Windows Vista Beta 2--and to a larger degree, interim build 5456, which arrived about a month after Beta 2--offer a much more streamlined and complete-feeling user experience than previous builds. Given the fact that the past few Community Technical Preview (CTP) builds were considered feature complete, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Beta 2 offers little in the way of major new features. But that isn't to say that things haven't changed. In fact, some parts of the system have changed in subtle, but very important ways.

In this part of my Windows Vista Beta 2 review, I'll examine many of the features that users will run into and discuss how they've changed since earlier builds. Some of the features include built-in applications like Movie Maker, while others are system-level services, such as User Account Protection (UAP).

Installation improvements

While I did cover interactive Setup in part two of this review, it's worth noting that Setup is dramatically faster in build 5456 (see my overview). We're finally starting to see installation times that are a lot closer to the 20 minutes Microsoft originally promised for Vista, and much faster than the 60 minutes previous builds required. Most installs of build 5456 complete in just under 30 minutes, which is fantastic.

User experience

From the moment you boot into Vista for the first time, you'll notice that the entire system feels faster than before, and the interface is more seamless and elegant. Microsoft loads the Sidebar by default, which I think is a mistake, since it's a clearly optional feature and many users will find it annoying. More important, it sucks up RAM and valuable screen real estate, especially on standard 4:3 screens.

Many icons have been overhauled in the Beta 2-era builds, providing a hint at the final UI. Also, the Switch Between Windows icon--which triggers Flip 3D--is back in the Quick Launch toolbar where it belongs. Explorer windows seem more logical and usable than in previous builds, especially in build 5456, which, despite a weird bug that orders icons in reverse alphabetical order, is the nicest rendition of Vista's Explorer yet. Too, List View has returned (in build 5456, not Beta 2).

Given the sheer number of options some portions of the UI present--Control Panel is the best example--Microsoft has done a decent job of keeping things orderly and clean. One of the problems Windows faces--as compared to Mac OS X, which takes a far more utilitarian and Spartan approach to UI--is that it presents far too many options to the user, making for a system that is imperfect for just about any type of user. But Vista straddles the line between doofy and complex nicely.

In the Control Panel, there are literally hundreds of sub-windows into which you could get lost, but a nicely designed top level interface, which devices the Control Panel applets into logical groups, plus similarly-organized sub-pages, help you navigate around. And the new "breadcrumb bar" effect in the Address Bar makes it easy to escape if you find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

It's hard to overstate how important this is. While systems like OS X system obscure the ugliness of the underlying file system, Windows has always forced the user to embrace its own mangled organizational style. In Vista, you still have to deal with C: drives and folder locations, but the way you navigate through such locations is far easier because of the way Microsoft categorizes items in My Computer, Control Panel, and other UI points.

Bundled applications and services

You'd think after ten years of antitrust issues that Microsoft would have backed off from its "innovation through integration" stance, but Windows Vista is the most feature-packed version of Windows yet. In Beta 2, you can see which areas the company has chosen to focus on this time around: Digital media and entertainment, networking and Internet, file search and organization, and productivity. While some of Vista's applications are still laughably bad--Windows Mail comes immediately to mind--some are good enough to cause spontaneous smiles (Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Media Player 11, and even Windows Movie Maker, which now supports various HD formats). That's always a good sign.

Backup and Restore Center

Remember the horrid Windows XP Backup utility? Remember how XP Home users had to manually install it from the CD, but even then they didn't get all of Backup's functionality because some of its features only came with XP Pro? Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same: In Windows Vista, Microsoft has completely overhauled the backup experience, to great success. But the best features are still only available if you purchase a premium version of Windows Vista (that is, anything but Home Basic edition).

Here's what's happening. In the version of Windows Vista Beta 2 that most people got--i.e. Ultimate edition--you will see various Backup utilities. There is Windows File and Folder Backup, which is really just a wizard that walks you through backing up files. Additionally, there is a CompletePC Backup application that lets you image your hard drive a la Norton Ghost, but using Microsoft's VHD virtual hard disk format (as seen previously in Virtual PC). And there's also a Backup and Restore Center, a handy utility that provides a nice front-end to all of Vista's backup and restore features, as you'd expect.

