Windows Vista's best-kept secrets
May 20, 2007 - 7:46:54 AM

Washington, May 20 - Listen to the buzz about Windows Vista, and you'll hear plenty of talk of improved security and semi-transparent Aero interface. What you won't hear much about are the less glamorous improvements in Vista that can make your daily life with the computer easier and more fun.

Yet it's really the many small improvements that add up to an operating system that's worth owning. Once you get Vista, you'll likely be wowed by the interface. But over time, the following enhancements may mean even more.

Vista likes system memory -, and lots of it. While there's good reason to bemoan the fact that Vista may make you open your wallet to acquire more RAM for your PC, there's an unheralded feature of Vista that can help notebook users and others who have already maxed out the memory in a notebook or desktop PC.

The feature is ReadyBoost - a moniker for a new technology that allows Vista to take advantage of the memory in ubiquitous and inexpensive USB flash drives to enhance overall system performance.

When Vista detects that a ReadyBoost-compatible flash drive has been plugged into a USB port on the computer, the ReadyBoost feature asks you whether it can use the memory available in the flash drive to enhance the memory already in the PC.

ReadyBoost uses the flash drive as supplemental cache memory. Typically, Vista and other Windows operating systems use what's called virtual memory, a portion of the hard drive that's set aside to swap in and out parts of code of running applications in order to make room for other code.

This swapping activity can slow overall system performance. ReadyBoost employs the much faster access times available with the non-volatile memory in flash drives to take some strain off of the hard drive. The result: improved performance through less thrashing of the hard drive.

The beauty of ReadyBoost is not only better performance through simply plugging in a ReadyBoost-capable flash drive but also the fact that no data is lost if you remove the flash drive in the middle of your Vista session. ReadyBoost is smart enough to write two copies of all cached data - one to the ReadyBoost drive and one to your stationary hard drive.

With 1 GB flash drives costing as little as 15 dollars on the Internet, ReadyBoost provides a quick, cost-efficient way to get more performance out of your PC. Just be sure that any flash drive you purchase is labelled as ReadyBoost-aware.

Want to make someone looking over your shoulder at the new Vista operating system say 'wow'? Use the new Flip3D task switcher to move from one application to another.

Task switching used to be pretty pedestrian in Windows. You held down the Alt key and then tapped the Tab key to switch among applications that are currently running, or you clicked a minimised icon on the Windows task bar.

There were problems with both approaches, though, as most veteran Windows users know. The tiny icons you see when Alt-Tabbing your way through applications can be hard to decipher. And taskbars can get cluttered easily by dozens of open windows, making it hard to find the running application you need.

Flip3D comes to the rescue. Click the Flip3D button on the Vista taskbar - beside the revamped Start button by default - and your entire screen morphs into a cascading, three-dimensional, tiled display of all running applications.

Essentially this display consists of very large thumbnails of what's current running on your computer, complete with the contents of the applications displayed for easy identification.

You can use the arrow keys to 'flip' through your applications, bringing the desired one to the front of the stack. Hitting Enter will bring it full screen.

There's another way to access Flip 3D. You can also hold down the Windows key on your keyboard and tap the Tab key. Continually tapping Tab while holding down the Windows key will cycle you through the open applications. Releasing the keys causes the program displayed on top of the stack of running programs to be displayed full screen.

Windows XP was woefully inadequate when it came to working with digital photographs. The best it could do was offering a thumbnail view of digital images from within Windows Explorer.

Vista addresses the shortcoming in a convincing way with the inclusion of the new Windows Photo Gallery application, free with every version of Vista.

Windows Photo Gallery combines the features of an image viewer and manager, file tagger for easy identification and later retrieval, as well as editing tools. Each of these functions is necessary in taking a digital image from camera to final output, without having to rely upon third-party products.

The image editing tools may not make believers out of PhotoShop enthusiasts, but for the typical digital camera user, they're more than sufficient. Click the Fix button with an image highlighted, and you're whisked into a fairly feature-rich image editing and improvement mode, with such features as automatic red-eye removal, as well as exposure, colour, and contrast correction.

With Vista, once you get over the initial shock of how different the operating system is in some respects from Windows XP, you're likely to find your share of pleasant surprises. Those discussed here are but a few. Stay tuned for more.

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