Little more than a month after issuing a bug-laden Windows Vista Beta 2 (see my review), Microsoft has shipped its first post-Beta 2 interim build of the next Windows and it makes up a lot of lost ground. Indeed, it's hard not to view this build and not believe that Microsoft is absolutely back on track.

Though there are few major changes in build 5456, which, despite the naming convention used on its desktop, is part of the release candidate (RC) build tree, and not a direct successor to Beta 2. But we shouldn't expect major changes at this stage: After all, Windows Vista was mostly feature complete as far back as February 2006. But what we get in build 5456 is dramatic improvement in reliability, usability, performance, and fit and finish. It is, quite simply, the build Microsoft should have shipped as Beta 2 to millions of people around the world. This build is so much better than Beta 2, in fact, that I'm begging the company to offer it to everyone that signed up for the public beta through the Community Public Preview (CPP).

So what's changed? Like I said, it's all small stuff. But details count, and here's what you can expect to see in this build if you're lucky enough to get it:

Dramatically improved Setup speed. Long ago, Microsoft promised that Windows Vista would install in about 20 minutes, but we've seen nothing even close to that throughout the beta. While Windows Vista build 5456 doesn't quite achieve the 20 minute mark, it did install in just 30 minutes on my primary desktop, which is quite a bit better than before.

Slightly smarter networking. The first time you boot up into build 5456, it sets up the network as a public network rather than ask you if its public or private. Then, you have the option of changing it to private if that's what the network is (and it likely is if you just installed Vista).

Much faster network browsing. In Beta 2, waiting for Windows Vista to load your list of networked computers and shares was painfully slow. That's all been fixed in build 5456: Now, you're networking resources pop-up immediately, making the Network icon suddenly useful again.

Network and Sharing Center. The old Network Center has been renamed and prettied up. That's good, because Network Center was a UI disaster. Hopefully, with a few more tweaks, they can get this one right.

Switch between programs is back. Previously pre-release versions of Windows Vista included a Quick Launch icon that would trigger the cool Flip 3D task switcher, which can be handy for those without a Windows Key on their keyboard (Flip 3D is normally triggered by tapping Windows Key + Alt). Well, it's back in build 5456. Nice!

Aero performance warning. When you view the color scheme portion of Control Panel, Vista now warns you that utilizing Windows Aero's translucency effects might impact the performance of your PC. If you turn off translucency, the warning goes away.

New icons and branding all around. Microsoft hasn't yet placed the final boot screen in build 5456, but a number of other areas have received new icons or branding icons. The Welcome Screen and Secure Desktop now identify which version of Windows Vista (Ultimate, etc.) you're running. And throughout the Start Menu, Control Panel, and other on-screen locations, you'll see plenty of new icons.

Performance improvements. Throughout the system, Windows Vista is much speedier than was Beta 2. The best example of this is with Microsoft Word 2003: In Beta 2, the first time you saved any document, the application would slow to a crawl and you could watch the saving animation occur in super slow motion. It's still a bit slow in build 5456, but now you don't have time to go get coffee. In fact, the whole thing takes only 2-3 seconds. This is about 10 times faster than it was in Beta 2. I'm not saying the whole system is ten times faster, of course. But there is a general speediness about Vista that was simply lacking in Beta 2.

DVD Maker no longer quits if you don't insert a blank DVD, which I always found annoying and unnecessary.

Windows Movie Maker was updated to the new Vista look and feel with a new black toolbar and menu bar area. It doesn't appear to have been given any major functional improvements, however.

Windows Photo Gallery was substantially updated with new prebuilt tags and a restyled toolbar.

Windows Update has been integrated with Windows Ultimate Extras, which is nice, but where is Microsoft Update integration? When I install Microsoft Office 2003, Windows Update doesn't automatically download Office 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), as it should. I assume this will be fixed at some point.

List view is back!! Thanks to numerous complaints from users, Microsoft has returned List view to its rightful place in the Explorer view styles. Now if they'd just return Filmstrip and XP-style folder views as well, I could stop complaining about the shell.

Internet Explorer 7. IE 7 picks up drag and drop tabs, which is nifty.

Windows Aero mouse cursor!! There's a new high-resolution mouse pointer that uses Windows Aero display technology (presumably): It's not turned on by default, but it's beautiful, with no more jaggy edges. Check it out.

There's probably a lot more, but that's what I've found in a few hours of noodling around with the system while installing all of my applications and data. I won't be providing a full review of this build, but will instead continue reviewing Beta 2, adding information about this build to that review where necessary. But the important point here is that, for the first time in a long, long time, Windows Vista looks really good. This is what I had hoped to see in the public release, and it's a good omen for RC1.

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