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Windows Vista Beta 2 Review: Part 2: Install and Configuration

If there's one thing I can claim, it's that I've installed Windows Vista/Longhorn dozens--no, hundreds--of times over the years. I've installed build after build on multiple machines: Desktops, notebooks, Tablet PCs, and, most recently, to my family's Media Center PC. Many builds I've installed repeatedly, over and over again. And on almost all of these Vista builds, I've also installed a wide range of software. All of these experiences give me a pretty thorough background for part two of my Windows Vista Beta 2 review, in which I'll describe what you'll go through when you install these pre-release Windows version, which you can do, now that Microsoft has issued it to the public through a Customer Preview Program (CPP; for more information see Microsoft's Web site). Specifically, this review will focus on the interactive install process, which has been streamlined dramatically since Windows XP, and on Vista's post-install configuration. In a future showcase, I will detail the Vista deployment options designed for corporations and IT pros.

Getting Windows Vista Beta 2

There are two ways to receive your Windows Vista Beta 2 DVD (and yes, it's DVD-only; there is no CD option). First, you can download the ISO from the CPP. There are two versions: a 32-bit (x86) version and a 64-bit (x64) version. I cannot stress this enough: Download and install the 32-bit version, and not the 64-bit version, regardless of what kind of hardware you have. There are many reasons for this. The most important is that the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Beta 2 offers far better software and hardware compatibility than the 64-bit version, so you'll have much better luck hooking up various hardware peripherals and installing application software.

There's also a side issue that might be relevant if you're downloading the Beta 2 ISO: The ISO for the 64-bit version of Vista is larger than 4.7 GB, so many people will need to burn it to a double layer (DL) recordable DVD. If you don't have such a drive (or a compatible disc), you won't be able to burn the ISO. That doesn't mean you can't install Vista per se--you could, for example, copy the contents of the ISO to your PC's hard drive using one of the many disk utilities designed for with that process in mind--but it is something to think about. Again, you can simply avoid these issues by using the 32-bit version of Beta 2.

If you do download an ISO, you can burn it to disk with a commercial disk utility such as Nero Burning ROM (which is what I use and recommend) or a free alternative. If you order the DVD, you'll get both 32-bit and 64-bit versions on separate disks (Photo).

Finally, if you're curious, you'll be testing the Ultimate edition of Windows Vista Beta 2. This is the version that comes with everything: It's a literal superset of the business and consumer versions of the product, and includes every single feature that Microsoft is designing for Windows Vista. However, the install DVD includes the bits for the other Vista editions as well. If you were to somehow get a Home Basic compatible Product Key, or whatever, you could install that version instead, using the same DVD. CPP members are only getting an Ultimate edition Product Key, however. Beta testers also received Product Keys for the Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Business editions.

Preparing Your PC for Windows Vista Beta 2

How you install Windows Vista Beta 2 will depend largely on what systems and hardware you have at your disposal. If you can swing it, it's best to install pre-release Vista versions on completely dedicated hardware, using a separate PC from that you use regularly. Of course, not everyone has extra PCs lying around the home. (And to be perfectly honest, I envy you.) Many people will simply have to install Windows Vista on their main (or only PC).

If you are going to do such a thing, you will want to install Vista in a dual-boot situation. The other choice is to upgrade your current Windows XP set up to Vista Beta 2. Here, I must offer another bit of advice: DO NOT UPGRADE WINDOWS XP TO WINDOWS VISTA BETA 2 under any circumstances. Why? There is no uninstall option: If the Vista Setup completely screws up your PC, you could lose your data for good. Once you go Vista, there's no going back.

So how do you setup Vista to dual-boot with XP? To do, you must have two or more hard drives (or partitions) on your PC. The first partition will include your Windows XP install. The second partition will be empty, ready for Windows Vista. At boot time, you'll see a boot menu from which you can choose between Microsoft Windows (actually Windows Vista) and "Legacy version of Microsoft Windows" (actually Windows XP). Of course, for this to work, you must have that extra partition handy. If you only have one hard drive, and it's been formatted as a single partition, you'll need to partition the disk to make some space for Vista. You'll need at least 16 GB of free space for Vista, but I recommend much more than that, especially if you think you're going to install a bunch of applications under Vista.

