02:25 PM
Scot Finnie
Scot Finnie

Windows Vista Beta 1: A Guided Tour

Scot Finnie takes a long, detailed, and expert look at the features, foibles, and functionality of Microsoft's upcoming OS.

Windows Longhorn has been so long in the public eye that many of us are finding it a little difficult to get our minds around the new "official" name: Windows Vista. Let's face it — this is not an awe-inspiring name. It's the kind of name that is selected because there's nothing seriously wrong with it, not because anyone is truly excited about it. Of course, the name "Vista" brings with it an allusion to vision, as in viewing beautiful scenery through a window. Microsoft is trying to convey the notion that this version of Windows lets you view your data the way you want to. What remains to be seen is whether Vista's new features and capabilities work together to deliver on that promise.

In This Story

Moving And Shaking Names

Search And Virtual Folders

Breadcrumb Navigation

Evolutionary Start Menu

User Account Protection

IE7: Tabs And Toolbars

IE7: RSS, Security, More

Installation, Hardware, Networking

Security, Sys Reqs, Bottom Line

Beta 1 of any new version of Windows is always the toughest build to write intelligently about. When you're dealing with pre-beta builds, no one really knows the answers to questions like, "How is this supposed to work?" It's a guessing game you figure out through hours of working with the code.

The difference with Beta 1 is that a few people at Microsoft know how about half of it is supposed to work. Of course, only about 25 percent is actually working that way, and you don't know which features are heading in the right direction and which ones will be chewed up and spit out. Not to mention the fact that roughly 50 percent of the functionality just isn't there at all, and again, no one is sure what features will occupy those spaces when all is said and done.

The secret to understanding Beta 1 of any new version of Windows is asking the natives — namely, your friends at Microsoft. So I did that. But the usual caveat applies: Hey, this code ain't even close to being done, and all this could change. Ya got me?

Windows Vista Beta 1's new Aero Glass effect desktop, showing the Computer folder (previously called My Computer). (click to enlarge image)

Overall, Beta 1 is being billed by Microsoft as a plumbing/IT-oriented release, without many of the final end-user features. This story covers new aspects of Windows Vista Beta 1 that are usable, at least partly. But you should know there are several other features described by Microsoft that I haven't found a way to get at. For example, there's a new Startup Repair Tool that sounds like it might be a reworking of the Recovery Console. And apparently, Microsoft is adding diagnostic tools to aid recovery in error situations.

There are also anti-malware features baked into Windows Vista that are based on Microsoft AntiSpyware, as well as other protective mechanisms, that you can't see in Beta 1. For example, during Windows upgrade installations, the Windows setup routine will scan the computer for malware before initiating the installation. But since you can't perform a Windows upgrade installation, there's no way to see the new malware scan. Windows Firewall will finally protect against both outbound and inbound threats in Vista, but no user interface for that protection has been added in Beta 1.

Other invisible-to-Beta 1 improvements include reliability claims, such as detection and warning in advance of pending failures. Microsoft hopes to be able to warn users of a pending hard drive crash about 24 hours in advance to give people a chance to back up their data. The software giant also expects to reduce negative events like application restarts, hangs, crashes, and system reboots; and improve that perennial favorite, performance when starting up, waking from hibernation, and responding to user actions. All these things, and more, will have to wait for examinations of later prerelease versions of Windows Vista.

It should go without saying that, in Beta 1, neither performance nor stability improvements are at all evident. In particular, Vista Beta 1 is less reliable than Windows XP. The areas that I've experienced the most difficulty with are the Windows Explorer and using the Network tool to access other computers on a peer network. Microsoft is still in the early phases of development, though, and this is par for the course with a Beta 1 offering. I'm withholding my assessment of performance and reliability improvements until the late prerelease and shipping versions of the Windows Vista code. So should you.

Moving And Shaking Names

The names for well-known Windows objects, like My Computer and My Documents, have lost the candy-coated possessive. They're now just Computer and Documents. In Beta 1, I have not found any instance of the word "My" anywhere. It's just gone. And that's the way I like it. But that's just a minor aspect of the changes to the shell "namespace" in Windows Vista; when you dig a little deeper you'll find more profound differences.

The Documents and Settings folder contains a lot less than it used to. It now holds only All Users Application Data, meaning basic application settings that are stored when an app is available to all the users on a given computer — nothing that's been customized by the user.