Home Basic users will get the Windows File and Folder Backup solution, and it's restore-oriented cousin. But they won't get CompletePC Backup or the Backup and Restore Center. I understand that Microsoft has to differentiate these products somehow, but come on: Microsoft is responsible for arbitrarily dividing the Vista product line into what feels like 213 separate editions. All Windows users should get all of the Windows Vista backup and restore utilities. All of them.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer is a tough one for me. I thought it was wrong of Microsoft to replace the Explorer shell with an IE-based version in Windows 95 OSR-2 (and later) and fought tooth and nail when I discovered that you'd have to get IE--and the IE Desktop Update--in order to install IIS 3 in Windows NT 4.0. Now, IE has been part of Windows for a decade and look at the results: Month after month of IE-based critical security vulnerabilities continue to dog Windows users to this day.

In Windows Vista, finally, Microsoft has finally segregated IE from the system to a large degree. But what's interesting is that the version of IE that will ship with Windows Vista--now called IE 7+ to differentiate it from the IE 7 version that's shipping for Windows XP, 2003, and XP x64--is actually pretty darned good. It includes a bunch of usability improvements that put it nearly on par with Mozilla Firefox--tabbed browsing, toolbar-based search, and so on--and some unique features like Quick Tabs that really put it over the top. Couple that news with the fact that IE 7's printing functionality is head and shoulders above virtually every application you'll ever run and IE 7+ actually looks like something of a home run.

Now, I'll still be running Firefox, personally, mostly because of a few killer Firefox features I can't live without, such as inline searching. But for the first time since, oh, IE 3, I can legitimately recommend that all Windows users upgrade to IE 7 immediately (even during the beta) and run IE 7+ on Windows Vista unless they're diehard Firefox fans. One caveat: As is the case with Windows itself, IE will continue to be attacked because it is the most popular option on the market, and there's little doubt that we'll see the occasional successful attack. But IE 7+ is so much more secure than previous versions, and so well-made, that's hard to hold a grudge anymore.

The picture with IE 7+ is simple. If you're happy with IE, or maybe even a little leery of its security capabilities, you'll be pleasantly surprised by IE 7+. Seriously.

Paint

Ah, Paint. You'd be surprised how often I use this application. Every single promotional graphic I've created for this Web site has worked its way through Paint at some point (and Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Digital Image Suite Editor too). It's one of the most underrated and underappreciated applications ever bundled with Windows. And it's been significantly improved in Windows Vista.

First, all the old stuff still works. If you do a lot of CTRL+E to get and modify an image's dimensions, or CTRL+W to resize and skew, it's all the same in Vista Paint. But there's some new stuff. First, there's a slight new UI. Big deal, right? The magnification functionality has improved dramatically. Now you can right-click to go down in sizes, and there's a slider that lets you finely control the magnification.

One thing that's changed for Paint that's bad is that Paint is no longer the default choice when you right-click an image and choose Edit. Instead, you get the new Photo Gallery Viewer, which is geared more towards editing photos than editing digital images, like those I usually right-click and, well, try to edit. Ah well.

User Account Control

Ah, yes, my old nemesis, User Account Control (UAC). Since my infamous screed against this technology in When Vista Fails, I've been inundated by requests to discuss UAC and, more broadly, Microsoft's failings. I've actually ignored most of these requests, and now that I've even been misquoted, I'll be even less likely to venture over to the other side of the fence. But lest there be any misunderstanding, UAC is a wonderful idea. It's almost identical to security features that Mac and Linux users have had for years, and it's something Windows desperately needs. The problem was that UAC was horribly implemented in previous pre-release builds. It popped up annoying dialogs too often. It punished users with mind-boggling choices. And it had outright bugs that could lead to never-ending loops, where you just couldn't delete that collection of shortcuts and files, sorry.