While the Windows Vista Setup routine does, in fact, include many more tools than the Setup routine in XP or other previous Windows versions, it won't let you partition an existing drive non-destructively, which is what you're going to want so that you don't delete any of the data or applications you've configured under Windows XP. I use an application called PowerQuest PartitionMagic to partition my drives. But this application is pretty expensive (about $70), especially for something you probably won't need all that often. (Naturally, I use it pretty frequently, given my day job.) So there are free options out there on the Web. A word of warning: I've never tested a free partitioning tool, and won't, and I can't recommend any. But what you're looking for is something that can non-destructively resize a FAT32 or NTFS partition and, optionally, create new partitions. (Windows Vista can, in fact, install to empty space on a hard drive; it will create the appropriate partition type for you.) Partition Logic appears to be the type of thing I'm talking about. However, I HAVE NOT TESTED THIS TOOL. If I get any reader advice about partitioning tools, I'll add that information here. In the meantime, this is one fairly technical topic that Microsoft, curiously, leaves in the hands of the millions of people who will be installing Windows Vista Beta 2. It is just one of the many technical pitfalls awaiting those interesting in this pre-release Windows version.

Installing Windows Vista Beta

Anyway, once you've got your Vista Beta 2 DVD and a PC to which to install it, you're ready to go. (Remember, that PC can either be dedicated to Vista entirely, or it can already have Windows XP installed and a blank partition to which to install Vista.) If you are going the dual-boot route, you can install Vista in two ways, from within Windows XP, or by booting the system with the DVD. The latter is preferable. If you start the Vista install from within Windows XP, Windows Vista will be installed to the D: drive. But if you install by booting the DVD, Vista will appear to be on C: when you're within Vista (likewise, from within XP, the XP install will appear to be on C:, while Vista is on D:). This has a few benefits, but keeping Windows on the C: drive is especially helpful for those poorly-written applications that are hard-coded to work with specific folder locations on the C: drive. If Vista is on the D: drive, these applications could overwrite information in your XP install. Long story short: Always install Windows Vista Beta 2 by booting the PC with the Vista install DVD.

Vista's interactive Setup routine is straightforward and, as mentioned previously, much simplified over the XP Setup routine (See my Windows XP Clean Install showcase for more information). After pressing a key to boot from the DVD, Setup will load the install files from the disk (Figure) and then present you with a floating window from which you can choose the installation language, the time and currency format, and the keyboard layout (Figure). Then, you can choose to install windows or access system recovery options, which might be handy if your eventual Vista install goes south (Figure).

When you choose Install now, Setup loads some more files and then presents you with a bit of chicanery: Setup proceeds through a series of screens in which it looks as if a Windows Vista Aero "glass" window is floating over a green and blue backdrop (Figure). Don't be fooled: The entire background is a bitmapped image, including the "window." To see for yourself, try to grab the window's title bar and drag it. You'll find that it's not going anywhere.

After entering your Product Key and deciding whether to automatically activate Windows after the install is completed, you must agree to the software license (Figure) where, no doubt, you agree to hand away your first-born child to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Just kidding). Then you reach the critical phase of Setup, where you must choose between an upgrade (which is unavailable if you booted from DVD) and a custom (or advanced) install (Figure). Always choose the latter.

In the next screen, you tell Setup where to install Windows Vista Beta 2. If you are installing Vista to its own PC, this will typically be the only available partition (which is listed as Disk 0) (Figure). If you're dual-booting, be sure to choose the partition that doesn't contain Windows XP. You can click the Drive options (advanced) link to do such things as delete and format (but not resize) partitions. This screen is also used to load any third party disk drivers (where, in XP, you would have pressed F6 earlier in Setup).

