After years of silence and doubts, Microsoft's Windows Vista project is finally moving ahead with confidence. In September, Microsoft released its first Community Technical Preview (CTP) version of Windows Vista (see my review), a post-Beta 1 (or, depending on your perspective, a pre-Beta 2) interim build of the next Windows version. But the company also announced that it would be releasing monthly CTP builds going forward. Today, Microsoft delivered the second CTP build, also called the October 2005 CTP, or build 5231.

Like its predecessor, build 5231 doesn't feature the fit and finish or build quality one might expect from a true beta release. It's seriously performance challenged, and has issues with many hardware devices and applications. But it does come with a number of new features, including--for the first time--a fully functioning version of Windows Media Player (WMP) 11, the Vista version of Media Center, a new Network Center, and other features that weren't available in previous builds. For this reason, build 5231 is eminently interesting, and a marked improvement over build 5219, despite its many flaws. No, you won't want to run this puppy as your full-time OS. But it's still worth a look.

What's new in build 5231

Though the basic UI hasn't changed in this build, much has changed, both large and small. We have major new applications like Windows Media Player 11 and Windows Digital Gallery, major updates to existing functionality, such as the new Media Center and Tablet PC features, and hints of things to come, including the first reference to Windows DVD Maker. In this section, I'll examine the new features that really set this build apart from Beta 1 (see my review) and build 5219.

Windows Media Player 11

I've been waiting for months to write about Windows Media Player 11 (WMP 11), and now that it's out in a publicly available release, I can finally let you know how wonderful it is. While it's inconceivable that Microsoft can do anything about the popularity and success of Apple's iTunes and iTunes Music Store, WMP 11 is a huge leap forward compared to previous WMP versions, eliminating much of the complexity we've come to expect from Microsoft's bloated Media Player offerings. But the biggest news in WMP 11 isn't that it's simpler. In WMP 11, Microsoft has taken the notion of a media library and turned it completely on its head. If you thought you needed Media Center to get a visual look at your music collection, think again.

The basic WMP UI is intact, though things have been simplified dramatically. A new control pad sits in the center of the base of the player (Figure) (which will be made translucent in later builds--this revelation was later verified by Microsoft's Sean Alexander), and this control pad motif is replicated in other Vista applications, including Windows Digital Gallery and Windows Picture and Fax Viewer (see below). The menu bar, optional in WMP 10, is now gone for good, and the options you'd access there have been moved to various other places. In lieu of the toolbar buttons found in WMP 10, WMP 11 utilizes a row of tabs similar to those found in Office 11. When you just click a tab, like Now Playing, you are brought to that part of the UI, and in this manner, the tabs work just like the toolbar buttons in WMP 10. But when you mouse-over tabs in WMP 11, you can see that there is a drop-down menu associated with each tab (Figure). These menus give you additional choices (Figure), including access to the all-important Options dialog (Figure).

The tabs themselves give you a few different default options that what we're used to in WMP 10. Library has been replaced by Browse, for example, and Guide is now Windows Media Player. That latter option, incidentally, appears to be empty in this build but will eventually guide users to services such as Napster and MSN Music.

The WMP 11 media library--which is accessible from the Browse tab--displays albums, songs, and artists with big, bold album art graphics, yet it does so with a speed and snappiness that will both surprise and excite (Figure). Whether your library includes 10,000 songs or 100, you'll notice smooth scrolling and instant responsiveness. And in a nod towards Windows Vista's new file system organizational system, you can sort and group music in the library using stacks (Figure). And as you drill into these stacks, their contents are displayed in a gorgeous stack-up view (Figure).

Media Center

Let me be clear here. I love Media Center. I mean, it's not perfect, and I've certainly had my issues with it, but Media Center is good stuff. That said, Microsoft has apparently screwed up the version of Media Center they're intending to include with Windows Vista. It is a complete disaster in this build.

How can I even begin to express how awful Media Center Vista is? They've taken a UI that was iPod simple and turned it into the functional equivalent of the control panel in a 727 airplane. What was once beautiful and elegant is now bloated and ugly. What was once easy to use is now indecipherable. And what was once something to brag about is now something to be ashamed of.

And God help the Microsoftie who has the gall to suggest to me that this user interface passed muster in any sort of usability test. I absolutely refuse to believe that any sane human being would look at this and think that it's not just OK but better than previous Media Center versions. It's ugly, busy, and bloated.

Again, let me be clear. I hate the new Media Center in Vista. I just freaking hate it. Microsoft, what have you wrought??

OK, you're probably thinking that I'm exaggerating. Or maybe I just don't "get" the new UI. I'd like to try and convince you that neither of those assumptions is correct. No, Microsoft has completely dropped the ball here. And unless they dramatically change things, Media Center will become a joke, and not the crown jewel of Microsoft's user interface designs.

