Vista – How’s the view?

I’m currently in the process of reviewing the latest beta of Microsoft’s forthcoming OS named Vista. This page will serve to chronicle my experiences with the new OS.

Since the early days of the PC, Microsoft has attempted to write software that made the hardware accessible to the masses by making it easier to interact with. While many people disagree on just what it is that makes a machine easier to use, the modern Windows operating system has certainly come a long way since it first appeared. Windows Vista is the product of Microsoft’s latest attempt to build a better OS.

(beta 1, build 5270)
To any seasoned Windows user, Vista won’t appear all that different at first glance. It still has a generally XPish look to it, though the style is somewhat better. At it’s heart, this is still a Windows NT variant, something that becomes plainly visible on your first trip into safe mode. (When all the eye-candy is stripped away, it’s still the same old windows widgets underneath.) There have been some minor improvements though.

Microsoft has finally abandoned the tree-branch style listing of programs on the start menu and has instead opted to integrate a minibrowser into the start menu. For those of us with more than a few programs installed, this can prevent you from getting stuck in the “click All Programs and stare for 5 minutes” routine. While I doubt it actually allows you to find things any faster, it does seem better organized.

Power-users will quickly find that the “Run” menu no longer exists. The classic command interpreter still exists (as of build 5270) so you can still launch those otherwise hard-to-find apps from there. A new search feature is also present at the base of the start menu. Another nice touch is the consolidation of common security functions (logoff, switch user, etc.) into a single button.
correction: the run menu does still exist, it’s just been moved to the Accessories folder.

I was pleasantly surprised by Microsoft’s efforts to improve the level of security in the default out-of-the-box configuration. From the moment you install windows, your user account runs with reduced priviledges. The default security settings on the filesystem have also been tightened. Internet Explorer has a new anti-fishing filter that attempts to block potential identity theft threats. At one point I needed to flush my DNS cache and renew my IP address, but found I wasn’t allowed to do that with the old ipconfig command. I quickly found that this was due to the command interpreter running with reduced privs. and all I needed to do was to right-click and select “Run Elevated.” Voila!

Like its predecessor, Windows Vista has the Security Center feature that attempts to bring things like OS updates, firewall controls and antivirus together in one place. However, just because this is Windows, don’t expect your old antivirus software to work. My latest attempt to get Symantec’s Corporate Antivirus 10 to install ended in my getting out the DVD to reinstall Vista. A quick look at Symantec’s website revealed that they have a beta copy of their corporate AV client that is available for current corporate customers. Since I happen to work for such an institution, I got a copy of it from our IT security guy. The Symantec AV beta was basically a hack of the 10.0 client and didn’t offer any of the advanced features. It also didn’t update, after the first couple of weeks.

(beta 2, build 5308)
My experience with the beta 1 of Vista was interesting, but not as much as I’d hoped. As is understandable for a beta, many of the features were either incomplete or missing. With beta 2 out, I thought I’d give the new OS another shot. This new version is much more complete and stable. Installation is about the same, though there is more driver support now. There was even a Vista version of the video driver for my i845-based Compaq Evo. (what a relief, considering how much of a hack it was to get the old Win2K/XP drivers to work last time around..)

Antivirus cont.
My last antivirus experience on Vista left much to be desired. Sure it made the warning in Security Center go away, but that was about as far as the integration went. I searched around for another (preferably free) product that would be compatible with Vista. I came across a couple of links on Google describing several attempts to hack various AV products to work. Then I came upon a link that mentioned the Avast! AV software was compatible. To my surprise, the vendor offers a free home version. I downloaded a copy and it works great! Not only does it work, but it’s got more features than most of the commercial off-the-shelf products you’d find at your local software shop. I must say I was impressed.

Smart Software
One of the features I stumbled across as I’ve been playing with Vista is a service called User Experience. In a recent article on ZDNet, Jim Allchin explained this feature:
“One of the things that’s very clear is Vista loves memory, and the more memory you put, the faster it will (be). It will not only be faster, but it will learn and get faster over time. So more memory is just a good thing for it. ”
Since this isn’t my main PC, I definitely haven’t used it nearly as much as I could, but lately I have been noticing a marked improvement in performance. Even before this, when Vista would get bogged down for a while, it would actually pop open a window with some analysis of what might be causing the slow down and tips on what to do to fix the problem. Granted, most of the time it was something I was doing to the system and it wasn’t helpful, but there were a couple of times that it highlighted a performance problem that could be fixed.

Beta 2, Build 5384
On Wednesday, May 23 Microsoft released a new build of the 2nd beta version of Vista. The setup while mostly the same, has improved in stability and speed. Once installed, the OS feels a lot faster as well. Driver support was about the same as the last build with everything but the display adapter being automatically detected and installed right away. Functionally, the OS hasn’t changed a whole lot since build 5308. However, the graphics have been polished up a bit and the system as a whole seems much more stable and fast. I was disappointed to see the loss of some of the backgrounds I liked in the previous release. On the up side, there are some new graphics that are great, so I suppose it works out. The new version of Avast! antivirus installed without a hitch. Microsoft has also made the text of the authorization dialogs clearer and more accessible to new users. I’ve only seen 2 glitches so far. (not bad) The version of IE7 in this build doesn’t appear to render my blog entirely correctly. If you scroll down to the bottom and look at the bottom right corner of the sidebar you see a sharp white corner that shouldn’t be there. (and wasn’t in the last build) The first time I right-clicked on the desktop to personalize my settings, the management snap-in crashed taking the whole desktop with it. It recovered right away, but left some of the system tray icons temporarily obscured. (they come back when you reboot) Not too bad overall.