Windows Vista's namespace changes include a new location for user accounts and a reshuffling of the folders that user accounts contain.
(click to enlarge image)

Where it's really happening now is the new C:\Users folder, which houses individual user account data files and user-customized or -created app data. The contents of the new User folder look much more like what you find in XP's Documents and Settings folder under Win 2000 and XP. When you open this folder, you'll see sub-folders for every user account on your system, including Administrator and any other accounts you've created. There's also a new Public folder, the foundation for a replacement of the old Shared Documents folder from XP's My Computer.

As you delve into a specific user account folder, you'll find other variations. At the same level as the Documents folder, you'll find the special folders Pictures, Music, and Videos. (In XP, My Pictures and My Music are found inside My Documents.) There's also a new Downloads folder, as well as folders for AppData, Desktop, and Favorites. Finally, there's the new Virtual Folders folder, which I'll come back to.

Just how all these things will work together in the final version of the product is not 100 percent clear at this point. But I like the general direction Microsoft is moving in, because there's no reason for end-users to interact with global data, like that found in All Users. What's more, this may help application makers do a better job of exposing data that can be customized, while tucking away data that should not be manipulated. The truth is, the current system under XP has evolved several times over the years, and it's a little out of control. Hopefully, this will be a change for the better.


The Windows Search field is found in numerous locations in Windows Vista, including every Explorer window and also in the system tray on the desktop. Full text search — commonly called desktop search — is an integral part of Windows Vista.

And it's not just a pretty interface. Windows Vista has a built-in search service that runs all the time in the background, cataloging all the data on your hard drive and creating an index. Windows XP had a similar service, but it was in most cases turned off by default. It was also both slow and ineffective, and it did not deliver the goods in terms of faster delivery of search results. It was pretty much a failure all around.

The new Windows Search Engine service in Vista is derived in part from MSN Search, and it is fast and smart. It is also turned on by default. The search functionality offers both full-context search and searching by metadata. Metadata are data points collected by application data files. Microsoft Word, for example, collects information such as Title, Subject, Author, Manager, Company, and Keywords. If this data is filled in by the user, then Windows Vista will be able to index it. Microsoft will be smartly sucking up file properties like this, but it is up to application makers to promote this capability by, for example, exposing user-input fields for this type of data in their File > Save As dialogs.

Virtual Folders

Search is also the underpinning of several new user interface structures in Vista, including virtual folders. Simply put, virtual folders do not represent file system directories at all. Instead, think of them as pre-configured searches that run every time you open them. Each virtual folder has a specific set of criteria it looks for, and when you open it, it works in conjunction with the index created by the Windows Search Engine to scour your entire hard disk for all files associated with the keywords behind the virtual folder.

Some actual examples may help get this idea across. Windows Vista Beta 1 comes with a useful set of existing Virtual Folders, including All Music, Albums, All Documents, All Videos, and Authors. When you open the Authors virtual folder, for example, you'll see separate "stacks" (you can think of a stack as a virtual sub-folder) of files that were each created by the same person. So the Authors virtual folder might contain 17 stacks, each of which are made up of documents created by a co-worker, family member, or friend — anyone you might have shared documents or other data files with. For example, the memo your boss wrote last January might be a lot easier to find in the Authors virtual folder than by traditional means. And what better way to collect all the individual music tracks on a CD than by checking the Albums virtual folder?

Even though you might think of them this way at first, virtual folders and the files or stacks of files they contain are not Shortcuts. When you delete a virtual folder, or a stack or file in a virtual folder, you are actually deleting the real object on your hard drive, not a shortcut to that object. So even though virtual folders do not represent data as it is collected and stored on your hard drive, they do contain real data. It's possible to imagine that someday we might become (blissfully?) unaware of how our data is actually stored on our hard drives, and more focused on meaningful associations among our data — and that appears to be one of Microsoft's primary goals for Windows Vista.

Think of a virtual folder as a pre-configured search of all your data. It runs automatically every time you open the folder. The files that are displayed inside a virtual folder are not actually contained by that folder. Virtual folders are not directories, but collections of links to files related by keywords.
(click to enlarge image)

Getting Around Virtual Folders

Virtual folders are only partially baked into the user interface of Vista Beta 1. In this early version of Vista, virtual folders are colored light blue, instead of the manila color that designates file system folders. All virtual folders are stored in the main Users folder, in the Virtual Folders directory found in each user account folder.

You can create custom virtual folders by running a search and saving it with the name of your choice. For example, I created a search for my daughter, Emily. Windows Vista found files of all types on my computer containing the word Emily. I saved that as a virtual folder by clicking the Organize button on the search results screen, and choosing Save Search from the drop-down menu.

