The first beta of Microsoft's Windows Vista clearly shows where the operating system is headed. Rather than a dramatic departure from Windows XP, Vista seems to refine the OS with sharper graphics and improved search and security. The new interface and other changes are definitely for the better, but some aspects of Vista - including its Virtual Folders - are a bit puzzling. Described by company executives as "a plumbing release" containing only about half the features users will receive in the shipping version (still said to be on track for rollout in late 2006), Build 5112, aka Beta 1, was released on July 27 to 10,000 technical testers, with an additional half million IT pros and developers gaining access to the code (if not to tech support) via their respective Microsoft support groups.
Vista's got the look Quite simply, the new OS looks cool. Vista's "aero glass" see-through window frames and green liquid-like progress bars resemble effects that Mac users have enjoyed for years. Vista's icons are representational: A document's icon is an image of that particular document, a file folder containing documents looks like a folder with papers inside - and the top-paper icon is an image of the first document in that folder.
The ubiquitous standard application menu bar (the one with the File, Edit, View, and other menus) that traditionally appears just under the window frame has been relocated in Windows Vista and is now below the address bar - or dispensed with entirely. An additional menu bar in Windows Explorer provides several new options, such as the Aero theme's slider control that lets you enlarge or shrink icons. Navigating to a file or folder is much easier because folder names in the Address bar (for example, 'Administrator>Virtual Folders>Favourite Music') are now buttons you can click to go to that folder. Or you can jump straight to any subfolder by clicking the arrow and then choosing the folder from a drop-down menu. Finally, a preview pane at the bottom of the window provides information about the selected item; the kind of info varies by file type. You can alter the size and location of the preview pane, or hide it.
Security is job one Microsoft is trying hard to overcome people's resistance to upgrading by proving that with Vista, things have changed. Based on my experience with Beta 1, the results of that effort remain to be seen. The most striking security innovation is the new Limited User account: A Limited User cannot install applications, but can perform routine tasks such as installing a new printer driver.
A reviewer's guide promises a host of new security and reliability features - for example, the abilities to detect imminent component failure and recommend responses such as immediate data backup, as well as to detect during startup whether a system has been tampered with. Many of these features - along with improvements in deployment, troubleshooting and management - are directed at IT departments, but are sure to benefit users, too.
Search in context Context-sensitive search windows appear everywhere in Vista. The Start menu, which in most respects looks much like its counterpart in XP (and can be reset to resemble the old Windows 95/98 Start menu), provides a small search field at the bottom. Start typing, and Vista replaces items in the menu's left column with the names of the programs on your PC that best match your search term. Alternatively, click All Programs, and the left pane lists your programs. If they can't all fit, a scroll bar appears - and it is much easier to navigate than the three or four splayed columns you see on XP's All Programs menu.
You'll also find search fields located to the right of the Address bar in Windows Explorer. In the beta, the Windows Explorer search appears to index only file metadata, the same information you can view (and sometimes edit or enter) in XP by right-clicking a file and choosing Properties. Microsoft says that the shipping version will offer more search capabilities. Click the Search icon on the Start menu to open the new Search Center, which allows you to perform multiple layers of filtered searches.
Windows Vista's Virtual Folders find documents even when you aren't searching for them by dynamically updating the results of a saved search when you click the folder. This feature will be available for all Windows applications once Microsoft implements the WinFS file system that was originally slated for Vista. Until then, however, no third-party apps will be able to take full advantage of Windows Vista's search capabilities. Microsoft preinstalled several Virtual Folders in Beta 1, but some are confusing: The Documents folder replaces My Documents, but there's also a Virtual All Documents folder with different content. The Music and Pictures shortcuts on the Start menu point to Virtual Folders, not to the Music and Pictures subfolders of the Documents folder.
Missing completely from the beta are support for Tablet and Media Center PCs, and a promised new version of Windows Media Player. We anticipate seeing more of these items as future builds surface. The next milestones on the road to release are Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in September, and Beta 2, which may be made available to the general public (but for which no release date has been announced). Clearly a work in progress, Windows Vista may not be a revolutionary departure from XP - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. If the OS delivers on Microsoft's ambitious promises, especially for security and reliability, PC users won't care whether they're getting a complete overhaul or a simple renovation.
Two new Internet Explorers Along with Beta 1 of Windows Vista, Microsoft has produced not one but two beta versions of Internet Explorer 7 - one for Windows XP, and one in the Vista beta. The most exciting (and long overdue) innovation in both is tabbed browsing, which lets you open multiple Web pages in one browser window. You switch between the pages by clicking tabs in the IE 7 window. (The free MSN Search Toolbar adds tabs to IE 6.) Tabs have long been in Opera, and they're an attraction in Mozilla Firefox.
Another nice addition in the IE 7 betas is a search text box positioned to the right of the Address bar. Microsoft has also improved IE's printing capabilities with a good Print Preview function that lets you resize the page prior to printing. Microsoft's promised support for RSS feeds - which are confusingly called both Feeds and Web Feeds - appears in rudimentary form as a button with radio waves emanating from a point. The grayed-out graphic turns red on sites that have correctly tagged RSS feeds; clicking a feed displays its contents as a Web page. You can subscribe to the feed by adding it to your Favourites, but there's no mechanism for knowing when a feed has been updated: You have to keep checking the bookmarked page.
IE 7 for Windows XP (but not for Windows Vista) also contains the first iteration of a new Phishing Filter that identifies suspected and confirmed phishing sites (websites that try to get your personal information by masquerading as well-known legitimate sites such as those for PayPal or a bank). Suspected sites are identified based on their behaviour; confirmed sites are those that appear on a constantly updated database that Microsoft is maintaining.
The company originally planned to upgrade IE only when it shipped Vista. But clearly in response to the growing popularity of Firefox and endless IE 6 vulnerability disclosures, Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, announced in February that a standalone version of IE 7 would be available by year's end for Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and XP Professional X64 Edition.
IE 7 isn't without annoyances. For example, the Forward and Back buttons are easy to find on the top left; but the Home button is on the menu bar, below the tabs, and the Refresh button is now to the right of the Address bar (it turns into a stop button while the page loads). Microsoft will likely address these issues before IE 7 ships.