In Part 1 of my Windows Vista December 2005 CTP (build 5270) review, I focused on the setup experience, new desktop features, and changes to the user interface. In this second part of the review, I'll look at the bundled applications that Microsoft is including in this pre-release version of the next Windows client. Microsoft found itself in antitrust-related trouble thanks to its policy of bundling applications with its dominant Windows OS. However, to be fair, competitors such as Apple, with Mac OS X, and the Linux community have been bundling similar suites of applications in their own operating systems for years. Arguably, Microsoft has a right to make Windows Vista as competitive as possible.
The bundled applications we see in Windows Vista build 5270 are largely evolutions of the applications found today in Windows XP. We might logically break them up into new applications--those that are unique to Windows Vista--and existing applications that are being upgraded for the new system.
Newcomers include Windows Defender, an anti-spyware tool that Microsoft will also make available for free to XP and 2003 users, DVD Maker HD, Windows Mail (which is really just the next version of Outlook Express), Windows Calendar, and Windows Backup, which might be the first truly good backup application to ever be included with Windows.
Microsoft's Windows AntiSpyware product has finally made the transition to Windows Defender in this release, and it sports a much simpler user interface as well as improved spyware and malware detection. Also, Microsoft notes that Windows Defender now runs under standard user privileges, so you don't have to be logged in as an admin-level user to use it any more. That's impressive, I suppose, but isn't that the whole point of Windows Vista to begin with?
In any event, Windows Defender has undergone a number of changes. It's integrated into Security Center (Figure), sports a new tray icon, and has been thoroughly redesigned to more closely resemble Windows One Care Live (Figure). The main Windows Defender screen is the paragon of simplicity, providing only status information and a toolbar with links to various features, most of which you'll never need to access manually anyway. The Scan feature provides Quick Scan and Full Scan, and a way to customize system scans (Figure). Additionally, the Setting and Tools panel provides a nice front-end to various configurable options. This last screen is more than vaguely similar to a similar interface on the old Giant Company AntiSpyware product on which Windows Defender is based. (Microsoft purchased that company almost exactly a year ago.)
One nice feature of integrating this application into Windows is that product updates, including new spyware definitions, can be delivered via Automatic Updates and Windows Update. Indeed, since starting this review, Microsoft has already shipped a Windows Defender update via Windows Update (Figure).
Windows Photo Gallery
In my review of build 5231, I noted that Windows Photo Gallery (WPG), then called Windows Digital Gallery, was both a simplified version of Microsoft Digital Image Suite (DIS) 2006 Library, and woefully did not work correctly. In build 5270, this application--which provides handy photo management capabilities akin to Apple's iPhoto--does finally work. It looks like a winner: With WPG, you can organize your digital photo (and video) collection in logical ways in its default Gallery view, adding titles, rating, captions, and custom meta data tags to your photos (Figure). You can also use WPG to perform simple editing tasks via its Fix command, which switches the application into an Edit view where you can auto adjust individual photos, and adjust exposure or color (Figure).
WPG also supplies other photo (and video)-related functions, such as printing (via a nice new photo printing wizard) (Figure), and even DVD movie burning through the new DVD Maker HD application. WPG can even be use to acquire photos from digital cameras, scanners, and other sources if you prefer to use a single application for all of those tasks.
Windows DVD Maker HD
Windows DVD Maker HD (called Windows DVD Maker in this build) appears to be functional and present in build 5270, but requires, I believe, a DVD decoder to run. I've tried the DVD decoder I use with Windows XP, but cannot get it to work. If I can figure this one out, I'll update the review, but for now, just know that a DVD movie making application, similar to Apple's iDVD, is on the way.
Windows Collaboration is a peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration application that allows one to ten people with Windows Vista systems to remotely work together as if they were in the same room. The application lets you share your desktop with other coworkers, distribute and edit documents, and pass notes to other participants. What's interesting about this application, beyond the fact that it's bundled into Windows at all, is that it will work with existing wireless or wired networks if they exist, but if no networks are found, it will set up a special ad hoc network with other nearby participants using Wi-Fi technology. In this way, Windows Collaboration is different from other similar applications in that it does not require a server (or an actual Internet connection if the participants are all nearby).
The Windows Collaboration application is extremely simple (Figure). It features links for starting a new session, joining an existing session, and opening an invitation file (which is optionally sent by a person starting a collaboration session). When you start a session, you're prompted to provide a session name and password. Then, the session starts, and you see a workspace that includes a presentation area (for shared applications), a list of participants, and a list of handouts. When you pick an application to share, your desktop switches into presentation mode so that participants can see what you're working on and participate.
So ... what's the point of all this? One of the big bets in Windows Vista is that users will want to user P2P technologies to interact with others in meaningful ways. Windows Collaboration is the most obvious example of this work, and it betrays the way Microsoft thinks. That is, that most people using Windows will want to interact in a way that very closely mimics a business meeting, complete with "handouts" and so on. I'm not sure this is the way things will go--in fact, I'd argue that this sort of functionality will be far more appealing to college-aged kids than established knowledge workers. It would be interesting to see a more generalized way for individuals to meet each other virtually, and exchange files and other information.
