I think people are going to be surprised by how good the Windows Vista December 2005 Community Technical Preview (CTP, or build 5270) really is. After years of painful delays and an uncertain couple of months since the last CTP, Microsoft shipped a near-feature-complete Vista build to testers this week, and the prognosis is extremely positive. From what I can see, Vista has turned the corner. The December CTP is an exciting release, stable and full of new features. In this review, I'll examine those new features, and the features that have changed since the previous CTP, build 5231 (see my review).

From the new install look and feel to the subtle improvements you see immediately upon first viewing the 5270 desktop, it's clear that Microsoft has been busy fine tuning Windows Vista. The fit and finish work is apparently throughout this build, though there are of course still unfinished bits and rough edges here and there. But there's an attention to detail now occurring in Vista that we haven't seen since the PDC 2003 demo ware that Hillel Cooperman and Tjeerd Hoek first showed off (see my interview with the two for more information).

If you're looking for a broader discussion about the CTP program, please refer to my recently released showcase, Inside the Windows Vista Community Technical Preview (CTP), which explores the ways in which the Windows Vista CTP program has changed the way Microsoft develops Windows Vista, hopefully for the better.

Improved setup routine

As briefly mentioned above, the Windows Vista interactive setup has been dramatically overhauled to be prettier and more elegant, and to present as few questions to the user as possible. From a general perspective, interactive setup proceeds as before: You boot the system with the DVD, or insert the DVD from a pre-existing Windows version, and follow along through a few simple steps. Unlike today's XP installs, Vista Setup first asks for your Product Key and, if an Internet connection is found, attempts to download up-to-date components before proceeding. Then, you agree to the EULA, specify whether you will perform an upgrade (if applicable) or a custom install, and then select the partition to which you will install Windows (Figure). After that is the big wait, or, with the staged build, the slightly less tiring wait. When Windows Vista is finally installed, the system will reboot and you'll need to respond to a few more screens involving your country or region, your user name (along with password and desktop picture) (Figure), and time zone. After that, you're finished (or "ready to start" as Vista says) (Figure) and you're presented with the Vista desktop for the first time (Figure).

Overall, setup is far more streamlined than that of XP and far prettier than previous Vista builds. But the biggest changes are coming under the hood. Finally, Microsoft is offering a peek at the quick install functionality that the company first promised several years ago. Though it's available only a separate install DVD in what's called a staged build, this version of Windows Vista 5270 installs in less than half that time of the normal version, which utilizes XP-era install technology. I haven't thoroughly examined why this is so, and there are still questions about how short this process will eventually become, but here's what I've observed. On the same hardware, the staged build installs in about 30 minutes, compared to over one hour for the normal install version. That's a far cry from the 15 minutes Microsoft has promised, but it's a dramatic improvement when compared to the builds we've seen thus far.

New Start button and Start menu

You'll notice subtle improvements to the Windows Vista desktop as soon as it appears. The ugly Start button has been replaced by a prettier round Start button that loses the "Start" text but includes the Vista flag logo. The Start menu itself has been thoroughly overhauled as well, with a new layout and, on systems with Aero Glass, an icon preview that sticks up above the top level of the menu and animates as you mouse over items on the right side of the menu (Figure).

Now, recently used applications are given more precedence in the Start menu, and that left half of the menu occupies about two-thirds of the total menu width. Navigation is as with previous Vista builds: There's no more All Programs pop-up menu. Instead, the left portion of the Start menu displays everything in place.

On the right side of the Start menu, all of the options have completed changed, though it's not obvious at first, and they lack icons now. As you mouse over each item on the right side, the top icon preview changes to display the icon of the item you're about to select. At the top of this right side of the menu is an entry for your home folder, though it's not called that, and is named per your user name (mine says "Paul"). Below that are a list of commonly-accessed personal folders (Virtual Folders in previous builds, and special shell folders in XP), commonly-accessed file system locations (Library, Computer, and Network), and other options such as Recent Items, Control Panel, Program Defaults (formerly "Set Program Access and Defaults"), and Help. At the bottom right are buttons for locking and shutting down the computer.

The personal folders in the Start menu bear some explanation, since their use has changed. In Windows XP, you're probably familiar with special shell folders like My Documents, My Music, and My Pictures that appear in the Start menu. In previous Vista builds, the equivalent items in the Start menu (Documents, Music, and Pictures) pointed not to physical folder locations as in XP, but rather to Virtual Folders, a new UI construct that aggregates content from all over your hard drive and presents it in a single place. So, for example, the Documents entry in the October CTP actually brought you to a Virtual Folder called All Documents. I found this confusing because there was actually a physical folder called Documents as well, and you could get to it from the All Documents Virtual Folder.

