While Beta 1 isn't a tremendous release for end users--that is, most of the end user goodness like Movie Maker and future digital media enhancements are missing in Beta 1--there are still all kinds of new things going on here. Some are already nicely implemented, while others are just wisps and hints of things to come. Here are some of them.
Windows Vista Beta 1 features a new Fax Console that includes a Fax Configuration Wizard (Figure) and a fax cover page editor. The console itself is set up like an email client, which makes me wonder why this functionality wasn't simply built into Outlook Express (or better yet, Outlook).
Windows Vista includes an activity center of sorts called Games (or Games Explorer) that aggregates all of the games installed on your system into a single location. By default, you only see the silly little games Microsoft provides with Vista--FreeCell, Hearts, Minesweeper, Solitaire, and Spider Solitarie--but presumably others will appear as they're installed (Figure). Games Explorer appears as the Games link in the Start menu.
Internet Explorer 7
After completely abandoning Internet Explorer (IE) development in the years after XP was released, and planning to subsume IE's functionality into the Windows shell in Longhorn, Microsoft finally relented after witnessing Mozilla's success with Firefox and has now reconstituted the IE team. The first product from this team was the version of IE that ships with Windows XP SP2 (The Version Of IE That Hath No Name). The second is IE 7, and you can see the first beta version of this product in Windows Vista Beta 1.
IE 7 isn't horrible, but it isn't going to set the world on fire either. Arguably, it doesn't need to: If IE 7 is simply Good Enough to stem the flow of users from Firefox, it will be very successful indeed. On that note, IE 7 includes a number of interesting features. The most obvious, of course, is its long-overdue support for tabs (Figure). How Microsoft got away without having a tabbed browsing interface for this long is beyond me, but in IE 7 the company does an admirable job of getting it right. There's a New Tab button to the right of the rightmost tab, and you open and close tabs with the correct CTRL+T and CTRL+W key commands, respectively, which is appreciated. (Most Microsoft apps insist on using CTRL+F4 for closing tabs, which is almost impossible to do with one hand.)
IE 7 also supports RSS feeds, though the support is so subtle you could easily miss it. When you navigate to a Web site that includes an RSS-based subscription, the new RSS Feeds toolbar button lights up red (Figure). You can click that button to see the site's RSS feed presented in a friendly way, oh so similar to the way that Apple's Safari Web browser does it (Figure). That page also lets you subscribe to the feed, using friendly IE terminology (Add to Favorites). When you add an RSS feed to Favorites, of course, you're getting the feed version (i.e. the friendly IE front-end to the feed) and not the originating site.
Microsoft is also working to mitigate so-called phishing attacks, where a malicious hacker conceals his Web site to make it look like an eCommerce or online banking site in the hopes that unsuspecting users will cough up their user names and passwords and, thus, other critical private data. The Phishing Filter, as it's called, is an opt-in feature. From what I can tell, it doesn't do squat, as I loaded two obvious phishing addresses into the application with nary a warning.
I haven't seen this publicized anywhere else, but IE 7 also includes an incredible new printing feature that will, finally, clear up all of IE's printing issues. The most obvious change is Shrink to Fit, which is the default: This morphs a Web page horizontally so that it fits, fully, on a printed page (Figure). You can also print pages horizontally (in Landscape mode) (Figure). Yep, it's about time.
There is also a special version of IE 7 hidden away in the System Tools folder that loads IE without any plug-ins. Logically named Internet Explorer (No Add-ons), this version of IE might be useful to use if your system is compromised in some way and spyware is preventing you from using the browser normally. In other words, to be safe, Microsoft has to ship a version of IE that doesn't work like IE. Cute.
Finally, yes, Microsoft does plan to upgrade Outlook Express in Windows Vista ... eventually. Windows Vista Beta 1 still includes good ol' Outlook Express 6, which first debut four years ago in Windows XP.
I'll be reviewing Internet Explorer 7 separately soon, and will highlight any differences between the version in Windows Vista and the public version that will ship for Windows XP.
Windows Vista Beta 1 includes technology designed for giving presentations over a wireless network using any standard network projector. It's unclear why this esoteric functionality is provided right there in the system tray and Start menu by default, but there it is. I don't have a network projector to test this on, but I'll look into it.
Remote Desktop Connection
While RDP doesn't appear to have changed in Windows Vista (at least not yet), it does fire up a security warning dialog when you connect to a remote server, which I'm sure is in keeping with the company's current security requirements (Figure).
As you might expect, Product Activation is still present in Windows Vista Beta 1, but its behavior is different than it is under Windows XP. I've been told that Activation actually waits for several days now after installation before popping up its first annoying reminder dialog, but that hasn't been my experience. In fact, on most installs, I haven't even seen it yet. On one in which I was able to get networking working a few days after the initial install, the Activation dialog did finally pop-up. But Activation isn't listed anywhere in the UI by default, which is interesting.
