I've been using Windows Vista for several months now, first testing it and then writing my book, Breakthrough Windows Vista. Now I'm running the final version on my computer. The first thing you'll notice about Windows Vista is the new Aero interface. It's more polished than previous versions of Windows, and it also makes it easier to focus on your work. But aside from the user interface, there are several cool new features that my family and I use regularly. Once more people start using it on a widespread basis, there will be others like me saying, "Wow. An operating system can do this?"
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Windows Vista can help you do a lot of things—new tools to help you organize, store, and edit your music and photographs are just two examples of how you can use the new operating system. In this article, though, we'll discuss four ways that my family and I have already started to take advantage of Windows Vista at home.

Stay in touch with Windows Sidebar
If you have ever wished for a place on your desktop to organize and manage all the information you need, your wish has come true. Windows Vista offers the Windows Sidebar, a vertical bar on your desktop that holds information such as weather, news headlines, a calendar, and all sorts of other things that can be added. On my Windows Sidebar, I have a notepad to make notes to myself, a small calendar so I can see the date, local weather so I know whether or not to bring the dog in from the cold, a clock to tell me when it's time to stop working, and a newsfeed so I can stay in the loop with the outside world. Having exactly the information that I want and need at a glance saves me a lot of time. I don't have to search in multiple areas to find it, because it's already there.


The Windows Sidebar can be customized to meet your needs, and can stay behind of or in front of open programs on your desktop.

Windows Sidebar uses gadgets to provide this information. A right-click on Windows Sidebar lets you add gadgets from an online gadget gallery, where you can also add other things such as a slide show, stock ticker, or contacts book. You can add a gadget for almost anything you can think of—radio stations, wind speed, feng shui, you name it. You just decide on the gadgets that you want to display and the information automatically updates as long as you're connected to the Internet.

Find what you need with Instant Search
Despite all the cool things in Windows Vista, the new Instant Search feature may just be my favorite. It's really a new approach to accessing programs, documents, accessories, email, and system tools on your computer—plus searching the Internet.

To access this feature, click the Start button. You'll see the Instant Search box at the bottom of the dialog box. To search your computer for a file or program, just type the name or part of the name. Almost instantly, the dialog box will fill with anything that matches that name—and the matches will be grouped for you into Programs, Files, and Communications. (Other groupings can appear depending on the search involved.) The figure below shows a search for the word "snag"; you can see how the search function grouped all its findings for me.


Instant Search instantly locates items on your computer and network, plus lets you conduct Internet searches.

Another useful aspect of Instant Search is its ability to do Internet searches without the use of a browser. Just type the word or phrase you're seeking on the Internet into the box, and select the Search the Internet option just above the Instant Search box. A browser will open with results from the Microsoft Live Search engine. The results of your search will appear on the page just as if you had accessed the Internet through a browser.

Get organized with the multi-person Windows Calendar
If you have anyone else in your life to keep track of, Windows Calendar is going to be right up your alley. This calendar is built in to Windows Vista and has automated integration features that make it truly easy for multiple people to use. It works like any other calendar program from Microsoft (you can create appointments, tasks, reminders, etc.), but the integration aspect allows you to create multiple calendars that can show you appointments and tasks side by side in one view.

Each person in your family creates a calendar and chooses a color code for it. If, for example, you want to compare calendars to see who can pick up your son from football practice, you can select the individual calendars you want to see. Like in the image below, each of those calendars appear in one simple view. The color coding shows you who is doing what at a particular time. You can launch Windows Calendar from the Instant Search box by typing "Calendar."


Windows Calendar can integrate multiple calendars into one view for you.

Keep an eye on your kids with Parental Controls
Worried about how much time your kids spend on the computer or the Internet? Nervous about the type of games and programs that they download? Rest easy: Windows Vista Parental Controls let you set limits on how long your children can access the Internet, the number of hours they can spend on the computer in general, and which games they can play or programs they can run. This feature even gives you activity reports so you can see at a glance which websites your kids have visited, as well as which files they have downloaded off the Internet.

You can turn on these controls by opening Parental Controls through the Instant Search box. Select the user that you want to apply the controls to, and the window shown in the figure below will appear. In a point-and-click manner, you select the restrictions that you want. Your child can always request permission to access a blocked item, by the way, but you have the final approval.


Parental Controls can help you control what your child sees and uses on the Internet, as well as limit time spent on the computer.

Windows Vista truly does offer a lot to home users. I've found myself using more features in this operating system than I have with any other. Give a try—you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy and intuitive it is to use.