Inside Windows Vista RC1: Initial test drive

Is Windows Vista ready for prime time?

Is Windows Vista ready for prime time? Microsoft is throwing open the doors on a very large public test of Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1), which means for anyone who has a hankering to try it before it costs money, this is likely your last chance. So, whether or not it's ready, over 5 million people will be invited to find out. Microsoft is clearly betting that it's good enough to try.

Based on an initial test drive, Vista RC1 is the first version of the forthcoming Windows operating system to show true refinement, both in terms of reliability and overall performance. For this story, Computerworld worked with Vista Build 5600 on five test machines for a period of about 48 hours. It's the tip of the iceberg, offering initial impressions that will be followed by a more exhaustive review in the days ahead. But during the first two days, Vista RC1 didn't disappoint. For the first time, it feels stable enough to run on a production PC.

Performance takes many guises. Microsoft is promising 2-second resume times from Sleep mode that don't degrade over time. Another performance boost comes from smartly balancing the usage of CPU time. Microsoft is giving background services, like Windows Defender, lower input/output priority to increase the performance of your line-of-business applications. In particular, it aims to make applications load quickly and to maintain that state of alacrity over time. It's too early to say whether the software maker has achieved that in RC1, but resume-from-sleep times are in the 3-to-5-second range. And applications such as Microsoft Word appear to pop open quickly. Time will tell.

Nuevo Networking

RC1 introduces a fairly radical overhaul of the Network and Sharing Center. It merges two previous networking control panels into one, and reworking the functionality makes it truly useful for the first time. The new Manage Wireless Networks task area finally gives wireless networking users a logical, useful way to control named and saved Wi-Fi connections. You can right-click the Network desktop icon and choose Properties to open the Network and Sharing Center. Or click the Network icon in the system tray to initiate a new network connection.

Networking controls have never been a Microsoft strong suit, but even so, the Network and Sharing Center, as well as the tasks it offers, form the best networking control interface that Windows has ever had (see our visual tour of Vista RC1).

One of the confusing things about Vista Beta 2 was the difference between public and private networks. When you create a new network connection, Vista Beta 2 asked you to classify that network as one or the other. There were many situations in which even experienced users weren't sure which of the two classifications to use for the networking environment. Private sounds more secure, but it was actually less secure. So, Microsoft has changed this for the better. There are now three classifications: Home, Work and Public Location.

This build of Vista shows a remarkable improvement in network browsing speed. When you open the Network window, which displays other workstations on a network, the mild delay before all available workstations appear is in the 5-to-10-second range on a typical six-node peer network of mixed Vista and Windows XP machines. Larger networks didn't require noticeably longer wait times either. Even first-time connections are fast. In Vista Beta 2 and earlier, the network browse-to-completion time could sometimes be measured in minutes -- and some workstations never showed up. Gone is the peer networking balkiness of early versions of Vista (as well as earlier generations of Windows).

That said, it does seem like Microsoft is missing some opportunities in the networking area. Why are the controls for naming and saving LAN connections different from the ones that manage wireless connections? Couldn't Windows offer a location-based, named and saved set of network configuration settings? Why does Vista continue to hide the wireless radio channel from you, even deep in status dialogs? On large networks that use the same SSID with multiple access points, it's annoying not to know the radio channel your PC is currently connecting to when you're roaming.

Lots of Little Things

Performance, reliability and networking controls are the most important aspects of what's new in Windows Vista RC1. But there are also some smaller elements you'll want to check out when you have a chance:

• The Flip 3D three-dimensional window-switching feature (accessed with the Windows key-Tab key combination) offers mildly improved graphics — thanks, it appears, to a tipping back of the windows so they're not quite so vertical, eliminating some of the "jaggies." There's also a new "Switch between windows" icon on the QuickLaunch bar (beside the Start button), which initiates Flip 3D with the mouse. It's a boon for mouse-centric people because it requires no key presses. The windows open-and-close movement is a tad more fluid, too. All in all, this Apple Exposé-like visual task-switcher and desktop reveal feature is shaping up well in Vista.

• The new Additional Clocks tab on the Date and Time Control Panel gives you an easy way to display your local time plus two additional times, such as London and Tokyo, to help you make correct time translations.

• The default search page, which is also the default Internet Explorer home page, is now called Windows Live Search. Of course, this is MSN with Windows Live clothing.

• When you right-click the system tray area, there's a new Customize Notification Icons option that lets you configure on the spot which icons are hidden or displayed when inactive.

• The new Windows CardSpace tool, newly added to the Control Panel, provides a way to manage your digital identities and handle your log-ins and passwords.

• Microsoft gave the Parental Controls Control Panel and MeetingSpace ad hoc peer-collaboration program a dusting off and revised their settings and user interfaces.

• Windows Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and DVD Maker have each received tweaks from the development team since Vista Beta 2. Photo Gallery may sound like eye candy, but in an increasingly image-rich business environment, it may be the most useful new applet in Vista.

• Vista supports the HD-DVD and Blu-ray high-definition DVD formats.

Handling Hardware

Vista RC1 does a better job than previous releases of automatically connecting to the Internet after initial setup to install drivers for hardware not included in the Vista driver pack. Two test machines used for this story had multiple devices that Vista's installation program wasn't able to configure properly. While the new operating system wasn't able to online-update the Linksys gigabit NICs in these machines, once those drivers were added manually, Vista was able to grab drivers for other devices.

