But Vista's beauty is not just skin deep. As well as new clothes, Vista gives Windows a much-needed repackaging and reorganisation that actually makes difference to the way you use your PC. The first indication that more thought has gone into ease of use is the improved Start menu. Gone is XP's unwieldy cascading list of applications and in comes a list with a scroll bar, which contains everything within the menu neatly and in a far more elegant manner than simply filling the screen with one huge menu.
More significant than this is the addition of a search box to the Start menu. So what? I hear you mutter. Windows' search tool has always been useless … hasn't it? Not this time. With Vista, Microsoft has dramatically increased the usability and speed of its search. With indexing switched on by default (XP had this but it wasn't turned on out of the box), results are instant. Click Start, then type in the name of an application or file - the search box instantly gains focus so you can search right away - and as you type, matches appear in the Start menu above. Not only does it search files and folders, but also applications, your internet browsing history and even your email.
Type Word, for instance, and Microsoft Word appears at the top of your list; type the first few letters of a folder or file you want to get to and that will appear too. Searches can be saved and stored too, should you want to come back to them later.
In fact, once you've tried getting to your files, applications and email by using the search box to get to them, you'll probably wonder how you ever put up with having to navigate through complicated menus to get to your files. I’m already beginning to forget 'where' things are in XP, because all I need to do in Vista is type a name.
The Path to Enlightenment
Equally dramatic is Vista's upgrade to the way windows are navigated. The most obvious change to Vista's window furniture, after many years of confusing users in the name of backwards compatibility with DOS, is that at last absolute paths have been given the heave-ho.
They've been replaced with a simpler breadcrumb trail, which displays each 'level' of navigation, or folder, as a clickable buttons. Go to a subfolder of your Documents folder (the rather patronising 'My' prefix has been dropped in Vista too), and at the top of your window you get Jon > Documents > Reviews, rather than the old style C:\My Documents\My Documents\Reviews. To clean things up, the Up button has also disappeared, removing the potential for confusion with the back button, which often takes you to a different location entirely.
Those with a fondness for the old ways will be happy know that absolute paths still lurk behind the new interface, however. Click the breadcrumb trail bar and it transforms instantly to text, colons and backslashes.
Vista's windows are also much more intelligent than XP's, dynamically changing depending on their content. Below the breadcrumb trail, for example, a set of dynamic, context sensitive buttons appear - Play, Share and Burn for MP3s, while Slide Show appears at the top of photo folders. The same goes for the content pane - open up a folder with photos in it and you're switched over to a thumbnail view, with columns at the top enabling you to sort by, among other things, Date Taken, or Tags. The same happens with Music folders. Files are displayed with smaller icons and the columns automatically change to display track id information if available.
The standard user folder structure has been improved too. Instead of burying everything in My Documents, the Pictures, Music, Documents, Downloads and Videos folders are all on the same level under your user name. Other small improvements include much easier to use network connection management.
The confusing Network Places of XP has disappeared to be replaced by the Network and Sharing Center, which ties all of Vista's various network views together in one neat interface. There are some big improvements here, not least to the wireless networking element, which makes a previously cumbersome task much simpler, and also the View Computers and Devices window which, with automatic Network Discovery turned on, makes the job of viewing and connecting to other computers on a network so much easier than with XP as to be embarrassing.