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What to Expect from Windows Vista Beta 2

Last week, Microsoft finally released the public version of Windows Vista Beta 2, which is available for download to anyone who has a broadband connection, or accessible via a free DVD order. Microsoft expects more than 2 million people to evaluate this prerelease version of the next Windows. My advice to the typical Connected Home Media reader is simple: Don't do it. At the very least, don't do it without understanding the problems you're going to face.

I've been testing prerelease versions of Vista?originally known by its codename Longhorn?for over three years now. Only in the past year has the product begun approaching the quality level you'd expect of a beta Microsoft OS, and only in the past few months has Vista shown any real promise. Unfortunately, my experience with the Beta 2 build has been less than positive. I've experienced sudden system crashes, maddening performance slowdowns, and numerous other problems. My goal today is to help you avoid these problems.

First, make sure you're using the latest build. The public version of Beta 2 that Microsoft issued via the Customer Preview Program (CPP) is slightly newer (build 5384.4) than the initial Beta 2 version (build 5384) that beta testers received. If you're on the beta test, you're still going to want to grab the CPP build because it includes some important stability and reliability fixes. (There are, however, no major functional differences between the two builds.) After you download the beta from Microsoft's Web site, you're going to have to burn it to DVD. There are two versions of Beta 2 available: a 32-bit (x86) version and a 64-bit (x64) version. Regardless of what kind of hardware you have, you'll want the 32-bit version. It's more compatible with the hardware and software you own, but it's also a smaller download and you can burn it to a normal 4.7GB DVD. The x64 version, by comparison, will require a dual-layer-capable DVD burner and a DVD+R dual-layer disk.

When you install Vista, make sure you install it to an unused partition or hard disk on your PC. (Better yet, install it to a spare PC, if you can.) If Windows XP is already installed on your test system, Vista's Setup routine will automatically create a boot menu so that you can choose between Vista and XP each time you boot. Under no circumstances should you upgrade your current copy of Windows to the Vista beta. There are many reasons for this warning, but the two most obvious are these: First, you can't roll back to your previous Windows version after you install Vista, and second, you can't upgrade a beta version of Vista to the final version when it comes out next January. When you tack on all the problems you're going to have running Vista, you'll understand why you don't want it to be your normal day-to-day OS.

After you've installed Vista, check Device Manager to see how well the OS supports your hardware. The easiest way to get to Device Manager is to right-click Computer in the Start menu, choose Properties, and click the Advanced System Setting link. Then, navigate to the Hardware tab and click the Device Manager button. You'll notice orange "bangs" next to all the devices that Vista doesn't immediately support. But fear not, Windows Update is now a great place to get drivers. Assuming that Vista has detected one of your network connections, run Windows Update (it's in the Start menu) and check for any drivers available for your system. Install all the drivers that Windows Update finds and reboot as necessary.

When those drivers are up and running, check Device Manager again. If you see any unsupported devices, it's time to try XP drivers. These drivers often work, but they can also often be the cause of instability issues in Vista; therefore, install one at a time and see how the system works afterward.

As soon as Vista is working with all your hardware, it's time to install software. You should try all the applications you normally run and see if you encounter any problems installing or using them. One bit of advice: Under no circumstances should you run Vista Beta 2 with Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2. I've made this horrible mistake on one too many systems, and the performance and stability problems that result from such a setup just aren't worth it. In the future, these two products will work better together. Right now, the combination is a disaster. On a related note, beta versions of Windows Live Messenger are also not recommended: Microsoft was able to trace several of my system crashes directly to this application. If you must use Microsoft's IM network, stick with MSN Messenger for now.

Other items to test include using Vista's new Media Center and media-sharing functionality to access your home network shares and printers, and, if you're truly adventurous, trying Vista on a mobile PC such as a laptop or Tablet PC. I've had mixed results across the board. You'll notice that Vista gets dramatically worse battery life than XP does, and lower-end machines won't be able to display Vista's beautiful Aero "glass" UI. On such systems, you'll be punished with the horribly washed-out Vista Basic interface instead. It's uglier than XP's UI but based on the same type of display technology.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh with Vista, that's just because I don't think it's yet ready for mass consumption. If you have the extra hardware and time, there's no reason not to test Vista now. But subsequent releases, such as the Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version that Microsoft will also make available via the CPP program later this year, will likely be more stable and more compatible?and will offer better performance. Right now, at Beta 2, Vista is best left to those who don't mind tinkering and who have a lot of spare time. If you're such a person, and you do evaluate Vista Beta 2, drop me a message and let me know how it's working out for you.

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