Review: Microsoft Windows Vista's Next Beta

The 'Community Technology Preview' of Vista isn't Beta 2 yet, but speed is up, the Sidebar is back, and it has more new features like Live Thumbnails, Flip 3D, and peer-to-peer MeetingSpace.

Scot Finnie, Contributor

October 6, 2005

10 Min Read

(Editor's Note: This is a slightly abridged version of an article that appears in the current edition of Scot's Newsletter, an independent Web publication produced by Scot Finnie, who is also Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb. You can read the complete article and view associated screencams on the Web at

Microsoft distributed a new pre-release version of Windows Vista to all attendees at its Professional Developer's Conference (PDC)in Los Angeles about three weeks ago. I've been working with this latest version for a couple of weeks.

The new code is a very early look at Windows Vista Beta 2. It isn't actually Beta 2, even though it's labeled as such. We can expect to wait another two to three months for the real Beta 2 to arrive. In the meantime, sometime later this month Microsoft says it will deliver another interim beta on the way to Beta 2, and I expect to report on that version in the next edition of the newsletter.

The initiation of more widespread interim beta releases represents a change for typical Windows development over the last 10 years. The last time we had this sort of widespread release of Windows code was during Windows 95's development. I hope this new process, which the company calls "CTP" (for Community Technical Preview) will become the new standard for all major Microsoft development efforts, including Windows and Office. If you're serious about improving software quality, you have to focus on giving the dev team more time to squash bugs after a widespread beta, instead of lumping those bug reports into one big crazy effort after beta 2. In that scenario, inevitably, you'll be forced to ignore things that take longer to diagnose and fix.

It should also help Microsoft to be a bit more customer-focused. Over the last decade, Microsoft has become increasingly insular to end-user concerns. The CTP releases are no panacea, but they're a step in the right direction. I see no sign so far, though, that Microsoft is applying this to other development efforts.

Performance and Reliability

The first thing anyone will notice about this build of Vista is performance. The CTP 5219 build is noticeably faster than previous Vista pre-releases. It also feels faster than my cluttered up Windows XP installations. The real proof of performance improvement comes after 20 or so applications have been installed and hardware added, and so forth. But at least Microsoft is trying to live up to its performance goals. Very often we don't begin to see that sort of difference until Release Candidates, which are probably almost a year away. Of course, there are a lot of features left to add. It's way too early to assess performance.

Microsoft is claiming that Windows Vista will turn on and off in two to three seconds "as quickly and reliably as a TV set." Part of this is will be based on Microsoft's new hybrid Sleep mode, but surprisingly, even in this early pre-release build (on a freshly installed machine), the system shuts down in about six seconds. Start-up takes a good deal longer.

A new utility called Windows SuperFetch is enabled in build 5219. It loads all or part of a user's most frequently used programs and files into unallocated system memory before they are called for. The idea is to improve application performance by reducing the need to load data from the hard disk when starting or using applications. SuperFetch continually adjusts the set of data it pre-fetches based on user directed activities with apps and files.

I've also seen fewer reliability issues in this build so far. Networking is faster, and so far more reliable. The problems with Windows Explorer found in earlier builds have not yet made an appearance. One hiccup I've seen occurs after the screensaver bumps you back to the login screen (the default setting in XP and Vista). Upon re-entry, there's about 10 seconds of errant pause accompanied by some graphical disturbance. The problem rights itself without any further issue. Even more serious, there's a bug in Display Properties, Settings area. When you change screen resolution twice, the second time you try to do this, Vista may spontaneously reboot. This sort of thing is very common in early betas, and may be specific to my video hardware (ATI Radeon 9800 Pro). So it doesn't mean anything. The point is, I'm seeing less dysfunctional, ah, functionality overall.

What's New in Vista Build 5219

There are two highly visual new features in Windows Vista's CTP build: Live Thumbnails and Flip 3d. Live Thmbnails gives you a large, dynamic thumbnail preview of applications minimized to the Vista Taskbar. Just pause the mouse button for a second over the taskbar button for any program, and the image will open. If the program is in motion --say, for example, a video running on a Web page -- you'll see that video running in the thumbnail.

Hover over a taskbar button and Windows Vista's Live Thumbnails feature pops up a thumbnail view of the application in motion. (click to enlarge image)

Those of you who appreciate the use of quality graphics to enhance the user interface experience will appreciate Live Thumbnails. The rest of you will probably think it's eye candy. But I believe most users of the final Vista product will find this feature useful, even invaluable. Especially those of you -- and you know who you are -- who tend to work with 20 or 30 windows open pretty much at all times.

