Lots and lots of people have taken a look at Windows Vista and found it underwhelming. I've been playing around with Vista since beta 1 and basically I took a very cynical stance too. I simply couldn't see Windows Vista brings to the table when compared to Windows XP. Sure the Aero glass interface is pretty, sure Windows Vista brings a lot of new stuff beneath the covers but why should the average consumer really care about stuff you only get to see if you're a developer?
Having had a chance to use the final version of Windows Vista since the release to MSDN in November on my primary machine at home I can now finally point to a number of features which are sure to impress and increase productivity. As hinted they are not immediately obvious to new users of the OS which is something I hope to remedy with a series of articles starting with the single most important feature as seen from an end user perspective: Search.
We've had desktop search around for some time so what makes the Windows Vista desktop search so different that I would actually sit down and do an article about it? As it turns out having search deeply integrated in the shell makes all the difference in the world. I've given Google Desktop, Windows Desktop Search, and Copernic Desktop Search multiple tries but they've never stuck. Of the three Copernic stayed on my system the longest but ultimately it had to go too. The main reason was that they simply needn't allow me to access my stuff faster than I was able to without all the "help". Out they went and I never looked back. One desktop search-like program which actually stuck was Launchy which I've raved about a number of times on this blog. Launchy makes me more efficient in that it allows me to launch programs much quicker than I would normally be able to.
Search from the Start Menu
It would seem that Microsoft found this to be a good idea also as they've gone ahead and implemented the same functionality in Windows Vista. They've actually done one better than that and enhanced the experience to make a remarkably nice keyboard driven interface.
Take a look at the screenshot below and notice the "Start Search" box at the bottom of the start menu. Yes, search is integrated right into the start menu and provides easy access for every single aspect of the start menu. When you popup the start menu the field has focus and you just start typing to start the search. The results are refined as you type.
Want to launch Firefox? Just type start typing "firefox" in the search box and look what happens. What the screenshot doesn't convey is the speed of this thing. It's lightning fast; you literally type firefox, push enter, and up comes Firefox. No waiting at all.
Now what if you had a particular web site in mind? You can actually just launch a URL directly from the start menu. No need to go through the process of opening the browser and typing the URL. Just enter the URL in the start menu and watch your default browser pop up with the URL you just specified. Don't let the Favorites and History heading fool you any URL will do. Speaking of Favorites and History. You can access that too. Yes I do spend way too much on Digg.com :)
Search from Windows Explorer
Another cool thing is the ability to search from anywhere in the system using Windows Explorer. Notice the search box at the top right corner of the Explorer window? That box is pretty much omni-present in Windows Vista. Open Explorer it's there, open Control Panel, it's there. Open Printers, it's... well you get the idea. Everything is driven by Windows Explorer like in Windows XP which is why you get the search capability anywhere. It works much like the start menu: Stat typing and the contents are filtered accordingly. Also you get the ability to search current folder and subfolders in one go. Don't worry if you like the old behavior where focus moves according to what you enter you can simply turn off the "search when you type" feature. Also searches can be saved as virtual folders making for some interesting use cases.
Vanilla Desktop Search
Windows Vista has got something for those who likes the standard desktop search experience. We're all familiar with the search window which provides access to the standard search packages. You basically get that too although I can't really see why you would want to use it with the rich integration provided by the previous two features I described. Click the Search item on the start menu and you get the search window.
There you go. The Windows Vista search capability is truly the killer feature of the OS seen from an end-user perspective in that it provides easy access to files for people not too comfortable with using computers and it provides quick access to programs, files, and settings for those of us who know our way around the computer. Integrated search is the one feature I miss when I sit down with a Windows XP computer as the habit of pushing the Windows key and entering the name of the program I want is already pretty much down.