A picture-perfect Vista?

Maybe not, but there’s a lot to like about Microsoft’s forthcoming operating system, including a snazzy user interface, stronger security and improved network features

Reviewing beta software is tricky. The reviewer looks at all the neat features the vendor promised to deliver. But as reviewers, we can’t slam software for shortcomings that we presume the company will correct in the final release. That’s why the FCW test center rarely looks at beta software.

But when the software is the next major version of Microsoft Windows, we figure it’s important to give a preview of what the company plans to deliver. This early look at the Vista operating system focuses on its promised features and capabilities. We’ll postpone coverage of Vista’s problematic features and capabilities until its final release.

In this preview, we look at some aspects of Vista that primarily interest users and other aspects that mostly interest technical employees. As with any major new operating system, Vista’s features and capabilities are too numerous to preview in depth. We highlight several that we found interesting.

The most obvious changes in the new version of Microsoft Windows involve the user interface. Those changes are so extensive that Microsoft gave a name to the new interface: Aero. Some of the new interface features are more aesthetic than functional, but we found that many of the enhancements increase productivity.

Aero makes extensive use of transparency effects when you move and arrange windows and other screen elements. We found the effects often make it easier to keep track of elements on the screen. And they are kind of fun.

One of the slickest effects is Windows Flip3D. Hold down the Windows key on your keyboard, press on the Tab key and watch the desktop display a 3-D view of the windows you have open. Click Tab until the window you want is on top and watch it pop up front and center.

We also like the new gadget bar, a translucent strip along the right side of the display. The user-configurable gadget bar displays the utilities that you want to keep at hand, such as a calculator or stock watcher. We were most impressed with the analog clock that lets you read the time at a glance, even if you can’t find your reading glasses. Microsoft has made the Start menu work more efficiently by eliminating the old mushrooming list of files. The new menu works more like a browser window.

The one interface feature about which we’re still scratching our heads is the Live Preview that pops up when you scroll your mouse over an item on the task bar. The preview is large enough to be distracting but too small to let you see much of anything. Some time later, however, we discovered a Favorite Links section on the navigation panel that works just like Bookmarks in a Web browser. It’s simple to drag a folder, including network shared folders, to the links section for quick access.

Easier exploring
We weren’t immediate fans of the new Windows Explorer. We found it difficult to navigate drives and the network, and we couldn’t find a way to change the default directory so it would open to a selected location when it launched. Then we discovered that you could add any drive or directory to the Favorite Links panel just like you add bookmarks in your Web browser. It’s a simple and effective feature.

We were also impressed with the new search capabilities that Microsoft provides. The search field in the upper right-hand corner of the Explorer window lets you choose between a local search on your computer and an Internet search. You can specify search parameters, such as exact matches. If you’re searching only your computer, the search is incredibly fast because Vista indexes all content. At first, we thought the search utility was returning spurious hits, until we realized that it returned some e-mail messages because of matches in attached files.

Vista will ship with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7.0 Web browser. Microsoft has improved its browser by adding features that other browsers have had for some time. The single most-asked-for feature, according to Microsoft, is tabbed browsing, which lets you go to additional Web sites without opening a new browser window each time.

We fully approve of Microsoft putting IE7 in its own sandbox. Anything entering your system via Vista’s Internet Explorer can’t go beyond its temporary directories without your approval.

Many users will also appreciate the new version of Windows Media Player in Vista. The interface of Version 11 has not changed much, but the program now includes new search tools and support for photo and video management.

Another new feature is more of a nuisance. Windows Media Player supports a content-protection scheme that could get in the way of many law-abiding users. If you want to play commercial DVDs on your computer, for example, you might have to download, at extra cost, a third-party codec.

Enterprise focus on security
Vista’s slick interface will elicit oohs and ahs, but the operating system’s security improvements and network features will determine whether information technology managers push their agencies to adopt Vista.

Microsoft has put much effort into securing this release of Windows, but it will be some time before we learn how effective they have been. Hackers and virus writers will be searching for vulnerabilities to exploit. No doubt they will find some, but Microsoft seems to be making the right moves.

Many of those moves are relatively hidden from users. Vista’s architecture, for example, makes it easier to integrate third-party authentication technologies, such as smart cards. Vista offers Authentication Manager applets on the client. That feature, along with Vista’s support for eXtensible Rights Markup Language, means that developers will be able to fine-tune user access to digital content.

Vista also provides detailed audit categories for agencies that need to track user access to systems and services.

No doubt vulnerabilities in Microsoft Vista will appear before the new operating system ships. But Microsoft has gone a long way toward plugging one of the most common vulnerabilities simply by employing context-sensitive user roles.

