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Windows Vista Beta 2 Review: Part 1: The Big Picture

My, we've come a long way. Microsoft began planning the successor to Windows XP in May 2001, four months before it even shipped XP to the public. Then codenamed Longhorn, Windows Vista was revealed to the public in July 2001. Previously, we had been told that a major Windows release, dubbed Blackcomb, was to have succeeded XP. Longhorn, at the time, was viewed as a minor, or interim, Windows version.

Over time, Longhorn grew into a major Windows release. In April 2002, then-Microsoft group vice president Jim Allchin admitted publicly that Longhorn would slip from its expected 2003 release to 2004 because of its storage engine requirements and advanced 3D user interface. This new user interface, Microsoft executives said, would utilize the GPU (graphical processing engine) found in 3D video cards and provide "smooth desktop animation and new rendering features and effects." And with great fanfare, in mid-2002, Microsoft started talking about "Palladium," the next-generation security architecture that would ship as part of Longhorn.

In the intervening years, Longhorn turned into Windows Vista, dropped numerous promised features, and was delayed several times, damaging Microsoft's credibility. I've railed against the delays, dropped features, and lackluster progress of the Vista beta numerous times, but never as famously as in When Vista Fails, part 5 of a review of an interim Vista build from earlier this year. Some people misunderstood my complaints. To my mind, Microsoft has under-delivered on Vista in two ways: First, it made promises it will not keep. And second, there are specific problems in the beta versions of Windows Vista that need to be fixed before the product is finalized in late 2006. There's little Microsoft can do about the former at this point, but I expect the company to spend a lot of time on the latter over the next several months.

So is Windows Vista broken? Is it beyond redemption, a product that is worthy only of your scorn? Absolutely not. Windows Vista is a major Windows release, and that means there's both good--such as great new features like Internet Explorer 7, Windows Media Player 11, and Photo Gallery--and bad--the inevitable learning curve that occurs when Microsoft just changes things, sometimes for no perceptibly good reason. Windows Vista is both a lot like Windows XP and completely different. It will beguile you with its translucent, glass-like user interface and will confuse you when you discover that commonly-accessed options are missing or moved.

On May 23, 2006, Microsoft will finally ship Windows Vista Beta 2, and it will soon thereafter make this release available to the public via a Consumer Preview Program (CPP), whereby computer enthusiasts or anyone who's interested can order a free copy of Beta 2 on DVD and install it on their own computers. This is a scary time for Microsoft. The company has gotten a lot of bad press lately for the delays, and the missing and broken features. And now, it's unleashing Windows Vista on the public. The company expects over 2 million people to install Vista Beta 2. I thought I'd tell you what to expect.

This review will be split into several parts, as befitting a major milestone like Beta 2. In this first part, I'll examine the Big Picture. That is, I'll discuss what it is that Microsoft is trying to accomplish with this Windows version and demonstrate where and when it succeeds and fails. In future parts of this review, I'll more closely examine the many new features in Windows Vista, how application and driver compatibility have evolved since the early betas, and other issues that I think will be pertinent to the millions of new users who will be sampling Microsoft's next Windows operating system for the first time. Welcome aboard, everybody. Many of us have been waiting for this day for quite a long time.

Window Vista Goals

Microsoft's marketing materials use terms like "clarity," "convenience," "control," and "communication" to describe Windows Vista. Those terms don't mean much in isolation. Here's what you need to know. At a high level, Windows Vista is like any other Windows release. It's more secure and more reliable than its predecessors. It comes with a wealth of new features that both denote the product as a major release and provide what Microsoft hopes is incentive for large groups of users to upgrade. It takes advantage of emerging PC industry trends, such as hardware accelerated 3D video cards, new PC form factors, and ever-increasing interest in digital media.

For consumers, Windows Vista will usher in the next generation of PC graphics, both for the OS user interface and, thanks to DirectX, for games as well. Next generation game titles such as "Halo 2 for Windows Vista" and "Crysis" will take advantage of DirectX features to provide surreal gaming experiences that aren't possible using previous generation graphics technologies. Consumers also expect high definition (HD) computing experiences, home-wide home entertainment options with the PC as the digital hub, simpler home networking, and other features. Parental controls will make PCs and the Internet safer for children.

For business users, Windows Vista will be dramatically easier to deploy and manage. Numerous new mobility features will make it easier to get connected at work or on the road, and will help users seamlessly shift between trusted and untrusted wireless networks. New security features will ensure that data stored on mobile and desktop PCs and, eventually, servers is safe even in the event of physical theft.