Another way virtual folders are exposed in Beta 1 is in the new tree area (left pane) of Windows Explorer. Some of the virtual folders that ship with Windows Vista Beta 1 are displayed in that tree, including All Documents, Authors, Rating, Keywords, Recent, and Types. Since the pre-beta builds, the user-interface controls for virtual folders, regular folders, stacks, and the baked-in desktop search functionality throughout Windows Vista have evolved somewhat. However, they're by no means all there yet. For example, the "Lists" feature is missing altogether, and the search functionality doesn't always work as expected.

Breadcrumb Navigation

The visual control surfaces of Windows Vista are all placeholders in Beta 1. That's why I'm not delivering a detailed item-by-every-single-item description and depiction of all the controls, settings, and workings of the user interface in this story. However, there are some important new structures that are well worth a closer look.

One of the best new features is something probably best described as graphical breadcrumbs. On the Web, the term "breadcrumbs" is used to describe a clickable path, often separated by vertical pipes (the | symbol) or greater-than symbols. As you navigate into a Web site, each step along the way is marked with a new pipe-separated level that's hyperlinked to make it easy to back up or change direction. Windows has long needed something like this, and Windows Vista has it.

For example, when you're in Computer (a.k.a. My Computer), and you drill into Local Disk (C:) > Program Files > Internet Explorer, the Address bar displays the breadcrumbs, showing each level, like this:

Computer > Local Disk (C:) > Program Files > Internet Explorer

But that's not the good part. What's cool is that each step along that path is clickable, and when clicked opens a drop-down menu showing all the possible folders (drives and other containers) you can open at that point. That makes it easy to back up, take a different branch, and so forth. You thought what you were looking for was on Drive C: and now you realize it's on Drive D:? No problem — just click the step right before "Local Disk (C:)," usually "Computer," and choose "Local Disk (D:)" from the drop-down menu.

Graphical breadcrumbs is a very useful navigational tool. It's a programmatic version of the drill-down hypertext navigational systems commonly used on the Web. (click to enlarge image)

This is a very simple user interface that makes graphical navigation much faster than in previous versions of Windows, which usually defaulted to editing the path statement in the Address bar or opening a new window and starting over.

Navigating Folders And Virtual Folders

There's one last twist to the breadcrumbs functionality: It doesn't just navigate file system folders, it can also chart virtual folders and stacks. So if you open a folder window and then click the light blue All Documents virtual folder in the tree pane, the breadcrumbs show the path through the file system to the virtual folders, and then tunnel right into a given virtual folder and even a stack — neither of which is truly a physical object container.

The mixture of virtual folders and file-system folders can be a little confusing at first. But then, so was the whole idea of Aliases under the Mac and Shortcuts under Windows — or even the program icons under Program Manager in Windows 3.0. Remember that virtual folders and stacks are representational. They show collections of associated files, grouped not by their physical location on the hard drive but by how you think about them.

The Windows Explorer folder is the most evolved user interface structure in Windows Vista Beta 1. This folder window shows all the little things that make Vista's folders different, including virtual folders in the tree view on the left, large icons that help explain what each file or folder object is, a new toolbar with context-sensitive options just below the menu bar, the graphical breadcrumbs next to the forward and back buttons, the search field in the upper right, and the new Properties bar across the bottom. (click to enlarge image)

Explorer windows, including Computer, appear to be the furthest along in terms of the development of their functionality and user interface. This is where it all comes together: desktop search, new scalable icons that help convey what they are or what they contain, virtual folders, stacks, lists, graphical breadcrumbs, and more. In fact, there's so much going on in this heavily upgraded Windows structure that I'm going to stick to providing a glimpse of what's clear now, and hold off on the full explanation of what these new functions can do for you until I see them actually work properly in Beta 2.

Evolutionary Start Menu

About 95 percent of what I wrote about the Start Menu in my coverage of the WinHEC late alpha build of Windows Vista remains true in Beta 1; it just looks a bit different. And it's still nowhere close to being the final look and feel.

The new way to access the All Programs menu on the Start Menu is simple and effective: Just replace the contents of the main Start Menu with the All Programs submenu. No pop-ups, no need to turn the right angle with mouse movements. A good solution. (click to enlarge image)
Most of what's different shows up at the very bottom of the new Start Menu. The All Programs menu item provides just what it did in XP: access to your installed applications. But instead of opening a pop-up submenu, it opens and temporarily replaces the left column of the Start Menu.

This is a good change. It's less confusing and much easier to navigate. (When you actually see it in operation, you'll see what I mean.) A convenient Back button appears at the bottom so you can go back to the main Start Menu.

