Late Friday night, Microsoft finally posted the Windows Vista interim build I promised was on the way (here and here). Windows Vista build 5365 follows build 5342 (see my screenshot gallery) by almost exactly a month and will be the final interim build Microsoft issues before Beta 2, which is now due May 22, 2006. Build 5365 is a significant improvement over the builds we've seen previously and features one major functional change, which I'll explain below.
Unlike my previous February CTP/Build 5342 review, this will review will be relatively short and will unfold in a single article. But that's mostly because Vista is starting to shape up into its final form and little is changing from build to build. Before getting into a rundown of what's changed in 5365, however, I'd like to address some of the issues I finally raised in part 5 of my February CTP/Build 5342 review, Where Vista Fails. This article, for better or worse, was widely disseminated around the Windows, Mac OS, and Linux communities, debated and dissected. Most people were highly complimentary of the fact that I was able to so concretely criticize Microsoft for its failings. A very tiny minority were disappointed or, in one bizarre case, accused me of baldly trying to drum up readers by taking a controversial stance.
The truth is so much less sensational. I'd been intending to point out Vista's failings for quite some time, actually, and figured the small list of issues I highlighted in that article would simply be a starting point. Oftentimes, it's helpful to step back and take in the big picture. Most of that five-part review is about specific feature changes, but I've been wondering lately whether Windows Vista is meeting the many promises Microsoft has made about this release. In many ways, of course, it does: Windows Vista is, overall, a huge improvement over Windows XP. Obviously.
However, it many ways, the Windows Vista we're going to get late 2006 fails to match the excitement Microsoft generated at the PDC event I described in the review. I get emails virtually every day from people wondering where a certain feature in Vista went. "Is that really the final UI?" they ask, curious why it's not as elegant looking as the UI shown in the "Geeks Bearing Gifts" promotional video. (To be fair, I think the final Vista UI is actually nicer, but I'm just relaying what I hear.)
As I wrote in that article, I don't "hate" Microsoft or Windows Vista. If anything, I care enough about this product and, ugh, even the company, to want them both to be the best they can be. As I noted, I've got lots of good friends there. They're good people, intelligent people. They want customers to be excited about Windows Vista. I have less of a stake in that than they do, of course. I just want you to know the truth about Windows Vista. I'd like it to be great, but if it's not, I'll reveal the warts. That's what I do.
So the reality of Windows Vista, like most things in life, is that there's good and bad. It's not perfect. But it's not a complete dog either. And if the well-timed build 5365 release can be viewed in this context, you'll see that things are indeed getting better for the most part. I don't believe that Microsoft can or will fix all of the problems it faces both internally and with Windows Vista overnight. But I've been heartened by the responses I've gotten about this article from within Microsoft. They care. And they're trying to make Windows Vista better. I think that's about all we can ask.
What's new in build 5365?
Windows Vista build 5365 is largely similar to previous Vista builds. As noted above, there is one major functional change and a variety of smaller improvements. Let's take a look.
User Account Protection (UAP)
In part 5 of my February CTP/Build 5342 review, I eviscerated User Account Protection (UAP) because it's annoying and can often trigger a seemingly endless series of authorization dialog boxes. UAP is, at heart, one of the best things Microsoft could possibly add to Windows. In use, however, UAP is horribly implemented. It's just a disaster.
In build 5365, UAP has changed dramatically. (This is the one major change I noted previously.) However, none of the changes are related to making this feature less annoying. Instead, it's been changed to obviate a potential security vulnerability in the original UAP implementation. Now, UAP consent dialogs open in a new environment called the Secure Desktop (Figure), where most of the screen goes black and only the consent dialog is available. This forces the user to deal with the dialog before doing anything else. So not only is UAP annoying, but now you can't even get something else done until you deal with it (Figure).
My sources tell me that the security team at Microsoft were able to develop a proof of concept cursor spoof attack that hid the real cursor under a fake one, letting exploit code click the Allow button when the user thought they were clicking Cancel. The Secure Desktop environment is the same one utilized by the Windows Logon process when you press CTRL+ALT+DEL to logon to Windows at boot-up, so it's a known quantity and has proven to be quite secure. But its use here is unique and could cause havoc with video drivers for the next few months. Apparently, poorly-written video drivers can cause some funky screen effects during a UAP action--like unwanted resolution changes and blank screens--though I haven't seen this happen personally.
I don't know that this is going to be the shipping functionality, but in build 5365, for the first time, the new Sidebar comes up by default when you logon for the first time, and it loads with three default gadgets, Slide Show, Clock, and Feed Viewer (Figure). Additionally, there are a number of new Sidebar gadgets available by default in this build, including CPU Meter, Currency Converter, Sticky Notes, Stocks, and Weather (Figure).
I'm working with Brian Livingston on a book called "Windows Vista Secrets" for Wiley and one of the things that's been particularly irritating to me is the sheer number of times Microsoft has changed the behavior of the shell in Windows Vista. In build 5365, it's changed yet again. These changes related both to the implementation of virtual folders (also known as both "saved searches" and, simply, as "searches") and the way in which this information is visually represented in the UI. In build 5365, folder windows have been changed again, and in my opinion they're better looking. The Preview Pane area is still located along the bottom of each window, but months after Microsoft gave up on color coding these panes based on the contents of the folder, the company has settled on a softer, light blue color scheme that is actually quite pleasing (Figure).
