Visual Tour: 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista

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17. Two words: Secure Desktop.
You have to see this to understand why it was worth its own number on the hit parade of things you won't like about Vista. Secure Desktop is Microsoft's name for a set of dramatic visual cues that serve as a backdrop for the User Account Controls confirmation prompt. The desktop and any open windows surrounding the UAC prompt go noticeably dark. Perhaps even more important to the security involved, with the UAC prompt open and unanswered, you can't access anything at all in Windows. In order to get screenshots of the prompt, I had to run Windows Vista Beta 2 in VMware Workstation 5.5. If you're buying into the full necessity for all aspects of User Account Controls, the Secure Desktop visual cues help you understand why the dialog is completely modal and effectively locks Windows down until a real person sitting at the computer answers the prompt. But when you're seeing it a dozen or more times a day (I'm seeing it a lot more frequently than that because, apparently, I have a habit of opening dangerous things), it gets old real fast.

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Secure Desktop in action.
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(Click image to see larger view)

16. No way to access the Administrator account in Vista Beta 2.
There's no way in Vista Beta 2 to access the Administrator account (at least, not that I could find). Why? Presumably because Microsoft wants to force the issue and require beta testers to work within the constraints of User Access Controls.

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Turning off User Account Controls.
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(Click image to see larger view)

Of course, it is possible to turn off User Account Controls. It's what's behind the "Change security settings" option on the opening page of the User Accounts Control Panel. Making it impossible to turn off this feature, without hiding the Administrator log-in, would have been a better choice. I've already seen error messages to the effect that I don't have sufficient user privileges to perform that action about 19 times.

This only heightens the mistake Microsoft may be making in differentiating the Administrator and other computer-administrator-level accounts. While this makes sense from a security perspective, Windows already has an overly complex arrangement of permissions and permissions inheritance. The potential to either prevent you from doing something you have to do to make your system survive, or for users to fiddle with object rights and thereby inadvertently leave their systems vulnerable, is just too great. A complete revision and simplification of object permissions is long overdue for Windows.

Update: After this story was published, Microsoft revealed to me how to access the built-in Administrator account in Vista. For detailed instructions, see How to Access the True Administrator Account in Windows Vista, which was originally published in Scot's Newsletter.

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