On another test machine whose 4-in-1 card-reader hardware wasn't in the driver pack, Vista's ability to actively search for and retrieve the correct driver — based on the plug-and-play hardware identification it found — made finding the drivers easy. Using the standard "reinstall routine," you just opt to "browse" locally for a driver and point Vista to the initial directory containing OEM device drivers. Vista then searches all subdirectories until it finds the right driver and installs it. You can even just go into Device Manager and set this in motion, even when you don't know what the hardware is.

There's also better support for drivers in general. Some XP drivers that previously weren't supported in Vista Beta 2 and Build 5274 now work in RC1. And, according to Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows, "thousands more device drivers are included in the box," with an emphasis on printers, wireless adapters, SATA controllers and Media Center tuners.

The Media Center PC in the Computerworld test environment that had difficulty running Media Center with earlier releases of Vista ran RC1's Media Center nearly perfectly. On one test unit, a Dell Inspiron E1505, all attempts to resume from sleep resulted in failure, requiring a reboot. This problem was resolved by installing ATI Radeon x1400 beta video drivers specifically released for Windows Vista RC1.

UAC: Better, Not Best

A significant amount of criticism was leveled by the press and beta testers at the Vista's User Account Control (UAC) security feature as it was implemented in Beta 2. An earlier Computerworld story took UAC to task, for example. With the release of Windows Vista Build 5274, Microsoft began to turn the corner on the UAC user experience.

The purpose of UAC is to make Windows users aware of potentially dangerous activities on their computers. The potential threat is that a malware program (or possibly a determined hacker) could be carrying out a scripted set of steps that will lead to a negative event on your computer, such as the loss of data or damage to your Windows installation. In a nutshell, the question UAC asks is: Did you initiate this process that's attempting to run? When the answer is yes, you click OK or Allow to permit the action. When the answer is no, your prudence in letting UAC block that action could save you from a very bad experience.

The easiest example to understand is the prompt that pops up when an unsigned program installation begins to run. In RC1, it reads: "An unidentified program wants access to your computer." Your choices are Cancel or Allow. If you initiated the program installation and you trust the source of the software, you should click Allow. But what if you didn't initiate a program installation? That's the situation for which UAC was created. It gives you a last-chance option to prevent something bad from installing on your PC.

The good news is that a long list of previously annoying — and in some cases unnecessary — UAC prompts have been removed from RC1. One way Microsoft is going about that is by localizing UAC protection to the areas that are most dangerous. For example, opening the Windows Firewall Control Panel no longer requires you to click OK to a UAC prompt. But attempting to turn off the firewall or change its settings does result in a UAC prompt. The same is true of Windows Defender. You won't be prompted until you go into options and attempt to turn off the antimalware program, for example. There's no longer a UAC prompt to open the Scanners and Cameras Control Panel, until you attempt to add a device. And there's no UAC prompt if you opt for Media Player's "express" setup option. Standard account users can install high-priority updates in RC1.

One of the most mystifying UAC behaviors in Vista Beta 2 caused a prompt to appear when you tried to delete some desktop program shortcuts. If the program was installed for "all accounts" in Beta 2, then Vista blocked the deletion of the icon in Beta 2 with a UAC prompt. If the program was only installed for the currently active user account, then deletion of the same program shortcut occurred normally. Since there's no way for Windows users to know which way the program was installed, even experienced beta testers were confounded. In RC1 (and in Build 5472 before it), as long as the running account has administrator privileges, icons installed "on the public desktop" (that is, for all accounts) will be deleted without issue when you drop them into the Recycle Bin. Standard users will still be asked to elevate their permissions, but it's not like that doesn't happen a lot for Standard accounts.

Finally, Microsoft added a change that prevents UAC from stealing focus from an active program or process that you're working in that has nothing to do with what initiated the UAC prompt. So the potentially threatening activity is blocked, and you can tend to it as soon as you complete what you're doing. Enterprises can also specify a list of approved ActiveX controls that UAC will allow Standard user accounts to install in conjunction with Internet Explorer without UAC blocking them.

Microsoft earns a B+ from us for what it has achieved in smartly streamlining UAC while preserving security. It was clear that the software giant could do better, and that's why earlier Computerworld articles were critical, even when the product was still an immature Beta 2. The danger with UAC overprompting is that users will become numb and just click OK on every permissions box and warning, without giving it much thought. That effectively has the opposite of Microsoft's intended effect -- not to mention the fact that the user experience is eroded, too.

The File-Permissions Frontier

Despite improvements to UAC in several areas, there is one aspect that still needs deep consideration by Microsoft.

File permissions in Windows XP are a nightmare, especially on small, trusted networks such as small business and large home peer networks. When you have the NTFS file system installed, and you disable "User Simple File Sharing" in the Folder Options Control Panel, you're left to guess at how to properly configure protected folder sharing for special folders like your whole hard drive, your desktop and you Program Files folder -- unless you follow Microsoft's protect-you-from-yourself file- and folder-sharing defaults. If that's the case, you might as well stick with Simple File Sharing.

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