Let's take a look at Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 compared to what I'm calling Media Center Vista (there won't be any dedicated Media Center Edition in the Vista product family) to understand the problem. On the left, we have XP Media Center. On the right, Media Center Vista.

 

See the difference? The XP version is simple, functional and attractive. The Vista version is ugly, crowded, and indecipherable. But a single screenshot can't really describe the horrible abuse of trust that Microsoft had engineered with this release. No, you have to really dig into the various experiences in Media Center to understand how bad this really is. Yeah, it gets worse.

Let's look at music, which is a typical Media Center experience. In XP Media Center, you're presented with a wonderful simple view of your ripped CD albums, complete with album art, all nicely arranged vertically. On the left, we see a very simple menu, with choices for viewing content by Artist, Playlists, Songs, and Genres. There's a Search choice as well (Figure).

And then there's Vista Media Center. Instead of the simplicity and beauty, we get ... ah... a jumbled mess of album art, arranged horizontally, not vertically (Figure). As you scroll and highlight new albums, the name of the album and artist, and the number of tracks, appears on the bottom of the screen. OK, fine. But how do you find the other options, such as view by Artist? You have to navigate up, above the album art grid, which for some unknown reason causes a weird tilting and fading of the album art grid (Figure), and then move horizontally to choose, in turn, artists, genres, songs by title, and composers. This UI was clearly taken from the lackluster Portable Media Center devices (see my review), which I think is a mistake. Anyway, each choice actually has sub-choices. Yes, I'm serious. If you select the albums by title option, you'll then have to navigate through a sub-menu that includes albums by title, by artist, by year, by provider (eh?), and by date added (Figure). Seriously.

And where are my playlists? Where are the freaking playlists?? Turns out they're on the Media Center home page. That's right, you can access music playlists from there, but not from an obvious and central location in the Music section of the UI. Can I get a giant "duh," please?

This complexity carries on throughout the Media Center UI. About the only thing they got right--and this one, frankly, is very cool--is the way that Media Center now handles playing TV or video when you're navigating around the UI. You may recall that in XP Media Center Edition, if you navigate to the Guide, home page, or other section of the Media Center UI, the playing video moves to a small window in the corner of the screen. In Media Center Vista, the playing video (or photo slideshow) is superimposed over the back of the current screen (Figure). The effect is simply wonderful.

And that's that. Microsoft is killing Media Center by making it too complex and too ugly. It's a shame. Please, Microsoft, I'm begging you. Don't let this happen.

Windows Digital Gallery and Windows Picture and Fax Viewer

Though it's still in an early state, it's clear that the new Windows Digital Gallery is an attempt to provide an iPhoto for Windows. It's based on Microsoft Digital Image Suite (DIS) 2006 Library, and provides photo library management capabilities and very simple photo editing tools. The library management is broken in this build--the photo thumbnails don't display (Figure)--but the editing stuff appears to work pretty well.

You'll notice immediately that the control pad at the bottom of Windows Digital Gallery is very similar to that in WMP 11; it's centered in the bottom of the application's window and offers quick access to common tasks like changing the thumbnail size, navigating forward and back through the picture collection, starting a slideshow, and undoing previous edits. Like DIS 2006 Library, Windows Digital Gallery can manage both pictures and videos, but includes no video editing functionality. It can also import photos from cameras and scanners using the--I kid you not--Windows Photo Import Experience--and burn CDs and DVDs, though that latter function is broken in this build because DVD Maker is not yet present (Figure).

When you enter the Fix Picture section of this application, you're provided with simple image editing capabilities such as Auto Adjust, and a number of fine-tuning controls for brightness, contrast, color temperature, and tint (Figure). What's nice is that if you choose Auto Adjust, it will show you how it changed the other settings, so you can tweak the adjustment from there.

Taking a cue from DIS 2006 Library, you can also tag images or groups of images with meta data such as ratings, captions, and custom tags (Figure). The printing functionality has also been improved pretty dramatically since XP with a variety of photo-friendly options (Figure).

The Windows Picture and Fax Viewer application has also been updated to resemble Windows Digital Gallery visually, and it includes a similar control pad in its bottom center (Figure). Windows Picture and Fax Viewer is invoked by default when you double-click an image file in the shell or from within Digital Gallery.

Mobility Center

Users with portable computers will notice an interesting new applet in Control Panel called Mobility Center (Figure). This little doohickey, which resembles the sort of bizarre notebook management applications that most PC makers already bundle with their wares, provides access to some of the most commonly-needed mobile features, such as display properties, volume, batteries, wireless connections, external displays, and synchronizable devices.

