As I noted in my review of Windows Vista build 5536 (see my review), Windows Vista has suddenly turned a corner. Gone are the egregious and annoying bugs. Gone is User Account Control's most painful and frustrating behavior. Most application and hardware incompatibilities? Gone. Performance problems? Gone. What we're left with is a highly usable upgrade to Windows Vista with tremendous security and deployment advantages. And now anyone can get it, literally: Microsoft plans to ship RC1 to millions of people around the world beginning next week. If you want in with Windows Vista, your time has come.

As a backgrounder, I've been writing about Windows Vista for several years. During that time, my opinion of the product has bobbed and weaved dramatically, based on the events of the day and quality of the latest beta release. There were good times (PDC 2003) and bad (a year long layover between public builds), good builds (5536) and bad (Beta 1, Beta 2). There was good news (many features back-ported to XP) and bad (innumerable delays, dropped features, broken promises). And now, none of it matters. Now we have RC1, and it can stand or fall on its own merits. All around the Web, as you read this, geeky geeks are downloading, installing, and evaluating Windows Vista RC1. And if I had to guess, I'd say that most of those people are going to be quite happy indeed. In other words, this is the Windows Vista you were promised three years ago. This is the anti-Beta 2.

It will take a bit of time to tally my application and compatibility results, determine how well Vista RC1 installs on the several hardware setups to which I will install it, and put Vista through various performance tests. While all that's going on, I figured I could start this review with an overview of what's changed since Beta 2 (see my review), which is the last major release that was made generally available to millions of people. (You might also want to check out my Windows Vista Build 5456 Overview, Vista build 5472 Overview, and Vista build 5536 review, all of which explain, incrementally, how Vista has evolved in the months since Beta 2's release.

So let's start with some basics.

What's changed since Beta 2

Microsoft has made dramatic changes to Windows Vista since the May 2006 release of Beta 2. Many of these changes come under the hood. For example, RC1 is noticeably more stable and offers dramatically better performance than does Beta 2. Games, suddenly, work just fine. Microsoft tells me that it expects Windows Vista to run most video games as fast as does XP, and that's one performance metric I'll be measuring in the near future. Certainly, modern games like "Half-Life 2" suddenly work fine in Vista. These games were utterly unplayable in Beta 2.

Internet Explorer 7 has been augmented by a new toolbar sensing feature that will ensure that users don't install or use IE 6 browser toolbars that are incompatible with IE 7. Previously, these incompatible toolbars would install just fine, but would crash IE regularly. A new ActiveX installer service allows standard users (i.e. non-admins) to install approved (known good) ActiveX controls without admin approval.

Vista's parental controls have been upgraded to be simpler to administer. The also have new default settings, rather than simply leaving all controls off, as was the previous behavior.

User Account Control (UAC) has been substantially upgraded to be easier to use. You may recall my previous rants about UAC. Well, Microsoft has answered all of my concerns and then some. Now, UAC prompts the user far less frequently and is then much less annoying when it does throw up a prompt. Some changes include the ability to delete shortcuts from the hidden public desktop without being prompted, the ability of non-admin users to install critical updates, and a lack of prompts for common actions like opening the Scanners and Cameras and Firewall control panels. Most important, many UAC prompts no longer steals the focus. You can put off UAC approvals as long as you'd like while you work with other tasks, assuming the app you're working with isn't the one that triggered the prompt. In those cases, annoyingly, UAC is still modal.

Media Center now integrates with the meta data Tags features from Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Media Player, allowing you to sort and navigate your music, photos, and videos with Tags. (Microsoft includes various pre-built Tags in Vista. For example, Windows Photo Gallery includes Tags such as Flowers, Landscape, Ocean, and Wildlife.)

Windows Vista now fully supports both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray (BR-DVD) movies. Don't misunderstand what that means, however. There is no integrated support for these movie types in Vista. Instead, Microsoft is certifying that the PC software HD-DVD and BR-DVD player vendors are including with their systems now and in the future will work fine in Vista (as they do in XP).

As mentioned previously, Windows Vista now works with many more devices out of the box (so to speak). Microsoft wouldn't provide me with an exact number, but I was told that RC1 includes "thousands more" device drivers than did Beta 2, and there are many, many more available via Windows Update, which, of course, runs automatically when you first boot into Vista. Some of the biggest driver improvements involve wireless hardware, printers, SATA controllers, and Media Center TV tuners, Microsoft says. To give you an early idea of how well this works, on the first two PCs (one desktop, one notebook) to which I installed RC1, Vista fully configured every single hardware device, except for the audio drivers, by the first boot. And the audio drivers were automatically downloaded and installed within minutes. Sweet.