In addition to the accessibility tools Microsoft included with Windows XP, Windows Vista Beta 1 has a new Speech Recognition application that lets you control your computer with your voice. The first time you run this application, a wizard steps you through the process of adjusting the system microphone (using a new Microphone Wizard, Figure), training the computer to recognize your voice, and then optionally prints out a cheat sheet of the 10 most often used Speech Recognition commands.
As with build 5048, the eventual greatness that will be Sync Manager is only tantalizingly hinted at by the inclusion of a bare bones version of this program (Figure). Sometime by Beta 1, we'll have a better look at Sync Manager, but right now even less useful than the Items to Synchronize applet in XP, which is really saying something.
Remember how the Backup application in Windows XP was this bizarre byproduct of Windows NT that had somehow survived into the new millennium like a vestigial reminder of our floppy-based past? Well, wipe that awful memory from your mind. Windows Vista Beta 1 includes an early, half-finished version of a new data backup and restore application, appropriately called Windows Backup, and it looks like it's going to be a winner. Some day.
Clearly marked as Windows Backup (BETA) in Beta 1 and codenamed SafeDocs, this application will do away with the horrible directory tree structures that mar other backup solutions and work in a far more simple way. In Beta 1, you can automatically backup files, recover specific files and folders, or recover all files. Eventually, you will be able to backup according to file type and utilize removable hard drives, not just CD and DVD media, as is the case in Beta 1.
Windows Media Player 10
Though Windows Vista will eventually include Windows Media Player 11, the current builds include WMP 10, although it features some odd looking controls (Figure). Don't be confused, however: It's not new.
Other odds and ends
I spent a bunch of time comparing the Start menu entries in Beta 1 to those in Windows XP. As you might expect, in addition to the new features, there are some things missing. In Beta 1, the following applications are missing in action from the Start menu: HyperTerminal, Backup (which has been replaced), Disk Cleanup, Disk Defragmenter, Files and Settings Transfer Wizard, Scheduled Tasks, Security Center (it's in Control Panel, however), System Information, System Restore, Scanner and Camera Wizard, and Tour Windows XP. I'm sure there's more.
Running as least privileged user
In the final shipping version of Windows Vista, Microsoft is overhauling the way in which user security works, and in my opinion it's a long time coming. In Windows XP, you typically set up user accounts to be Administrator or Limited User types. More specifically, what everyone really does is give all the accounts Administrator privileges because Limited User is badly broken and doesn't work. Admin-level accounts are nice because you can install, run, and remove applications without having to worry about any restrictions. But these accounts are dangerous because everything on the system runs at the most elevated security level. And if you get hacked, malicious code usually gets to run under your Admin-level privileges as well. It's like a little hidden benefit that Windows gives you, for free.
In other modern operating systems like UNIX, Linux, and Mac OS X, this isn't an issue. Even when users on those systems logon with Administrator-type accounts, most actions take place using vastly reduced privileges. And when you have to do something that could harm or change the system configuration, the system will prompt you to supply an Admin-level password. Again, this happens even when you're already logged on as an Administrator.
In Windows Vista, finally, Microsoft is adopting the same approach. But there are two issues with doing so in Windows. First, Windows wasn't architected to accommodate this type of security, so Windows Vista needed to be extensively overhauled to make this possible. Second, the vast library of Windows applications out there was written to assume that the user will have Administrator privileges. Thus, part of the Windows Vista overhaul will need to fake out those applications to ensure that they work normally under the new system.
Microsoft calls this change User Account Protection (UAP; it was formerly called Least Privileged User, or LUA). In Beta 1 it is off by default, but you can enable it with a shortcut in the Start menu (Figure). I'm told it will be on for good in future builds. If my experience with Beta 1 is any indication, many Windows users are going to find this change very difficult, and much more aggravating than any of the security changes Microsoft added to Windows XP SP2. Maybe it will get simpler over time.
Here's how it works now. When you enable UAP (and logoff and logon again), you'll be presented with a Windows Security dialog (Figure) any time you try to do something dangerous. The sheer number of actions that trigger this dialog, however, is alarming. Virtually every single Control Panel applet makes it come up, for example, as does installing an application. And so on. It gets kind of tiring after a while.
Behind the scenes, Windows Vista is running under a vastly reduced privilege level automatically. When the system requires an elevated privilege level, the dialog appears and you provide a password. This password is good only for the action you initiated. Everything else you do--even while the elevated action runs--happens with reduced privileges. There are other changes, too. With UAP enabled, the Windows Firewall seems to pop up more often. For example, I used Firefox for days before turning on UAP. After I enabled UAP, however, Windows Firewall warned me before letting Firefox connect again to the Internet.