So how does it work in 5270? When you select Documents from the Start Menu, you're actually brought to the Documents folder that sits under your home folder. In other words, it works just like XP. You can still access various document-related Virtual Folders from the left-mounted Common Places pane in the window that appears, however. This is, I think, more logical than the previous system. And, as it turns out, it's something that Microsoft has struggled with as it moves towards a truly virtualized file system.

"We actually considered at one time not having folders," Microsoft lead product manager Greg Sullivan told me during a recent briefing. "It was all going to be virtualized storage with search queries and so on. We would just completely abstract the file organization stuff from the physical folders and disk structure. But that was too much of a leap over the chasm, too confusing for users. But what we have now will probably evolve over time as well."

Sullivan agreed with me that the previous system in Vista, where Start menu items linked to confusingly named Virtual Folders instead of similarly named physical folders, had proven to be too confusing as well. So the company began working earlier this fall to simplify the interface. "The namespace stuff has been simplified in a lot of ways, but the rationalization of what you just talked about, where you have a Virtual Folder and a physical folder with the same or similar names, that's going to change," he said. "We're doing a bunch of usability testing on the whole thing and it's changing. The idea that we can abstract the physical folders is still valuable, however."

So Virtual Folders are still there. They're still the results of search queries, and you can still create your own custom Virtual Folders. Now, however, the Pictures item in the Start menu actually launches the physical folder called Pictures. Likewise, Music launches Music, not a Virtual Folder. But each of these folder views does include access to various Virtual Folders, and you can open the new Library item in the Start menu to view all of the available Virtual Folders on your system. It will be interesting to see how (or if) users take to Virtual Folders. Microsoft is, in some ways, betting that they will, but I think this switch is inevitable, thanks to the massive storage devices we now have, and because much of the content we access is not stored locally, but is instead found on networked drives or even Internet-based file stores.

User interface improvements

Even a casual look at the user interface in build 5270 will show several improvements over previous CTP builds. "We've made a lot of progress towards the final Aero look and feel in this build," Shanen Boettcher, the Senior Director of the Windows Client Group at Microsoft said in a briefing this week. Indeed, build 5270 supports the two main user interfaces that the final Vista version will support, Aero Glass and Aero Basic, along with the backwards compatibility Classic mode, which resembles Windows 2000. Aero Glass provides translucent, rounded windows as well as a number of animations and is designed to be professional looking and visually arresting (Figure). Aero Basic retains the style of Aero Glass, but with none of the translucencies and animations, and thus resembles a grayed-out XP-style UI (Figure).

Also new in 5270 is the ability to scale the user interface in various ways, making the system more presentable on high-DPI and high-resolution displays. For the first time in Windows, it's possible to display desktop icons as small (Figure), medium, large, or extra large icons (Figure), and regardless of size, they look wonderful. But you can also scale the entire user interface in increments thanks to a Scale tab on the new Display Settings dialog (Figure). This feature has proven especially useful on the 1680 x 1050 and 1920 x 1200 systems I've been using to test Windows Vista. With a combination of a 120 dpi display and large icons, Windows is suddenly quite usable at high resolution. Bravo.

Windows Vista continues with XP style themes, though it only offers two types, Windows Vista and Windows Classic. More interesting is the new Color Scheme applet, which lets you dramatically alter the look and feel of the Aero user interface and should answer any complaints (Figure). Microsoft supplies a number of stock Aero color schemes, such as Aero (the default), Frost, Smoke, Seafoam, and others, which colorize the Aero window chrome in various ways. But you can also use this applet to disable the Aero transparent glass effects (essentially giving you the now-missing Aero Express look and feel) or vary the intensity of those effects using a sliding scale. Finally, you can use an advanced color mixer to really fine tune the look and feel of Aero via different color, saturation, and brightness controls (Figure).

When you combine Vista's new color scheme capabilities with the multitude of other personalization features, such as the desktop background, various display and user account options, the Start menu and taskbar, folder options, and the like, you start to understand that Windows is becoming a highly customizable environment that anyone should be able to tailor as they see fit. This nod towards personalization is a positive move.

Continue to Part 2...