One hitch in Beta 1: You can't rearrange the order of items on the All Programs menu the way you can in earlier versions of Windows. You can drag-and-drop rearrange items on the main Start Menu, though, so perhaps Microsoft will get to this on the All Programs menu as well.

Application Search

Just below the All Programs button on the main menu is a search field. There's nothing that shows that this is different from other search fields in Windows, but it is different. Its reason for being is to help you rapidly find and launch programs. Loosely speaking, it's a type-ahead program launcher that searches your entire drive for registered applications based on text you type.

In the Beta 1 build, it's a little quirky. For example, type "e" and you don't just get programs that start with the letter E. Instead, you get program names that have the letter E as the first word in any part of their names. So, for example, Windows Event Viewer and SnagIt 7 Editor both show up. Somewhat annoyingly, you have to type "regedt32" to be given the option to run REGEDT32.EXE, or the System Registry Editor.

This functionality seems to be keyed to programs that report formal names. As is, it doesn't make it any easier to launch programs by their file names. I think Microsoft should optimize this feature for power users. Any sense that rank-and-file Windows users are going to use this frequently is, I believe, misplaced. The idea that we might want to find every item with the word "Explorer" in its name because we can't remember if we want Windows Explorer or Internet Explorer is, I think, overthinking the utility of this feature.

Pop-Up Menus

In Beta 1, Microsoft is using a right-arrow user-interface symbol to indicate that there are other things you can do with a given item. Then when you click that arrow, a menu pops up or down showing options. To me, this is a little confusing. Both the Log Off and Shut Down buttons work this way. My chief annoyance with this is that the little arrow requires too much precision to click rapidly. And, in particular, the default Shut Down operation is, well, shutting down. When you want to Restart, you need to click the little arrow and then select Restart from the pop-up menu.

Here's what I think Microsoft needs to do: Settle on one user experience for managing the process of Windows shut-down, log-off, restart, hibernate, and so forth. Windows XP has two completely separate ways of doing this, one aimed at consumers and the other designed for corporations. And that causes problems with applications — especially OEM PC programs — written to this process. It's also confusing to end users. If Microsoft puts some development time into this area, I think it could come up with a single process that works in all settings. Perhaps the controls for things like "never remember passwords" for the corporate logins could be handled by policies in user account settings.

Document Explorer

The last bit of significant change to the Start Menu is the addition of the Document Explorer, which is prominently displayed on the right side of the primary Start Menu. The menu item reads "Documents," but this doesn't link to your C:\User\{Current User Account}\Documents folder as you might expect. It links to the All Documents virtual folder, or preconfigured search of all the documents on your hard drive. The "Pictures" and "Music" menu items below Documents are also links to virtual folders.

User Account Protection

Microsoft has hit upon the perfect solution to a long-standing Windows problem that has become more important in recent years because of security issues. While it's a perfect solution in theory, I'm concerned it might fail in the real world.

In Windows Vista Beta 1, you turn on User Account Protection by clicking on an icon on the All Programs menu on Start. Doing so opens this dialog.
(click to enlarge image)

The Old Way

The problem is this: Most Windows users log into the default user account, Administrator, and never use any other account. The Administrator login has full power to make changes to any part of the file system or operating system. In other words, it's a dangerous account for someone other than you to access your computer with. And it can be a dangerous account for you to use if you're not an experienced Windows user. Younger kids, for example, should never be given Administrator access to a computer. That's asking for trouble.

Worse, since every Windows computer has this default full-privileges user account, and that account name is "Administrator," it's very easy for hackers to access it. They know where to look. On many computers, this user account isn't even password-protected.

But there are solid reasons why this unsafe situation has been the typical condition on literally millions and millions of PCs for years and years. The only other default account type that Microsoft offers, the Limited Account, is so limited that even experienced users find it very difficult to work with. For example, you'll have serious trouble doing things like changing the date and time of day, making changes to your network stack, installing applications, and installing device drivers from a Limited account. What you're supposed to do is log out of the Limited account, log back in with your Administrator account, make those changes for the Limited account, log out of Administrator, and log back in to the Limited account. Even if you know enough to do that, most of us are far too busy having real lives to bother with what is truly a lot of nonsense.

And yet important security issues, especially in recent years, make this about as far away from nonsense as you can get. A whole new way of dealing with this is sorely needed.

