Up in Redmond, Microsoft developers proudly talk of dogfooding the software they write. Running beta software is the only way to learn what works and what doesn’t. A copy of Windows Vista running on a test machine in the corner isn’t likely to get a serious workout. To find the pain points – another popular Microsoft expression – you have to run that beta code on the machine you use every day.
In that same spirit, I’ve spent the last three months running beta versions of Windows Vista on the PCs I use for everyday work. February and March were exasperating. April’s release was noticeably better, and the Beta 2 preview – Build 5381, released to testers in early May – has been running flawlessly on my notebook for nearly three weeks.
Yesterday, at WinHEC, Bill Gates officially unveiled Windows Vista Beta 2, which means you’ll get a chance to see for youself what all the fuss is about. (The public download should be available within a few weeks – sign up here to reserve your copy.)
In the comments to posts I’ve written over the past few weeks, one question comes up again and again: What’s really in Windows Vista? Why should I care?
To help answer that question, I’ve put together a gallery of 30 screen shots digging deep into Vista Beta 2. You’ve probably seen Vista screenshot galleries on other sites, most shot in a hurry by someone sprinting to meet a deadline. I took a little longer to assemble this collection so you can get a closer look at Vista’s workings instead of just a series of setup screens and wallpaper shots.
The gallery is divided into six sections:
You’ve heard all about the Aero interface and Glass effects, but did you know you can select from eight colors and vary the transparency of the see through window elements?There’s no denying that the Vista interface is better looking than the bright blue XP Luna look, but after working with it for a few months I’ve grown to appreciate how it works, too. The redesigned Start menu, taskbar, and Control Panel – all featured in the image gallery – are easier to use than their XP predecessors.
In earlier Vista builds, Windows Explorer was, to put it charitably, a mess. The worst offender was the misguided attempt to make all folders virtual – and a series of bugs and missing features made those builds painful to work with. In Beta 2, Windows Explorer appears to be working as it was designed. It’s radically different from XP’s Explorer, which means you can expect some confusion when you first sit down with it. A Search box is embedded in the top right corner of every Explorer window, powered by a fully customizable index. Oh, and Vista has a Backup program you might actually use.
Security is one of the big selling points of Vista. One look at the new Security Center and you’ll see why. Where XP has three entries in its Security Center, Vista has six, including the most controversial feature in the OS: User Account Control. (See my series on UAC – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, for more details.) There’s no question that the new security features work as intended. The real test of Vista will be whether Windows users can be persuaded to keep UAC and other potentially disruptive features enabled.
Vista is packed with a bunch of features that have hardly received any publicity. You’ve probably seen the hokey Performance Rating dialog box, which measures your PC’s resources and assigns a 1–5 rating. But I’ll bet you haven’t seen the Performance Diagnostic Console, which is like Task Manager’s Performance tab on steroids, or the new Reliability Monitor, which sifts through event logs and helps you track down the cause of crashes and slowdowns.
If you’ve used Internet Explorer 7 on XP, you already know about tabbed browsing and IE’s support for RSS feeds. What’s different in Vista? IE7 runs in Protected Mode, a low-rights security scheme that lets your standard user account browse as usual without giving spyware and malware access to the rest of the system. There’s also an update to Outlook Express called Windows Mail, which is still a work in progress, and a suprisingly useful Calendar program.
And then there’s networking. In Vista, Microsoft has basically replaced every bit of network plumbing and built a whole new set of interfaces. The new Network Center can be confusing, especially if you already know your way around XP’s networking model.
What’s not in this image gallery? You won’t find any of the features aimed at portable computers until my notebook gets an upgrade later this week. And the extensive array of digital media features, including Windows Media Player 11 and Media Center, deserve their own gallery, Finally, next week I’ll look at some of the advanced features that IT pros will find intriguing.
Meanwhile, if you have any Vista-related questions, post them in the Talkback section here. I'll try to get to them in a follow-up post.