In Beta 2 and build 5456, UAC has come a long way. Indeed, if you're running with an administrator-level account, the UAC experience is actually less annoying than the similar prompts that Mac OS X pops up, and since I've held up Mac OS X as the paragon of usability (at least in this case), I feel that this is an important point. (What do I mean by this, you ask? Well, UAC and a similar feature in OS X pop-up consent dialogs each time the user attempts an action that could harm the system. In OS X, you have to supply your password each time this dialog appears. In Vista, you only need to supply a password if you're running as a non-admin-type account. With an admin account, you simply need to click OK in the consent dialog. Thus, Vista is actually easier to deal with in this regard.)

That said, it's still not perfect. I find the jarring effect that occurs when UAC is triggered--the screen fades to black and forces you to deal with the UAC dialog before continuing--to be monumentally irritating, and I suspect most users will as well. And UAC still rears its ugly head a bit too much for my tastes, though Microsoft has pledged to keep improving it during the beta process. Give them a bit of credit: They're very well aware of the problems with UAC and want to make sure its a good experience. But it's hard balancing security and usability. If they can find the right middle ground, one of Vista's best security features should help protect people from themselves.

Welcome Center

The first thing you'll notice when you log on to your new desktop in Windows Vista is the Welcome Center, Microsoft's answer to the post-Setup blues that dog most new users. Welcome Center provides links to the tasks you'll most likely want to accomplish after you've installed Vista for the first time, such as adding a printer, setting up devices, personalize the system, and so on. What's odd is that it's not particularly intelligent. For example, when you first install Vista, Welcome Center should immediately tell you if there are any hardware devices that need to be installed, for example. Instead, the default choices include such oddballs as Windows Media Player Set up [sic] and Control Panel. It's a nice start, but it can only get more useful.

Windows Calendar

Call it an iCal rip-off if you want--I do, incidentally--but this application is a long time coming: Microsoft needs an integrated scheduling application. And Windows Calendar is first rate, and it sports a more usable interface in Beta 2/build 5456 that makes it more similar to other Windows Vista applications. Getting past surface-level changes, however, Windows Calendar offers virtually everything you'd want from a calendar application, aside from some basic conversion utilities that would let you automatically move data from Microsoft's existing calendar solutions--like Microsoft Outlook, Works Calendar, and MSN/Hotmail Calendar. And why is that?

Windows Contacts

Microsoft has been talking about creating a centralized contacts store in Windows for some time, and it's apparently working with its software partners--companies that include their own proprietary contacts databases in their applications--to ensure that they, too, will eventually move to the new system. In Vista Beta 2, you can see the user interface for this new contacts store as a special shell folder called Windows Contacts.

Functionally, Windows Contacts works a lot like the Windows Address Book it replaces, right down to the import and export formats it supports. What's unclear is whether what's under the hood is compelling enough to sway software developers.

Windows Defender

You can get Windows Defender for free from the Web for Windows XP, and the version in Windows Vista isn't dramatically different. So there's no reason to beat this one to death: But I do like that this useful tool is being added to Windows. Even if you're not convinced that Windows Defender is a top-tier anti-spyware solution, it's certainly better than nothing, and a valuable addition to Windows. More to the point, if Microsoft has to bundle applications in Windows, this is the type of thing that's hard to quibble with.

Windows DVD Maker

Apple has iDVD and now Microsoft has Windows DVD Maker. Well, sort of. Windows DVD Maker is a bare-bones movie DVD creation utility that works as advertised but does with absolutely zero ?lan.

DVD Maker is basically a wizard. You add photos and videos to a project via a pretty uninspiring user interface, slap together a very basic menu structure for the DVD (some of which are decent), and burn that sucker to the disk. And that's about it.

It's also fairly exclusive. Windows DVD Maker will only be made available to users of Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions: Customers using Home Basic, Business, or Enterprise are out of luck. No big loss, really.

Windows Mail

I hated Outlook Express and, by extension, I hate Windows Mail now. It's not a big improvement over Outlook Express because it IS Outlook Express. Here's what's changed. It has a slightly updated user interface (yawn). Microsoft has dropped support for Web mail (think Hotmail): Only POP3 and IMAP are supported now. It has a new instant search box. It supports spell checking, even if you don't have Microsoft Word or Office installed. And it's done away with Identities: You're expected to use Windows Vista's multiple user account functionality to maintain different mail identities now. Oh, and it's based on a new mail storage engine that is more reliable and better performing than that used by Outlook Express.

