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Despite the fact that none of the files had been indexed, Vista found every relevant file within two minutes–even those that used some variation of the word “sequencing.” This is an enormous improvement over my consistently frustrating experiences with Windows XP’s search function, which frequently did not find the file I wanted and, for any comparable search, took much longer. And if you’d like to improve search results even more, Vista allows you to add “tags”–short text descriptors like those used on websites such as del.icio.us and Flickr–to any file.

Vista also features a top-notch photo organizer. The Windows Photo Gallery is a huge step up from any built-in photo organizer I’ve seen, including Apple’s iPhoto. You can sort pictures by tag, date taken, or the more familiar folder system. It also includes easy-to-use tools for cropping, rotating, or adjusting the color or exposure of your pictures. It won’t replace photo-editing software for anyone halfway serious about photography, but for the casual snapshot taker, the Photo Gallery is useful.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t evaluate the new Windows Media Center, which is designed to make it easy to find, organize, and play back all “digital entertainment” files, such as live and recorded TV (if you have a TV-tuner card), movies, music, and pictures. Each time I opened it, the program crashed within about 30 seconds. (Since I signed up for the Vista feedback program, Windows was kind enough to send an automated message assuring me that whatever caused the problem on my machine has been identified and will be fixed in the Vista final release.)

Yet one of the most irritating aspects of my Vista experience so far has to do with its new security features. There are improvements: in addition to Windows Firewall, Vista includes Windows Defender, Microsoft’s anti-spyware and malware scanner, and Internet Explorer 7 has a built-in Phishing Filter that sends website addresses to Microsoft, which checks whether they’re fake sites known to be posing as, say, a bank or a credit-card company’s site.

But Vista’s User Account Control is the most annoying “security feature” I have ever encountered. It’s designed to prevent viruses and other malware from automatically installing themselves or initiating programs without the user’s knowledge. However, its constant requests for confirmation that “you started this action”–be it launching a program built into Vista or installing new software–quickly become irksome.

In many respects, the 64-bit version of Vista I installed on my personal laptop is identical to the 32-bit version. The biggest difference for me was Aero, Vista’s stylish visual environment, which can run only on computers with powerful CPUs, plenty of RAM, and fairly recent graphics cards. (Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Vista’s Aero visual environment can only run on 64-bit processors. In fact, Aero can run in both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista, as long as the computer has at least a 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9. Technology Review regrets the error.) It includes visual effects such as translucent borders at the edges of windows, allowing you to see what’s in the window behind. There are also live thumbnails of minimized programs: rest your pointer over an item in the taskbar (that horizontal bar running across the bottom of the screen), and a small picture of the program window pops up, revealing its content. This is incredibly handy if, like me, you often have multiple Word or Excel documents open–but no different from what Apple has done for years in its Mac OS X Dock.

Regrettably, the 64-bit version of Vista has so far proved itself more of a pain than a pleasure to me. It’s not possible to upgrade from a 32-bit operating system such as Windows XP Home to a 64-bit operating system, so a clean install is a must. Vista will retain all your old files and settings in a folder called Windows.old, but you still have to reinstall every piece of software after the installation. It’s quite a time investment.

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