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For most of the last two decades, I have been a Microsoft apologist. I mean, not merely a contented user of the company’s operating systems and software, not just a fan, but a champion. I have insisted that MS-DOS wasn’t hard to use (once you got used to it), that Windows 3.1 was the greatest innovation in desktop operating systems, that Word was in fact superior to WordPerfect, and that Windows XP was, quite simply, “it.”

When I was forced to use Apple’s Mac OS (versions 7.6 through 9.2) for a series of jobs, I grumbled, griped, and insisted that Windows was better. Even as I slowly acclimated at work, I bought only Windows PCs for myself and avoided my roommate’s recherché new iBook as if it were fugu. I admitted it was pretty, but I just knew that you got more computing power for your buck from an Intel-based Windows machine, and of course there was far more software available for PCs. Yet my adoration wasn’t entirely logical; I knew from experience, for example, that Mac crashes were easier to recover from than the infamous Blue Screen of Death. At the heart of it all, I was simply more used to Windows. Even when I finally bought a Mac three years ago, it was solely to meet the computing requirements of some of the publications I worked with. I turned it on only when I had to, sticking to my Windows computer for everyday tasks.

So you might think I would be predisposed to love Vista, Microsoft’s newest version of Windows, which was scheduled to be released to consumers at the end of January. And indeed, I leaped at the opportunity to review it. I couldn’t wait to finally see and use the long-delayed operating system that I had been reading and writing about for more than three years. Regardless of widespread skepticism, I was confident that Vista would dazzle me, and I looked forward to saying so in print.

Ironically, playing around with Vista for more than a month has done what years of experience and exhortations from Mac-loving friends could not: it has converted me into a Mac fan.

A little context and a caveat: in order to meet print deadlines, I had to review the “RC1” version of Vista Ultimate, which Microsoft released in order to gather feedback from over-eager early adopters. Such post-beta, prerelease testing reveals bugs and deficits that in-house testing misses; debuggers cannot mimic all the various configurations of hardware, software, and peripherals that users will assemble. And Vista RC1 was maddeningly buggy. Although I reminded myself repeatedly that most of the problems I encountered would be fixed in the final version, my opinions about Vista are probably colored by my frustrations.

Still, my very first impression of Vista was positive. Quite simply, it’s beautiful. The Aero visual interface provides some cool effects, such as translucent window borders and a way to scroll through a 3-D “stack” of your open windows to find the one you want. Networking computers is virtually automatic, as it was supposed to be but never quite has been with Windows XP. The Photo Gallery is the best built-in organizer I’ve used to manage digital pictures; it even includes basic photo correction tools.

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