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10/31/2005
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Review: Microsoft Windows Vista's Latest Pre-Release

The October Community Technology Preview adds features for networking and system diagnostics, and hints at new controls for mobile users.

Following on the Windows Vista September CTP (build 5219) Microsoft a couple of weeks ago released the October CTP (Community Technology Preview), build 5231 of Windows Vista, a slightly newer pre-beta-2 release. In addition to several new features in Vista itself, the October CTP is notable for changes to Internet Explorer 7 (see "New Internet Explorer 7 Features Revealed").

Network Center

Perhaps the most prominent new feature in this build of Windows Vista is Network Center, a replacement for My Network Places and Network Neighborhood.

Network Center shows up as a system tray icon. Single-click that icon and an Explorer window opens that's loosely akin to Windows XP Service Pack 2's Wireless Networking Wizard, but with a larger purview. Network Center offers a long list of tools and options for configuring and working with wired and wireless networks, including Network Map, which is designed to show all the nodes on your network, including the switches and access points. There's a Diagnose facility that ostensibly will help you figure out network problems.

(So far Microsoft has provided very limited information about new features showing up for the first time in the CTP builds. One thing the company has said is that Network Center will provide network diagnostics and make it easier to attach and configure network media players, routers, and wireless access points.)



The Network Center is Windows Vista's next-generation version of Network Neighborhood. So far, so good, but not much works here yet.
Click to Enlarge

At least on my network, most of Network Center's functionality isn't working or isn't working properly. Some items lead to a crash; nothing happens when you click others. This is the typical experience in a beta product, so Microsoft has done nothing wrong. On the other hand, without deeper information from the software maker on how this is supposed to work, I'm operating in guess mode. As it stands, Network Center in build 5231 doesn't even reliably deliver the more limited functionality provided by My Network Places in Windows XP. That's probably why the XP-level network user interface continues to be available in this build.

This is also the first widely distributed build to include the long-promised new IPv6 protocol. Both IPv4 and IPv6 are installed, as well as Link-Layer Topology Discovery Mapper I/O Driver for NDIS 6 and Link-Layer Topology Discovery Responder for NDIS 6. Among other things, these layers support the Network Mapping and diagnostics functionality that's not all there yet.



Microsoft's new IPv6 TCP/IP protocol, as well as the Link-Layer Topology Discovery layers provide the horsepower to support many of the new features in Network Center.

Considering that I have been critical of Windows XP in the networking area, I am glad to see Microsoft making this an important new design point for Vista. We'll have to wait and see, though, how well this works in the real world.

Diagnostics

Microsoft's description of Windows Vista build 5231 begins with "built-in diagnostics," including Windows Memory Diagnostics, Windows Disk Diagnostics, and network diagnostics. The network diagnostics feature either isn't properly hooked up, or it's not going to be very helpful. We'll have to wait for later builds to gauge whether this functionality will prove to be a boon, or like Windows' Help troubleshooting tools, a bust. Right now, it can find no problems on my network, which I find difficult to believe given the networking performance and browsing issues with this build of Vista.

If Vista's network diagnostic is toothless, at least so far, the disk and memory diagnostics are just nowhere to be found -- even though Microsoft says these tools are in the October CTP. The disk diagnostics have been described in past as a service designed to warn you of pending catastrophic failure. Presumably, the memory diagnostics work the same way. But should there be a tool you could run to manually check for problems? The Windows Memory Diagnostic is available to Windows users now as a separate download.

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