I've been working with pre-release versions of Windows Vista for, well, years now, and in recent month, it's been interesting to watch as Microsoft has made tremendous gains in both hardware and software compatibility. In this part of my Windows Vista Beta 2 review, I'll focus on the level of compatibility you expect in this milestone release, using my own hardware devices and must-have software applications as examples. Overall, Vista's compatibility is excellent, though work will be ongoing for the rest of the year to make things even better. As you might expect, there are still some issues, and depending on your needs, the inability to access a particularly important hardware device or application will make Vista Beta 2 a non-starter for many people.

Hardware Compatibility

As someone who has to install Windows over and over again because of the work I do, I can say with some degree of certainty that there is little in life as satisfying as a clean Device Manager. What I mean by this is that completing Windows Setup is only the beginning of a full Windows installation: Once Windows is up and running, the next step is to ensure that all of your hardware devices are recognized and working properly. You do this with Device Manager.

In Windows XP and previous Windows versions, Device Manager was easy to get to: You opened up the Start Menu, right-clicked My Computer, chose Properties, and then navigated to the Hardware tab in the System Properties dialog. Windows Vista, go figure, adds an extra step because, ahem, Microsoft likes to keep people on their toes. Now, the System information window appears when you choose Properties from the Computer right-click menu (Figure), and if you want to get to the old System Properties dialog, and thus to Device Manager, you have to choose Advanced System Settings from the task list of that window. Fortunately, things proceed similarly to XP from that point on, though of course you'll need to navigate through a User Account Control (UAC) dialog to get there (see my showcase on User Account Control for more information).

Anyway. Device Manager is pretty straightforward. What you get is a nice listing of the hardware devices in your system, and if they're all working correctly--that is, all of them have working device drivers that enable Windows to interact with them--the Device Manager can be described as "clean," with no errors or issues. However, that's not generally how most Device Managers look after Windows Setup installs. Instead, you will typically see a list of "banged out" devices--i.e. devices that include a yellow exclamation point, or bang, next to them (Figure). These devices are not installed correctly, and to get them working, you'll need to install devices drivers. There two basic ways to get drivers installed in Windows today: Via EXE-style setup routines, or via INF-based routines that you trigger directly from within Device Manager. (Increasingly, Windows Update is a good source for drivers as well; this will become more prominent in the Windows Vista timeframe.)

Windows Vista, like Windows XP, generally comes up for the first time with a number of banged out devices, depending on the hardware configuration. I've been installing Vista builds on up to five different PCs depending on the build, but for purposes of this review, I'll focus on my two most-often-used machines, a x64-based desktop and an Intel Pentium M-based notebook, to give you an idea of what to expect.

The desktop, an HP a640n, includes a 2.2 GHz AMD Athlon-64 processor 3400+ (single core) with 2 GB of RAM, ATI Radeon X800 XL (AGP-based) graphics with 256 MB of RAM, a 250 GB ATA hard drive, an integrated 9-in-1 memory card reader, a dual layer DVD burner, various USB and Firewire ports, and integrated AC'97-based audio. It's pretty much your basic PC desktop, though I've upgraded some components over the past year and a half, and I have a nice 1920 x 1200 widescreen HDTV display.

The notebook is an 18-month-old Dell Latitude D810 with a 2 GHz Pentium M processor, 1 GB of RAM, ATI X600 Mobility graphics with 128 MB of RAM and driving a 1680 x 1050 widescreen display, a 60 GB IDE hard drive, and a CD-RW/DVD combo drive. It's connected to a docking station with external speakers, and a HP scanner. On both systems, I print via a network-attached Dell laser printer. There are numerous other PCs available for networking, via both domains and workgroups, a Media Center PC, an Xbox 360, and various other devices.

The most obvious thing to note about device compatibility out of the box is that about 50 percent of Windows Vista Beta 2 installs do not install sound card drivers out of the box, regardless of the system. (Reader feedback on this issue has been fascinating: Some report no problems at all. For others, sound never works.) You can discover whether sound works without opening Device Manager, however, as you'll see that the volume icon in the system tray has a red "x" through it if its not working. On most of my test machines, including the notebook, I've been able to get sound drivers installed through Windows Update, which is pleasant. But on the desktop, I need to install XP drivers, which seem to work fine. (Be sure to use the absolute latest drivers. In previous Vista builds installing XP drivers was problematic; that's usually not the case anymore.)

There are always going to be compatibility issues with a new OS, of course. I couldn't get the Dell printer to work via Dell's installer routine, for example. I even tried copying the install files from my application install network share to the local desktop so I could use Vista's compatibility mode to fool the setup application into thinking my PC was running Windows XP (Figure). It didn't work.