Network Center

Client networking has been completely rewritten in Windows Vista, and now in build 5231, we get to see the new networking front end for the first time. Dubbed Network Center, this new applet provides a handy front-end for all your networking configuration needs. It bears a suspicious similarity to the client-side tools Microsoft provided with its excellent (but sadly now discontinued) networking products (see my review).

Because of the importance of Network Center, it gets a new tray icon that is always available. Double-clicking this icon brings you directly to the Network Center application (Figure), while right-clicking it reveals a pop-up menu that provides access to connecting/disconnecting from network connections, Network Center, and Computers and Devices (see below) (Figure). Basically, this icon is a replacement for the (sometimes multiple) network connection icons we're familiar with (and loath) in XP.

Network Center provides a visual representation of your connectivity, a list of the available network connections, and a list of common options ("Connect to work," "Create an ad hoc network," and so on), most of which are currently unavailable. On the left side of the window is a list of related links, such as Computers and Devices, Network map (broken), Saved networks, and Adapters and connections (Figure); that last option is the Network Connections replacement.

There's a lot going on here, but since half of it isn't working yet, I'll reserve a longer discussion of this feature for my Beta 2 review.

Computers and Devices

This new UI construct replaces both My Network Places and Network Neighborhood, while adding the ability to interface with networked computers and various other network-based devices, including network media players, routers, and wireless access points. Right now, there's not much to say: I don't have any network media players to test yet, and the basic UI seems to start with a folder for each network interface. It's hard to say, though, since they're generically named (Figure).

Numerous new Internet Explorer 7 features

At PDC 2005, Microsoft promised a number of interesting new features for Internet Explorer 7 and now, in build 5231, we can finally use them. The sheer number of improvements here is staggering, especially when you consider the features, like the Phishing Filter, that we already discovered in previous builds. On top of all this, the Internet Options dialog is finally getting the once-over (Figure), with features starting to move around to more logical locations. This dialog is accessed from a new Tools toolbar button, as there's no more menu bar in IE.

Regarding new features, IE 7 now includes ActiveX Opt-In, which reduces the attack surface of your PC by preventing IE from downloading or utilizing ActiveX controls without your express permission. Also, in Windows Vista, IE 7 runs in a new secure mode called Protected Mode that actually lowers the security privileges of the browser to below that of even the typical limited user. This feature prevents the browser--or more important, any malicious code that attacks your system through the browser--from doing anything dangerous. In fact, IE 7 can only write directly to the Temporary Internet Files directory now, preventing it from doing just about anything malicious. If this features works as well as expected, it could finally erase all of my IE 7 security qualms.

IE 7 now integrates with Vista's parental controls, helping you configure the browser to behave appropriately when used by children. Meanwhile, a new Favorites Center (Figure) segregates the monolithic Favorites menu from previous IE version into three new areas: Favorites, History, and Web feeds. Favorites Center is exposed as an Explorer Bar of sorts, located on the left side of the browser, but it slides out over the browser pane and doesn't resize the display. The Web feeds option refers to RSS-based Web subscriptions, a new IE 7 feature we learned about this spring. Now, Web feeds are stored in a new Feeds folder, and not in Favorites, as was the case in Beta 1 (Figure). When you subscribe to a Web feed, IE prompts you to enable automatic updating (which is the point of a Web feed, of course).

Microsoft may have been late to the game with tabbed browsing, but give them credit for really examining the feature and looking for ways to make it better: A new feature called Quick Tabs lets you view all of your open tabs as thumbnails inside the main IE window (Figure). You can also group tabs into groups called Tab Groups, which can be saved as a single favorite (a la Mozilla Firefox) (Figure).

Though we don't yet have the fidelity of high-DPI displays, the new Page Zoom feature makes it easier than ever to zoom in and out of Web pages, so that you can adjust the display to your liking (Figure). As Microsoft notes, this feature will also be a boon to the visually impaired.

Finally, this version of IE 7 improves yet again on the wonderful new printing features we first saw in Beta 1 with multi-page print previews (Figure), and a default option that only prints the text that's currently selected in the browser (Figure). After years of neglect, IE's printing features are suddenly first class. Bravo.

Antispyware coming soon, and other client security features

For the first time in an external Windows Vista build, we can see how Microsoft's bundling of Windows Antispyware will show up in the system. There's a link in Security Center (Figure) that suggests it will eventually be very much integrated. But the actual application is nowhere to be found. Note the addition of another interesting security option in Security Center: General Security, which indicates whether critical security settings are set to a secure state.

