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Slithe's Journal: A Review of the Positive Features of Windows Vista

Journal by Slithe

I wrote this paper for a Freshman English 'Community Based Writing Assignment.' I was assigned to write about an issue pertinent to a specific community and give an argument about it. Since I picked the Slashdot community, I decided to give a (controversial) argument for the adoption of Windows Vista. Here it is.

Windows Vista - Blue Sky as Far as the Eye Can See

        Microsoft released Windows Vista on January 30, 2007, and it met with a lukewarm reception from many computer enthusiasts and journalists (Weber). Several common criticisms of Windows Vista are that it was frequently delayed; it contains some questionable Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), and it lacks some promised features, such as WinFS, that were either cancelled or slated for a future release. Despite the delays, the DRM, and the dropped features, Windows Vista still contains many features that make it a worthy successor to Windows XP. Windows Vista has several features in the categories of user-friendliness, stability, and security that make it well worth upgrading from Windows XP.
        While some magazines have claimed that the differences between Vista and XP are merely cosmetic, these articles both overlook the numerous additions and underestimate the importance of user interface design. (Weber). Aero, the new GUI, utilizes the powerful graphics cards in modern day personal computers to give better visuals without taxing the CPU. Graphics buffering allows Vista to keep the display in the graphics card's memory; this means that moving a window will not lead to a tearing effect on the screen,
"The DWM handles the drawing of all content to the screen. Instead of windows drawing directly to the video card's memory buffers, contents are instead rendered to back-buffers (technically Direct3D surfaces), which are then arranged in the appropriate Z-order, then displayed to the user. This drawing method uses significantly more video memory than the traditional window-drawing method used in previous versions of Windows, which only required enough memory to contain the composite of all currently visible windows at any given time. With the entire contents of windows being stored in video memory, a user can move windows around the screen smoothly, without having "tearing" artifacts be visible while the operating system asks applications to redraw the newly visible parts of their windows" (Wikipedia).