It's unclear why Windows has lacked a quality desktop calendaring application for so long, but Windows Vista will introduce Windows Calendar, which appears to be on par with Apple's iCal application. Windows Calendar is attractive looking (Figure), offers a number of nice calendar views including day, week, and month (and work week, but only through the menu), and features an integrated task module. In many ways, it's the functional equivalent of the Calendar portion of Microsoft Outlook, albeit without any enterprise-oriented features.
What's really nice is that Windows Calendar works with Internet-standard calendaring formats such as ICS. That means you can subscribe to Web-based calendars, and even publish your own calendar. And for the old-fashioned, Windows Calendar's print function does a nice job of providing stock print styles (including, yes, Work Week) (Figure).
Because Windows Calendar is integrated with Windows, you can optionally configure it to provide event notifications even when the application is not running, a nice touch. If you're familiar with iCal, you know all you need to know about Windows Calendar.
Continuing in the tradition of other bundles applications, Windows Backup presents an overly simple user interface and can be automated to run in the background without much intervention (Figure). If you configure Windows Backup to perform automatic backups, you can choose which types of files to backup (documents, photos, music, and/or movies and videos), where the backup will occur (DVD/CD, or via a network share), and when the backups will take place (daily, weekly, or monthly) and at what time (Figure). The first backup will include all of your files, while subsequent backups will only include changed or new documents.
Windows Backup also offers manual backups, various restore tasks, and, interestingly, a way to save a system image, which is a backup of the entire hard disk. System images can be used to completely restore your PC to a point-in-time state, which can be handy if something horrible happens down the road.
Anyone who's tried to use the sad backup applications found in current Windows versions will appreciate the work that's gone into Windows Backup. It looks like a classy application.
Upgraded versions of existing bundled applications
The rest of the bundled applications are updated versions of old favorites, such as Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker.
Windows Media Player 11
With version 11, Windows Media Player (WMP) is undergoing a metamorphosis into something special. This is kind of tragic, frankly, because virtually no one will even appreciate what happened until Apple rips them off in the next major version of iTunes. To understand the difference, consider how applications such as iTunes and WMP 10 present music library information today. Even though the music files themselves are rich media files with accompanying album art and other meta data, today's music jukeboxes present your music library as a flat file database composed solely of text that describes each song. Boring.
In WMP 11, Microsoft is revolutionizing media jukebox applications by presenting this information visually. The default view for music files, songs, is representative of this approach: Instead of a long, monotonous list of song titles, you get rich album art, along with the ability to rate each song (Figure). That's the default view.
You can also sort your music library in various other ways, such as by artist (Figure), album, genre, year, or rating. And as you'd expect, each of these views presents a similar rich look at album art. That's all well and good, but this is Vista we're talking about, so WMP 11 also supports a stacked view, as seen in the Genre view. This lets you dive into your music collection in a way that will quickly become familiar to Vista users.
Aside from the wonderful visualizations, WMP 11 is improved in many other ways. First of all, it's considerably simpler looking than previous WMP, with a nice tabbed-based navigation scheme across the top of the window. Each of these tabs hides a multitude of context-sensitive additional features, however. When you click the little down-arrow under Library, for example, you'll see various media library-related options (Figure), including options for switching the view from music to pictures, video, recorded TV, or other media content (it is called Windows Media Player, after all).
WMP 11 also includes pervasive search features that are similar to those found in the OS itself. "We've made major updates to Windows Media Player 11 in this build," Shanen Boettcher, the Senior Director of the Windows Client Group at Microsoft said in a briefing earlier this week. "These changes are consistent with the integration of search elsewhere in the system." When you type text into the integrated WMP 11 search box, the results appear as you type (Figure). They're context-sensitive too. If you search for "Enya" under Songs or Artists, results will appear, but that won't fly in Genres.
In my review of Windows Vista build 5231, I heaped an egregious amount of scornful criticism on the version of Media Center it included. I'm here today, two months later, to tell you that Microsoft has not only listened the criticism that I, and no doubt many others, inflicted on them for what I'll call Media Center 5231, but that the version found in build 5270 is largely fixed and does not include many of the problems I called out in that previous review.
Let's step back for a moment so you'll understand where I'm coming from. I'm a Media Center proponent. I've championed this wonderful digital video recorder (DVR) solution since the first demo I received at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2002 and my family has used a Media Center PC as its only TV interface since an early beta in mid-2002. Over the intervening years, we've upgraded to beta versions of each new version, and I've worked closely with various members of the Media Center and Digital Media teams at Microsoft on each version, establishing friendships along the way as I provided feedback on each release. I have watched as each Media Center version built on previous versions, adding features and yet retaining the wonderful simplicity that made this product as usable by normal people (like my wife and kids) as it is for technical people like you and I. For my family, Media Center is TV. They have never known a world without it, and they expect to see television content that is tailored to their needs, when they want it. There are good and bad aspects to that, of course. But for the past three and a half years, Media Center has sat front and center in our living room, serving up family photos and home movies in addition to TV shows (both live and recorded) and DVD movies. We've sold countless Media Centers just from people coming into my home and seeing what it can do. It's that good.
