All About Aero: Is it Just Another Pretty Interface?

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All About Aero: Is it Just Another Pretty Interface?

Post by shanaya on August 19th 2009, 6:22 pm

All About Aero: Is it Just Another Pretty Interface?

One of the most noticeable changes introduced in Windows Vista was the Aero interface, and it's carried over into Windows 7. Some folks love it and others think it's a waste of system resources. Some say it makes Windows look like a Mac (which could be good or bad, depending on how you feel about Macs). Heaven knows it's a lot prettier than the XP default interface, which many have likened to a cartoon look. Of course, die-hard Windows old schoolers still prefer the classic NT style interface, which most of us ran in XP.

But is Aero just a collection of memory-hungry eye candy, or is it more than that? Can turning on Aero actually make your system more responsive instead of less? Some folks seem to be having that experience. Exactly what comprises Aero and how does it work? What kind of video card do you need for it? Let's take a look at some of those questions.

Perhaps the most famous characteristic of Aero is the "Glass" theme that makes window borders (and in Windows 7, the taskbar) transparent. Although the Mac OS X window borders in its Aqua theme are not transparent (they have a brushed chrome look), the transparency is reminiscent of the translucent colors used in the OS X interface. You can set the level of transparency in Aero, by changing the settings of the "color intensity" slider. In both Vista and Windows 7, this is done through the "Personalize" option when you right click an empty spot on the desktop. You can also turn off the Glass effect if you want.

Some changes have been made to Aero in Windows 7. For one thing, it's been made more "touch friendly," with larger icons and title bar buttons. This makes it easier for you to navigate with your fingers, if you have a touch-enabled screen. We recently upgraded our HP TouchSmart "kitchen computer" from Vista to Windows 7 and find that the slight size increases definitely make it easier to click or drag objects with your finger. Windows 7 itself has better touch screen support built in. Those who use Windows Mobile touch screen phones will be familiar with the gestures, such as "press and hold" to right click. I'll cover the touch features in depth in a future edition of the newsletter.

In Vista, when you maximized a window, the Glass effect went away and the window borders became opaque. In Windows 7, they remain transparent. It's a little thing, but it's aesthetically pleasing to Glass fans (and you wouldn't have Glass enabled in the first place if you weren't a fan, would you?).

Aero also gets some new Aero features that sound a little like a cereal ad: Snap, Shake and Peek. Aero snap is pretty cool; it allows you to drag a window to the right or left edge of the screen, and that window will automatically resize to fill exactly half the screen. Then you can drag another window to the opposite side, and have a nice side-by-side view of both windows. Unfortunately, this doesn't work quite as well if you have multiple monitors. On my three monitor setup, I can't "snap" a window to the "inner" side of a monitor - the three monitors are treated as one big one, sort of. That is, windows will only snap to the far left and far right, but each still only fills half the screen of its respective monitor, not half the total screen real estate. Snap also allows you to maximize a window by dragging it to the top of a monitor (it maximizes to fill that monitor only). I find this surprisingly useful. At first glance, I wondered why you would need this when you could just click the Maximize button, but dragging is (for me, at least) a quicker and more natural way to maximize windows. On the other hand, until you get used to it, you may find yourself maximizing and snapping windows when you didn't intend to.

Aero Shake is a funny one. I'm not sure why anyone would use it. Here's how it works: if you "shake" a window by quickly dragging it back and forth, all the other windows minimize. Shake it again and your other windows come back. It looks cool to demo but I have to say I've never really used it in doing my work. That's not to say that some other folks won't find it useful. I do like Aero Peek. That's the one that shows you a preview of each window when you hover over its icon in the taskbar. Vista has thumbnail previews, too, but they've been much improved in Windows 7. When more the same app has multiple windows open, you'll see all of them side by side, and you can right click a thumbnail and close, move, size or minimize/maximize it from there. And yes, this is a little like OS X's ability to manage windows from the Dock.

To run Aero, you need a video card that supports DirectX 9 or above and you need to have a WDDM driver installed (rather than the older WDM model). You also need Pixel Shader 2.0 support and at least 128 MB of video RAM. Microsoft also specifies that you should have at least a 1 GHz processor and at least 1 GB of RAM. These are pretty tame requirements for modern computers; even HP's $269 desktop system, for example, has a 2.3 GHz processor and 2 GB of RAM. But some older machines may not meet the specifications to run Aero, and some of the low cost netbooks might run it, or might not run it well.

It's often been recommended that if your Vista computer runs slowly, you should turn off Aero to take some of the load off and speed it up. However, a recent blog post titled "Five Controversial Ways to Speed Up Your PC" suggests that you turn Aero on to get better performance.

The idea is that Aero offloads the graphics chores to the video card's graphics processor (the GPU) instead of using the computer's CPU. Does it work? On my Sony VAIO laptop, which had horrible performance issues with Vista pre-Service Pack 1, I really couldn't tell much difference whether I had Aero on or off. But I've heard from several people who say their computers do indeed run faster with Aero on. I would be interested in hearing from readers who have tried it both ways, to find out what your results have been. And just FYI, installing SP1 on that VAIO improved performance considerably, but installing Windows 7 on it (with Aero on) made it work like I had always wished it would.

Tell us what you think about Aero? Do you like it, or do you think it looks too Mac-like? Do you turn off the transparency feature or dial transparency up all the way? Or do you wonder why anyone would care one way or the other? Are you running Aero successfully on a computer that doesn't meet the published minimum specs, as some folks have done? Have you found that turning Aero on slows down your system, or does it speed it up? Do you like the new Aero Snap, Shake and Peek features, or do you think they're silly and useless? We invite you to discuss these topics in our forums at
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