With all the new visual enhancements, Vista will surely be a beautiful departure from the
ugly interfaces of older versions, and useful interface tweaks, such as the new search bar, will make Vista a more productive departure as well.
        Windows Vista also features a search bar in the interface of many of the included programs. Windows XP had a search feature, but it had to search the entire hard drive every time for every query. Vista's search program maintains a frequently updated index of every file stored on the filesystem, so one can instantaneously search for a query instead of waiting a minute while Windows searches the entire hard drive (Wikipedia). Even though third party programs, such as Google Desktop, exist, it is nice to see Windows Vista adhering to sane defaults, which is also the philosophy behind User Account Control.
        While the User Account Control, with its frequent requests for confirmation, can be annoying to users, it reflects the improved security model in Windows Vista. In Windows XP and earlier versions, the default user accounts were given Administrator privileges; this made it easier for a piece of malicious software that had been installed on the system by an unwary user to damage or tamper with the system and critical files. Cautious users could run with lower privileges, but they lacked sufficient privileges to perform common tasks, such as changing the system clock or installing a printer driver. The User Account Control allows a user to use an account with lower privileges, but when he must perform an action that requires higher privileges, a prompt will appear that asks him for his password. When he enters a password, he will temporarily gain the necessary privileges (Security Advancements 11-12).
        Unlike all previous versions of Windows, Vista ships without any services running; therefore, a firewall is unnecessary because no programs are running that a malicious attacker can exploit over the Internet. Even though a firewall was included in Windows XP, the firewall included in Windows Vista also prevents every program from accessing the Internet that is not explicitly allowed by the user. The Vista version of IE7 runs in a 'sandbox', which means that it is isolated from the rest of the system, so if Internet Explorer is exploited by a malicious attacker, the attack cannot affect the rest of the system. The only outside folder that Internet Explorer is able to access is Temporary Internet Files. (Brundrett) The use of a sandbox can prevent a corrupted program, such as one susceptible to a buffer overflow attack, from causing harm to the rest of the system.
        Buffer overflows have long been the most frequent and most devastating security vulnerabilities for nearly every program not written in a language with bounds checking, such as Java or C#. Since a larger portion of Windows Vista is written in C# than Windows XP was, buffer overflows are not as much of a concern as they were in previous versions, but many legacy applications are still susceptible to them. Buffer overflows occur when data is deliberately stored in a buffer that was allocated less space than the data uses. When this happens, the excess data is appended to the end of the buffer, thereby, overwriting the rest of the data. If the data overwrites key areas, such as the Instruction Pointer or the code segment, the execution of the program will be altered; therefore, the malicious data has taken over the program and has gained all the privileges of the initial program (Erickson 22-24). To combat this problem in Windows Vista, Microsoft has added support for Address Space Layout Randomization, which is a technique that randomizes the location of key segments of the program, which makes it harder for a malicious user to randomly guess the location of these segments. Microsoft has also included support for Data Execute Prevention / No Execute (DEP/NX), a feature found on modern CPUs that prevents the processor from executing code from pages of memory (i.e. certain sections of the program) marked DEP/NX (Narraine). Windows Vista also employs a similar tactic in the kernel.
        PatchGuard is a feature in the 64-bit Windows Vista kernel, the program that contains the most frequently used functions in the operating system, (Stallings 57) that prevents unauthorized programs from modifying the kernel. PatchGuard reflects Microsoft's commitment to both security and stability. If malicious software can be injected into the Windows kernel, then it can circumvent all of the previous security mechanisms. Poorly written device drivers are the source of most stability problems with Windows, so PatchGuard will only load drivers that are digitally signed. If the module is altered in any way, the signature will be changed, and the module will not be loaded into the kernel or have access to kernel data structures (Security Advancements 10-11). While Windows Vista should be more stable than any other version of Windows, some DRM 'features' may undermine some of its stability.
        Even though Vista contains some exciting features that make it well worth upgrading from Windows XP, there is some merit in the criticisms of the DRM 'features.' The most criticized feature is that Vista will degrade the quality of an HD-DVD movie playing on the computer if the computer graphics card and monitor do not fully adhere to the HDCP standard (Gutmann). Another common criticism is the inclusion of a Protected Audio Path that prevents any program from reading audio data to prevent easy copying of music. While the inclusion of these features is certainly questionable, it is likely that, were they absent, Hollywood HD-DVD movies would not play at all, since most people do not use their computer to play movies. Windows Vista has some good features and some questionable but probably necessary features, and it is definitely a worthy successor to Windows XP.

Works Cited
Brundrett, Peter and Marc Silbey. "Understanding and Working in Protected Mode Internet Explorer." MSDN. September 2006. Microsoft. 6 Februrary 2007. http://tinyurl.com/ncp35.
Erickson, Jon. Hacking: The Art of Exploitation. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2003.
"Features new to Windows Vista." Wikipedia. 9 February 2007. 20 February 2007.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Features_new_to_Windows_Vista.
Gutmann, Peter. "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection." 18 February 2007. 22 February 2007. http://tinyurl.com/2mftby.
"Microsoft® Windows Vista(TM) Security Advancements." MSDN. June 2006. Microsoft. 20 February 2007. http://tinyurl.com/hlpf8.
Naraine, Ryan. "Windows Vista Randomization Gets OEM Thumbs Up." eWeek. 12 December 2006. 20 February 2007. http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,2071746,00.asp.
Stallings, William. Operating Systems: Internals and Design Principles. 4th ed.
        New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.
Weber, Tim. "Can Microsoft's Vista Inspire Consumers?" BBC News. 30 January 2007. 20 February 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6310599.stm.
  "Windows Vista User Experience Guidelines." MSDN. 2006. Microsoft. 8 February 2007. http://tinyurl.com/yudcb5.

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A Review of the Positive Features of Windows Vista

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