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Don Watkins

A First Look at Windows Vista

By Don Watkins



Let me get this out of the way first: I really dislike commenting on beta software. It's almost always unfair because it can contain a lot of debugging code, is rarely optimized and will certainly have some bugs. That said with the recently announced delay of Vista I figured what the heck, I'd take a swing at a beta version of Vista knowing that there would probably be at least one more beta and certainly one, if not two, release candidates.

That said I'll try and limit my comments on features rather than performance and stability.

I fired up beta 2, build 5308 which was released in February, 2006. Installation was pretty much the same as any other version of Windows and generally took about the same amount of time. The install media is DVD and I don't have any info on how Microsoft will distribute Vista, but my guess is that they'll provide it on both CD and DVD much like they offered Windows 95 on both CD and floppy. That's just a guess but I'd be surprised if MS would shut out all those machines without a DVD drive.

Security and Gee-Whiz

There are two areas that stand out immediately; security and the "gee-whiz" factor.

No question that Windows has taken a slamming on security issues. I don't claim to being any kind of security expert but it has always occurred to me that Windows could easily be more secure if it simply shut down all ports and didn't allow any program to run even if the user was running as administrator. I also recognized that this would be a royal pain in the butt.

Vista does just this; even if you're running as administrator just about any system tool or change now requires an extra "do you want this to run" click. Say you want to change a network component. You click the network icon in control panel and bang, up comes a windows asking if you want to allow the applet to run. Well duh, sure you do so a click is required.

Of course the flip side is if malware was trying to do something nasty you'd get the window as well and I suppose since you hadn't asked for the applet to run you'd tell it no. But regardless it seems like you'd be requesting it often, much more often than malware launching it so you end up doing a lot of unnecessary clicking. I would hope that there will be a hack out to fix this.

The "gee-whiz" factor is to improve what I call the "user experience" and ranges from look and feel of the icons and windows. Certainly things like the look of the icons, transparent windows, "thumbnails" of the screen when you mouse over a program entry in the task bar are way cool.

A bit more about the latter; when you minimize a program on the task bar and then mouse over it the thumbnail isn't static but is dynamic; it shows the current screen for the program, not a snapshot of what the screen looked like when it was minimized.

There's even a gee-whiz change to how you can cycle through active programs. Click the Windows key and the spacebar and you'll get this display:

Each screen is fully active; that is it continues to display the real time image of that screen so if you have a video playing it'll show the video. Ditto alt-tab which shows a thumbnail of the window vs. the old method of showing an icon; everything in the thumbnail is real time.

And an example of a very small thing but indicative of the numerous small things that have gone into the interface; if you want to change the size of the desktop icons you only need to hold down the ctrl key and turn the mouse wheel to increase/decrease the size of the icon. Slick.

Changes/New Stuff

Lots of changes, some of which make great sense, others that make me scratch my head. For instance in the latter category to bring up task manager the key combo has been changed from ctrl-alt-del to ctrl-shift-esc. Why change a key combo that's been around forever?

But there are tons of new features that make a lot of sense. For instance there's the event viewer; not only has it been expanded to cover more areas but there's also a consolidated view that contains the events from all the various areas (applications, systems, security, etc.). Far more handy than having to look into each category.

Somewhat outside of my ability to fully explore but it appears that the structure of drivers in Vista is a big change from previous versions and they no longer run as part of the kernel and are thus unable to crash the OS. If this is correct it should eliminate drivers as a source of crashes.

There are several new applets in the control panel and the most intriguing to me is the Performance Rating and Tools which gives a nicely detailed inventory of CPU, RAM, hard drive and graphics device info along with a list of performance issues with a hot link to help you fix them. Some of them didn't make sense; the two programs that were identified as causing Windows to start slowly were Windows services that couldn't be eliminated. But again, this is a beta version.

Another new feature I see as being very helpful is virtual folders. You can do a search (and Vista is big on searches) and create a folder with the results. For instance you search on all files related to a certain topic and can then make a folder of those results.

There is a new "sleep" mode that allows a very fast restart. While Vista boots quicker by allowing some start up tasks to run in the background the new mode is different than previous hibernate modes and allows a very fast restart.

Help has a new "guided help" feature. It was incomplete in the beta version but it's a window that moves around the screen showing you what to click next. With the changes in how things are done in Vista I expect it will be a feature used frequently even by those experienced with XP.

The Bottom Line

I would expect that the final version will be faster than the beta version I tried and while I don't like all the clicking to do simple administrative tasks Vista looks like a nice leap forward. I could live without the gee whiz stuff and settle for more stability with the changes in how drivers are handled. Certainly it's an upgrade that'll bear a lot of consideration not the least of which will be price which, at this time, is unknown.

On the other hand if it keeps getting delayed I'll never have to make the upgrade decision....



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