The New Way

Microsoft's solution, called User Account Protection (UAP), makes a lot of sense. It's attacking the problem from both sides. On one side, it's expanding the scope of Limited account privileges. For example, locking down the system clock is an important thing to do for security purposes on a Limited account. But there's really nothing wrong with allowing the user to change the time zone of a Limited account. You can't make that change from a Windows XP Limited account, but you'll be able to do that in Vista. So, Microsoft is running through all the privilege restrictions on the Limited account to liberalize aspects of default privileges smartly, when loosening does not pose a security threat.

Once you turn on User Account Protection, when you try to access a protected function from a Limited user account, you're given the Unlock option. (click to enlarge image)

The other part of the software giant's strategy is to borrow the privileges of your Administrator account by authenticating to it. In a Windows Vista Limited account, it is possible, for instance, to change the system date, month, year, and so forth. The way you do that is by double-clicking the clock in the system tray (or opening the Date and Time Control Panel). A new Unlock button appears on the dialog. When you click that button, you're prompted to enter the name of a user account with administrator privileges and its password. When you clear that hurdle, you'll be given full access to make date and time changes.

When you click the User Account Protection Unlock button, you're confronted with this authentication prompt. You provide the password to prove that you have Administrator privileges.
(click to enlarge image)

Installing Apps

That's all well and good, but the most frustrating scenario occurs when you want to install a new application. Limited accounts do not have the right to install programs. And this is probably the single biggest reason why so many Windows users who have tried Limited accounts in the past have gone back to accounts with Administrator privileges. So you'd think Microsoft would just apply the same logic to the process that they did with the system clock. And they have. But software makers must also join the effort to make this work. They have to make their applications Limited-account-aware and provide the Unlock functionality in their setup routines.

Microsoft is a much better-than-average market leader when it comes to creating structured environments for third-party software and hardware providers, helping them work toward shared goals like this one. And I suspect that most mainstream business applications will support Windows Vista's User Account Protection features in fairly short order. But there are literally thousands and thousands of shareware and freeware apps whose makers will probably never get around to adding this support. Or, at the least, won't do so for years to come. And that means that people trying to use Limited accounts — especially in the early going — may be frustrated enough by the installation hassles that they'll go back to working out of a user account with full-fledged Administrator privileges. And that will defeat the whole purpose.

I can't fault Microsoft's technical strategy in solving this problem. It's spot on. But something has to be done to strongly inspire the majority of software makers to comply — or to make it a moot point whether they comply or not.

Account Setup

There's a small behavior Microsoft has introduced that I like a lot. The first time you create a new user account, Windows Vista insists that the account must have Administrator privileges. After you do that, the default Administrator account disappears from the consumer-oriented Welcome Screen login. This is Microsoft's way of trying to herd users away from using the default Administrator account. It's not serious protection, but getting us all away from using the same "Adminstrator" account with full Admin privileges makes it a little harder for malware programs to script full access to a computer.

In Beta 1, UAP is a feature you turn on or off. (Let's hope that option is preserved in the final version of Windows Vista.) One frustration I had with the feature is that when it's turned on, even accounts with full Administrator privileges are endlessly prompted to enter the login password to make changes to things Administrators normally have direct access to. This may be a bug of some sort. Let's hope so, because that functionality could be enough to cause some people to turn off UAP, or possibly to skip out on moving up to Windows Vista.

Internet Explorer 7.0: Tabs And Toolbars

The success of Mozilla's Firefox finally spurred Microsoft to add tabbed browsing and basic RSS support to Internet Explorer 7.0, which is included in Windows Vista. As modest as those changes are, they make a big difference to the overall usability of the world's most widely used Web browser — even in the rudimentary form they currently take in Beta 1.

Tabbed Browsing

The tabbed-browsing bar is the single most important feature in IE 7.0. When you launch the browser, it displays one wide browser tab containing your home page, with a small dark gray button to the right of the tab. To add a new tab, you click the gray button, which continues to appear just to the right of the right-most tab. This works well, but isn't obvious to new users. Microsoft will almost certainly build user-interface refinements to this basic functionality. As you add new tab windows, the width of all the tabs compresses, working something like the program buttons on the Windows Taskbar.

Internet Explorer 7.0's most important new feature, at least in Beta 1, is tabbed browsing. You click the square (shown as light blue because it's selected) to the right of the rightmost tab to add a new tab window. IE7's tabbed browsing could use a few more features and controls, but it works very well.
(click to enlarge image)

Right-clicking the dark gray button has no effect in Beta 1. But you can right-click any tab button or empty space on the tab bar to bring up a context menu displaying the New Tab, Refresh, Refresh All, Close Other Tabs, and Close options. Sorely missing is a simple way to rearrange the tabs or close them without using a context menu. Several Firefox extensions offer functionality that IE7 should adopt, including double-clicking to close tabs, the ability to rearrange tabs by dragging-and-dropping, and the ability to save tab sets and reopen them later.

