Amid speculation that Microsoft might again slip in its own timetable for the successor to Windows XP, the software giant on Tuesday released the first public beta of the new Windows Vista operating system. The tweaks to build 5381 appear to be aimed at a wider consumer market, providing first-time users of the new operating system with a smoother install, a small selection of desktop gadgets, and a filled-out help section.
The Welcome Center. When you first launch Vista, aside from the impressive graphics, you should also see a Welcome Center dialog box. The box includes details about the PC you are using, plus icons to answer common questions such as how to transfer files from your old operating system, add a printer, connect to the Internet, set up Windows Media Player, or view your computer details and Windows settings.
Gadgets. Windows Vista launches with three default gadgets (widgets) on the far-right side of the desktop. These include a slide show, an analog clock, and a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) reader.
More gadgets. A plus sign near the top opens additional options, including games, a calculator, a currency translator, an onscreen notepad, and an onscreen computer diagnostics gauge.
Start meets search. New users will appreciate the streamlined Start menu. The right column has been simplified to show tasks, such as Documents, Pictures, Music and Games. While you can still view All Programs, Microsoft has included the tree structure within the Start menu. But if you want to find what you're looking for fast, try the new integrated search. Type word, and instantly find and execute your copy of Microsoft Office Word, or, if you prefer, Wordpad.
Instant off. In the lower right, Microsoft gives you more options than just "change user" and "off." In Vista you can instantly turn off your PC by quickly capturing your active desktop session in memory so that you can keep working when you restart your PC. You can also lock your computer or set it to sleep, hibernate or completely shut down.
More help. Windows Vista beta 2 still includes built-in help FAQs and online resources from the Microsoft knowledge base, but it adds several more options. For example, within the Help window, you can now arrange for remote assistance from a fellow Vista user, join an online forum or contact Microsoft support.
Automated help. Some FAQs also feature automated help. By clicking "Check the version of a driver," for example, then "Do it automatically," your desktop dims slightly as an illuminated arrow floats across the screen, showing you what you would click if you were doing this yourself. At several points the animation stops and a dialog box opens to request an answer before proceeding.
New file structure. Forget backslashes and directory trees. Windows Vista allows you to move files around on your hard drive--even virtually--without physically moving the files. You can, for example, save a file to a remote drive within the Save As window; no need to create an new folder, name it, then populate it with a file.
BitLocker. One feature that's gotten a fair amount of press but will be available only in the Ultimate and Enterprise editions is BitLocker, a way to encrypt your entire hard drive. By encrypting the contents of your hard drive, hackers will have a harder time benefiting from the theft of a laptop. Unlike third-party drive encryption, which requires you to log in, then boot into Windows, Microsoft combines these steps for faster access to Windows Vista.
Flash memory. Don't have enough RAM to launch an application? If you have a USB drive greater than 258MB installed, a feature called ReadyBoost can direct Windows Vista to use some of that flash memory for an added assist. If you have a hybrid hard drive with built-in flash, Windows ReadyDrive can use that memory to save your desktop work session for fast access upon reboot.
Network Center. Don't remember how to connect your PC to a LAN or your home wireless network? Windows Vista takes all the related tools and conveniently relocates them in one, easy-to-use center.
Peer-to-peer conferencing. Formerly known as Windows Collaboration, Windows Meeting Space allows up to 10 wireless users to establish an ad hoc network, allowing the members of that ad hoc session to share Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentations, control of another's desktop, and individual files. This is designed for business travelers meeting in a cafe or waiting for an airplane.
Vigilant security. User Account Control is a new feature designed to keep remote attackers from making changes on your Windows Vista system without your knowledge. While the intentions are good, you'll find several instances where the pop-up notices are a little too paranoid. Look for Microsoft to moderate this feature between now and its final release.
Antiphishing technology in Vista. Within the new Internet Explorer is Microsoft's antiphishing technology, which uses both whitelists and special algorithms to determine the relative safety of pages found on the Internet. When visiting a new page, you're invited to have it scanned, and if it's clear, you'll have access. If not, you'll still have access, but you'll see another pop-up letting you know that Microsoft doesn't think that the page is safe.
Reining in ActiveX. Another security feature within Internet Explorer flags you whenever ActiveX controls are requested by a Web site.