Eye Candy

ONE of the first things you'll notice about the new Windows Vista operating system from Microsoft is the serious amount of eye candy that comes at you.

Windows and menus have a glassy, ‚Äč‚Äčtranslucent look, buttons glow when you run the mouse pointer over them, miniature preview screens pop up from the task bar as you point at the tabs, and you can scroll through and select open windows stacked in three dimensions .

The star of the Vista eye candy show is Aero, the new graphical user interface that makes better use of today's powerful graphics hardware. You need a minimum of 128MB of video memory on your 3D graphics card, 1 gigabyte of system memory and a processor running at 1 gigahertz to enjoy the show. Otherwise, Vista will kick you back to what it calls Windows Vista Basic, which is the operating system minus the bells and whistles.

As far as visual effects go, Aero is far more impressive than its predecessor, Luna, the interface used on Windows XP. Long-time Mac users, however, will no doubt draw comparisons to Aqua, the user interface that made its debut in 2000 Macworld Expo in San Francisco, featuring translucent menus, gel-like or glassy elements, a colorful dock for launching applications and animated windows.

For years, these features were the envy of non-Mac personal computer users and became the foundation of an entrenched sub-industry – programs that enhanced Windows XP.

On the CNET download site, there are more than 4,000 such products. By far the most popular is WindowBlinds, a program that allows users to personalize almost every aspect of the XP interface. With WindowBlinds, you can even dress XP up to look like the Mac.
Another product, ObjectDock – available free – mimics the Mac OS X dock, right down to the bouncing, animated icons.

The company that created WindowsBlinds and ObjectDock, Stardock, did such a good job that Apple at one time threatened to sue them for copying Aqua's "look and feel."

But people who use glassy men should not throw rocks. When Apple introduced attractive desktop accessories called widgets in the Tiger release of OS X., it was widely accused of ripping off the concept from Konfabulator, a program created by a former employee. Never shy about going with somebody else's good idea, Microsoft has added widgets to Vista – but it calls them "gadgets."

Of course, who copies what is important only when somebody gets sued. Otherwise, imitation is simply how the industry moves forward. Somebody does something that works and others follow suit but try to do better.

Now the scuttlebutt is that Apple will finally replace Aqua with a new interface called Iluminous at Macworld 2007, in the hopes that it will be "shiny" enough to upstage Aero.

In contrast to Windows and Mac OS X, most Linux desktops have been rather eye-candy-poor. The highly configurable KDE platform – with its bounce icons – is probably the flashiest. Because I tend to get distracted by all the bling, I favor the simpler Gnome environment.

Call it a personal weakness, but I like to futz with a PC like some guys enjoy working on their cars for hours. In the old Windows 95 and 98 days, I could spend an afternoon afternoon trying to tweak my PC, modifying desktop themes to get just the combination I wanted.

No matter what Apple and Microsoft tell you, this kind of futzing has very little to do with productivity.

Over the weekend, curiosity got the better of me and I installed the still experimental Beryl windows manager on my Linux desktop PC. It took some doing, but when I finally got it going, it blew my socks off. This is eye candy you have not even seen on Vista or Mac OS X.

Beryl offers a wide variety of translucent, glassy windows skins and animated effects, and lets you glide through different workspaces wrapped around a 3D cube that spins quickly with the flick of a mouse wheel. It will also give you a live thumbnail view of all running applications – including any videos that are playing, much like Mac OS X does with Expose. Click on a window to jump to it.

Oh yes, it will also give you wobbly windows that you can wave around like a flag when you move them around the screen.

But all such eye candy comes at a cost. The price I paid: I'm finishing this column on a Sunday, when it should have been done a day earlier. Must have been all the windows -aving.

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