Last weekend, I was prepping this review, which I originally envisioned as a single document, similar to my preview two CTP reviews. However, by the time I had installed build 5270 on Monday, I realized there was no way I could condense this thing into a single document. There's just too much going on in build 5270. While that made life a bit difficult for me, it speaks well to the improvements Microsoft has made to the product, and I've been happy to document my experiences with this build here. It hasn't always been this pleasant, believe me.

In this fourth and final part of my Windows Vista build 5270 review, I'll touch on a few additional topics that I didn't cover in the previous installments, look ahead to the next CTP, and provide some closing thoughts.

For further investigation

Many new features fall into the category of topics I'd like to address at a later time because they need more attention. Media Center is like that, as is the Super Fetch memory caching feature. Here are a few more I've been thinking about.

The Windows Vista December CTP includes a number of changes that won't be immediately apparent, though many of them are useful. For example, thanks to feedback from the IT administrator community, this build sports the ability to prevent users in a managed environment from attached USB-based storage devices such as USB memory keys, external hard drives, and MP3 players, to the system, thanks to new Group Policy (GP) capabilities. Why would you want to do this? Many admins are afraid that users will take company data home with them on such devices, and either lose them, or do something malicious with the information.

While it's not immediately obvious how one might access these GP capabilities, Microsoft recently published a slew of documentation called the Windows Vista Step-by-Step Guides for IT Professionals. Check them out for more information.

There are other hard-to-find improvements. Microsoft has added a client-side version of the Volume Shadow Copy (VSC) service, which first debuted in Windows Server 2003. This excellent feature allows you to revert a folder, document or other file back to a previous version if you inadvertently make an editing mistake or want to get back to an older copy. In Vista, this feature is simply called Previous Versions, and it's accessed from the Properties dialog of any disk, folder, or file.

The virtual folder structure has changed dramatically in build 5270 and, in fact, barely resembles its former self. Much of the changes have made the system simpler to navigate, and much less confusing overall, but performance is still a concern, as is the sheer number of ways in which you can organize files. It's bound to be confusing to some people.

The Vista user interface has also been simplified. In build 5270, you get Aero Glass or Aero Basic, depending on whether you have a Windows Driver Model (WDM) driver for your graphics chipset, and you can opt into the ugly old Windows 2000 theme if you want. But finding all the spread out display-related configuration options is difficult. You can right-click the desktop and choose "Personalize Computer," but can't get to an XP-like Display Properties dialog without really jumping through some hoops. Even then, there's no way (in this build at least) to manually jump down to Aero Basic if you want. That said, Aero Basic just doesn't look as nice as XP to me. Shouldn't it be at least as nice looking?

User Account Protection (UAP) used to ask for a password every time it needed your authorization to do anything, but now it simply asks you to permit it to continue when you perform certain actions. Is this still secure? And why are the Permit dialogs so vaguely worded? Run DLL as an App means nothing to me.

No Sidebar, again.

Looking ahead

Windows Vista build 5270 isn't perfect, but it's a huge step up in a number of areas when compared with previous builds, including feature-set, stability, and fit and finish. Looking ahead, things are going to get even better. This week, Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin waxed enthusiastic in an email message to the Windows client team about the wonders of build 5286, a version of Vista that post-dates 5270 by over two weeks. "All I can say is ... wow," Allchin wrote. "This product is going to blow people away ... I am sitting here listening to Clapton, managing 4,000 photos, browsing the Internet, doing email, using search, playing with sync between PCs, etc. -- all at the same time. The [out of box experience] was cool (even with all its current issues). And on and on. The Windows team is back -- and it's smokin'!" Allchin, of course, plans to retire as soon as Vista is completed. I suspect he's as happy as anyone that the product is finally starting to show signs of life.

By the end of December, Microsoft will integrate all of the expected Windows Vista functionality into what the company is calling a feature-complete build of the product. This build, which will only be delivered internally and isn't guaranteed to work at all, will mark the first time that the many disparate teams of people working on Windows Vista will submit their work for a single, unified build. In a recent briefing with the Windows client team, I was told that it would take Microsoft an expected one to two months to take the feature complete Vista build and turn it into something that actually works and can be distributed to testers.

"It's going to take a long time to get some of that stuff working," Microsoft lead product manager Greg Sullivan told me. "That's part of the cost of accelerating the code complete date. The next CTP after December will be whenever the code gets to the point where it meets our quality standards. It will be feature complete, but we're giving ourselves a bit of wiggle room to be able to check in something else towards the end of the process. Nothing is absolute. We reserve the right to add a feature later. But we are shooting for code complete this month."

Since talking to Sullivan, I've found out that Microsoft expects to deliver the next CTP in February 2006. That CTP will be the first given to testers that includes all of the features that Microsoft intends to include in the final version of the product. That said, Microsoft does reserve the right to change things in the upcoming several months before launch if needed.

Availability

Windows Vista build 5270 is being made available as the December 2005 CTP to Microsoft Technology Adoption Program (TAP) partners, technical beta testers, Microsoft MVPs, and MSDN and TechNet subscribers. The build will not be made generally available to the public. However, a future CTP, or perhaps Beta 2, will be made available to the public for free download, or ordering via DVD.

Conclusions

Honestly, it's been a long time since I've felt this good about Windows Vista. I can see sweeping improvements across the board and, perhaps more important, a level of fit and finish that had never been present in pre-release versions of this product before. No, build 5270 isn't perfect. There are still performance issues, missing drivers, various UI issues, and other bugs. It refuses to come out of Sleep on certain systems. But if you had asked me a few months ago whether Microsoft could possibly deliver this thing in time for Q3 2006, I would have just laughed. Today, I'm not so sure, and while the next few months will provide the final drama as Microsoft preps feature-complete versions of Vista, build 5270 suggests that perhaps things are on track after all.

One issue Microsoft is going to have to work hard to overcome is how closely parts of this product resemble Mac OS X. These similarities go beyond surface UI coincidences and extend into bundled applications like Windows Calendar, which very closely emulate similar Apple products in both look and feel and functionality. While the typical Windows user probably won't care that Apple "did it first" (or even whether it's even true), more experienced users will feel cheated by these similarities. There are overt examples of innovation in Vista, however, such as the visual media library in Windows Media Player, which should both satisfy complaints and give Apple something to emulate as well. Indeed, it will be interesting to see what Apple comes up with for its next OS X release, codenamed Leopard.

Ultimately, Windows Vista will not be the evolutionary release that Microsoft first promised, but will rather offer an evolutionary upgrade that rewards your Windows experience and skill and offers concrete and obvious improvements over today's Windows versions. Vista will be more secure and more elegant looking than XP, and will provide a productivity-enhancing shell and a raft of features that most Windows users will find valuable. Blockbuster? I can't say for sure, but it's certainly a bigger upgrade than was XP in its day.

In any event, build 5270 is a huge milestone on the long and winding road that is the development of Windows Vista. If you're lucky enough to have this build, enjoy it. Things are only going to get better.