The first thing you notice about Vista is the Aero Glass interface. It's hard to miss, because it just screams "look at me." Incidentally, it also screams "look at what's behind me as if you lost your glasses." Here's the gist of it: Microsoft has taken the "windows" metaphor one step further. Windows are made of frosted glass, complete with the reflection of some off-screen, straight-edge object. I say "frosted" because whatever is behind the window is blurred, so it's not a normal window. Obviously, this is pure eye candy, and that's fine for most. I, however, prefer my computer to be functional. If you're going to use processor power to render real-time reflections on 3D windows with a transparency, at least let me see clearly what's behind the window. Vista just teases me. Also (in this beta at least), the blurring algorithm often creates a blocky image instead of smooth blur. Since this is most likely to save render time, they might as well make it optional. By default, the glass is tinted green, but this can be changed. The transparency can also be decreased or turned off.
As I mentioned, the windows are being rendered as 3D objects in real-time. This allows for the reflections, as well as for the windows to fade into the distance when they are closed, or to rotate as they are minimized. At least on my computer, rotating windows suffer from an extreme case of jagged edges due to a complete lack of anti-aliasing. I'm only a graphics programming amateur, but I suspect there may have been a way to achieve this or possibly a better effect using 2D methods to reduce the work on the GPU, but I couldn't tell you for sure.
Each Explorer window is now fitted with a new set of menus. The Organize is the mashing of the File and Edit menus. Next is the Views menu, which allows you to change how the files are displayed. The remaining menus differ depending on the window. For example, the "Computer" window has system information options, while the "Pictures" window has options for things like slideshows. This is one of the best moves in Vista. The old menus have become arcane. While these new menus make much more sense, user may still have trouble adapting to the new method. This is always the way with progress. As a side-note, Microsoft has indeed dropped "My" from the beginning of every folder, and has actually used "your" in some cases (such as "Welcome to Your Computer").
The Start Menu and Taskbar are other areas to receive many much-needed improvements. It no longer says "Start," but instead contains the Windows logo in a blue sphere. However, if you hover over it, the tooltip says "Start," so I'm going to continue to call it the Start Menu.
The new Start Menu's layout is fundamentally the same as the old Start Menu, and it's inhabitants can be customized to about the same degree. There is search box at the bottom, just below the "Programs" menu. This is where the improvements are. Instead of bringing up a huge menu off to the side, the menu replaces the recently opened apps section on the left side of the Start Menu. It has a scroll bar to get through menu items, and opens nested folders in a hierarchical fashion. Typing something in the search box also displays it's results here. However, if you choose to have one of your permanent menu items, such as control panels, be displayed as a menu, the menu will still pop up on the right side as it did before. At least we're moving in the right direction though.
The Taskbar is black and one of the few things not transparent. Essentially, almost everything about the Taskbar is functionally identical to XP, except that when you hover over a minimized window, it shows you a preview of it's contents. This is a huge step in the right direction.
Since Vista goes to a lot of effort to streamline to desktop, it only seems logical for Microsoft to then include a way to clutter it up again. Enter Windows Sidebar. Sidebar is like the cousin of Apple's Dashboard, with the same premise but a different implementation. The good news is that Sidebar is optional, so if you don't like it, you're not stuck with it. Like Dashboard, you choose from a set of small, single purpose, highly stylized programs (calculator, clock, etc.)called Gadgets. Vista comes with a few, and will soon have a collection online from which to download more. Your Gadgets can sit anywhere on your desktop at their full size, or be docked in the Sidebar at a diminished size. Normally, the Sidebar gradually dims the side of the screen it's on to black, but curiously slowly draws a border around itself when the mouse hovers over it.
Oddly, Vista does occasionally suffer from something that I call "legacy graphics." These are graphical items left over from old versions of Windows. For example, every so often I come across a Windows 95-style icon in a control panel or in the properties pane. For all the improvements in Internet Explorer 7, the download window still shows the same old graphic of a paper flying from the Earth into a folder. In the Taskbar settings, they use the Luna Taskbar (from XP) to show you what each option does. I can only hope that these get replaced before the final version is released. Microsoft will lose major points if they are not, because regardless of whether or not they put out a good product, they could at least look like they're trying.
While it would take me forever to cover all the visual aspects of Vista, let me just say that when you take it all into account, Vista looks amazing. Hopefully, the remaining UI glitches will be worked out before the final release.