As promised, Microsoft delivered an interim build of Windows Vista--build 5219--to attendees of the Professional Developers Conference (PDC 2005) in mid-September 2005. That build, which later went out to technical beta testers (and will reportedly be given to MSDN subscribers as well), represents an interesting but incomplete look at the progress Microsoft has made since July's Beta 1 release. Microsoft is also referring to this build as Windows Vista Community Technical Preview (CTP 1), or as the September 2005 CTP. That notation is important: There will be an October 2005 CTP as well, and likely a November CTP. The goal is for monthly builds from here on out, and public monthly builds beginning with Beta 2 in December. Now that's transparency.

As I first reported in my showcase, Windows Vista Product Editions Preview, Microsoft has heady plans for future Windows Vista builds, including DVD video authoring and Movie Maker HD publishing features, advanced photography functionality, and Windows Media Player 11, among other things. Build 5219 has none of these features. However, it does feature a number of improvements over Beta 1. In this review, we'll examine the delta between this build and Beta 1.

Build 5219: What's new?

As an interim build of Windows Vista that exists on the Beta 2 code tree and is thus a superset of the functionality we saw in Beta 1, build 5219 offers new features, but is also a bit rough around its virtual edges. Here are some of the new features found in this build, broken down by category.

Desktop and shell

Just booting into build 5219, you can see a number of functional and aesthetic changes. The taskbar in this build is now translucent--compared to an opaque black color in Beta 1--and more elegant looking. That translucency won't help you get work done more quickly, but it does hint at fit and finish improvements to come. The taskbar improvements don't end with this simple graphical change, however. When you mouse over the taskbar buttons of running tasks, a new taskbar preview window pops-up (Figure), giving you a nice visual reminder of the underlying window. What about when the taskbar is grouping buttons? Why, the pop-up stacks up, of course (Figure).

Copy and move operations are much smoother in build 5219 than they were in Beta 1. For example, I often had problems dragging and dropping before, and had to resort to Copy/Cut and Paste instead. Now, everything works properly.

Task switching has also improved, and in two different ways no less. The typical ALT+TAB key combination, which switches you between running tasks, has changed to a more visual presentation, codenamed Flip, that previews the contents of each application's window as you navigate through the list. There is also a second new kind of task switching, codenamed Flip 3D, which is instantiated by hitting Windows Key + Spacebar; this style of task switching open windows in a stacked, three-dimensional view that appears to have been lifted wholeheartedly from Sun's Project Looking Glass, an advanced UI effort that will result in a future Linux and Solaris interface. No matter its origins, Flip 3D is cool looking (Figure).

Help, though still woefully incomplete, does offer more information and is even occasionally (very occasionally) helpful (Figure). Tray icons and other UI elements now display a new rounded balloon help pop-up (Figure). Instead of cryptic desktop clean-up options like Tile Windows Horizontally and Tile Windows Vertically (as in XP), build 5219 now offers simpler options such as Show Windows Stacked and Show Windows Side by Side (Figure).

Windows Sidebar

As I first reported two months ago (much to the software giant's chagrin), Microsoft has completely overhauled the Sidebar from early Longhorn alpha builds and has reintroduced it into the Windows Vista code tree. Though it's not enabled by default in build 5219, you can turn this feature on pretty easily, so I did so (Figure).

There's a lot more here, but I'll be writing a lot more about Windows Sidebar soon. Stay tuned for a preview showcase that will highlight all the new information about the Sidebar, Sidebar Gadgets, and Windows XP compatibility.

Internet Explorer 7

Microsoft has made significant improvements to Internet Explorer (IE) 7 since Beta 1 and more are planned for future builds (Figure). At PDC 2005, Microsoft announced a new IE 7 feature called ActiveX Opt-In, which should answer the number one concern most security-conscious people (including myself) have with IE today: Many ActiveX controls are unsafe, have been silently installed on users' systems, and are often quite difficult to remove. With ActiveX Opt-in, the only ActiveX controls that will run in Web pages are the ones you OK. High-volume, trusted ActiveX controls such as Flash will of course be allowed automatically.

As with the Windows Sidebar, IE 7 is feature-rich and deserves more coverage. I'll be providing a second IE 7 Preview shortly that will cover the new IE 7 features more comprehensively.