The HP scanner was the cause of even more excitement. After failing to install HP's silly set of scanner applications (which include the device's driver), I figured I'd let Vista try to install the drivers itself. The Vista driver installation procedure is ponderous, but it usually does the job. The scanner, however, proved to be its master. First, you get a Found New Hardware dialog (Figure), which lets you determine how you'd like to install the hardware device it just discovered. I chose the recommended option (Locate and install driver software) first, just in case it actually worked. It didn't, so it prompted me to insert the disc that came with the device. I pointed the wizard to the appropriate network share, watched as it found the correct driver (Figure) and then waited. Bang! The system crashed to the BIOS and rebooted.

Oh, the fun we have. After booting back in Vista, I was curious to see if the scanner would actually work. (Hey, you never know.) The scanner actually did appear in Scanners and Cameras in the Control Panel, but I can't scan with it. And when I press one of the buttons on the scanner, an empty dialog pops up. While fooling around with the Scanners and Cameras portion of Control Panel, I actually triggered a traditional Windows Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), which, frankly, you don't see very frequently in Vista.

Now, I'm obviously singling out the hardware that didn't work here. The truth is that most hardware does work fine with Windows Vista, assuming you're running the 32-bit version. Users of the x64 versions of Windows Vista are going to be in for a nasty surprise, however, because of limitations Microsoft has imposed on that platform for reliability reasons. (See my Windows Vista 64-Bit (x64) Support showcase for more information.) The situation (on both traditional 32-bit systems and x64) will certainly improve over time.

Software Compatibility

Software compatibility is, of course, another sticking point. As I discovered during an ill-fated attempt to start using Windows XP Professional x64 Edition (see my preview and mini-review), nothing halts an OS migration faster than discovering that applications you require every day won't work. Such, sadly, is the case with Windows Vista Beta 2, though the situation has already improved dramatically since the early CTP (Community Technical Preview) builds.

There are two facets to Vista software compatibility that need to be called out. The first, a technique that Microsoft also employed in Windows XP, involves writing software "shims" for specific applications and application types, in order to fool them into working in Windows Vista. The problem is that a lot of application installers and applications are written to work with specific Windows versions (i.e. with "Windows XP" instead of "Windows XP and newer") and they need to be gently prodded to work correctly. There are also the standard manual compatibility modes, which sometimes work. Both of these are a continuation of work that began in Windows XP.

The second method Microsoft uses to get legacy applications working in Windows Vista is a bit more brilliant, mostly because of the way its implemented. Here's an example: When you try to install the latest iPod software from Apple, the installer initially balks because it's designed to work only with Windows 2000 and XP (Figure). Then something happens that still makes me smile every time I see it: The Program Compatibility Assistant appears, notes that you seem to be having trouble installing an application, and asks if you'd like to try again (Figure). If you choose to reinstall, the application will install correctly. Every single time. It's a joy.

But here's why this is so classic. Microsoft could have simply designed this thing to work silently under the covers, fixing recalcitrant application installers without your knowledge. In fact, I bet some people will argue that it should work that way. But by calling out what it's doing in this fashion, Microsoft is explicitly telling customers, "Hey, Windows Vista is a new operating system. It's different from Windows XP. And while this old application really shouldn't work on Windows Vista, we're going to make it work, just for you." It actually gives you the feeling that you're using something new and wonderful, and reinforces your decision to take a chance on the Next Big Thing. It's almost Apple-like in its reassuring smugness, and I love it. I hope they don't make it work automatically, I really do.

My software compatibility checklist

Anyway, you're probably curious about the success rate of application installs on Windows Vista. As with hardware, I can't provide a complete list of application compatibility for Beta 2, but what I can do is run down the list of applications I always install on a new Windows box and see how my most frequently-needed software fares in this release. The prognosis, largely, is positive. Here's how my software installation checklist works out:

Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0
Works: Yes (with warning message)
Notes: Photoshop Elements 4.0 appears to work fine, if slowly at times, but there is a warning dialog stating that this program has known compatibility issues. You can choose to check for solutions (there are none right now) or just run the program.

Adobe Reader 7.x
Works: Yes

Apple iPod Setup (2006-03-23)
Works: Yes (After Program Compatibility Assistant intervention)
Notes: If you plug in an iPod, you'll need to actually run this application; otherwise, Windows will go into an infinite loop trying to detect and redetect the iPod. I can't get iTunes to recognize my iPod, however. So the whole thing is kind of a bust at this point.

Apple iTunes and QuickTime Pro 7.1
Works: Yes (with problems)
Notes: iTunes installs but behaves strangely. The desktop and Quick Launch toolbar icons for the application are blank and cannot be fixed. Performance is horrible, even more so that iTunes' usual problems. Both iTunes and QuickTime Pro are incompatible with the Windows Aero user interface; when they are running, Windows Vista reverts to the Windows Basic UI. (See below for more information.)

