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Review: Windows Vista (Almost) Beta 2

The latest 'Community Technology Preview' of Vista isn't quite Beta 2 yet, but it's a big improvement: speed is up, the Sidebar is back, and new features such as Live Thumbnails, Flip 3D, and peer-to-peer MeetingSpace are making their appearance.
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.