Microsoft's mantra (or advertising line) for its new operating system, Windows Vista (formerly Windows Longhorn) is "Confidence, clarity, and connection."
For you and me, that means a promise of greater stability and security within the OS, better graphics throughout, and an enhanced ability to share documents and files, including built-in P2P services. The software giant has followed the release of its Beta 1 with monthly interim builds that use coding intended for a future Beta 2 release. Specific features seen in these interim builds may or may not appear in the large-scale Beta 2 release or in the final version of Windows Vista (expected in late 2006). Here's a look at what we've seen thus far:
During our hands-on testing of interim version build 5231, which Microsoft officially released to developers on October 17, 2005, we noticed several enhancements in Vista's network connectivity and system integrity, overall audio and multimedia capabilities, a major face-lift for Internet Explorer 7, another preview of Windows Media Player 11, and several overall improvements. As with last month's build 5219, which expanded on the "clarity" theme, this release expands on the "confidence and connection" themes.
Under "confidence," Microsoft is touting Vista's ability to ward off potential problems in the future as well as recover quickly from disasters. Windows Vista Memory Diagnostics, a collection of tools, can detect and automatically resolve problems associated with defective physical memory. Windows Vista Disk Diagnostics, another collection of tools, monitors the health of the hard drive and can proactively warn users of impending disk drive failure, allowing users to backup their data and replace defective hardware before the situation turns critical. Network diagnostics tools will analyse connectivity and network access issues and either resolve the issues or provide the end user with the next steps to resolve the situation. A new Windows Vista Network Center replaces My Network Places and My Network Neighborhood with a hub for managing computers and devices on a local network. And in this release, we saw increased reliability in the transition in and out of sleep on our laptop, giving us greater confidence when we closed our laptop lid. According to Microsoft, this was accomplished by eliminating the chance for applications, services and drivers to veto or block changes in system power states.
For the "connection" part of the Windows Vista motto, Microsoft wants to make connecting to a variety of devices faster, easier and more secure and the synchronisation of data among devices simpler. Toward that end, this build of Windows Vista includes a new Windows Mobility Center, including the tools to adjust display brightness, power plans, volume control among applications, wireless status, synchronisation status and presentation status. Sharing files and folder contents (peer-to-peer technology) is easier in this build of Windows Vista, including the ability to create e-mail with embedded links pointing to shared content. And this build of Vista includes the Microsoft XPS Document Writer, allowing you to convert any onscreen document into XPS documents, which can be digitally signed to ensure that no one has tampered with the contents in transit.
Internet Explorer for Windows Vista
Although we got a taste of the new IE in last month's build, Internet Explorer 7 for Windows Vista includes new security and interface features. IE 7 for Windows Vista includes a Phishing Filter to protect against malicious Web sites; ActiveX Opt-In, reducing the likelihood of potential ActiveX attacks; and a new Protected Mode, to protect users against the silent installation of malicious code. There are also new parental controls and a redesigned Favorites Center to provide quick access to History, RSS and saved Favorites. The interface changes include Quick Tabs, thumbnails of each open tab for quick reference; Tab Groups, the ability to save groups of tabs; Page Zoom, which magnifies any part of any Web page; and Advanced Printing, which shrinks output to fit on your printer's chosen paper size.
Features previewed but not yet ready in build
Within this build is a new Windows Media Player with program controls placed front and center, à la QuickTime, with the right-hand margin providing additional information about the track currently playing. We also saw a new Migration Wizard, for transferring the data from one hard drive to another; a new Power Management Center, for better laptop control; and even a new Windows calendar.
It was apparent from the moment we launched this build, released on September 16, 2005, to coincide with the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference, that graphics lay at its heart. In this version, Microsoft showed off its new Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly known as Avalon) and previewed some features of the new WinFS file system, although it wasn't the full file system update we were expecting.
Windows Presentation Foundation
Microsoft has greatly improved the look and feel of its Windows operating system. Formerly called Avalon, the Windows Presentation Foundation utilises 3D capabilities, allowing applications to appear out of nowhere, then appear to fall back into the desktop when they are closed. There's also more standardisation across the OS, with each app sporting new translucent window bars so that you can see what apps are open behind a current app, along with multicoloured options in the upper-right corner of each window so that you can tell at a glance the difference between minimise, restore size and close.
User Account Protection
With this build, Microsoft tackles the issue of providing greater security by separating administrator privileges from user privileges. In other words, you can log in with your set of preferences and extend guest accounts to others on your system. When it comes time to make changes to the system registry, however, you'll need a password to access the administrator account. This should significantly reduce the number of rogue apps that install without your permission.
Although a full-blown version of a new Windows file system won't be ready for Windows Vista's release in late 2006 (instead it will ship with an unnamed version of a "Longhorn-based" server in 2007), a limited version of WinFS will be included with Vista and offers a look at what's to come. Basically, WinFS frees you from having to remember the arcane file structure on your hard drive. Now files can be linked dynamically by metatag content, such as author, content, and keyword. Thus, without physically moving a file on your hard drive, you can create virtual stacks of files.
On July 27, 2005, Microsoft released Windows Vista Beta 1 to about 500,000 software developers worldwide. Microsoft wants to make sure that developers know how the new OS works before they put the finishing touches on the overall look and feel of Windows Vista.
After installing Beta 1 on our laptop, we were struck with a subtle déjà vu. Borrowing from Linux, Windows Vista runs all users at a Standard user level and creates a separate Administrator login, so even if you are the only user of the OS, you will still need to log in with Administrator privileges to do high-level work, such as changing the status of hidden or read-only files. Standard users should still be able to install and uninstall applications, provided they know the password for Administrator privileges. This extra effort should minimise the occurrence of spyware installing without your knowledge and remote-access exploits from taking control of your computer.
Borrowing from Apple Mac Tiger OS 10.4, Windows Vista incorporates enhanced desktop-search features throughout its new OS. You can search from the Windows Start menu or within applications, and you can also search within the new version of Internet Explorer 7. Also borrowing from Apple, Windows Vista does away with traditional file folders and allows you to "stack" related documents together. These virtual files can exist independent of where the actual file resides on the hard drive.