Despite the fact that most of you prefer XP to Vista and would rather Microsoft extended XP's shelf-life, several new and improved features available in Vista would be great to have in XP. This new functionality may not be enough to get you to switch to Vista, but that doesn't mean you're out of luck. Let's take a look at a few ways you can incorporate Windows Vista's best features into your current XP PC for free.
We're going to focus on Vista's small and large features that are missing from XP, separated into three categories: applications, functional, and aesthetic (e.g., transparency is aesthetic, the new start menu search is functional). This list is not exhaustive, but it does cover the features readers feel make Vista worth it.
Bring Vista's Best New and Improved Apps to XP
First, aside from some of the small operating system improvements we'll go into below, Vista also bundles up a few new and improved applications worth mentioning.
A Better Explorer: Windows Explorer is one of the most improved applications in Vista, thanks to added features like breadcrumb navigation, better file previews, and more. There are a few add-ons that add some of these better functional adjustments to Explorer, but in general XP users might want to consider replacing XP's Explorer altogether with something like Xplorer2 (original post) or significantly beefing it up with a tool like QT TabBar (original post). You can also get that saucy breadcrumb navigation alone with Explorer Breadcrumbs (original post).
Encrypt Your Hard Drive: Some versions of Vista—toward the Ultimate end of the scale—come with a new drive encryption software called BitLocker built in. If you're keen on security and encryption but you want to stick with XP, check out the free, open source TrueCrypt (original post). If you need a little help getting started, check out our guide to encrypting data with TrueCrypt.
Take Quick and Easy Screenshots: PrtScrn has been around forever, but it's never been the most user-friendly way to get a screenshot. In Vista, Microsoft threw in a screenshot utility called the Snipping Tool. Fact is, if better screenshots are important to you, there are gobs of excellent free screenshot apps available for XP like Screenshot Captor (original post), Clip2Net (original post), and Jing (original post), among many others.
Bring Vista's Best Functional Features to XP
Task-Switching à la Flip 3D: Vista's Flip 3D is like Alt-Tab on steroids, displaying full previews of each window as you move through it. To a large extent it's eye candy, but it can also be really useful in finding the right window when you're switching from your keyboard. Freeware applications like Shock Aero 3D (original post) and WinFlip bring the same 3D shuffling (and then some, in the case of WinFlip) to to your XP desktop.
Integrated Start Menu Search and Launch: Dubbed Instant Search by Microsoft, this new feature adds a search box to the Windows Start menu for quick searching and launching of documents and applications. If you want to port this same functionality to XP, you can do so with apps like ViStart (original post) or Vista Start Menu (original post)—an extraordinarily beefed up version of the Windows Start menu. Then again, if you're not stuck on the notion of a search-and-launch box built directly into the Start menu, you can't go wrong with Launchy or Google Desktop Search.
Replace the Windows Sidebar: Third-party tools similar to Windows Sidebar and Gadgets pre-dated Vista, so you can trade in desktop real estate for the same functionality with SideSlide (original post) or the Google Desktop Sidebar.
Live Thumbnail Previews of Files: Vista does a nice job of providing thumbnail previews to most image files and even text files, and while XP does have similar functionality, it's not as advanced as Vista's. Freeware application Xentient Thumbnails (original post) creates live thumbnails for virtually all images, and if you want a more intimate look at the innards of text and other files without opening them, check out InfoTag Magic (original post).
Speed Up Your System with a Thumb Drive: Windows ReadyBoost speeds up your performance by using a USB thumb drive as system memory, and while nothing beats an actual RAM upgrade, XP users can check out eBoostr (original post) to bring the same functionality to XP.
Streamline Your File Renaming: Microsoft got smart in Vista and changed the behaviour when you hit F2 to rename a file, selecting only the name of the file and leaving the extension alone. For a very simple integration of this feature into XP, check out the Better Rename utility. Alternately, if you feel like adding this feature and beefing up Windows Explorer on top of that, you can get the same renaming behaviour in Xplorer2 (original post) or QT TabBar (original post).
Taskbar Window Previews: If you like how Vista offers handy little thumbnail previews of windows when you hover over their taskbar item, freeware application Visual Tooltip (original post) brings the same goods to XP.
Give XP that Vista Look
Ultimately, despite all the little feature improvements Vista can throw your way, a new operating system's biggest selling point is often the eye candy—in Vista's case, Aero. There are a lot of tools available that can help you theme XP to look more like Vista, though often users of such applications see mixed results, so proceed at your own risk.
Probably the most comprehensive XP-to-Vista tweaker is the Vista Transformation Pack, which transforms everything from the Start menu and Control Panel to icons.
For a less full-on approach, you could try out skinning utility Uxtheme Patcher with one of several themes from art web site deviantART (like this one or this one) to make XP look and feel more like Vista.
Isn't There More to It Than That?
There are surely some under-the-hood changes in Vista that you won't get from these simple upgrades, but let's be honest: You care about the features, not the underlying code. And since you can get most of Vista's new features from the comfort of XP—and you can stick to XP as a quick, resource-light alternative to Vista—it looks like most of you won't be changing horses anytime soon.
If there's a Vista feature or an XP app you love that wasn't included in this list, let's hear about it in the comments. While you're getting the goods of Vista in XP, you may also want to take a look at how you can get the best of Firefox in Internet Explorer.