5 min read

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 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the latest Windows security updates, that have reduced security configuration settings, or whose virus signatures are out of date will be turned away until those problems have been corrected.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.