Windows Vista will also ship in an array of product editions, or SKUs, that I think will confuse many people. The problem is that Microsoft has been successful in the past with products such as Microsoft Office when it ships multiple product versions, so the company is now comfortable enough with this product that it went all out with Windows Vista. Remember back in 2001 when Windows XP first shipped? Then, you could choose between Home and Professional Editions. Over the years, Embedded, Media Center, Tablet PC, x64, and Starter Editions were added to the XP line-up  (as were the XP Home N and Pro N Editions for the European Union). Windows Vista is even worse. There are Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate Editions, along with Home Basic N and Business N for the EU. Each of these product editions comes with a unique set of features. The Beta 2 version you'll be testing is Ultimate Edition. That is, it's the Full Meal Deal: It comes with all possible Windows Vista features.

What's new in Windows Vista

In the next part of this review, I'll examine the various bundled applications and services that Microsoft includes in Beta 2. But it's worth looking at the list of new features in Windows Vista from a high level because, well, it's a major release and it certainly does add a lot of new features. Here are some of the valuable new features you can expect in Windows Vista.

New user interface

In Windows Vista, the Windows user interface has been completely rewritten to take advantage of hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. Windows take on an attractive and translucent glass-like look that heightens the sense of depth when you have multiple windows open onscreen. This interface, called Aero Glass, isn't just about translucencies however. There are new window previews that appear when you mouse over taskbar icons, and there's a new application switcher, called Flip3D, that appears when you use Windows Key + TAB (instead of the more usual ALT + TAB) to cycle between open windows. On the bad side, it's now harder to tell which window has the focus, or is the top-most window, because the translucent Aero Glass windows all look very similar. And certain legacy applications look funny running inside of Aero Glass.

New Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer has been dramatically updated with a more consistent UI that makes navigating the system simpler. The Address Bar has been upgraded with a new breadcrumb bar that makes it easier to find your way back to previous shell locations, though confusingly the "up folder" toolbar button has been removed. New icon views display the contents of your folders in attractive new ways with live previews, reading panes, and highly-customizable layouts. However, this interface is also completely different from the XP shell in many ways, and you're going to have to take some time to learn your way around.

Improved Start Menu

The Start Menu loses the cascading menu structure because many users found it hard to navigate. Now, the Start Menu expands and collapses in place, so you'll never get lost. This will cause a bit of consternation at first. My advice is to give it time: The Vista way is truly better than the old Start Menu.

Instant Search

One of the earliest features we heard about in Windows Vista was its instant search capabilities, which proved so popular that Apple shipped a similar feature in Mac OS X over a year ago, beating Microsoft to market. Search is pervasive in Windows Vista: You can search from all Windows Explorer windows, the Start Menu, Help and Support, and other locations, and you can save searches to create virtual folders, logically called saved searches, that act like real folders but are dynamically updated. Vista's search story is all good news. It works well, and is much quicker than the awful Search feature in Windows XP.

Performance improvements

You might expect a system with so many new features to run more slowly than its predecessor, but Microsoft has made up some of the difference with a set of performance improvements. These include SuperFetch, which automatically preloads frequently-accessed applications in RAM so they'll start up more quickly, and ReadyBoost, which uses external flash memory in USB devices to improve overall system performance. So hang on to those old USB flash drives: They just might come in very handy.

New versions of bundled applications

Applications like Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player have been updated significantly in Windows Vista, though it's worth noting that Windows XP versions of both of these applications are forthcoming as well.

New bundled applications

Windows Sidebar, Photo Gallery, Windows DVD Maker, and Windows Calendar are just some of the many new applications Microsoft is including exclusively in Windows Vista. (Well, almost: The company will ship a version of Windows Sidebar for XP as well.) Most of them are good or excellent. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of these applications, including the new games.

Vastly improved networking

The Windows networking stack has been completely rewritten for Windows Vista and includes brand networking, wireless networking, and device connectivity interfaces. A new Network Center application manages all of these resources. I've still got mixed feelings about networking in Vista. Everything is different--and I mean everything--making it hard to figure out where to turn. It's unclear to me what was so broken that they had to completely change the UI for networking.

