July 14, 2007

First Thoughts on Vista Ultimate and Office 2007!

I'm back after taking a blogging sabbatical. I recently purchased a new Toshiba A205 widescreen notebook preloaded with Windows Vista Ultimate and added Office 2007 Professional. I particularly wanted access to all of the latest features and usability improvements in Windows and Office. If first impressions are any indication, it's off to a fine start.

Usability was a very high priority in the OS interface design and particularly in the Office 2007 apps. The Office ribbon bar is a huge improvement in my opinion, and has made finding and learning new features much more intuitive. Not all programs have fully adopted the new ribbon bar interface, however. Outlook and Publisher 2007 still have plenty of legacy-style menus and toolbar buttons. For example, creating a new message in Outlook 2007 presents you with the ribbon bar, while the main Outlook screen does not. But the big improvements in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are most welcome, and I'll cover my Word 2007 impressions in a separate post as it has particular importance in the legal arena. I really like the revamped Windows Explorer layout as well -- simplified, yet chock full of features for navigating, displaying, and burning your data to discs.

Not surprisingly, some features were either renamed or moved around from where you'd expect them in prior versions. Fortunately, the included help screens are well written, with plenty of links to help you get to the desired feature or program. Another huge help is the new Search bar in the Start menu, which doubles as the Start, Run command. It's very easy to search for and run all kinds of programs and data files. Say you don't know where the new Windows Mobility Center is launched from? No problem, just click on Start, type in "mob" for the first few letters, and it displays the program link. The built-in help content can also be updated online from Microsoft, so you're always getting the latest assistance. Bottom line, it's still Windows, so the basics haven't changed. I found it easy to be productive nearly right out of the box.

Good Stability Overall for a New Release
In stark contrast to Microsoft's buggy initial Windows XP release, they did their jobs well on the new product line. I've been putting it through its paces heavily for nearly two weeks, installing and uninstalling various programs, applying Windows and program updates, running various programs, etc. Vista has been very stable throughout -- no BSOD's (Blue Screens of Death), glitches, or any serious problems encountered in the OS itself. Some minor problems include Windows Explorer and a few programs "not responding" once in a while. Nothing new there, but that's about it. Office 2007 Professional has been very stable, no problems encountered in its normal operation so far. I have encountered a small bug in the new Windows Explorer-integrated preview -- it's supposed to show a preview of Office 2007 documents without opening them. It's not stable yet, either failing to display the contents or displaying a message that Word 2007 has stopped responding (apparently it's used for the live preview).

The Aero 3D glass interface is simply stunning and very Apple-ish. The live windows previews on the taskbar and while Alt-tabbing truly helps me to see which application window I want. The new angled 3-D view is fantastic for fast and accurate switching, as it provides an ever larger live preview window for each app. Just be sure you have sufficient hardware to run all these useful Aero display enhancements. Going forward, I heartily recommend a Core 2 Duo processor or better, 2 GB of RAM, a big hard drive, and an adequate video card for rendering the Aero 3-D desktop effects.

For laptop users, this means at least a decent mid-range notebook. With that said, I've found that even an integrated Intel 950 graphics chip is sufficient for rendering Aero and other Vista 3-D effects (screensavers, animations, etc.). Naturally, having a dedicated 3-D video card is preferable but more expensive.

For overall system speed, having sufficient RAM is critical. I consistently see 700 MB to 900 MB of RAM in use just running the Vista OS, a number of Vista Sidebar and Google Desktop "Gadgets", and security software. Basically, Vista Ultimate uses just under 1 GB of RAM just to run the system before running any office programs. To avoid unnecessary drive crunching, 2 GB is clearly warranted for best performance. As a power user, I particularly love the new Sidebar. It's a great place to monitor system performance and attributes, list to-do's, display a nice large clock, weather information, and a lot more. The nice thing about having the 2 GB on-board is that I have yet to see the memory max out in actual usage.

Third Party Apps Need to Catch Up
On the downside, I've encountered a few problems or limitations with third party programs that haven't been properly updated for Vista. For example, iTunes 7.1 and 7.2 refused to run. However, while the newest iTunes 7.3 at least opened, the newly-added Apple iPhone driver crashes iTunes when saving any iTunes options change. Considering I'm not an iPhone owner, this is particularly annoying as I just need to use it with my iPod. However, Windows Vista just shrugs it off and keeps on running.

Third-party incompatibilities should improve over time as software developers catch up with new patches and releases. [Update 7.18.07: The new iTunes version seems to have corrected the problem as iTunes is behaving itself.] The nice change here is that Vista will often pop up a dialog to indicate which program is not responding. It then seeks to find a solution, often directing me to the developer's web site to download a newer, more compatible version. Keep in mind that Vista comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. While 64-bit computing is touted as more secure, I've noticed that 64-bit versions of various programs are lagging behind. If compatibility with existing programs are paramount, go with the 32-bit versions of Vista for now.

Other Niceties
For laptop users, the new Windows Mobility Center is a nice touch. From the screenshot below, you can see how it combines a number of mobile features (display, battery, sound, presentation settings, wireless network, etc.) into one easily accessible control panel. While these features are accessible in other places in Windows, it's a most welcome control panel for road warriors so we don't have to fiddle around in several disjointed dialogs when time is short.

Overall, I've been quite impressed by the stability and usability refinements. Stay tuned for more coverage of Vista and Office 2007, including some tips and tricks, as well as some recommendations for security software.

Topic(s):   Legal Technology
Posted by Jeff Beard

Charles, I certainly understand your point regarding efficiency. For existing users who already know the various Word 97-2003 shortcuts, the ribbon bar is a completely new interface. You've obviously given it a fair chance over 4 months. It's well known that prior learning actually interferes with new learning, and the ribbon bar is a radical departure. From your description, you sound like a power user.

However, for those users who were not even using 10% of Word's features due to its prior complexity and/or lack of sufficient training (and there are a LOT of people in that category), I think the new ribbon bar represents an improvement on overall usability, especially for those who are visual learners. I've also had to look around in the various ribbon tabs to find old features. The same is true of Vista in general.

However, I like being able to see most of the features in a glance rather than hunting through lots of text menus. I believe that with any new interface, regardless of the usability improvements, users should receive proper training to take best advantage of them and for the organization to realize a more effective ROI on their technology upgrade investment.

I take it that you used VBA to program various macros to automate a good portion of your daily work. Kudos, as that's very efficient. I think you'll agree that a new menuing or ribbon bar could not supplant that, so it's a little bit of comparing apples and oranges. However, your point is well taken in terms of trying to apply prior experience to the new interface. It could present new barriers for existing users.

But don't forget, you probably acquired your prior Word efficiencies over a number of years learning and using the prior interface. When many WordPerfect users switched over to Word 97-2003, I heard many of the same comments as yours. I guess it's all relative.

Posted by: Jeff Beard at July 20, 2007 12:17 PM

I can not agree with your assessment of Office 2007. I used the beta version for 4 months and never got use to the Ribbon. I have been using Office since it first came out. What you do in 2, 3or even 4 buttons, I can do in 1. For me it was too steep a learning curve and at this point in time not worth taking. This is too bad because I wanted to use the improved XML features. I am a legal assistant and have learned to use the VBA Programming features to improve my productivity considerably. I am hoping that in the next version they will give us a choice on using the Ribbon or the old menu and icon system.

Posted by: Charles Canale at July 18, 2007 08:34 PM