And you know what? It's still Outlook Express. Skip it.

Windows Media Center

I'm coming around to the Vista version of Windows Media Center. Where I originally decried the horizontally-oriented user interface, I've now used it on a widescreen display for a while and agree that it's workable, especially now that they've removed all the needless animations. The new color scheme even looks decent on an HDTV screen, and my kids love the new visual touches, such as how recorded TV shows display snapshots of each show by default instead of text.

I know, too, that Windows Media Center Vista is a half-way house between the previous version--Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with UR2 (see my review)--and the one that will ship in time for holiday season 2007 (which I'll call Media Center Next for lack of a better name). Here's what I mean by this. Some of the screens in Media Center Vista have been significantly updated with new functionality, while others are virtually identical to the same screens as they appeared in XP MCE 2005. So, for example, the Start screen offers a gorgeous background video playback effect that has to be seen to be appreciated. But when you dive into the Guide or any of the media sub-pages, the video pops back into the lower left corner of the screen, just as it did in XP MCE 2005. Ugh.

Media Center Next will fix all this, and bring the new UI to the entire application. It's too bad we have to wait that long, because the end result will likely be pretty good. In the meantime, Media Center Vista will always be a bastard child of sorts, the unholy union of XP MCE 2005 and Media Center Next.

In Beta 2, Media Center offers alarmingly bad performance, so don't be replacing your copy of XP MCE 2005 just yet. Hopefully, the performance issues will be fixed in later betas. But there are other issues as well, including somewhat obvious functionality that should have been added in this release. I'm talking about parental controls--a core Vista feature--so my kids don't see the adult movies I may want to record on Cinemax late at night. I'm talking about movie and TV referrals, like those offered by TiVo: If I record a lot of Rick Steves or Rudy Maxa shows on the Travel Channel, Media Center should be suggesting similar shows to me, or even coloring similar shows in the Guide so they stand out. There are all kinds of things Microsoft could do to improve Media Center. It's too bad that most of the work in Vista is occurring so that Media Center can get only part of the way to the company's vision of the future.

Windows Movie Maker 6

Previous to Beta 2, I was sort of freaked out that Microsoft hadn't done anything to improve Windows Movie Maker, which became a tremendous application when it hit version 2 (see my review). Now, things have improved somewhat. Windows Movie Maker in Vista Beta 2 includes a slightly updated UI--though it's still too bland and grey in my opinion--and, more importantly, the ability to create HD versions of your movies (assuming you have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate). Put succinctly, you can create Windows Media Video HD (WMV-HD) movies in 720p and 1080i versions.

There are other small improvements. When you import from a DV camera, you can do so in AVI or WMV as before, but the WMV options are split into single-file and one-file-per-scene importing options. There are over 60 transitions and almost 50 special effects. You can create an AutoMovie, which is often fun and fairly painless. And it integrates with DVD Maker so you can push movie projects into movie DVDs.

All in all, WMM 6 is a decent upgrade, but it's not the huge improvement I'd expect in a Windows release as big as Vista.

Windows Photo Gallery

It's hard to not keep comparing the bundled applications in Windows Vista to Apple's iLife suite, so here comes another one: Windows Photo Gallery is Microsoft's version of iPhoto. Or not. Actually, it's just a light version of Digital Image Suite, and it's a darn good photo management and editing application. You can still work with photos in the Windows shell if you want, but Microsoft got rid of all the fun stuff, like photo previews in the folders. That's a shame, if you enjoyed that stuff like I did. But my guess is that most Windows users found it confusing. And Photo Gallery is a nice make-up for that.