The leftmost pane in these windows, called Favorite Links, now includes a list of related folder locations, including the occasional virtual folder. However, they don't appear to be context sensitive anymore. Now, you just see Documents, Pictures, Music, Recently Changed, and Searches (previously called "Library") in all of the special shell folders. That's a huge step back from both XP, which had context-sensitive task lists, and from Microsoft's original vision for Vista, which included dynamic lists of related virtual folders. A Folders pop-up pane can be triggered to put the window into a pseudo-Windows Explorer mode, though that was available in the previous two external builds as well.
With the de-emphasis of virtual folders, you won't be surprised to discover that Microsoft is also walking away from the underlying features that would have made virtual folders truly useful. This build's casualty is keywords. Previously, users would be able to view and edit keywords that were related to any document or file in the shell. Now, only Microsoft Office documents will have any keyword support: Microsoft is effectively removing this support from the general Vista shell. Maybe we'll see that feature re-added in Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1, codenamed "Fiji") or Vista R2 ("Vienna"). Probably not.
I mentioned in my previous review that Microsoft's Texas Hold-Em game was missing in action. Apparently, it won't be included in Vista at all because of political sensitivity reasons. However, Microsoft is planning on offering Texas Hold-Em to Vista users in certain locales via a Web download.
Desktop backgrounds and screensavers
No biggie, but build 5365 includes a number of very attractive desktop wallpapers in a number of categories (black and white, light auras, paintings, textures, vistas, and widescreen). There are still a few placeholders here and there, but this build does include a number of new backgrounds (Figure). There are nice solid colors as well, though that functionality debuted in 5342.
Build 5365 also includes two new screensavers, both of which are quite nice. Aurora provides that neat-looking blue and green moving drapes effect (Figure) that Vista shows off during Setup (Figure), while Windows Energy (Figure) goes for an animated blue on blue effect (Figure).
Windows Calendar gets a completely new toolbar in build 5365 that is much nicer looking than the pale version in previous builds (Figure). It also loses the bottom-mounted navigational controls (similar to those used in WMP 11 and Photo Gallery), probably because most of the buttons were almost identical. In my opinion, the new UI is both better looking and more respectful of the available onscreen real estate.
Windows Media Player 11
Windows Media Player 11 is shaping up to be a high point in Windows Vista (a beta version of WMP 11 for XP will be available, along with MTV's URGE service, within two weeks). In build 5365, WMP 11 includes a wider range of sample songs, which makes it easier to enjoy the application's visual organizational skills (Figure). I'm quite taken with the ways in which WMP 11 lets you view your music library. Particularly nice are the "stacks" views (Figure) in which related items appear to be visually stacked like real CDs. It's just neat. Media Center should be this nice.
Like WMP 10, WMP 11 can also manage pictures (Figure) and videos (Figure), though it's not really optimal for still images.
The built-in disk defragmenter in Windows has always gotten a lot of flak because it can only be used to manually defrag the disk (that is, you have to manually find and launch the application). In Vista, the situation is somewhat reversed: Now, Disk Defragmenter is designed to automatically defrag the disk by default (Figure), and you shouldn't normally need to find and launch the application. However, you can of course manually trigger a defrag if you really want to.
Backup and Restore Center
Vista's backup functionality has been overhauled into a new Backup and Restore Center that is both attractive and simple to use (Figure). Now, Backup creates the equivalent of a Virtual Hard Drive (VHD file, just like VirtualPC), when you perform a a full system backup. And you can restore that backup from the new Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE). This feature is now called CompletePC Backup. If you want to backup specific files and folders, you can use the Files and Folders Backup Wizard which, like CompletePC Backup, is available from the Backup and Restore Center.
Minor changes all around
Throughout the build, there are subtle improvements. There are new icons all around. Windows Paint is more like its XP predecessor (which I actually really appreciate). Help and Support is finally shaping up with new icons and some actual content. And Windows Marketplace, for some reason, is now in the main Start Menu. Performance still isn't great, but the OS install seemed to go by very quickly compared to previous builds, and they've changed the UI a bit. There's probably a lot more, but I've only been using the build for a few days.
Windows Vista build 5365 offers various refinements and improvements compared to previous builds and is a suitable launch point for Beta 2, which will be broadly distributed to the public. Three years after Microsoft began promoting Windows Vista, we're finally at a point where it's just about useable by the general public. That's both exhilarating and infuriating, because I'm curious to see how general XP users react to the changes, though I have to wonder why it's taken so long. But as a slice in time, build 5365 shows concrete progress over previous builds. That's a good thing, even if there are some deeper issues with Windows Vista that may not be addressed until a future Windows release. Many people who have been waiting and waiting to install a prerelease Vista version on their PCs and that wait, finally, is almost over. Stayed tuned: Beta 2 is on the way.