This version of the browser offers three basic on/off configuration settings, found on the Advanced tab of the Internet Options Control Panel:

  • Always open pop-ups in a new window
  • Always switch to new tabs when they are created
  • Enable tabbed browsing

    With the "Always open pop-ups in a new window" option turned off, you can right-click a hyperlink displayed on a Web page and select "Open in New Tab" to bring it up in a new tab. You can't, however, do the same thing with a link in your Favorites, an unfortunate omission that we hope Microsoft will remedy before the product ships.

    Toolbar Updates

    The address bar contains the forward and back buttons, the URL type-in field, the merged Refresh/Stop button (a feature inspired by Apple's Safari browser), and the new Web-search field. The overall design of Beta 1's toolbar area is good, and the address bar is no exception. The Refresh/Stop button works well, but its placement to the right of the address bar is awkward, since it's not near any other browser control buttons. In fact, the buttons that control IE7 are now spread out, something Microsoft should work to correct.

    One of the strangest aspects of this IE7 beta is that you cannot move the tab bar to the lowest of the three toolbar positions. So the file menu, button toolbar, and Links bar (when displayed) all appear below the tabs and above the Web window. Good user-interface design dictates that the tabs appear just above the Web window, since their selection directly relates to that window. Very probably this is also just another early beta issue.

    IE7's new "shrink to fit" print feature, which reformats Web pages so they print comfortably on a letter-sized sheet of paper, works nicely.

    Internet Explorer 7.0: RSS, Security, And More

    RSS Feeds

    The second most important new feature area in IE7 Beta 1 is the new Feeds icon on the button toolbar. The icon turns red to signify that the Web site currently loaded and active in IE7 offers at least one auto-discoverable RSS feed. Whenever the Feed button is red, you can click it to see a drop-down list of available feeds; when you click one, it will display the current contents of the feed on a headline page with clickable links to individual stories. There's also a small box containing the "Add to Favorites" option that lets you add that RSS feed URL to your IE7 Favorites.

    Internet Explorer 7.0's new RSS Feeds icon turns red to show that the currently loaded Web page has auto-discoverable feeds available. When you right-click the down-arrow beside the icon, it displays the available feeds. When you click a feed, you get a headline page showing the latest articles available in the feed. (click to enlarge image)

    An IE7 headlines page provides direct access to story files, and it also gives you the Add to Favorites box, which lets you store the RSS URL in your Favorites. (click to enlarge image)

    When you click Add to Favorites on the RSS headlines page, IE7 pops up this dialog to let you locate and name the RSS feed in your Favorites. Windows Vista's version of IE7 looks different in many respects from the IE7 for XP version. This dialog, for example, is far more compact in Windows Vista.
    (click to enlarge image)

    Vista Beta 1's IE7 comes with a Favorites folder called Web Feeds. Two things could be improved in the final version of IE7. First, they aren't Web feeds, they're RSS feeds. They may show Web pages, but that name is confusing. And second, the Add to Favorites function for RSS feeds should default to this folder. (click to enlarge image)

    As constituted in Beta 1, Microsoft's RSS feed functionality for IE7 is a near clone of Firefox's Live Bookmarks feature, warts and all. Even so, it's a very workable system for casual RSS access. I wish, though, that Microsoft would enter the dedicated RSS reader client area. One caveat: I had trouble with the IE7's Feed icon not turning red on some Web pages. When those same Web pages are loaded in Firefox, they light up the Live Bookmarks icon. IE7's Feed icon worked with most sites, but not all. Ironically, one of the sites where this didn't work was, including its blog pages, although it's possible Microsoft's webmasters haven't enabled the auto-discovery feature. I didn't test this extensively.

    IE7 Security

    Microsoft is emphasizing the increased security of IE7. One example of this is the Microsoft Phishing Filter, which, according to the company, automatically checks Web sites for suspicious content as well as against a list of reported phishing sites and either warns you against them (when there's a possibility you've loaded a phishing site) or doesn't let you access a page (when it's a confirmed phishing site). The anti-phishing filter is an item offered on the Tools menu, where there are also some basic configuration options. I performed some basic tests of this functionality, but wasn't able to make it work. I'll test it again when Vista and IE7 are further along the development process.

    Microsoft has also made it a little easier for users to quickly dump personal data from the browser. The Tools menu now offers a "Delete Browsing History..." menu item which, when clicked, asks if you want to "permanently delete all currently saved cookies, history, and form data and passwords, and temporary files." This panic button is a good thing to have around.

