Windows Vista RC2: Near-final OS more refined, but it's not perfect

Microsoft continues to tweak its upcoming operating system

Last Friday, Microsoft Corp. pushed Windows Vista Release Candidate 2 (RC2), Build 5744, out the door. There's no laundry list of new features and functions associated with this build of Vista, but there is something significant about it.

You can sum it up in one word: refinement.

The areas of installation, performance and bugginess associated with Media Center and the new Sleep power management mode have all been improved. Vista continues to be exceptionally stable. There's no question that this new Windows is more reliable than XP.

A screen shot of the Windows Vista RC2 desktop

Windows Vista RC2's desktop (Larger view)

Setup certainty

I installed RC2 on three test machines, one Windows XP Pro upgrade and two clean installs. One upgrade installation screen notes that your "upgrade could take several hours" to complete. Mine didn't, although it did run a little over an hour and a quarter. The two dual-boot clean installations were swifter than with Release Candidate 1 and showed some minor visual changes.

The results of RC2's setup process were a tad cleaner. My three test machines were manufactured in different years -- 2003, 2005 and 2006. The two newer models are laptops that have proprietary software for controlling hardware. Although all three have hardware Vista was unable to provide drivers for, with just a couple of exceptions, the new operating system quickly accepted legacy drivers designed for XP.

Vista's driver pack support for recently released hardware continues to be a weak point. I had expected that with this release the driver pack would be better than it is. For example, Vista RC2 lacks a driver for the Linksys EG1032 Gigabit Peripheral Component Interconnect network interface card. It also wasn't able to locate a driver for SoundMax audio cards on my oldest and newest machines. SoundMax audio is widely distributed, and there's just no excuse for this. It was easy for me to find and feed Vista my reseller-provided XP drivers for these devices, however.

Not so easy to get around is the fact that Vista doesn't contain drivers for Lenovo's UltraNav built-in pointing devices (which have been shipping with ThinkPads for years). Nor was Vista able to run these XP drivers, even when I used some of Vista's compatibility tricks.

Windows XP shipped five years ago; nowadays, a lot more laptop PCs are being sold. As a result, Microsoft needs to include drivers for laptop hardware or make them available via Windows Update. If this product is going to ship in January, especially if the rumors are true about Vista-upgrade coupons being distributed for the holidays, proprietary driver support is key. History teaches that relying solely on resellers for this doesn't get the job done.

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