Windows Cleaning

The new Windows Vista OS may be derivative, but it's a huge leap forward in both form and function.
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Has Bill Gates finally developed a sense of style? I would say absolutely yes.

I've spent the last few weeks with a final release version of the new Windows Vista operating system. As much fun as I have had over the years ripping on Gates -- and his neo-adolescent software misadventures -- even I have to admit that Vista is a major step forward for Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report.

It's a step that brings the company into a new realm of ease of use, good design and dare I say, elegance.

You almost want to yell "Bravo."

Besides getting over the shock of reading the words "elegance" and "Microsoft" in the same sentence, there will be much for the average Windows computer user to get over in his or her perception of Microsoft products.

Gone is the clunky, just-shut-up-and-be-thankful-it-works-at-all Windows design esthetic.

Today's Vista is an intuitive, well laid out, genuinely effective operating system jammed with great features and security. And when the code is used in concert with Microsoft Office 2007, the software suite presents a multifunction package capable of handling your movies, accounting, marketing, the usual assortment of office tasks and even kicking your butt in a nasty game of chess.

The only slam against Vista and its new line of software -- and it is a big one -- is cost. Vista is not cheap. Not at all.

As much fun as it is to blow a fortune on technology, let's be real: $399 for the top-of-the-line Vista Ultimate operating system and $679 for the similar Microsoft Ultimate Office 2007 is a lot of money for software. Further, it's not as if there aren't cheaper choices.

For the first time in over a decade, Microsoft faces real competition.

Commercial Linux-based software alternatives, which can be a tenth of the cost of Windows Vista, are now mainstream. Code like

Red Hat

(RHAT)

, for example, comes with advanced Windows-like features and has customer support. And true open-source code like Debian and Ubuntu are no longer strictly geeks-only.

Even more importantly, there is almost certainly going to be a free operating system from none other than

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

to match its Google Docs and other software applications. (Google fanatics speculate the code will arrive sometime in 2007.)

And in one of the strangest quirks of the modern computing wars, the new discount hero is none other than

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

.

Think about it: Macs are now cheap.

Considering that a fully functional license for Windows Vista will touch $1,100 before you spend one dollar on hardware, Apple units such as the MacBook 13-inch notebook at $1,099 and the 17-inch 2.0 GHz iMac at $1,199 no longer feel that pricey.

By the way, both these Macs come with the Apple operating system -- which, it must be said, Windows Vista utterly mimics. As to which operating environment I can recommend, the simple answer is they are both so similar now it frankly doesn't matter.

But our issue is not whether Microsoft continues to rule the software waves. We only care about quality.

And here there is no doubt: It is hard not to be struck by how downright stylish and effective Windows Vista is.

Right off, you'll meet the new design sheriff running Windowsville.

Gone from my test laptop -- a late model Hewlett-Packard Compaq -- are the clunky, retro, fresh from "Lost" start-up screens. Instead, Vista turns on quickly and cleanly, launches a password prompt and then, finally, the full desktop.

And what a desktop it is. You are presented with a well laid out workspace with a software menu that -- I can't believe I am saying this -- finally solves the design trauma of accessing stuff on a Windows machine.

Banished is the maniacal Gatesian habit of overwhelming the work area with too much clutter. Now the menu is a manageable size and designed to clearly highlight the basic functions of your computer. What else do you need?

And startlingly new in Vista is the effective use of color, transparency, three-dimensionality and animation to clarify what's happening where on your computer.

All running applications can be viewed either straight on, or from the side, stacked in order of use. I found tracking my monthly accounts in Excel, my two columns due for the week and my radio show clips to be easy.

Further adding to the clarity of work flow is how objects on the desktop can be rendered either fully opaque or moderately translucent, depending on function.

And color is also a logical extension of the desktop: Similar colors match tasks. Also gone is the ubiquitous not-found-in-nature Microsoft blue.

It's all downright -- get ready for it -- tasteful.

The Windows Media Center and Windows Media Player are also jazzed up in Vista.

When I was catching up on season six of "The Sopranos," I found I could see disc information -- and info about my summer travels and other media data, for that matter -- nicely superimposed on top of Tony recuperating after he was shot by Uncle Junior. Nice trick.

Search, too, has been reinvented for the better.

Microsoft has felt the heat from Google, and Vista search now runs as a real-time index of all content on the machine.

Simply launch the search application, start entering letters and all the files with matching data list out in sorted order. Slick.

There are more praiseworthy features: new networking policies, better sound controls, better icon layout, clever file presentation methods, better firewalls and improved data back-up systems.

And though I still feel I should reserve my complete endorsement of Vista until I use the thing for a few months in real 3-D network terrain (I have to believe there are still gut-wrenching Bill Gates bugaboos lurking) at least the worst, kick-you-in-the-teeth Windows hate-missions are now expunged from Microsoft products.

In light of the new Vista, Gates' move out of the company he created makes new sense.

He's done all that can be done with software.

World peace, it seems, is next.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, NY. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.