Also, though User Account Protection (UAP) is still in there, it appears that Microsoft is going a less-aggressive route with requiring admin access. Instead of having to logon all the time now, you see a dialog that essentially asks you if you're sure you want to perform that potentially horrible action (Figure). I need to speak with Microsoft before I can say what's changed exactly. But I'd be shocked to discover that they're backing down from UAP.

New power management functionality

Though the actual power management states--Sleep, Hibernation, and so on--haven't changed in this build, Microsoft tells me that it has improved the reliability of these states. The details aren't yet clear, but the company tells me that it has reduced the number of ways applications, services, and drivers can "veto" the system's transition into power management states, raising reliability. I'm not even sure how I'd test this, but over the next few weeks, I'll examine how this build reacts to sleep and hibernation requests.

In the meantime, the power management UI has improved since the previous CTP build. Notebook and Tablet PC users will see the suddenly familiar white power management icon in the tray, which displays a status dialog when you mouse over it (Figure). But the Power Options dialog is completely different in the build (Figure), with a new layout that offers basic and advanced (Figure) views. As attractive as this dialog is, it's not as usable as the previous version, as you need to expand multiple nodes in a tree control in order to access options that were previously all visible at once (Figure). Ah well.

Improved volume control

Over two years ago, I provided an advance look at the new volume control Microsoft was designing for Windows Vista, and now we're finally seeing it in a Vista build for the first time (Figure). Here's the idea: In the past, the Windows volume control was essentially a one-size-fits-all scenario, with no way to customize the sound output from various sources from a single location. Now, in Windows Vista, that's changed: You can configure each application or service that outputs sound independently. So, for example, it will eventually be possible to, say, mute all sound but that coming from Windows Media Player. Expect this feature to improve dramatically in future builds.

Other notes

The installation routine for build 5231 appears to be identical to previous builds. Performance is absolutely pathetic: On an Athlon 3400+ system with 2 GB of RAM and a high-end video card, the system often slows to a crawl. This is a bit different than previous builds, so I can only assume it's an issue unique to this build. Driver support is still lousy too, though I've seen some improvements on the ThinkPad system I've dedicated to Vista: the ATI Radeon Mobility X300 video card is now completely supported, and the integrated wireless works for the first time on that machine. I'm told that driver support will improve dramatically at Beta 2 (December 2005).

Application compatibility seems to be about on par with 5219: I loaded up my "always install" applications on a ThinkPad and got exactly the same results as I did with the previous CTP build. One exception: Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, which wasn't available when I installed 5219, would not install on 5231, reporting that the application was designed for XP or XP Media Center only.

The user interface has seen a few small tweaks. When you copy or move files, you're given a cute little preview cursor that indicates what you're about to do when you let go of the mouse button (Figure). Vista still doesn't pop drag target windows to the top, however, as does Mac OS X, which is an extremely useful feature. And photos and videos have wisely been given their own discrete folders (Pictures and Videos, respectively), rather than the previous scheme of including them together in a single folder.

There are lots of visual UI glitches in this build. On one system, My Computer comes up as a blank window. On one of two notebook installs I tried, application setup windows randomly come up blank. It's hard to pin down how and why these things happen, and the results seem to vary from machine to machine. Explorer seems to crash quite frequently as well (Figure). Hey, it's an interim build after all.

Looking ahead

By definition, build 5231--the October 2005 CTP--is just one step along the long road to the final release of Windows Vista. As such, it includes numerous features that are half-realized and will change dramatically before next year. Microsoft noted that features like Windows Media Player 11, Migration Wizard, Power Management Center, Windows AntiSpyware, and Windows Calendar will all change in the coming CTPs. Also, some major features, like the Sidebar, Windows Gadgets, and Windows DVD Maker are not yet present in this build. Stay tuned. It's all starting to come together.

Availability

Microsoft tells me that it will ship Windows Vista Build 5231 (Community Technical Preview 2) to technical beta testers, and MSDN and TechNet subscribers, on Monday, October 17, 2005 at 8:00 am PST. Given the company's past issues deploying these releases to MSDN and TechNet especially, it might be later in the day or week for some customers. Build 5231 will not be made generally available to the public, as it is aimed primarily at developers, IT professionals and the technical community.

Conclusions

Windows Vista Build 5231 (Community Technical Preview 2) could have been horrible and I'd still be happy about it, because we're finally getting regular Windows Vista builds. That build 5231 is not horrible, and includes a number of exciting new features, is just the frosting on the cake. After a rough beginning and a particularly bad 2004-2005, Windows Vista is finally on track. And that's good news for all Windows users, not to mention Microsoft, which, let's face it, desperately needs some good news on the client side. This month, build 5231 is that good news. I hope things continue this smoothly going forward. So far, so good.