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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.
I count 44 Control Panel applets in Vista build 5231. Windows XP SP2 on my main computer has 31 (not including OEM-specific controls). The new control panels include Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls. Some control panels have been renamed or recast. The Accessibility control panel, for example, is called Ease of Access in build 5231.

Control Panel now sports several new configuration applets, Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls.
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For more on Auxiliary Displays, check the October 2005 issue of Scot's Newsletter.

Throughout Vista's development cycle Microsoft has been messing with Control Panel applets, and some new ones have come and gone. It's too early to get serious about nailing down the configuration controls Microsoft will be adding to this version of Windows, but two areas are notable. The Mobility Center is a new Control Panel applet for portable computers that's designed to be one-stop-shopping for many of the things mobile users frequently need to control, such as configuration settings for LCD brightness, battery charge, wireless connections, external displays, and syncing. Many OEM notebook makers offer their own utilities that handle chores such as saving network-connection settings by location and managing external displays and presentation projectors. Mobility Center is barely even turned on and most of its settings areas are disabled in this build (at least, they are on my ThinkPad). So, again, it's too soon to comment. But the direction is interesting.

The new Mobility Center isn't hooked up yet, but it aims to be a mini Control Panel aimed at common mobile computing configuration tasks.
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One thing that is hooked up in Vista build 5231 is the power-management feature in the Power Options control panel. Although it's in need of a much better organized UI that displays the settings on something other than a blizzard of drop-down menus, Power Options' many settings are finally up to date, robust, and reflect the actual functions of today's (and tomorrow's) PCs and portables. Trust me, whatever you want to do in controlling power and systems based on battery or AC power, it's in there. And for the first time these features are working pretty reliably in Vista too.

The vastly expanded functionality of the Power Options control panel is a lot of new power looking for a more usable interface.
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Network Sharing

I'm skeptical about a set of features Microsoft has talked about for Vista: network sharing functionality. In the name of protecting us from ourselves, Windows XP made network sharing on a LAN so preposterously difficult at times that running a peer network (especially one that mixes wired and wireless networking) has become a black art instead of something you just do. Security became such a mantra at Microsoft that apparently the company forgot that people actually want to access data from anywhere on their small networks. What do I want to access? Oh, stuff on the desktop, stuff in My Documents. Horror of horrors, those things shouldn't be accessible!

Hooey. Security protections can be a lot smarter than they are in Windows XP. A lot of this starts with sharing, sharing permissions, sharing by account, and it's an absolute mess in XP. So when Microsoft tells us it's going to make sharing easier in Vista, you'll forgive me if I'm from Missouri (the Show Me state) on this one. Some of this new sharing functionality (or at least user interface) is visible here and there. But in the October CTP, networking is less functional than it was in the September CTP. Just one more thing that'll have to wait.

This appears to be an early placeholder, or one part of, the network sharing features Microsoft is intending to deliver.
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Looking Ahead

For more information about the October CTP straight from the horse's mouth, Microsoft released a Microsoft Windows Vista October Community Technology Preview Fact Sheet with build 5231.

Some of the things that Microsoft is still actively working on for future builds include Windows Media Player 11, a new Migration Wizard (for when you switch PCs), Windows AntiSpyware, and Windows Calendar. In terms of schedule, more than likely there'll be another pre-beta-2 CTP release in November. Beta 2 may be in the offing after that. That's how I read the tea leaves anyway.

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.