Microsoft has also finally decided to embrace Task Switcher, also known as Alt-Tab. This tool is used by many more experienced Windows users to rapidly switch among multiple running applications. For Vista, there's a new 2D version that shows the Live Thumbnails and lets you switch among them by holding down the Alt key and repeatedly pressing Tab to advance among your running apps. Microsoft has given this the working name "Flip."

There's also a new 3D version of Task Switcher, which, you guessed it, has the code name "Flip 3D." You really have to see this to get it. To launch Flip 3D in build 5219, you hold down the Windows key and press the spacebar. When you do this, all the program windows running on your system magically stack themselves left to right and turn to show their edges in a 3D presentation. You can see the program windows at a roughly 45-degree angle, but they're, well ... program windows in space. As you scroll your mouse wheel or click the cursor keys, the programs cycle through, the one on top jumping to the back and the one just behind it coming to the fore. Just click any program window with the mouse to revert your windows to their normal open positions. The one you clicked will be on the top.

In the March 2005 issue of the newsletter I reviewed the Mac Mini. (See " A Mac In The House.") In talking about OS X toward the end of the review, I was very positive about a feature called Expose, which is designed to manage Window clutter. Flip 3D appears to me to be Microsoft's return volley on Expose. Although it doesn't offer as many options as Expose (in build 5219), Flip 3D does solve the same basic problem: "I have a zillion windows open, how do I find the one I need fast?"

Vista's Flip 3D feature helps manage windows clutter, letting you search through the open windows to find the one you need. (click to enlarge image)

So, What Else Is New?

Microsoft has turned on User Account Protection (UAP) in this build of Windows Vista by default. UAP is an important change to the way Windows user accounts are extended or denied permissions. In essence, UAP is designed to make working in a Limited user account more tolerable, without reducing security. Most current Windows users employ the Administrator login or use a login that has Administrator privileges. That's a convenient way of working, since you need administrator rights in order to do things like install applications, make changes to your network stack, or adjust the time and date. But it's also a huge security vulnerability, since anyone who hacks into your computer suddenly has all those rights too.

For more detail on how UAP works, and what I think about it, please see my column, "Vista And User Accounts," from the November 2005 issue of PC Today magazine. One Windows Vista feature I haven't written about to date is something Microsoft has recently dubbed "Windows SideShow." Previously it was called Auxiliary Displays. The auxiliary display idea is for mobile computers. You'll have to buy new hardware that supports it, and that new hardware will have a small second display visible when machine is closed. So, while your computer is in a sleep state, it's just awake enough to send data to the auxiliary display, like how many new emails you have, how many instant messages, network alerts, the date and time, a snapshot of your calendar, and so on. SideShow can be used with notebook computers, but Microsoft suggests that it will also be built into remote controls, keyboard, and smart phones. Vista build 5219 adds new control features for SideShow not available in Vista Beta 1. Microsoft hasn't talked much about the peer-to-peer features that will ship in Windows Vista. But it's talking about one now, which has the working name of Meeting Space. Microsoft's description reads: "Meeting Space allows a meeting participant to quickly create or join a meeting and simply and more securely transfer files or broadcast presentations and documents directly to other participants' personal computers on any shared network." In other words, virtual meetings. Meeting Space, or whatever it will eventually be called, is the first application to harness Microsoft's People Near Me capability, which identifies only people on a nearby subnet. More on this when I've had a chance to actually try it. In this CTP version of Vista (unlike Windows Vista Beta 1), the new "Peer-to-Peer" Control Panel has peer functionality turned off by default. Sidebar is back. Microsoft recently announced the return of the Windows Sidebar, a feature that was in the originally PDC2003 alpha release of Windows Longhorn. Just like Mac OS X's widgets, Windows Sidebar will run "mini applications" that Microsoft calls Gadgets. I think Microsoft has a good chance to do something better with this than Apple did. Apple's implementation in OS X 1.4 is scotch-taped onto the OS X interface in a way that I find pretty useless. But the idea has promise. For more about Microsoft's effort, see the Microsoft Gadgets site, which is aimed at developers, not you and me. Still there's useful information on this site for everyone. Finally, according to the document Microsoft circulated with this version of the software, a whole bunch of aspects of Vista's desktop searching functionality have been turned on or improved, but the reality is that none of what's talked about is something you can see or try, so I'll leave that for when Windows desktop search gets further along. 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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