Pervasive security features

Continuing the work that began with Trustworthy Computing and Windows XP Service Pack 2, Windows Vista includes an amazing array of security features. Windows Service Hardening ensures that all background processes run with the lowest-possible privileges and in isolation from each other. BitLocker Drive Encryption allows users to encrypt the entire system drive, protecting data from physical theft. A new Windows Firewall version includes both inbound and outbound network traffic protection, though the outbound protection, curiously, is disabled by default. The User Account Control (UAC, previously called User Account Protection), which I railed against in my previous review, has been overhauled for Beta 2 and is a bit less annoying: Microsoft tells me it will continue to improve UAC after Beta 2 as well in order to address the complaints. (UAC, incidentally, forces users to run in standard user mode normally, and then authenticate certain tasks that might damage the system.)

Windows Vista also includes an integrated anti-spyware product called Windows Defender (which is also available for Windows XP; see my review), various security improvements to IE 7 that make it even more secure than the XP version, parental controls, and numerous other new security-related changes. It's hard to complain about added security. But Microsoft is still struggling to find a good balance between safety and annoyance and that work will continue post-Beta 2.

Improved home user features

Windows Easy Transfer makes simple work of migrating settings and data from an old computer to a new Windows Vista PC. A slightly updated version of Windows Movie Maker integrates with the new Windows DVD Maker to enable users to import and edit their home movies and then save them to DVD. Improved versions of Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center (the latter of which has some issues) provide 2- and 10-foot interfaces to your digital media and digital memories. Windows Photo Gallery organizes all of your photos and videos in a single location, obviating the need to use the Windows shell for media management. Numerous games are included by default, and your favorite classics, like Minesweeper and Solitaire, have been given nice makeovers. Outlook Express has evolved into Windows Mail, but don't be fooled: It's the same lackluster application. Windows Calendar helps users maintain individual, family, and shared calendars.

Improved mobility features

A new Mobility Center finally puts most mobile computer options into a single user interface that PC makers can extend. Sync Center will let you automatically synchronize data files between two or more PCs, so you can keep your notebook and desktop computers in sync. Tablet PC features are now available in various Vista product editions, and you don't necessarily have to have a Tablet PC to take advantage of them (you do, however, need Tablet PC-like hardware, such as a digitizer or touch screen). New power management modes move between machine states more quickly and keep a more accurate tally of battery life on mobile machines. This is all good stuff.

Improved business features

Windows Meeting Space provides an interactive, peer-to-peer (P2P) environment where users can collaborate together, though its unclear who will actually use this feature. New corporate roaming and enterprise search features make it easier to move in and out of corporate networks, ensuring that you can also find and access your data. A more modular design makes Windows Vista easier for corporations to deploy, especially in multi-lingual and geographically dispersed companies. Windows Vista includes both IPv4 and IPv6 support, and both are enabled by default and treated as equals.

But wait, there's more

Remember, this is just a high-level view of the new features. I'll examine each of these features, and others not listed here, in future parts of this Beta 2 review.

System requirements

There's been a lot of baloney out there about Windows Vista's system requirements. Part of the problem is that Microsoft hadn't been particularly forthcoming about what is required to run Vista effectively, beyond a DirectX 9.0-compliant 3D video card. I wrote up my own explanation, Buy a Windows Vista PC Today, a few months back. But with Beta 2, finally, Microsoft is spelling out the requirements. They will surprise you, and in a good way.

The minimum system requirements for Windows Vista Beta 2 are an 800 MHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) microprocessor, 512 MB of RAM, a 20 GB hard drive with 15 GB of free space, and a CD-ROM drive. For Vista Home Basic, Microsoft recommends a 3D video card and a DVD-compatible optical drive, along with audio and Internet capabilities. For Vista Home Premium, Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise editions, the company ups the ante with 1 GHz microprocessor, 1 GB of RAM, an "Aero capable" video card, and a 40 GB hard drive. That's it, nothing complicated, and certainly nothing particularly daunting. Forget all that noise about your PC not being able to run Vista.

There is one item here worth pointing out. Notice the "Aero capable" video card recommendation listed above. This specifies a DirectX 9-compliant 3D video card that supports a technology called Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware and includes a new Windows Device Driver Model (WDDM) driver. Before you get too nervous about those requirements, we're basically talking about every 3D video card on the market today. And there's even one integrated graphics chipset--the Intel GMA 950--that fully supports Vista's gorgeous Aero graphics, so even modern low-end notebooks will run Vista beautifully.

If your PC is capable of running Windows Vista, but you don't have a compatible video card, you will see the Aero Basic interface, which is, frankly, pretty ugly. It's supposed to be based on the same basic display technology that was used in Windows XP and previous Windows versions, but it's not very attractive. Hopefully, this mode will be prettied up by the final release. Cross your fingers.

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