Using previous versions of Windows, many of us simply log on as a user with administrative privileges. If we didn’t do that, we would have to back out and log on again repeatedly simply to run a few programs, install software or use certain utilities. But logging on with administrative privileges is a dangerous practice. If anyone hacks into the computer, or if you acquire a Trojan horse while you’re logged on as an administrator, you’ve given the hacker a free pass to all of your computer’s resources.

Vista partially solves that problem with user account control. You can be logged on as an administrator, but until you need administrator privileges, Vista will treat you as a regular user. If you try to access anything that requires administrator privileges, Vista will prompt you for permission. It’s a simple but effective measure.

Walls make better neighbors
Microsoft has enhanced security in other areas. Vista’s built-in firewall tools are unlikely to satisfy the needs of government agencies, but they are welcome improvements. The software firewall offers two basic profiles: one for private computers and another for computers on public networks. The rules for the former are much less restrictive than for the latter. The new firewall is more configurable than firewalls in previous versions of Windows, but it still does not match the configurability of most high-end hardware firewalls.

Vista has a number of other security enhancements, including Windows Defender, Microsoft’s new anti-spyware tool. We found Windows Defender easy to configure and effective.

Looking under the hood, we found more improvements. Vista employs a new TCP/IP stack that is more secure than the stack in earlier Windows versions. Routing compartments and tables will be more difficult to crack and corrupt, Microsoft officials said. Vista’s packet-filtering application program interfaces are designed to create more secure networks.

Vista’s implementation of IPsec lets administrators establish more effective security policies and distribute them across the network. We also like the implementation of domain and server isolation in the IPsec model. We have not been able to fully test those features in the beta code, but we like the direction in which we see Vista moving.

Another welcome feature is Vista’s implementation of network access protection. The Network Access Protection service in Vista lets administrators specify requirements for clients to connect to the network. Those requirements, for example, may call for clients to have up-to-date antivirus signatures and security updates for applications. If the client doesn’t have them, Vista denies access.

Another new feature lets system administrators control the use of removable storage devices, such as USB flash devices, via Group Policy settings.

New network savvy
In addition to enhanced security, Vista promises to ease network management headaches for IT employees and users. We found significantly fewer dropped network connections and lost network resources when we used the Vista client on our Windows Server 2003 domain than we did with Windows XP clients. The Vista Network Center made it easier to monitor and manage network connections and repair connections when a problem arose.

We were impressed with Vista’s new tools for mobile workers. The Sync Center, for example, provides a centralized location for synchronizing data on mobile devices with your desktop data. Unfortunately, the Sync Center doesn’t replace third-party synching software. It simply provides centralized access. Devices that use Windows Mobile software will continue to use Windows Mobile Device Center to synchronize devices, but you can monitor device status through the Sync Center.

Vista supports more efficient corporate roaming and off-line file management. Rather than copying files to a local computer, administrators can use group policies to give users selective access to data and applications stored on servers, regardless of the client they are using.

Behind the scenes, Vista supports dual-layer IP stacks. If IPv4 is the only IP available on your network, the Vista client will use that. But if the newer IPv6 is available, the client will automatically switch to that. One significant advantage of IPv6 is that it makes Network Address Translation unnecessary.

The bottom line
If your office is standardized on Windows, it’s going to be hard to resist upgrading to Vista. The security enhancements are reason enough to upgrade. The promised — and in the beta version, partially implemented — improved network connectivity and management are the added cream on top. Finally, Windows users will inevitably lobby to get the new interface.

We will provide a full review of Vista when Microsoft makes its final code available, which will probably be in January 2007. Assuming the commercial product fulfills the promise of the beta, most agencies and departments should prepare to upgrade.

Vista awaits performance enhancements

As with security, we’ll have to wait for code that is ready to ship before we get a realistic picture of Vista’s performance. As expected, we found a number of problems with performance in the beta software of Microsoft’s next Windows version. Booting the operating system is painfully slow. After a period of use, some processes in Vista slow markedly. Multiple mouse clicks are required when a single click should suffice. We expect Microsoft to solve those problems, but we’ll have to wait and see how fast Vista will be.

Vista contains a few technologies that could help its performance. Superfetch, for example, is a memory management technology that tracks which applications users employ most often and preloads them into memory for quicker access. ReadyBoost lets you use your USB 2.0 drive, secure digital card or other memory device as a cache for the operating system. Vista’s ReadyDrive supports hybrid hard disks, which use magnetic disks and flash memory for storage. We will test the effect of these technologies on performance when we have Vista’s final code.

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