Once this is done, you can sit back and wait while Vista Setup goes through a process whereby it copies the Vista install image to the hard drive, expands it into the file system that will make your Vista install and Windows features that are specific to the Vista version you're installing (Figure). Were we a little further along in time, this phase of Setup could also install any service packs, hot-fixes, or other updates you may have copied to the Vista DVD, but during the beta we don't yet have anything like that to add. This entire process takes 30 to 60 minutes, depending on your hardware, but Microsoft believes they can get it down to 20 minutes for the final release. We'll see.

After a reboot, Setup loads drivers that are specific to your system and completes the install. The familiar green and blue Vista "curtain" backdrop appears and you run through another set of interactive Setup steps. In the first, you select your country or region and keyboard layout (again, go figure) (Figure). Then, you enter a single user name and (optionally) a password, and assign a user account picture (Figure). In the next phase, you assign your PC a name (but cannot choose the workgroup) and a desktop background (Figure). If you don't select a desktop background, Vista Setup will give you the first one (with the mountain reflecting into the water). Then, you decide how to configure Automatic Updates, which is now a feature of Windows Update, and not a separately configured service (Figure).

In the next step, you configure date and time settings, while noting that Windows Vista still annoyingly defaults to Pacific Time (Figure). With that, you're done: Setup announces that you're ready to start (Figure) and then loads the new Welcome Screen (Figure). Before continuing, let's reflect on what's changed between XP and Vista. In Windows XP's Setup routine, you entered name and organization information, an Administrator password (optionally), a workgroup or domain name, and up to five user accounts. None of these are present in Vista's Setup routine, so you will need to configure them later if needed. Where applicable, I'll explain how to do that in the next section. But the net result is that Vista's Setup routine is quicker and less cluttered than that of XP. Whether it's "better" is a judgment I'll reserve for the final release. For now, my feeling is that the typical home user will appreciate the simplifications, albeit with one or two gotchas.

Configuring Windows Vista Beta 2

From the initial Welcome Screen, you can only choose the single user account you configured from Setup. The Administrator account is not enabled or available, and you can CTRL+ALT+DEL all day if you want; it's not ever going to let you logon to Administrator. Instead, that first account that you created in Setup is considered the logical Administrator. It has been configured with administrative privileges, and you'll need to enter your password for that account and logon now.

Incidentally, the Windows Vista Welcome Screen does have a few interesting additions. Unlike early betas, but like XP, the Vista Welcome Screen does not include a clock. But it does include a widget for restarting and shutting down the system (Figure) and a separate widget for launching the Ease of Access dialog, through which those with disabilities can presumably more easily access the system (Figure).

Somewhat humorously, when you first logon to any Vista user account, you'll see familiar Personalized Settings dialogs flash by that configure components like Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player (Figure). Then, your desktop loads for the first time (Figure). Success! Depending on how hardware recognition went during Setup, you might see a few things happen immediately, such as a Windows Networking dialog that wants to know whether to trust the local network (Figure) and perhaps an occasional attempting at detecting other hardware and installing drivers.

Finally, the Welcome Screen appears (Figure). From this window, you can configure a wide range of Vista features, including hardware devices, personalization options, user accounts, your Internet connection, Windows Media Player, and so on. I find the Welcome Center to be a bit heavy handed, but you'll want to pay attention to most of what it suggests before doing anything else.

Or you could just wing it. I tend to approach the post-Setup phase in the same manner every time. First, I check Device Manager to see whether any hardware is still unrecognized and, thus, unusable. There are many ways to access Device Manager, but the fastest is to right-click on Computer (previously called My Computer) in the Start Menu and choose Manage. Then, choose Device Manager from the resulting dialog and see whether anything gets called out. A clean Device Manager is a thing of beauty (Figure), but if you have missing devices, then you'll have some work to do.

Assuming you have hardware drivers to still install, the next step is to launch Windows Update, which is now a Windows application and not an IE-based Web service (Figure). As before, Windows Update can apply system and product updates, and it also applies drivers for a surprisingly wide number of devices. On most of my Windows Vista installs, Windows Update has been able to install every single missing driver. This should be your first stop.

