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No Surprises With Vista--Thankfully

A report card on Build 6000, which Microsoft released to developers.

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The big surprise with the version of Vista that will be launched by Microsoft on Nov. 30 is that there are no surprises. Windows Vista RTM is far more solid than this summer's Beta 2 and the almost-but-not-quite-buttoned-down RC2 version released earlier this fall.

I put Build 6000--which Microsoft released to developers and is expected to closely track the retail version of Vista, going on sale in late January--through its paces. Here's a report card.

A mixed bag. The 64-bit version flummoxed my computer, which dovetails with reports that Microsoft is still working to add all the device drivers needed for full hardware compatibility. However, the 32-bit Vista DVD installed like a champ, loading from scratch in 42 minutes. I still had to muck around with my display settings, but Vista recognized my Nvidia GeForce 7300 graphics card and loaded the correct WDM driver it needs to run the Aero user interface.

Look and feel:
In previous reviews, I looked askance at Aero because I thought it elevated form over functionality. Now I'm more inclined to go with a McLuhan-esque twist and say that Aero's form is its functionality. Add to Aero the Flip 3D feature, which lets you rapidly scroll through your open apps, and you've got one fun and friendly user interface (though similar features are available on Mac OS X and some Linux distros).

Performance and Utility:
Vista appears faster and smoother than the RC2 version I examined in October and definitely performs better than July's Beta 2.

On the downside, saving large files remains slow. In terms of security, the User Account Controls continue to be idiotically intrusive. Microsoft still seems to be reading from the Transportation Security Administration's playbook. Do I really need to go through an extra "permission" dialog box to view my monitor's device properties?

Windows Sidebar provides quick access to Gadgets
(click image for larger view)

Windows Sidebar provides quick access to Gadgets
The only other big gripe I have is that for an operating system chock-full of accessories, Microsoft has done a strangely passive job of highlighting all the embedded features. Even the Media Center and Photo Gallery are pinned to the Start menu rather than pushed onto the default desktop. I recommend at initial startup a dialog box that invites users to get all these key features configured before passing "go."

Project management:
Sure, Vista's been horribly late, for reasons too well known and boring to regurgitate (short version: Microsoft's too darn big). But would we really have wanted the new Windows to hit the market amid the post-9/11 technology slump?

Struggle though I might, I couldn't find much significantly different from previous versions. Then it dawned on me: That's good, because it indicates that Microsoft's focus is no longer on look and feel but on the software guts required to keep Vista from crashing.

With Beta 2 and even RC2, I had the sense that Vista required constant vigilance to keep it properly tweaked. Now I'm ready to put Vista on my primary home office machine.

For businesses, and for CIOs charged with the decision about migrating to Vista, the three burning questions are these: Just how much better is Vista's security compared with XP's? What's the total cost of ownership? And how much more does Vista-capable hardware cost?

Early word is that Vista's security is indeed a big step up, notwithstanding the surface annoyance of the user account controls. On the TCO front, Microsoft's full-court press to build momentum for Vista, as well as Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 packages, likely will go a long way toward blunting Linux incursions onto the desktop. As for buy-in costs, I'm not the first reviewer to opine that, rather than rushing to Vista right out of the box, most businesses will migrate to Vista as part of their normal PC upgrade cycle.

The final verdict:
Vista's official release on Nov. 30 won't hold any big surprises. To paraphrase what the folks in Redmond used to say ad nauseam before previous product releases (they've thankfully retired the cliché), Vista is finally here because we customers are telling Microsoft that it is indeed ready.

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