Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about switching from Windows to Mac (admittedly mostly from Apple). But Microsoft’s launch of Windows Vista claims to redress the balance by offering security, eye candy and ease of use. To find out if Bill Gates’ smug grin really is justified we’ve been living with one of Vista’s sexiest laptops, the Asus W5fe.

Sweet, sweet eye candy

The first thing you notice about Vista is its slick visuals. At last, Microsoft has woken up to the importance of graphics – the new Aero system (not included in the Basic edition) allows for transparency, shadows, dynamic zooming, and a neat Flip 3D effect to switch between apps. Sometimes it gets a bit much, but it’s still a great leap forward for Windows.

Another big improvement are the Gadgets. XP tinkers will have seen them on the Google Desktop, but now these handy little apps have been built into Windows. Vista comes pre-loaded with a selection, but expect thousands to pop up on the web in the coming months.

You get to choose what sits at the side of your screen: a clock, a slideshow from your picture library, an RSS feed from, or (our fave) a process monitor that shows how fast the processor and memory are running. It’s geektastic.

Taking a hint from the success of Apple’s free iLife applications, Microsoft has also bundled a much-improved version of Windows Media Player, a new iPhoto-like digital album, and an improved HD version of MovieMaker, with DVD burning built in. About time, but – Media Player aside – these apps aren’t quite as polished as Apple’s.

Compatibility woes

Although most major applications have been updated to run with Vista, we encountered some significant problems – neither iTunes nor Sky Anywhere worked. Many customers are also struggling to make Vista work with their broadband wizards – so make sure you check that all the

apps you need are compatible.

Vista doesn’t, though, just limit you to a PC. The TV-friendly Media Center edition in Vista Premium and Ultimate is a great way to navigate video, music and picture content – either hook your PC up to your TV or wirelessly stream to an Xbox 360 or Media Extender. Be warned, though: the DRM can be very restrictive, and services such as Sky Anywhere and C4 on Demand won’t stream video wirelessly. Shame.

The Asus W5fe is the first laptop to take advantage of Vista’s ‘Sideshow’ feature, which allows the computer to synchronise with a second, flash-based mini computer. This lets you access music, contacts, email and more without booting up your computer. It’s a neat but, we suspect, rarely used feature. The Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista also have Tablet PC software built in, and Ready Boost lets you plug in a compatible memory stick to boost your system’s performance.

Is it secure?

Microsoft has spent a great deal of time and money securing its new version of Windows. Most of it configures itself automatically, so thankfully it doesn’t mean more infuriating pop-ups (and what alerts there are now fade in with a gentle woosh rather than that infuriating squeaky XP speech bubble).

However, time will tell whether Vista really is secure – one thing’s for sure, there’s no shortage of hackers out there looking for ways in.

But what about the big question – is Vista better than Mac OS? In a head-to-head, it certainly wins some battles that XP lost. Its gadgets are similar to Apple’s widgets, but handily remain visible while you work. Mac’s Expose may be more sophisticated than Window Flip 3D, but doesn’t look as cool as Vista. And, compared with Media Center, Apple TV and Front Row are feature-light.

But there are caveats. Apple’s Leopard is ready to pounce in late Spring, potentially making many of Vista’s advantages short-lived. And, with Vista’s hefty processing demands, an update certainly isn’t essential for everyone. Our advice is to play the waiting game to see if it really is as secure as Microsoft is promising. If it is, Bill Gates won’t be losing that grin anytime soon.

Stuff says... 

Microsoft Windows Vista review

A good looking, feature-rich operating system that isn’t an essential upgrade yet – but at least it stops Mac users from gloating. Let’s hope it stays secure…