Ultimate feature a few additional bells and whistles, and many of the coolest features -- like Media Center and Vista's 3-D look -- require at least the Premium software. Of course, you'll need a PC capable of running those extras too.
Microsoft has prepared a simple program that will check your computer and let you know if it's ready for Vista and can help you determine what version of the software is right for you and your PC. Click here to use the Windows Upgrade Adviser and see if your computer is ready.
Microsoft defines a Windows Vista capable PC as one that has a processor of at least 800 megahertz, 512 megabytes of RAM and a graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable.
While that's enough to get you up and running, you'll need an even more current and power-packed PC to run the Premium version of the software. A computer designated as a Windows Vista Premium PC needs a minimum of a 1 gigahertz 32-bit or 64-bit processor, 1 gigabyte of Ram, a DirectX 9 capable graphics card with at least 128 megabytes of memory, 40 gigabytes of hard drive capacity with 15 gigabytes of free space, a DVD-ROM drive, audio output and an Internet connection.