As you may have heard, WinFX was wisely renamed to .NET Framework 3.0. That software is included in RC1 by default, the first time it's appeared by default in a Windows client release.

If you run the old DOS command prompt with admin privileges, the word "Administrator" appears in the application's title bar, reminding you that you could be doing something silly. It's better than nothing, I guess.

I mentioned performance. Microsoft tells me that the Windows Vista user experience is now as fast as that of Windows XP but "with more capability and consistent performance that won't degrade over time." I'll see about that. But Microsoft points to technologies such as Windows Defender (anti-spyware), which runs in a low-priority I/O mode to ensure that it impact the system's performance minimally. There are are technologies like Windows SuperFetch and Windows ReadyBoost, which reduce hard drive reads and writes. Used in combination with a security solution like Bitlocker (full drive encryption), these features provide a super-safe and performance-happy environment.

I'm sure there's more, but I'll need to spend some time with RC1 to see how it fares. In the meantime, let's examine one more major area for RC1: How Microsoft is positioning this release going forward.

Positioning Windows Vista

When Microsoft first communicated the essence of Windows in July 2005 (a good 14 months ago), the company introduced the terms "Confident, Clear, Connected" into the Windows marketing lexicon. It's all baloney, of course, but it's important to keep these terms in mind, because this is how Microsoft will market everything related to Windows Vista going forward. Vista, the theory goes, will make you confident in your PC and your ability to get the most from it. It will provide clear ways to organize and use your information to focus on what matters. And it will help you get connected to the information, people, and devices that make you more effective.

Feeling like a tool yet? Let's see what marketing has in store for you.

For consumers, Microsoft will offer up the following solutions. Vista will be safer and easier than previous Windows versions, thanks to new security controls. It will help you stay connected at home and on the go, with dramatically improved wireless features and better-than-ever compatibility with a wide range of portable devices. It will help you find what you want, with simpler, more intuitive searching tools, and applications like Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, and Windows Media Player, that will help you organize your memories. And it will help you enjoy the latest in entertainment both from around the house with Media Center and through various digital entertainment devices.

For businesses, Microsoft has optimized the desktop infrastructure by making Windows Vista more easily deployable than ever before. Vista, of course, is more secure than previous Windows versions, making it easier for businesses to keep employees safe and in compliance with corporate and government oversight. Microsoft is also enabling both desk-bound and mobile information workers through a variety of new technologies aimed at helping PCs run more reliably regardless of where you are.

Additionally, Microsoft is working to dispel the notion that Vista's product lineup is more complicated than that of XP. They compare XP's basic product editions--Home, Professional, Media Center, Tablet PC, Professional x64, and Starter--to an identical number of Vista editions--Home Basic, Home Premium, Ultimate, Business, Enterprise, and Starter. This ignores the fact, of course, that users could only actually purchase two XP versions--Home and Pro--at retail, while Vista's more confusing array of retail choices numbers four (Home Basic, Home Premium, Ultimate, and Business).

Distributing Windows Vista

As noted above, if you want Windows Vista, you're going to be able to get it. In addition to 20,000 technical beta testers, 500,000 MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and millions of Customer Preview Program (CPP) customers, Microsoft intends to ship RC1 to millions of people from around the world. I can't yet discuss the details of this plan for some reason, but stay tuned: RC1 is going to be quite widely disseminated. I can tell you that RC1 will not time out until the end of May 2007, and that Microsoft will support RC1 with hot-fixes and security patches through the RTM (release to manufacturing) of Windows Vista, currently slated for the second half of October 2006.

Moving on

In future parts of this review, I will examine Windows Vista's application compatibility compared to previous betas, its ability to accurately find and configure hardware devices, the performance of the UI, applications, and games, and then compare the RC1 version to the first developer preview of Leopard, Apple's upcoming version of Mac OS X. There is little doubt that Windows Vista RC1 is a monumental improvement over Beta 2. The only question that remains, really, is whether it is a viable upgrade to Windows XP. This is the next version of Windows, folks, and you're going to be using it at some point. Let's find out if the wait was worth it.

On to Part 2: Compatibility ...