And just like that, we can suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel. All of our hopes, all of our worries, all of whatever feelings we may have for Windows Vista are hanging on the edge of a precipice. Will they ship it on time? Will they ever ship it? Does it even matter?

Increasingly, the actual ship date for Windows Vista does not matter, but not for the reasons you may suspect. Microsoft will ship Windows Vista exactly when they want to, according to the schedule they previously laid out. They're not delaying it any further, and after releasing the product to manufacturing in late October 2006, businesses can expect to get it via volume licensing in November, followed by consumers and general availability in late January 2007.

Before any of that can happen, however, we have a final milestone to cross. It's called Release Candidate 1 (RC1) and I expect to be writing a lengthy review of that build--currently slated as build 5552, though of course these things change regularly on an ongoing basis--sometime in about two weeks. For now, however, we have the next best thing, a pre-RC1 interim build, 5536, that offers a peek at many of the best changes Microsoft has made to Windows Vista since the lackluster Beta 2 build.

Windows Vista build 5536, by contrast, is a humdinger.

I've been like a bipolar pit bull when it comes to Windows Vista lately. Some builds have been fantastic (at least compared to what came previously). Some have been positively embarrassingly bad. I just spent the past three weeks in France with two Windows Vista-based notebooks and it was like being imprisoned with vipers in the dark: I never knew when I was going to be bit. Windows Vista build 5472, the previous milestone testers received, was, shall we say, performance challenged. There were weird issues deleting desktop files. There was a Recent Items entry in the Start Menu that, curiously, did not actually contain recently accessed items. It was, in short, a bit disappointing.

Windows Vista build 5536, again, is a humdinger.

What's new in build 5536?

So what's new in 5536, you ask? Performance is better, even much better. (Though the three times performance improvement baloney you might have read elsewhere is not only impossible but untrue.) It does a much better job of finding and correctly installing device drivers: On my main desktop, even the sound driver worked automatically after the first Windows Update run, a first.

Microsoft's fledgling Windows Live services have been integrated, annoyingly, into the system. On the good news front, this "integration" isn't as technically silly as what the company did earlier with such components as Internet Explorer and Windows Messenger. But it is equally annoying.

Instead of installing various Windows Live components by default--which would have been a bad move, not just for antitrust reasons, but because of their constantly updating nature--Microsoft is including numerous shortcuts to various Windows Live services throughout the system. In Welcome Center, for example, there is a new "Offers from Microsoft" section that includes no fewer than seven icons for Microsoft services, five of which are Windows Live services: "Go online to learn about Windows Live," "Download Windows Live Toolbar," "Sign up for Windows Live OneCare" (which, naturally, doesn't work during the beta anyway), "Go online to Windows Marketplace," "Download Windows Live Mail Desktop," "Download Windows Live Messenger," and "Sign up online for technical support."

Additionally, there is an item called "Windows Live Messenger Download" right in the default Start Menu. As expected, clicking this item launches Internet Explorer, which navigates to the Windows Live Messenger download page online. Unexpectedly, once you download and install Windows Live Messenger, the "Windows Live Messenger Download" link remains in your Start Menu. Silly.

And speaking of Internet Explorer, the most annoying aspect of the Windows Live integration in Vista occurs in everyone's favorite new Web browser: My default, IE 7 launches with two home pages, one in each tab. The first and topmost home page is MSN.com, just like before. But the secondary page displays the Windows Live Search site. Big deal, right? The problem is that by opening two tabs at startup, Microsoft is ensuring that most users--i.e. "normal people"--will see an annoying "Do you want to close all tabs?" alert dialog every time they close IE. That's just wrong.

(This isn't really notable per se, but IE's About dialog still uses the "Internet Explorer 7+" naming that Microsoft says it is dropping.)

User Account Control (UAC) has been dramatically improved and let me be among the first to throw out a hearty "thank you" to the UAC team for that. Now, instead of the stunningly annoying "pop" that used to occur every time one of the UAC alert dialogs appeared, the transition is smooth and there is a soft, almost enjoyable, beep sound. This is literally the first time I didn't reach for the "remove UAC" option after installing a recent Vista build. Bravo.

Special shell folders like Documents, Pictures, Favorites, and Music (but not, curiously, the still second rate Videos) are now color coded in greenish blue to differentiate them from other folders (which are still yellowish). Saved searches are also differentiated, using a soft blue color.

Windows Update now prompts you to install Microsoft Update so that you can get updates for other Microsoft products, like Microsoft Office, directly through Windows Update. If you click on this link, you're brought to a Web page, which you have to click a single OK box, and then you're done. Simple.

There's a new shortcut to the Program Compatibility Wizard on the desktop, so you can try and make Vista-unaware applications work properly. Microsoft warns, however, that you should not use this wizard-based application with older virus detection, backup, or system programs. The problem is, many users won't understand what that means. What, exactly, is a "system" program?

Windows Media Center shows, perhaps, the biggest performance improvement of any Vista component. The application almost pops to life and, using the "Express" setup option, can be in use almost immediately. I won't be trying to put Media Center on my family's Media Center PC again until RC1 hits, but it's clear that something wonderful has happened here.

In the Personalize section of Control Panel, there are a number of major improvements. First, when you right-click the desktop, you'll see that the Personalize option has a new icon next to it, making it more prominent and obvious. In Windows Color and Appearance, the default color schemes now have simple color names (Default, Graphite, Blue, Teal, Red, Orange, Pink, and, my favorite, Frost). In Desktop Background, all of the background types (Black and White, Light Auras, etc.) are together in a single list; you no longer have to choose between each type.

As I had hoped, Microsoft augmented the Windows Aero mouse pointer with large and extra large variants. Now if they could just ship black versions too, it would be perfect.

The "shield" icon you see in the system tray for Windows Security Alerts can now be colored yellow or red, depending on the level of warning it's trying to communicate. For example, the lack of virus protection now rates a yellow warning, and not the more risky red alert.

There's probably more, but I don't want to take away too much from my upcoming RC1 review, and to be fair, I've only been working with the build since last night. (Too, I just spent an entire day traveling back from France, so I hope it's understandable that this is necessarily short.)

Conclusions

There's no doubt about it: Windows Vista has taken too long to ship, and the first major milestone that Microsoft shipped to the public, Beta 2, was a disappointment. Since then, the company has shipped three promising interim builds to testers. The latest one, build 5536, an RC1 escrow build, is simply wonderful. If this build represents the quality, performance, and functionality that users can expect to see in RC1 and the final release, then Microsoft will have gone a long way towards making up for its mistakes and miscalculations. My only question is why we had to wait so long to see a build this good. If you can get your hands on 5536, enjoy it. If not, RC1 will be publicly available. Either way, you likely won't be disappointed.