In November 2005, Microsoft disappointed testers and technology enthusiasts when it explained that it would not issue a Community Technical Preview (CTP) of Windows Vista that month. Instead, the company would ship next its next CTP in December (see my review). That CTP was of much higher quality than previous releases, but it also came with an explicit promise: The next CTP, ultimately released in February 2006 as build 5308, would be the first "feature complete" version of Vista that the company would deliver to testers.

The term feature complete is often misunderstood. When I spoke with Jim Allchin back in January (see my showcase), he told me that feature-complete didn't mean that everything would be working. For example, Microsoft added the ability to upgrade Windows XP systems to Vista in this build, but that doesn't mean that the feature is fully functional or as good as it will be in the final product. Performance is another issue. Over the next several months, Microsoft will work to fine tune Vista, and add those features that are still missing. Ominously, there is always the possibility that features could be removed as well if the project slips further off schedule.

Those caveats aside, Windows Vista build 5308 is our first chance to look at the product, basically, that Microsoft intends to start selling in late 2006. It is essentially complete. No major new features are forthcoming, and no major changes to the system's look and feel or functionality are in the cards. Performance will get better over time. System installation will proceed more quickly. Minor things will be added or changed. In other words, we're hitting the home stretch. Finally.

In this third part of my review of the Windows Vista February 2006 CTP, I'm going to examine the applications that are brand new to this build. Though Microsoft has gotten in a lot of trouble for product bundling in the past, the application-level services in Windows Vista are ultimately a major part of what will set this OS apart from the competition. After spending several weeks with this build, I can tell you that the prognosis is guarded but optimistic.

Feature complete?

You may recall from the first part of this review that my initial reaction to build 5308 was somewhat muted. Like most of you, I imagine, I expected big changes from a build that was widely heralded as being the first to include all the major new features in Windows Vista. Indeed, by first promoting this build back in December, a full two months before actually shipping it to testers, Microsoft was again setting unrealistic expectations for Windows Vista. And again, the reality has failed to meet the expectations. This is a theme that has occurred again and again with Vista/Longhorn, and Microsoft should be carefully examining how it discusses upcoming products in the future as a result. If the company had simply said back in December that the feature complete version of Vista would be largely like the previous CTP, expectations would have been reasonably set. Instead, they created the impression that there were huge changes coming in the feature set.

Now, don't get me wrong. Ultimately, build 5308 is successful because it is far more refined than previous builds. More hardware devices work properly, allowing testers to run Vista far more regularly than before. The fit and finish is dramatically better. There are real and measurable improvements in this build that make it vastly superior to previous versions.

But back to that phrase, feature complete. Doesn't it conjure up the notion that there are going to be, I don't know, more features? That there's going to be more going on there, more widgets for users to interact with, more new applications to explore? That's how I look at it. But as it turns out, there are only a few new applications. There are also changes to applications we've seen before, but that's starting to get less and less interesting as time marches on. I think I've reached the saturation point for excitement about this product, if you will. Looking ahead, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be blown away by anything new in Vista ever again. I'd love to be proven wrong. But that's where I'm at right now.

OK, let's take a look and the new bundled applications in this so-called feature complete Vista build.

New applications

As far as I can tell, there are only three major new applications in build 5308, or just two if you omit DVD Maker, which appeared in previous builds but didn't work. What's depressing here is that we knew all of these applications were coming several months ago. There literally isn't a surprise in this collection of new applications.

Welcome Center

Welcome Center (Figure) is one of the first things you'll see when you boot into the February CTP. It's a new take on the out of box experience, I guess, and a handy front-end, or dashboard, for completing any post-setup tasks, such as configuring hardware devices that weren't properly set up, activating Windows, adding users, and so on. Welcome Center is set to run by default every time your system reboots, but you can turn this off with a simple check box. If you click the More Details button, you'll be sent to the new System Control pane (Figure).