What you get, essentially, is a full-featured photo management solution. You can view, edit, organize, and share photos, and rate, email, and tag them to your heart's content. Photo Gallery's editing features are nicely organized under an option called Fix, which lets you auto adjust a photo (always recommended for digital photos), adjust the exposure or color, crop, or fix red eye. For the most part, these operations all work pretty well, though I've found that digital photo editing is a trial and error process regardless of the application you're using.

The thing I like about Photo Gallery is that you can be as involved as you want to be. If you use Windows to import pictures from your camera and use Photo Gallery to view them or make light edits, it works just fine. But if you're more of a hands-on type, like me, you can tag, caption, rate, and otherwise organize your photos as much as you'd like. Photo Gallery works great in either situation.

On the other hand, it's lacking in some key areas. Unlike iPhoto, it doesn't offer any seamless way to create photo gifts like greeting cards, calendars and photo books. You have to go through Windows Media Player, for some reason, if you want to share photos between PCs. And it doesn't offer a way to save photo slideshows as screensavers, though you could always use the dumb-as-a-doorknob Photos Screen Saver if you don't mind milling around in folders.

Games

Windows Vista includes a number of substantially improved games, from old classics like Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Hearts, to new games like Chess Titans, Mahjong Titans, and InkBall (a Tablet PC game). They're all high-quality and gorgeous looking. And if it matters to you, none were developed by Microsoft.

It's not available in Beta 2, but we'll eventually see new Games added through Windows Vista Ultimate Extras, including a version of Texas Hold 'Em Poker.

Windows Sidebar

When I think of broken promises in Windows Vista, I don't immediately think of WinFS. No, I think of Sidebar. As originally envisioned, the Windows Vista Sidebar was going to be the system's one-stop location for system notifications, replacing the awful and antiquated tray notification area and ridding the taskbar of all those horrible small icons once and for all. The Sidebar was to have taken advantage of the additional horizontal real estate we were going to get from all those widescreen displays, and run a number of useful utilities like mini-calendars, contacts lists, IM buddies lists, and so on.

And then it got scrapped. The Sidebar you see today in Windows Vista Beta 2 is not the original Sidebar. No, it's yet another feature that Microsoft ripped off from Apple (though, to be fair, Apple didn't invent the idea either, it just popularized it in Mac OS X Tiger). Now, the Sidebar is simply a container for mini-applications called Gadgets that have more in common with Web pages than true Windows applications. Sidebar includes a number of Gadgets, and some are even useful and attractive, like the Clock. But the Sidebar takes up space and memory, is slow to load, and is inexplicably turned on by default.

I don't completely dislike the Sidebar. But my guess is that many Vista users will simply ignore it, turn it off, and even grow to resent it. I'm concerned that Microsoft has created a Gadget infrastructure for Windows Sidebar, Windows Live, and Windows Sideshow, but made slight differences in each so that it's not possible to write a single useful gadget that works in all three environments. But I'm most upset that the Sidebar isn't as useful and necessary as the Sidebar Microsoft originally promised. It's like ordering a Mercedes and getting a Kia. I'm sure a Kia is a fine car, but it's no Mercedes.

Windows Update

From its humble beginnings as a Web-based service for Windows 98 users, Windows Update has grown to include automatic downloading, automatic updating and, most recently in its guise as Microsoft Update, the ability to update non-Windows software, including Office. Recent Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) silliness notwithstanding, Windows Update is an incredible idea, and is nicely implemented in Windows Vista as an application instead of an IE-only Web page. This is as it should be and, not coincidentally, it's the way Apple implemented its Software Update service (which was Windows Update Done Right). Now it's right in Windows Vista too. Good.

Final thoughts

As you play around with Windows Vista Beta 2, you'll discover a system that is markedly different looking than Windows XP but surprisingly familiar nonetheless. I don't believe that Beta 2 is stable or reliable enough for most people to use in lieu of Windows XP, but its certainly a fine candidate for dual booting, where people can get their feet wet and then return to the comfort and safety of XP when needed. I've gotten a lot of great feedback from readers about their Vista Beta 2 experiences, which I hope to consolidate into something worthwhile soon. In the meantime, check out the various bundled applications. You're sure to find some gold buried in there with the clunkers.

Go to Part 4: Compatibility