Look and feel
Overall the look and feel of Windows Vista Beta 1 is pleasant and well-designed, with a vague Mac OS X-like look. The use of transparencies and translucencies, however, shows that Microsoft is still years behind Apple, experience-wise. While Apple has long ago scaled back the amount of translucency you see in Mac OS X because of illegibility complaints, Windows Vista Beta 1 is full of rookie mistakes. For example, when you pull an Aero window frame over another window, the text below, as seen through the top window, is muddy and ugly (Figure). Get enough windows over each other and the effect is chaotic (Figure). Hopefully, the right kind of feedback during the beta program will cause them to tone this stuff down.
Also, this isn't the final user interface, so it's probably not worth getting too excited over, regardless of how you feel about the current UI. As far as I'm concerned, it's good but not great.
Surprisingly, Windows Vista Beta 1 is a speedy performer. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see statistics showing that it's already faster than XP on the same hardware. This is somewhat confusing to me, since early betas are generally not tuned for performance. Plus, Vista has an incredibly dense UI compared to XP. I'll be interested to see whether this changes over time.
One of the big issues with any early beta is compatibility--both hardware and software--and so far, Windows Vista Beta 1 has been problematic in this area. While much mainstream software appears to work fine, anything that checks the Windows version number--like many of Microsoft's utilities, notably--won't work. But hardware is a much bigger issue. Over four different test machines, I only got wired (Ethernet) networking working on two of them, and I was unable to get wireless working across five different wireless networking cards. I will continue testing these issues and try more machines and different hardware types. The long and the short of it, however, is that most things work fine, but some crucial hardware simply doesn't work at all. That's to be expected at this early stage, I suppose.
What the heck am I looking at here?
A long time ago--I mean, like two and a half years ago--I was secreted into a room on the Microsoft campus for my first Longhorn demo. At that time, Longhorn was still the Kitchen Sink (tm) of computing, promising to deliver every single bit of technology you could imagine, all wrapped around a Flash-like UI that was based on Anark technology. It all looked really impressive.
I have yet to see anything like that materialize in an actual Longhorn/Vista build.
Since then, Windows Vista has been defanged somewhat, and while the early Aero Glass demos I saw seemed to raise the OS at least to Mac OS X levels visually, they didn't really go much beyond that. I was told to wait and see, wait and see, and promised that things would get better. Instead, things got much worse. In mid-2004, Microsoft halted Longhorn development, restarted the project using the Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1) code base, and componentized the core of the system before adding back much of the work other teams at the software giant had already completed.
The bad news is that a lot of the super futuristic stuff appears to be gone, and may be gone forever. The sort of bad news is that Windows Vista more closely resembles Windows XP than was the original plan. That is, there's a Start menu that looks a lot like the XP Start menu. The windows are prettier but still Explorer windows. All the right-click, power user stuff we all learned for XP still works. And so on.
At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, let's make some lemonade out of them lemons. The good news in all this is that Windows Vista will work the way you expect. That is, it will be pretty and powerful, but it's still Windows. Everything works in basically the same way.
I'm still trying to convince myself that that's OK. And certainly, I haven't seen enough of the content that's expected for Beta 2 to make any judgments yet. But so far, so bland: Beta 1 is a big improvement over build 5048, but it's only an evolution over Windows XP. We were promised a revolution, dammit, and I want a revolution.
Windows Vista Beta 1 is about what I expected to see in April, when Microsoft released build 5048 at WinHEC 2005. On that note, it's not a horrible disappointment like build 5048. However, because it lacks the end user niceties we'll see in the PDC 2005 build, in Beta 2, and in the final product, it's not something that will excite average users. From what I can tell, Beta 1 is primarily designed so that IT administrators and developers can check out custom application compatibility issues. And that's just fine. For the rest of us, seeing how the virtual folders will sort out is somewhat interesting, and I'm eager to use this organizational system full time, as I'm anal retentive about creating specific document folder structures right now anyway. Beta 1 is all about possibility and promises, and that's OK. My only real disappointment is that it took so long to get to this point: I first saw many of these features almost two years ago and now I want more.
On that note, as long as Microsoft can continue to meet and, God forbid, exceed expectations in future builds, then Windows Vista is on the right path. It might be worth comparing this build to Whistler Beta 1 (see my review), which at the time only barely hinted at the goodness to come. But Windows Vista Beta 1 is much further along than was Whistler Beta 1. Maybe this thing isn't a train wreck after all.
One bit of good news: There's so much going on in Beta 1 that even this massive review can't cover it all. I've promised you a number of technology showcases that will delve deeper into specific Windows Vista features. I'll begin delivering those articles over the next couple of days and into next week. Finally, I have something interesting to write about again on the Windows side.