Windows Vista

An edited version of the following article appeared in the March 12, 2007 issue of Law Times News.

The new version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system (Vista) hit retail shelves recently. What does this mean for you?

If you’ve been in the market for a new computer lately then you may have deferred your purchase in anticipation of Vista’s release. If you’re in that category, congratulations. The wait is over. However, for the majority of us, the implications of Vista are more difficult to gauge.

The new operating system promises to provide a number of features to enhance Windows’ usability such as a sexier user interface (called AERO), faster startup (because the old standby/suspend and hibernate functions are combined into a new “fast sleep and resume” function which serves as the default “off” state) and improved multi-tasking capabilities (unlike XP, Vista is specifically designed to take advantage of the newer dual-core processors).

One of the more compelling advantages of Vista over XP is the promise of better security. The pricier varieties of Vista (Business, Enterprise and Ultimate editions) continue to support the Encrypting File System feature available in XP for user-level file and folder encryption. BitLocker Drive Encryption (available in Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Vista) extends encryption capabilities to allow locking down the entire hard disk volume. This feature should be particularly of interest to legal professionals given the growing concern about sensitive data being exposed on lost or stolen PCs.

Vista includes a beefed up version of Windows Firewall. Unlike the version included with XP, the new version of Firewall also monitors network traffic leaving the computer and is therefore better at blocking certain types of spyware. Vista also includes an anti-spyware tool called Windows Defender and version 7 of Internet Explorer. While both of these components are available for XP, the Vista implementation of IE 7 supports something called “protected mode”. When operating in this state, IE will be prevented from modifying user or system files and settings without user consent.

These new features come at a cost. There’s the direct cost of Vista itself (particularly the higher end versions) and the indirect cost (faster hardware and more memory) of properly supporting Vista, as well as the need, in some cases, to purchase Vista-compatible or Vista-friendly upgrades of application software. At a minimum, a number of device drivers may need to be upgraded.

Due to the hungrier system requirements of Vista, an “in place” upgrade is probably not advisable for systems older than about 12 months. Also, in place upgrades have limitations (for example, an upgrade from the professional version of XP is only available to the pricier versions of Vista). Also, while Microsoft offers a “Windows Easy Transfer” utility to help migrate certain types of files and settings from an old PC to a new Vista PC, there can be a time consuming task of re-installing and re-activating application software.

Given these costs, most users will likely wait until its time to replace their existing systems rather than upgrading immediately. If you are not ready to move to Vista but are concerned about security, consider some of the available tools to improve the security of XP. For example, Windows Defender and IE 7 can be downloaded and installed for XP; third party “whole disk” encryption programs are available from a number of vendors; various add-ins can be installed to better secure IE; and third party firewall programs may offer better protection than the firewall included with Windows (even the new firewall included with Vista).