Once that's complete, you may have to try and install XP drivers for any remaining unrecognized hardware devices. A few words of advice here. Many XP device drivers are poorly written, and even if they do install and appear to work, they may be the cause of future instability issues. If you're running the x64 version of Windows Vista Beta 2, you can forget this step, since 32-bit XP drivers will not work on 64-bit versions of Windows. And some drivers simply won't work no matter what you do. Look out for my favorite Vista feature during this process, by the way: Often, XP driver installs appear to fail, only to cause Vista to pop up a dialog telling you to try again. Voila! After a bit of software magic, those installs often work. Good stuff.

Now that Vista is up and running, play with it a bit. If you didn't automatically activate it (I don't), you should do so after ensuring that the system is at least usable. (Hint: You really do want to activate Vista Beta 2: If you don't, you won't be able to access the future RC1 build). Put a few of the built-in applications through their paces, and see how things have changed. Try not to install any third party applications just yet.

After you've ensured that the system boots normally (and offers a boot menu on dual boot systems that actually works), it's time to install applications. I run through a standard list of applications, which I document in part 4 of this review and my advice here is simple: Do not mass-install every application you need in a single sitting. Instead, install them slowly to ensure that each actually works and doesn't break key Vista features like power management and the Aero "glass" user interface. Many applications are Vista-friendly, but some aren't. Your list of must-have applications is likely quite different from mine.

One thing you'll need to examine, too, is how much has changed. Though the basic UI in Vista is comparable to that in XP, Microsoft has inexplicably, and infuriatingly, changed the location or name of many key features. Display properties is a typical example. In XP, you can access a variety of options related to the display (including the Desktop, screensaver, power management, theme and appearance, and resolution and color depth) from the Display Properties dialog, which you reach by right-clicking the desktop and choosing Properties. In Vista, these options are scattered all over the user interface. Instead of a Properties menu option, you get a Personalize option, which opens a Control Panel window from which you can access many of the previously-noted options, all of which are in completely different locations. These subtle changes will take some getting used to.

Another change is that the Boot.ini file used by previous Windows versions to control dual-booting is no longer used by Windows Vista (though Vista does hand off booting to the boot.ini file if you select to boot to the "legacy" Windows version instead of Vista at the new boot menu). I couldn't care less how Microsoft configures dual-booting, to be honest. My problem is that boot.ini was easily editable by the user, either directly with Notepad, or via the Startup and Recovery options in System Properties in XP. In Vista Beta 2, you can't edit the boot configuration via a text editor or GUI tool. Instead, you must access an obscure (and non-discoverable) command line tool. That's dumb, but I'll document how it works in a future showcase.

One last configuration item that might be of interest. Though Windows Vista maintains its own collection of special shell folders--such as Documents, Music, Pictures, and so on--that is separate from the similar folders you used in XP, there's no reason you can't access data from your XP partition in Vista and with Vista's built-in applications. For example, let's say that Vista is installed to Disk 1 (C: under Vista) and XP is on Disk 0 (D: under Vista). If you open Computer and navigate to your My Documents folder on XP (typically at D:\Documents and Settings\[your user name]\), you can drag a shortcut to that folder into the Favorite Links in Explorer (Figure), from which it will always be handy. Then, it's easy to access your documents from both XP and Vista.

Likewise, certain Windows Vista applications can be configured to look for data found in your XP install. Open up Windows Media Player 11, for example, and press F3 to search for media files. Then, press the Advanced Options button and click Add to add your XP install's My Music folder to the list of folders WMP 11 will utilize (Figure). It's typically found in D:\Documents and Settings\[your user name]\My Music. Likewise, in Windows Photo Gallery, you can configure the application to search your XP install's My Pictures folders for content. Run Photo Galler and then open up Computer and navigate to D:\Documents and Settings\[your user name]\. Then, drag the My Pictures folder into the Folders item in Photo Gallery's tree view (Figure). Photo Gallery will inform you that it will now automatically index that folder when looking for content.

In short, there's no reason to duplicate your content between the two partitions: Vista can automatically access your XP-based content with just a little bit of work. That's just good stuff.

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