    How It's Different From IE7 For XP

    Microsoft is in parallel development on IE7 for Vista and IE7 for Windows XP (Service Pack 2 is required). IE6 is the end of the line for all other versions of Windows. There are some basic differences between the Vista and XP versions of IE7. In Beta 1, the two versions display very different-looking dialogs to accomplish the same tasks. Subjectively, it appears that the product is being developed for Vista and is in the process of being retrofitted for XP. But there are few important differences.

    According to a Microsoft document, IE7 in Windows Vista Beta 2 will add a Protected Mode to give Internet Explorer sufficient rights to browse the Web, but not enough rights to modify user settings or data. This Protected Mode for IE7 will only be available to Vista users because that functionality requires the reworked user account system in Windows Vista. In Vista, IE7 will also be able to automatically install security and other updates; that will not be the case in the XP version.

    Compared to some other aspects of Windows Vista Beta 1, IE7 seems to be lagging behind a bit. I expect several other new features, and a lot more to tell a few months down the line.

    Outlook Express Updates

    Microsoft Outlook Express is being tossed some bones along with IE7. It sports a built-in "Junk E-mail" feature with a basic whitelist and blacklist. According to Microsoft, this works right away and doesn't require any training. In fact, there's no way to train it. OE also gets a Search box in the upper-right corner, which lets you search both your e-mail messages and the file system in one search. Microsoft says it has reworked the mail store for Outlook Express to make it significantly more reliable. This has been an Achilles' heel of early versions of OE, so that's a welcome change if it delivers on its billing.


    The installation routine in Windows Vista Beta 1 shows Microsoft's revised design approach to Windows setup. One of the goals is unattended operation, and that's fully apparent. You answer all the questions up front, and then you can walk away.

    In Beta 1, upgrade installations are not enabled, leaving only the option to clean install. That means we've seen only about half of the new installation process. But what is available now is extremely straightforward. Beta 1's installation, though faster than the setup routines in earlier builds, still could not be described as quick. Microsoft intends to improve installation performance. And the completion of installation routines usually comes late in most software development programs.

    It's unclear whether this process will be continued in the final version of Windows Vista, but in Beta 1 the Supplemental Driver Pack Installation Wizard pops up after installation to help you configure devices under Vista with XP-level drivers. (click to enlarge image)

    Hardware Compatibility

    It's unclear how well Windows Vista will support Windows XP-era hardware, but it's important to keep in mind that the OS introduces the new Vista Device Driver Model (VDDM), so there is something of a bump on this road. VDDM does support XP drivers too, but whenever a new driver model is introduced, there are usually issues with earlier drivers.

    Vista Beta 1 comes with a supplemental driver pack. An optional setup routine runs on your first system start. It's no surprise that this supplemental driver pack didn't help me much with my IBM ThinkPad T43 test machine. But I was able to manually configure seven devices that weren't set up properly on the notebook using IBM's XP drivers. One device, the fingerprint reader, would not configure under Vista. The two 3GHz Pentium 4 whitebox desktops I also used for testing each required that I manually configure the audio playback device, something that took only five minutes to fix.

    Initial Networking

    The biggest problems I had with Windows Vista Beta 1 concerned networking. The emphasis on security, which comes down from the very top of Microsoft, may in fact make the peer-networking user experience so annoying that many of us could wind up hanging on to Windows 2000. The first thing I found was that I needed to disable the Windows Firewall for any peer networking to work. This isn't much of a surprise, of course. With new outbound firewall features added to Windows Firewall, and no UI to control it, what did you expect?

    Supposedly, Microsoft will be incorporating TCP/IP v6 throughout the networking stack. Anyone who has used the TCP/IP v6 add-on stuff that Microsoft released for Windows XP is probably rolling their eyes right now — that networking layer often caused more problems than it solved. Microsoft says that it's redoing all the networking components to support IPv6, which should help with the previous problems. But, apparently, IPv4 will continue in Vista; IPv6 will just coexist with it. I'm told that the IPv6 plumbing is in Beta 1, but if so, there's absolutely no UI for controlling it. And the UI that is there appears to be the IPv4 controls.

    Even with Windows Firewall turned off, I experienced new issues with sharing and permissions between Windows Vista machines. Windows XP has been a notoriously bad platform for peer networking, and Vista Beta 1 doesn't seem to be any better. In fact, Vista Beta 1 networks better with XP machines than it does with other Vista Beta 1 machines.

