March 21, 2006 4:00 AM PST
An inside look at Windows Vista
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Navigation and organization
Using Windows file search has long been the operating system equivalent to searching for your car keys in the morning--you have a hazy idea of where they should be, but it'll take longer than you think it should to find them. As anyone who has ever used Windows search will tell you, if you forget the exact name or location of the file or folder you want, count on wasting an intolerable amount of time waiting for Windows to return your search results and then even more time wading through the barely organized result list.
Being able to find your data quickly is almost as important as having the data itself, and Windows' failings in file navigation have left the door wide open for competitors willing to provide a service the OS can't provide. Last year, search giant Google released a desktop search program that offered lightning-quick desktop search results for finding e-mails, files and even Web sites stored in your Web history.
Microsoft improved its file search system in Windows XP by using indexing to speed up searches, but Windows Vista has evolved file navigation and organization to an entirely new level. Finding your documents, programs, and media files is much easier in Windows Vista. Yes, it's difficult to get excited about a new navigation system, but the change is significant since it impacts how we work and play on the desktop every single day.
Microsoft isn't delivering the whole pie just yet, however. Windows Vista was supposed to come with WinFS, a systemwide relational database designed to make file navigation more enjoyable than playing on your Xbox 360. Microsoft had to cut WinFS out of the release in order to meet the launch schedule, but it should be available as a download for both Windows Vista and Windows XP once it's released. A pervasive database lets users and programmers create deep relationships between files. Imagine instead of just finding a folder full of pictures, you could easily find pictures with only you in them, from specific dates, and even certain events--all at the same time. That's what WinFS is supposed to do.
Windows Vista has a new quick-search bar integrated into the start menu and folder-explorer views. The search tool automatically starts returning results as soon as you type in the first letter and narrows down the results as you add more letters. Start typing, and the results will appear and dynamically change on the fly. Did you narrow down your results field to zero? No worries--delete a few letters to rebuild the results list instead of running the search all over again. The search returns everything, including programs, files and folders. Vista even includes the ability to search through data stores, such as e-mail archives, Word documents and a host of other file types. You'll likely still need to wait for regular, full-system searches when trying to find obscure, seldom-used files not included in the indexing service--you can choose to include them, but we imagine that adding needless files could end up slowing down the quick search.
The quick search will highlight your best match as it narrows down the results, and pressing the Enter key will open the best-match file or launch the best-match program. It was confusing at first, since years of using Web search has taught us to press Enter immediately after typing in text to get a results page. Now, pressing Enter automatically opens or launches the best-match selection. We accidentally launched 3DMark06, a benchmarking program, a couple of times while we were using quick search to look for the application folder.
Windows Vista will also let you save searches as a virtual folder. When you open the folder, it runs the search to populate the folder with items. By running the search in real-time, the virtual folder will be able to catch and display all the new files that meet the search criteria. Virtual folders don't recopy your files, so you can safely delete the virtual folder without losing any data.
Microsoft's new metatag feature will help you better organize your files by allowing you to attach description "tags" to a file to make it easier to find and organize. Metatags provide a magnitude of improvement over the simple file/folder organization scheme that hasn't changed much since the DOS days. You can tag any file with just about any word. For instance, you might have some videos, photos and planning documents all related to multiple projects. Under the traditional Windows file system, all these files might go into one main folder, with subfolders for each different project. Then you have to deal with the conundrum of sharing the same file across multiple projects. Should I maintain one file, or drop copies of the file in each folder? What happens if I make changes?
With the new tagging features of Windows Vista, you can easily give files multiple attributes. When you search for "blue flame experiment," you're sure to get all the files associated with that project on the first try. If you have files that are relevant for more experiments, just tag them to make sure they also show up when you search or create a virtual folder for "red flame experiment." You can use the built-in tags, such as author or rating, or you can use your own custom keywords. As long as your files are tagged correctly, gathering your financial or legal files should take no more than a single search even if the actual files are spread throughout the system.
Microsoft has overhauled the Windows Start Menu to make it easier to find and access programs. The left side of the menu displays the most recently used programs, and the All Programs menu selection at the bottom now transforms the entire left menu area into a program-navigation menu, instead of opening an unwieldy navigation menu that expands rightward. Clicking on a folder in the new program-view menu expands it downward to reveal executable programs contained inside, making it easier for those using a notebook touch pad to find and run programs from the Start Menu.
Windows Vista also features explorer shells that are customized to provide more useful displays for specific file types, including media files, such as pictures, music and videos. The explorer will display a preview of the currently selected item in the bottom part of the window, and the toolbar displays actions specific to the file type. The music explorer window, for example, offers the basic window layout, views and file organization menus, but it also offers a Play All option and a Public Settings menu, which lets you set network sharing from right inside the music explorer.
The Windows games explorer features similar customized options to make gaming easier. You no longer need to hunt through the Program Files menu to launch a game, because Windows Vista will have every game you install on the system in the games explorer. If you happen to have a lot of games, the explorer lets you filter them by publisher, developer, rating, last-played date and product version. Additionally, the explorer has a Hardware button in the action bar, which gives you direct access to your hardware system profile in case you need to tweak your system for gaming.
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