And then came build 5231, like a slap to the face. Gone were the simple navigation and design, replaced by an ugly, busy, and complicated user interface. It was if the Media Center team had forgotten why Media Center was successful in the first place. In my review, I was harshly critical of the changes, and the reaction from Microsoft was somewhat interesting. Though some of the people actually working on the product were predictably upset with me, many at the company understood where I was coming from, as a Media Center advocate. Microsoft's executives agreed with my (and again, with others') criticisms. So the product was changed. And looking at build 5270, you can see that they've gotten rid of virtually everything I complained about.
Gone are the awful colors. Gone are the miserable and weird slanted animations that followed every selection. The horizontal navigation is still present, a bad idea borrowed from the ill-conceived Portable Media Center products, but at least it's more usable now because it's so much less busy (Figure). And remember my comment about a playlists entry being absent from the Music section? It's back, baby. Someone listened.
So thank you, Microsoft. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm still not positive that the direction the company is going with Media Center is the correct one, as the horizontal navigation is so odd and unlike any other Windows media application (like WMP 11 and Windows Photo Gallery, for example, which scroll through content vertically) that I think Media Center Vista will confuse some people. But at the least the truly horrible stuff is banished forever.
I'll hold off on more specifics for now because the performance of Media Center is still miserable in this build. But clearly, there will be a lot more to say about this interface in future articles. Stay tuned.
Internet Explorer 7 improvements
In each release of Windows Vista, we get closer and closer to what the final version of Internet Explorer (IE) 7 is going to look like, and the closer we get to that eventual day, the more I like what I see. I've been using Mozilla Firefox as my default browser for a few years now, largely because it's more secure and offers so many more useful features than does IE 6. But IE 7 may sway me back the Microsoft camp, God help me. It's that good.
Understand that I'm discussing the Vista version of IE 7 here, which will offer one key advantage that IE 7 for Windows XP will not have. That is, IE 7 runs in Protected Mode in Windows Vista, shielding the OS from both the application itself and any malicious files it may inadvertently (or purposefully) download. This extra bit of protection may finally make IE safe to use, and when you consider the vast array of useful new features this product includes, it's kind of a no-brainer.
We discussed most of those new features in previous Vista CTP reviews. This time around, the improvements are more subtle, but no less valuable. First, Microsoft has added support for International Domain Names (IDN), providing protection from malicious sites that try to spoof International domain names. "Internet DNS servers only speak English," Gary Schare, Microsoft's Director of Windows Product Management, told me during a Windows Vista briefing recently. "But there are other characters that international companies would like to use in their domain names. IDN support is all about enabling browsers to handle those characters." The problem is that malicious sites will often try to spoof browsers with characters that resemble other international characters. So IE 7 provides an IDN warning in the Info Bar whenever such spoofing occurs. Firefox, Schare told me, does support IDN, but offers no warnings when spoofing occurs.
There's a lot more, some of which will show up in later builds. For this reason, I'll defer a wider discussion of new IE 7 features--especially its incredible new security controls--to a future tech showcase.
A few months back, Microsoft told me that it was canning Outlook Express in lieu of a new email client called Windows Mail. Excited about what the company had planned, I waited to see how this new email product would look. Now that the first version is here, I'm not sure why I got excited: It's just a rebranded version of Outlook Express. Perhaps a future build will introduce new features (and a new look and feel), but I don't see anything in the version found in build 5270 to get excited about.
Previously called the Windows Migration Wizard, Windows Transfer lets you copy user accounts, files and folders, program settings, Internet settings and favorites, and email settings, contacts, and messages from an old PC (running Windows 2000, XP or Vista only) to your new Windows Vista PC. With Windows XP, you could use this application's predecessor to perform similar tasks, but the necessary application was found right on the XP install CD. This time around, you need to use Windows Transfer in Vista to make an install CD (or use a USB memory key) that you will use on your previous computer (Figure).
When the copy is complete, you insert the CD or USB memory key in your old computer, and select Run the Windows Transfer Wizard from the Auto Play dialog (Figure). A pseudo-Vista window screen appears, offering you locations to which to you?re your files (USB PC-to-PC cable, network, CD, DVD, or USB memory key) (Figure). Then, you select which user accounts, program settings, and files you'd like to transfer, or specify an advanced option in which you can hand-pick options. Here, you're provided with a tree view of the file system. Once you've selected what you want to copy, the files are copied to the target media (Figure), and you're ready to head back to the Vista machine.
Back on the Vista box, the insertion of the target media triggers a resumption of the transfer process (Figure). And once the files are copied, you're done. One obvious question you may have is about where the files go when they're copied. After all, the layout of a typical Vista system is a bit different than that of a typical Windows 2000 or XP system. For the most part, the files go to the same file system location they were found in originally. In my first test, for example, I copied over only Word documents (*.doc). Some of these files were found under the Program Files folder structure, because they were related to various application read me files. So even though I don't have Quake 2 installed on my Vista test machine, I now have a folder called Quake 2 under Program Files (Figure). That's because that folder on my XP machine includes various Word documents. Sigh.
Continue to Part 3...