Diskeeper 10
Works: No
Notes: This application will not install, even with manual compatibility overrides. However, Windows Vista does have a built-in automatic disk defrag utility (that is based on Diskeeper code).
Update: Diskeeper Corp. is offering a free trial version of a Vista-compatible Diskeeper 10 from its Web site.

Flickr Uploadr 2.3
Works: Yes

LeechFTP
Works: Yes
Notes: This is an ancient FTP application that I use to upload images to my blog. I'm not sure why I still use it, as it hasn't be updated in years, but it does work pretty well.

Microsoft CMD Here PowerToy
Works: No
Notes: This application will not install, even with manual compatibility overrides.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006
Works: Yes
Notes: This application runs fine but the main application window will not render the normal Windows Aero chrome border (instead, it resembles the Windows Basic UI). Oddly, sub-windows do utilize Windows Aero.

Microsoft Office 2003/2007 (and OneNote, FrontPage 2003/SharePoint Web Designer 2007)
Works: Yes
Notes: Both Office 2003 and 2007 install and work normally in Windows Vista Beta 2, though Office 2003 has performance issues the first time you save any document. Starting with Office 2007 Beta 2, the Aero glass effects work properly in Office 2007 as well.

Microsoft TweakUI PowerToy
Works: No
Notes: This application will not install, even with manual compatibility overrides.

Microsoft Windows Live Messenger Beta
Works: Yes
Notes: As long as you have the latest beta version, this works fine. However, you can't update a previous version to the latest version from within Messenger. Just download the latest version and install that way. I have seen some performance issues related to Sharing Folders, so you might consider not using that feature.

Mozilla Firefox 1.5.0.3 with Netcraft Anti-Phishing Toolbar and Macromedia Flash
Works: Yes
Notes: Firefox works fine, as do the two Firefox adds-ons I always install.

Napster 3.6.0.7
Works: Yes (After Program Compatibility Assistant intervention)
Notes: Be sure to do a custom install. Napster wants to copy music files to C:\Users\[user name]\Documents\My Music by default, which is wrong: The My Music folder has been replaced by the Music folder, which is now located at C:\Users\[user name]\Music.

Nero 7 Ultra Edition
Works: No
Notes: This one fails silently during install. I'm told Nero 6 does work, but I haven't tried that yet.

PKWare Secure ZIP
Works: Yes

Slysoft AnyDVD
Works: Yes

TechSmith SnagIt 6.2 and 8.0
Works: Yes
Notes: SnagIt 6.2 is an ancient version of TechSmith's screen capture utility but I prefer it over newer versions because of its simple UI. That said, I just recently upgraded to SnagIt 8.0 and it works (and looks) great.

WinZIP 10
Works: Yes

Zone Alarm Security Suite
Works: No
Notes: No security suites will currently install on Windows Vista. To get around this, I installed the free trial version of eTrust EZ Antivirus, which installs and runs perfectly in Vista and satisfies the Security Center's need for an antivirus solution it can monitor.

Other software compatibility issues

There are a few more software compatibility issues that bear mentioning.

When an application (or even the shell) isn't responding in Windows Vista Beta 2, the application window (or, in the case of Explorer.exe, the entire desktop) becomes grayed out. You can then choose to end the application or wait for it to respond again. Except in rare cases, waiting usually works.

Some applications like Azureus (a BitTorrent client) and iTunes have display issues that prevent them from working properly with the high-end Windows Aero user interface ("glass"). In these cases, you'll see a warning dialog warning you of this and then the UI will switch to the Windows Basic look and feel (Figure). When you close the offending application, the UI switches back to Windows Aero.

One of the most frequent questions I get these days regards performance. Many people want to know whether Windows Vista performs well enough for day to day use. Correspondingly, many others are curious whether Vista Beta 2 is viable as their primary OS. The answer to both questions is a qualified no. Though I am in the process of switching to Vista Beta 2 as my primary OS, that's my job, and I'm only doing it so that I can by more knowledgeable about the system. Though Microsoft has made huge gains in compatibility, Vista is still not ready to be used as your sole OS, and should only be installed in a dual-boot situation with XP, or on a dedicated test system.

Performance, likewise, is sub-par, though to be fair, Microsoft hasn't done much performance work yet. That will come in the release candidate (RC) phase of Vista's development, which is underway now.

That said, Vista is maturing nicely, and while I anticipate some issues, I hope I'll be able to stay in Vista most of the time going forward. My advice to most people, however, is to test it but not get overly aggressive in trying to move to Vista entirely. You'll just end up missing the performance and compatibility of XP at this point.