As many of you probably know, I was away on vacation the week that Microsoft released the Windows Vista February CTP (Community Technical Preview), build 5308. I actually did try to get the build a few times from the road, but low-speed and low-quality connections thwarted those efforts. No matter: I grabbed build 5308 as soon as I got home, installed it on four PCs, and got busy.

My initial reaction was muted. Despite the promise of this build being the first feature-complete version of Windows Vista to make its way outside the ivory towers of Microsoft's Redmond campus, build 5308, at first glance, seemed an awful lot like the previous CTP. There didn't appear to be any major new features, and on my first few installs, I experienced the same driver issues as I had on previous CTPs.

Then I installed it on my main desktop. I had been hoping for a version of Windows Vista that I could run regularly for some time, and the past few CTPs certainly didn't fill that bill. But after installing build 5308 on my Athlon 64-based desktop, I was shocked to discover that the only device that needed a driver was the audio card, and I already had a Vista-compatible driver for that. Soon, for the first time ever, I had a completely working Vista system, with all devices accounted for. Could it be?

It could. Not only was the driver situation improved dramatically, but software compatibility has been improved as well, though I'll save that discussion for later in the review. For now, please understand that I was getting ready to be very negative about this build. I was prepared to be unimpressed. But Microsoft has pulled a fast one. The February CTP isn't just good, it's great. In fact, I'm feeling better about Windows Vista than I have in a long, long time.

A step back: Re-examining the CTPs

To understand what I mean, let's take a look back at all of the CTPs that Microsoft has shipped since last September. At the Professional Developers Conference (PDC 2005) in Los Angeles in September 2005, Microsoft delivered the first Vista CTP, build 5219 (see my review). I noted then that build 5219 was "interesting but incomplete," lacking features like Windows Media Player 11, Movie Maker HD and DVD Maker. Hardware compatibility was abysmal, and numerous applications wouldn't install. In short, I was happy to have a more recent build, but lots was missing.

The second CTP was released in October. This CTP, build 5231, featured serious performance issues, many new bundled applications, and, most depressingly, the Vista version of Media Center (see my review). In that build, Media Center Vista was a disaster. (They've improved it a lot since, but it's still a huge step down from the version in Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, which I'll discuss below.) The best news about 5231, of course, was that Microsoft shipped it so soon after the first CTP. Maybe the company was back on track after all.

Or not. In November, Microsoft elected to not deliver a CTP, and the company then pretended it didn't promise monthly builds. Ahem. In any event, after a bit of schedule reshuffling, the company shipped the December 2005 CTP, build 5270 (see my review). I was pretty happy with this version because it included marked improvements over the previous CTP, including a slightly revamped Media Center, and a number of subtle improvements that really changed the overall look and feel of the product, making it seem more refined. It still suffered from performance issues, missing drivers, various UI issues, and other bugs. But for the first time, things seemed on track again.

After that, the next CTP was set for February, with Microsoft promising the first feature-complete build. In late January, Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin sat down with me to discuss some of the changes that were coming (see my showcase) and talk up his favorite features. Honestly, I was happy to see things finally coming together, but it just seemed like Microsoft was spinning its wheels with Vista. Would this thing ever be done?

Build 5308 arrives

I want to be very clear here. Despite my initial misgivings, the February CTP is a major improvement over previous builds. Indeed, it is the first CTP that I can run regularly, as my main desktop. Suddenly, the impossible is possible. There's a lot to like here.

So much, in fact, that it's hard to know where to start. So let's start with what's new. If you look back at my review of the December CTP, you'll see that there were a wide number of improvements when compared to previous builds. The February CTP includes a similar number of improvements.

Here are a few examples. The installation and initial setup routines have been refined. The Welcome Center is now in place, if incomplete, providing a handy way to complete post-setup tasks, such as install drivers for hardware devices that weren't correctly configured. Most--but not all--of the bundled applications Microsoft plans to include in Vista are present and accounted for, including the Sidebar, Calendar, Windows Mail, and DVD Maker.

These are all important additions, and I'll look at each of them and more in part 3 of this review. But the biggest change, in my mind, is that Vista suddenly works. Yes, it's still a bit performance challenged--leisurely, if you will--but then, Microsoft has only just started doing the performance work that will continue well into the third quarter of this year. And yes, User Account Protection (UAP) is still present and as annoying as ever. But there have been some interesting changes under the hood that make Vista better than ever.

Take driver installation. In the past, getting XP drivers to install on Vista was hit or miss. If they were EXE-based (meaning you ran an installer rather than added them via Device Manager), you could sometime cajole an XP driver into installing by using a combination of Vista's Compatibility Mode and privilege level escalation. In the February CTP, this has all changed. I can't claim that every XP driver will just work now, but at least some EXE-based drivers that were previously uninstallable suddenly work. The way it happens is kind of interesting: You attempt a normal driver install, which fails. Then, Vista tells you there was a problem, says it will fix it, and then asks you to try again. When you do so, the driver installs. Nice!

Fans of Microsoft's virtual folder-based shell will be disappointed to learn that the company has now completely backed away from those plans. You may call that Windows Vista would have originally included the WinFS storage engine as part of the shell. When Microsoft delayed WinFS to 2007, however, the company claimed that the index-based Vista shell would still perform most of the duties of WinFS, despite that technology's absence. And sure enough, the first four Vista CTPs all included various renditions of a virtual folder-enabled shell.