Ultimate Edition features: Media Center and Tablet PC

Windows Vista build 5219 reports that it is Windows Vista Ultimate Edition--see my Windows Vista Product Editions Preview for more information about the various product editions, or SKUs, that Microsoft plans for this release. That means that it includes both Media Center and Tablet PC functionality. (In Windows Vista, there will no longer be Media Center and Tablet PC Editions of the product.)

I have a lot more to say about the Media Center and Tablet PC functionality in Windows Vista, mostly because there are some new features in each when compared to today's shipping versions of XP Media Center Edition 2005 and XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, respectively, but I'll cover that in a future showcase.

Premium games

Build 5219 also includes a peek at some of the new premium games that Microsoft will include in the Home Premium, Ultimate, and all business editions of Windows Vista. These games include new versions of a number of old favorites, but also new games such as Chess, Purple Place, and Shanghai. The icons for each title are all new (Figure) as well.

The new Chess game (or Chess Titans as its sometimes called) it actually a 3D chess version (Figure) that can be played at various skill levels, using different board and piece designs, and against a computer or human opponent.

Purble Place meanwhile, is aimed specifically at young children and features bright, large graphics (Figure). It's designed to help children recognize colors, shapes, math, and patterns. There are actually two mini-games within this title, Build-A-Purble (Figure) and Comfy Cakes (Figure).

Shanghai (Figure) is one of my all-time favorite games, and I've actually purchased various versions of this title for different computing systems over the years. (It's sometimes called Shanghai Solitaire.) You can choose from different board designs (Figure) and various tile sets and backgrounds. Successful tile removals are celebrated with a little poof animation. It's quite nice.

As for the classic Windows titles, they've all gotten a nice makeover. FreeCell (Figure), Hearts (Figure), Solitaire (Figure) and Spider Solitaire (Figure) now sport the same gorgeous backgrounds and card styles. Even Minesweeper looks sweet (Figure).

New productivity applications and services

In Windows Vista, Microsoft will be dramatically improving some of the baseline productivity features of the Windows OS. That means, among other things, that the system will include a consolidated contacts store that the company expects all email and related solutions to use or synchronize with, and a new Windows Calendar, similar to Apple's iCal, that, among other things, lets you publish your schedule to standard ICS (Internet Calendar System) format and even to RSS (Real Simple Syndication) (Figure). I'm told that future versions of the Windows Calendar will be even more full-featured than the version found in build 5219. Certainly, that won't be hard: This version doesn't even let you create new events or tasks, and the only available view is 7-day.

Windows Backup (codenamed SafeDocs) has been overhauled since Beta 1 (Figure). You can configure a backup schedule now, specify where that backup will be written to (CD/DVD, local disks, shared folders on network drives), and specify which files to back up (Figure).

Windows Vista build 5219 also includes an integrated Shadow Copy client, which you manage from the Shadow Copies tab of the Properties dialog for your hard drive (Figure). This feature, which first originated in Windows Server 2003, lets you cache older versions of data files so that you can recover information in the event of an error. So if you overwrite a critical file, or inadvertently change part of a document, you can "go back in time" and access older versions.

Let's see how this works. First, you need to enable Shadow Copies from the aforementioned dialog. Then, after you've mucked up a file, you can access its Properties dialog in Explorer and navigate to the Previous Versions pane (Figure). Here, you can select between various different versions of the document (and your time travel experience is complete). This is a great feature, and I'm glad to see it being added to the Windows client.

Security

In Beta 1, User Account Protection (UAP) was disabled by default, but you could enable it with a Start menu icon. In build 5219, that situation is reversed: UAP is on by default, and you can still disable it, though I'd imagine the graphical option to do so will be removed later in the beta cycle. Here's what's odd. Unlike in Beta 1, UAP doesn't really pop up all that often for some reason. In fact, it kind of makes me wonder whether it's really working at all. I've been able to perform a number of admin-level tasks without needing to logon in build 5219.

The Parental Controls functionality is basically carried over from Beta 1, but with a nicer-looking interface (Figure).