Windows DVD Maker

Way back in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me, see my review), Microsoft began including an application called Windows Movie Maker (WMM) in Windows. That first version was pretty sad, but the WMM version in Windows XP is excellent, and Microsoft released an even better upgrade, WMM 2, in 2002 (see my review). There was just one problem. Apple had been pushing its Mac-based DVD movie making application, iDVD, in addition to its iMovie application. Consumers who wanted to make DVD movies on Windows would need to purchase a third party solution.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft is finally setting its sites on iDVD with a new application called, predictably enough, Windows DVD Maker. However, unlike Windows Movie Maker, which meets or exceeds the functionality in iMovie, Windows DVD Maker falls woefully short of the competition. I haven't actually spoken with Microsoft about this yet, but I will. However, I suspect the rationale will be very similar to what I heard when I asked why the initial version of Movie Maker was so limited back in 2000: Consumers are just starting to perform these tasks on PCs and only need a limited amount of functionality at this point.

I don't happen to see it that way, but I suppose antitrust concerns may factor into it as well. Whatever the reason, DVD Maker isn't particularly exciting and it's certainly not going to cause any sleepless nights over at Apple, Sonic, or Pinnacle.

Unlike iDVD, Windows DVD Maker won't start up unless you have a recordable DVD drive, a hint that you won't be able to create DVD projects on one machine and then burn them on another. And even on a recordable DVD-equipped system, the application won't begin until you've inserted a blank DVD. Geesh.

Once you've met those requirements, you're presented with a pretty desolate user interface (Figure). There's no menu system, not even a hidden one, and the only options are available via a suitably Spartan dialog box (Figure). In the main DVD Maker interface, you basically just add content (typically home movies, photos, and so on) and a disc title, and then move on from there.

In the next phase of what is increasingly looking like a simple wizard-based application, DVD Maker lets you apply different themes (which it calls Menu Styles), adjust the text and design of your main menu, and perform other tasks (Figure). If you click the Menu text link, you can change the font used to display the disk's menus, but not, curiously, the size of the font (Figure).

The Preview button generates a preview of what your DVD will look like (Figure). Unlike with iDVD, this preview doesn't happen instantaneously and must instead be rendered first, an agonizingly slow process for anyone who's used, well, any other DVD making application on the planet. Once it's rendered, the DVD preview works as expected, with various onscreen controls that replicate the controls you'd see on a hardware-based DVD player.

The Customize option launches the Customize disc style page, where you can set various options, such as whether to use motion or still videos (Figure). You can choose which pictures and videos play behind each menu, and even save a custom style for later use. In the Photo Settings page, you can pick music that will play over any photo slideshows you might have configured, and set other photo-related options.

It's all pretty bare-bones. To write your masterpiece to DVD, simply click the Burn option. There's no way to save your project for later editing, so you have to be pretty sure you're ready to go to even use this application. And the results are, shall we say, not up to iDVD's standards. No surprise there.

Windows Sidebar

Windows Sidebar has a long and convoluted history, and the Sidebar we see today in build 5308 is really just the latest in a long line of applications, designed for Windows Vista, that have borne the name Sidebar at one time or another. It's important to note that the original vision for the Sidebar--a permanent location for system, application, and services notifications--has nothing to do with today's Sidebar. Indeed, Microsoft backed off from that concept shortly after it was trumpeted to the world during the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in 2003 (see my review).

To understand the thinking behind the current iteration of the Sidebar, I spoke with Shawn Morrissey, a program manager on the Platforms Incubation Team at Microsoft back in mid-January. Shawn told me that his team was formed in early 2005 to pursue a different form of software development within the Windows team. The idea, which is modeled after the successes MSN had (which are now being seen with Windows Live), is for a quick succession of smaller software projects which can then be updated more regularly over time. This stands in sharp contrast with the monolithic and time consuming way Windows itself is developed.

"The original Sidebar was a casualty of the Reset," Morrissey said during our meeting. "It was completely different from the current Sidebar and used to be part of the Windows shell." After its creation, the Platforms Incubation Team looked at the Sidebar and decided to reinvent it from scratch as a container for smaller helper applications or utilities that would be based on Web standards. "We've returned to the roots of what Sidebar was all about," Morrissey said. "It's essentially script hosting, but done in a graphical way."

