I just got my first go on Vista (with Aero). I didn’t get to play with it much so these really are my first impressions. I’ll be playing about with it quite a bit over the next few months so I’ll post with more details later. I’ve been hearing for ages how much like OS X Vista is so I was expecting to say ‘wow, this feels familiar’. That was my first reaction, but not because it reminded me of OS X, no, because it reminded me of Windows XP. Sure, it looks much shinier than XP but the user experience is basically the same. There is no big paradigm shift. This is not like the jumpt from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 or arguably even from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. I was basically underwhelmed.

[tags]MicroSoft, Windows, Vista, OS X[/tags]

The first improvement I noticed was the way you get a preview of a window when you hover over its block in the task bar. The Windows task bar with it’s text-filled square boxes has always seemed like a waste of pixels to me. As soon as you have even a few windows open the text becomes pointless as most of it has to be truncated anyhow. Worse still, with all that pointless truncated text in the way the icons which are actually helpful have to be ridiculously small! OS X and Windows have adopted fundamentally different techniques for managing open windows and launching apps. MS opted for text with some small icons to help you, OS X chose icons with text available on hover when you need it. Windows have a start menu AND the task bar, where as OS X just has the doc which both launches apps and manages windows. The doc in OS X uses icons instead of text for apps, and live previews with a small icon instead of text for minimized windows. We all know the icons for our apps, so it makes sense to use them rather than lots of small hard to read often truncated text. However, even considering the fact that I think the task bar is fundamentally badly designed, these new previews do make the it more usable which is a good thing.

It has to be said that Aero looks pretty. I’ll have to play around with it a bit to see how usable it is but without a shadow of a doubt it looks very nice. I’m a little concerned that the window edges are a bit too transparent and that the edges of windows kind of get lost when you have a cluster of them but I’m not sure about that yet. One thing that does worry me is how little emphasis there is on the window that’s current. On all previous versions of Windows the current Window has been the one with the darker window title area, on Aero that’s not the case. All the windows have very light colored title bars and the active one is the lightest one, not the darkest one. To me the contrast between active and inactive windows seems too weak which could make using Vista with Aero turned on a bit awkward.

Something that really disappointed me was the exposee ‘equivalent’. The idea of this feature is to let you see at a glance all the Windows you have open. In Vista it does this by stacking the Windows BEHIND EACH OTHER. How does that help you see stuff at a glance? To actually see your windows you have to scroll through this 3D stack of windows. That’s a lot of pointless work. You need to bring up the stack and then scroll through it. On OS X you get to see a small version of all your windows at the same time tiled across your screen so at a glance you get it all, no scrolling to search for the window you want. You even get control over the granularity, you can see all windows or just all windows in the current application. The Vista implementation reminded me a lot of the interface to Apple’s Time Machine for OS X Leopard. However, when you want to watch a folder evolve over time it makes sense to have a stack and to scroll though it, when you want to see all your windows at once it does not. This Vista feature looks looks very pretty but it smacks of form over function.

The hardware requirements for Aero mystify me. For what you get I just don’t see why you should need 128MB of graphics RAM. I’ve had basically the same graphic experience on OS X for two years now with an old G4 MacMini with 32MB of graphics RAM. Why does Vista need so much more to deliver basically the same thing? Why is Vista so ridiculously inefficient?

I haven’t had a chance to play with Gadgets or the enhanced security features yet so my thoughts on those will have to wait till later. All I did today was look at Vista from the point of view of a regular end user and really very little has changed. Although there have been massive changes under the hood (some good, some less so IMO), from a purely HCI (human computer interaction) point of view, Vista really is just Windows XP with a few bells and whistles. It’s not really anything new. There is no real change in the start menu, the task bar, or window management, so the basic model of interaction is no different to XP. The only big thing from a user-interface point of view that I can see is the spotlight-like search feature and perhaps the Gadgets. I’d compare the differences between XP and Vista to those between OS X Panther and OS X Tiger. However, Panther and Tiger were about a year and a half apart, where as there are five and a half years between XP and Vista! Anyhow, bottom line, Vista is nothing like OS X, it’s still just Windows 🙂