In the February CTP, that's almost all gone. The special shell folders (Documents, Pictures, and so on) all work like their XP equivalents, and are actual folder locations in the shell. However, there are no more links to virtual folders, such as All Documents, as there were in the past. And the Library folder that appeared under the current user's home folder is now missing in action.

What we have instead are Saved Searches. This is both a new folder under the home folder and a rethinking of virtual folders. You may recall that, in the past, you could save searches as custom virtual folders. You can still do this, and those virtual folders are saved to Saved Searches by default. But this folder also includes a number of preconfigured saved searches (aka virtual folders), including Attachments, Favorite Music, Last 7 Days Email, and Shared By Me, among others.

Another feature I miss--and this one is from XP and previous Windows versions--is the "up folder" toolbar button. Certain shell windows don't offer any easy way to go "up" in the shell hierarchy. For example, when you open your Documents folder, you're really opening C:\Users\[Your user name]\Documents (or whatever). In Vista, however, the Address Bar only displays nodes for [Your user name] and [Documents]. So if you suddenly want to get to My Computer from there, you're out of luck. Unless you display the classic toolbar.

That said, the Explorer windows in Vista are now much simpler than in the past. You may recall that Microsoft had previously toyed with using various colors to differentiate different types of folders. So maybe folders full of documents would have included green highlights, while music folders might use red. That's all done with, and each shell folder is consistent (and green) now.

A final general observation: I have certain misgivings about Vista resembling Mac OS X. With its translucent windows, such comparisons are going to be hard to avoid. But Vista's similarity with OS X goes well beyond window dressing. Certain applications, such as Calendar, Sidebar, and Photo Gallery, appear to be directly, ahem, influenced by similar applications in OS X. Microsoft has a response to that claim, which I'll reveal in part 3 of this review, but suffice to say they're going to get eaten alive for these similarities.

Of course, Windows Vista is still Windows, and that means you can be far more productive with Vista than is possible with OS X, especially if you're a heavy keyboard user like me. Virtually all of the familiar Windows keyboard shortcuts work just fine in Vista, and since the system is basically laid out just like XP--with a familiar Start menu, taskbar, desktop, and folder structure, most users will be able to get right to work. That said, there are plenty of small changes too, some of which make sense, some that don't. Naturally, we'll look at all of those changes as well.

Examining the Vista product editions

However, before we get into the nitty-gritty of this build, I'd like to touch on one other topic. With the February CTP, for the first time, reviewers are able to install many of the Vista product editions that Microsoft will eventually offer (previous CTPs provided access only to Ultimate Edition). I cover the Vista product editions exhaustively in my Windows Vista Product Editions showcase, but because this is the first time we can compare these versions directly, I thought this would be a good time to offer up some opinions about Microsoft's product mix.

First, it's too confusing. One thing Apple gets right is that you get OS X, and you're done. There's only one version of the OS (well, there's a version for servers too, of course) and Apple doesn't try to bifurcate the market with a bunch of silly versions, most of which offers certain features not found in other product editions. It's inane.

That said, Microsoft is at least making it easy for users who get low-end Vista versions to upgrade to better editions, using an online service called Windows Anytime Upgrade. For example, Vista Home Basic users can upgrade to either Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate. And Vista Home Premium and Vista Business users can upgrade to Vista Ultimate. That's a good idea, given the complexities of the multi-SKU system Microsoft is pursuing.

Differentiating the Vista editions had to have been difficult. During XP's development, I was told numerous times that Microsoft wasn't particularly happy with the Home and Professional split they originally conceived (they later added Tablet PC and Media Center editions as well, of course). Vista's product editions are more logically designed.

At the low-end, Vista Home Basic will provide a way for virtually any PC user to upgrade to Vista, even those people with low-end or integrated video cards. Unlike other Vista editions, Vista Home Basic does not include the Aero Glass user interface, which provides real time translucencies, effects, and animations. However, the Aero Basic UI utilized by Vista Home Basic is quite attractive, and a far cry from the ugly Basic UI Microsoft foisted on us in previous builds. Suddenly, not running Aero Glass isn't like being punished. Excellent.

Moving up to Home Premium, you gain additional features, such as Aero Glass, MeetingSpace (previously called Windows Collaboration), SafeDocs (for automatic backups), file encryption, WMP 11 recording and sharing features, HD support in MovieMaker, network-based projector support, PC-to-PC file synchronization, Tablet PC functionality, and Media Center functionality.

Vista Ultimate Edition adds remote desktop, the IIS Web server, document scanning and faxing capabilities, domain and Group Policy support, offline folders, TPM-based full hard drive encryption, multiple language support, and a package of additional applications and services called Windows Vista Ultimate Extras.

On the business side of the Vista product edition lineup, there is a similar upgrade policy in place. Vista Business provides Aero Glass, MeetingSpace collaboration, file encryption, PC-to-PC file synchronization, Tablet PC and Sideshow functionality, network-based projector support, remote desktop, IIS, document scanning and faxing, and domain and Group Policy support. But you can upgrade to Ultimate Edition if you need that version's unique features.

What you can't upgrade to is Vista Enterprise, which will be made available only to Software Assurance customers. This Vista version includes unique features like Virtual PC Express, which will let you run a single legacy OS, like Windows XP, in a virtual machine, providing backwards compatibility for applications that don't work natively in Vista.

Vista's wide range of product editions is confusing, but at least Microsoft is now breaking out functionality that was previously available only in XP Media Center or XP Tablet PC Edition. Both Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions include the Vista version of Media Center, and Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate all include the latest Tablet PC features. This change should make these technologies more widespread, which is a welcome change.

On to Part 2...