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5/25/2006
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Review: Windows Vista Beta 2 Features Great Search, Improved Security, Hardware Snags

Our reviewer takes a close look at the new features in Beta 2. The news is mostly good.


When Microsoft offered up its February CTP (Community Technology Preview) of Windows Vista, the company said that the build was nearly feature-complete. (We covered those features in our review Vista Visuals: Windows Sidebar, Gadgets, Media Player 11, And More.) There were still some missing pieces, however. This time, the just-released Beta 2 of Microsoft Vista goes a long way toward showing off what the final operating system will look like -- and in most respects, it's a winner.


New In Windows Vista Beta 2


•  Better User Account Control

•  Search Is Finally Here

•  Improved Firewall, Fit And Finish

•  There's Still Work To Be Done


The much-ballyhooed search feature is turned on for the first time, and it's just about everything that Microsoft promised. The universally disliked User Account Control (UAC) has received significant work, and is finally usable, helping to lead the way to a more secure operating system. And overall, there's a better organization and "fit and finish" to this beta than previous Vista versions.

Still to be resolved, though, are a variety of hardware compatibility issues that could delay the Vista launch date. And although the Windows Firewall has been improved, users may have trouble finding its advanced controls.

Much-Improved User Account Control

The most reviled feature of earlier Vista builds, User Account Control (UAC), has thankfully been reined in with Beta 2. For the first time, it is actually useful, and goes some way toward solving a security problem that has long bedeviled Windows.

Most people run previous Windows versions in administrator mode, because unless you do, you are blocked from performing many system operations and simple tweaks. But running Windows as an administrator brings with it a host of security problems -- notably, if someone malicious gets control of your PC either remotely or physically when you're logged in as an administrator, they have the run of your entire system and can do serious damage. In addition, if inexperienced users run as administrators, they can accidentally wreak havoc on the system by making harmful system changes.

To try and solve this security problem, Microsoft baked UAC deep into Vista. The idea was to get people to run as standard users as a way to increase security by not making them log on as an administrator every time they wanted to make a change. Instead, in some instances, users simply received notification they were about to make a system change, and had to confirm it. Many other changes required administrator's credentials that forced the person to type in the administrator password. And of course, there were still some changes that required users to log on as an administrator.

Unfortunately, Microsoft went wild with what standard users were not allowed to do in earlier Vista builds. Want to set your system clock? Before this beta, you'd get a notification that you couldn't, and you had to log in as an administrator just to set the system clock -- or the calendar for that matter. The same held for changing power management settings, changing your time zone, and plenty more.

Users of earlier Vista builds complained long and loud to Microsoft about this, and with good reason. It was especially galling because, for years, power users (using administrator's rights) have been able to make countless changes without getting these kinds of warnings. But in the last Vista build, UAC forced the operating system to act like a kind of nagging super-nanny.



User Account Control has been cleaned up in this version of Vista -- you'll receive fewer messages like this when you need to change a setting. Click image to enlarge.

Thankfully, Microsoft listened to its beta users, and toned down UAC in Beta 2. There are far fewer times you'll get notifications -- so you can now set your system clock and calendar, change your time zone and power management settings, set up a Virtual Private Network, and a lot more without getting nagged. Microsoft says that it is going through the entire operating system and will get rid of other notifications as well before launch.

The result? UAC is actually usable. In previous Vista versions, I refused to run as a standard user; now I always do. I won't be alone in this. It will mean a more secure operating system, because more people will run as standard users.

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