Performance

In build 5219, Microsoft has enabled a new Windows Vista feature called Super Fetch, which examines your system over time, determines which applications you most typically load, and then preloads code from those apps in order to later speed application launch times and responsiveness. Super Fetch isn't just about caching, however. In a potentially blockbuster move, this feature will also let you use USB-based flash memory sticks as additional RAM for Super Fetch. That's right, folks: Stick in a 1 GB USB stick and you get 1 GB (or whatever) of super-fast cache RAM (encrypted for security) and an instant speed boost. I don't yet know a lot about this feature, but suffice to say I'm expecting a briefing soon. This could be revolutionary, especially for notebook users who can't easily boost RAM (or do so at all).

Drivers and hardware compatibility

From a driver and hardware compatibility standpoint, build 5219 doesn't appear to offer any improvements over Beta 1. The same problematic devices still cause issues in this build, in my experience, and after installing the build on several machines, I feel relatively sure that Microsoft hasn't yet made any hardware compatibility headway. This is absolutely not a problem for an interim build like this, though it would be disheartening to still have these issues in Beta 2, now due on December 7.

What hasn't changed

The data visualization and organization features from Beta 1 appear to have moved forward unchanged in build 5219, which is fine, since they worked quite well previously. There are still a few display issues with stacks--for example, album stacks in Music still display incorrectly (with stock Windows Media Player icons), though differently than they did in Beta 1 (where the album art used was almost always incorrect). Again, since we're seeing a snapshot of Vista development that isn't guaranteed to pass certain quality bars, this is not an issue at all.

The Start Menu and Control Panel appear to have not changed. The build still includes Windows Media Player 10, and Sync Center is still completely dysfunctional, as it was in Beta 1. The Recycle Bin still displays wadded up paper balls even after you empty it, though you can hit F5 to refresh the desktop and fix the icon to appear empty (just like Beta 1).

The power management pop-ups, which confusingly offer decidedly different views depending on whether you mouse-over the tray icon (Figure), single-click it (Figure), or right-click it (Figure), doesn't appear to have changed.

Software compatibility is as woeful in build 5219 as it was in Beta 1. In fact, software compatibility on the 32-bit version of build 5219 is roughly comparable to software compatibility on the 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional (x64 Edition). That's a cute way of saying that it sucks. I tried to install my expansive list of gotta-have-it applications on this build with mixed results. Standard, well-written applications like Microsoft Office 2003 installed without question, and even updated themselves through Microsoft Update. I was also able to install Adobe Photoshop Elements 3, Adobe Reader 7, Google Desktop, Apple iTunes, Microsoft AntiSpyware, Microsoft Digital Image Suite 10, Mozilla Firefox 1.0.6, Napster, Nero 6.6, Google Picasa 2, Apple QuickTime Player Pro 7, SecureZIP 8, and SnagIt 6 without any issues.

The list of applications that wouldn't install, however, is quite long as well. Diskeeper 9 was missing in action, as were the Microsoft PowerToys TweakUI and Command Line Here, Microsoft Virtual PC 2004, and ZoneAlarm Security Suite. Some of these, obviously, are pretty crucial. Your mileage may vary, depending on which apps you use.

Conclusions

If you consider the time before Windows Vista Beta 1 as a wasteland of inactivity, as I do, then you'll likewise be pleased to hear that we're entering a brand new era of monthly builds, each of which will add new features and functionality. These interim builds, of which build 5219 is the first, will not provide the fit and finish one might expect of a major milestone like Beta 1, but that's OK. In fact, I'd much rather get rougher but more frequent builds than have to wait several months between major beta releases. Taken in this light, Windows Vista build 5219 is exactly what it should be: A functional and demonstrable improvement over the Beta 1 feature-set. In other words, Windows Vista is finally real and finally on the fast track toward completion. We're going to see regular progress, and we're going to see regular improvements, and build 5219 is just the beginning. At the height of my disappointment over the WinHEC 2005 build (see my review), I described Windows Vista as "a train wreck." Now, my earlier assessment is no longer accurate and Microsoft has turned things around admirably.

That said, Windows Vista build 5219 is not appropriate for the casual user and it certainly shouldn't be considered as a candidate for a daily-use OS. The hardware support is still abysmal, and the feature set is still sorely lacking. Numerous applications will not install. As we get closer to Beta 2, these issues should improve, and dramatically. When that happens, finally, Windows Vista will be ready for a much broader audience. Finally, I can say with confidence that we're well on the way.