Microsoft first discussed the current generation Sidebar at PDC 2005, but much has changed since then. First, Microsoft has moved the Sidebar to a traditional programming model that leverages HTML rendering. This model will be somewhat compatible with the rendering model on live.com, the company's new Windows Live Web portal, and with Sideshow, the auxiliary display technology Vista will support in upcoming portable PCs. I say "somewhat" here for a reason: It's not possible for developers to create a single gadget that will work in all three environments--Sidebar, Live.com, and Sideshow--but it shouldn't be difficult to create different versions of the same gadget for each. This feature isn't enabled in the February 2006 CTP, but in the future, users should be able to drag properly-created live.com gadgets from the Web site directly onto the Sidebar. It's not clear if the reverse will ever work, however.

Anyway, in build 5308, the Sidebar is ready and waiting, though it's not as prominent as it was back in the Longhorn days. To activate the Sidebar, you'll have to dig deep into the Start menu: It's found in All Programs, Accessories. By default, the new Sidebar runs on the right side of the screen and auto-hides, where it looks like an unwelcome shadow caused by a screen malfunction (Figure). However, you can attach it to the left side of the screen if you'd like, and lock it so that it's always on, which works well for a widescreen display (Figure). This also has the effect of moving the Sidebar in front of other windows, effectively making its innermost edge the logical edge of the desktop, and making it a bit more opaque and easier to see. Indeed, the default Sidebar effect is so subtle, most people won't even realize it's there.

By default, the Sidebar is populated with two gadgets, World Clock and Recycle Bin. You can easily add more gadgets via the Add Gadgets window (Figure) (accessible by right-clicking the Sidebar and choosing Add Gadgets), though only five are available right now:

Feed Viewer - When Microsoft announced the new Sidebar at PDC 2005, it promised RSS feed viewing, and this gadget supplies the promised functionality. It's not clear to me how useful such a thing is, but for the .01 percent of society that's excited about doing this, here's your gadget.

Launcher - Launcher is basically the Sidebar version of the Quick Launch taskbar toolbar, and it lets you add shortcuts to your most-frequently-needed applications. By default, Launcher provides links to Notepad and Paint for some reason.

Recycle Bin - No Sidebar would be complete without a Recycle Bin gadget. Note, however, that you can't configure the actual Recycle Bin's options from this gadget. So if you intend to remove the Recycle Bin from your desktop and use this instead, make sure you've set it up first.

Side Show - Another obvious gadget, Side Show lets you run miniature picture slideshows directly from your Sidebar.

World Clock - A nice analog clock that provides a time, day, and date display when you mouse over.

Note that you can have multiple instances of gadgets. So if you want clocks for both Boston and Paris, that's possible. Also, gadgets are added to the Sidebar by dragging, but the most recent gadget you drag over always goes to the top of the Sidebar for some reason. You can, however, position gadgets as you'd like once they're in the Sidebar (Figure). When you mouse over a gadget, two small menu-like buttons appear (Figure). The first, which resembles an X, lets you close the gadget. The second, which resembles a check mark, lets you configure the gadget's options (Figure). This window will be different for each gadget.

Here's one feature that's really handy: You can drag gadgets off of the Sidebar and position them on the desktop (Figure). However, for this feature to work, the Sidebar has to continue running. If you close the Sidebar, all gadgets close as well.

Apple fanatics will point out that Sidebar is similar to the Dashboard feature in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger (see my review), though that feature, of course, is a rip-off of Konfabulator, Desktop X, and other similar desktop accessory environments. To be fair, Sidebar is significantly better than Dashboard as well. For example, the Sidebar is part of desktop and doesn't exist in some bizarre separate environment which you must trigger with a function key. Also, Sidebar gadgets can be dragged directly to the actual desktop, which Dashboard does not support. Still, there's no discounting the fact that Dashboard was released first. Apple will always have that.

Incidentally, the Platforms Incubation Group consists of just 8 people. In addition to Sidebar, the group is developing Windows Calendar (see below) and a Texas Hold-em game that will eventually be provided to users of Windows Vista Ultimate. The group also fixed a wide range of bugs in the accessories, including Notepad, Calculator, and Paint. I'll have more to say about the group in the near future.

But wait, there's more

Next, in part 4 of this review, I'll examine the changes Microsoft has made to applications that first appeared in previous Vista builds. Then, in part 5, I'll conclude my look at Windows Vista build 5308 with a look at the dark side of this product, examine the areas in which Windows Vista falls flat, and discuss the features that are actually missing from build 5308.

Part 4 coming soon...