    Let me be clear about this: No matter how important Microsoft considers security to be, it had better fix the numerous annoying problems home users have with peer networking under Windows XP, and not introduce any new ones. If Vista is more of the same (or worse), I think there are a number of us out here in the real world who might be ready to hang up Windows for Linux or the Mac.

    That said, it's only fair for me to add that networking, like installation and hardware support, is rarely if ever ironed out in Beta 1 of a Windows development process. Beta 2 should give us a better sense of the Microsoft's progress in smoothing the way to more reliable networking.


    Windows Vista will be the repository for several security initiatives that Microsoft has been working on for quite some time. I've already mentioned User Account Protection and the inclusion of anti-malware in the form of OS plumbing based on Microsoft AntiSpyware, which Microsoft bought from Giant Software. Windows Firewall is being strengthened with outbound protections to prevent the possibility that Windows machines will be used as "zombies," to use the 2003 vernacular. Internet Explorer 7.0 has built-in features designed to thwart phishing scams aimed at identity theft.

    Vista will also arrive with improved support for Smart Card-based user authentication, as well as custom-designed authentication systems based on biometrics and tokens. It will have a capability that can be enabled by IT departments using Windows Longhorn Server to prevent security-compromised mobile computers from connecting to the corporate network. Mobile computers that do not have the latest Windows security updates, that have reduced security configuration settings, or whose virus signatures are out of date will be turned away until those problems have been corrected.

    Microsoft is working on strengthening protection for Windows services (background support programs) by limiting the access that altered services have to other computers on a network. This is a continuation of the security work Microsoft introduced with Windows XP Service Pack 2. Microsoft is also working on data security by instituting a new policies-based rights management facility and adding enhancements to its encrypting file system option, which can now store encrypted keys on Smart Cards.

    System Requirements

    Microsoft won't issue the real system requirements for Windows Vista until just before the product ships. But the system requirements for Windows Vista Beta 1 are 512MB of RAM and a mainstream processor from AMD or Intel suitable for use with Windows XP. (Although this isn't an official Microsoft recommendation, some Microsoft execs have suggested that a 1.8MHz or faster Pentium or comparable CPU should be the working minimum requirement for Vista Beta 1.)

    The graphics requirements are interesting, and more complex. Microsoft has developed a tiered approach to graphics support under its Windows Presentation Foundation (more commonly known by the code name Avalon) graphics subsystem. What that means is that AGP or PCI Express graphics adapters that support DirectX with a driver developed for Vista, 32-bits-per-pixel color depth, and 64MB of video memory will get the full "Aero Glass effects" video experience. Those with lesser graphics cards will step down through three lesser support levels. While the experience will degrade, it's designed to degrade gracefully.

    For more information about hardware that will support Windows Vista, see Windows Vista Ready PC Hardware Guidelines and Enterprise Planning Guidelines for Windows Vista PCs on Microsoft's TechNet.

    Said And Done

    I've covered the high points, but there are quite a few other new things in Beta 1. The Network Presentation tools are designed to aid in setting up your computer to view, broadcast wirelessly, or connect to a presentation projector. Several OEM notebook makers have added custom tools like this to their computers in recent years, and Microsoft is issuing basic tools to standardize the process.

    SafeDocs, a new Windows Backup, is in beta form in Windows Vista Beta 1. It's designed to automate the process of backing up data incrementally to network volumes or external media.

    Backup has long been an afterthought, but we're living in a world where it's becoming a lot more important. The new Windows Backup, whose code name is SafeDocs, looks to be a welcome improvement. (click to enlarge image)

    Microsoft has created a new hybrid partial shut-down state that merges aspects of Standby and Hibernation to save power and protect data, and also hasten recovery time from hibernation. They call it Safe Sleep and Quick Resume. You can change a notebook battery in the new sleep state.

    Microsoft is including a utility called XImage and a file format called Windows Imaging (WIM) that can handle disk imaging in Vista. For more information about additional new features, see Desktop Pipeline's A New Vista: Microsoft Releases Vista Beta 1.

    It's unusual for a Beta 1 version of Windows to have both the final shipping name of the product and as many new features as this build shows. And that's a strong sign of two things:

    1. Windows Vista remains an ambitious release of Windows, despite some of the features that Microsoft has pushed off the side of the boat.

    2. Microsoft is trying to get serious, both internally and externally, about this development program. Windows Vista is now the company's top priority.
    So apparently there's a lot more to come. As the new Vista features and functionalities begin to gel (not the case in Beta 1), turn to TechWeb and Scot's Newsletter for ongoing review coverage.

    Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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