In part one of my review of the Windows Vista February 2006 Community Technical Preview (CTP, build 5308), I mentioned that I would be covering changes and additions to the bundled applications in this OS in part two of the review. However, I should cover installation and upgrade issues first, since this is the first build we've seen of Vista that includes the ability to upgrade in-place from Windows XP. So we'll look at the bundled applications in part 3. On to setup and installation...

Clean install

In build 5308, the setup routine has been refreshed but not changed in any dramatic way. You may recall that Jim Allchin had promised me that this build would be the first to include the fast setup technology that Microsoft has been discussing for some time now (see my showcase, Jim Allchin Talks Windows Vista, for details). However, the first version of build 5308 that Microsoft gave to testers did not appear to have this technology in place, as installs proceed at the same old time of roughly one hour, regardless of the PC used. Since then, Microsoft has released a slightly updated version of build 5308, version 5308.60 (the original was 5308.17). However, this revised version is an unstaged build, meaning that it uses a different, even more performance-challenged setup routine and then runs slower because of built-in developer diagnostics. So it's unlikely that that build will be any better. I'll check that soon, however.

To test the February CTP, I installed build 5308 on four physical PCs and one Virtual PC-based virtual machine. The four PCs consist of a single core Athlon 64-based desktop with a high-end ATI graphics card (my primary desktop) and three laptops: A Dell Latitude D810 with 1 GB of RAM, an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T40 with 512 MB of RAM, and an Intel Core Duo-based Lenovo ThinkPad T43 with 1 GB of RAM.

Stepping through the clean install

Installing Windows Vista in a clean install scenario is mostly hands-off and requires two reboots. On the systems I tested, it took about an hour, which is dramatically longer than should be necessary.

In the first step, Setup asks you whether you'd like to download updates online before starting, which is generally a good idea. After searching for installation updates, Vista Setup prompts you for your product key, and lets you decide whether you'd like the system to automatically perform Product Activation when you're online. Then you agree to the end user license agreement (EULA) and decide whether to perform an upgrade or a custom install.

To perform a clean install, you must choose custom install, pick the partition to which you will install Vista, and then perform any partition-related tasks (formatting, for example) if necessary. From then on, it's hands-off: Vista copies the files it needs to the hard drive, reboots twice, and then runs the first boot experience.

You can see these steps in my Windows Vista February CTP Screenshot Gallery 1: Clean Install.

Incidentally, I've gotten a number of questions about the Vista boot screen in build 5308. Basically, there isn't one: The progress bar and copyright line from previous builds is present, but the "Longhorn" logo is missing and there's no Vista logo yet, just a blank black screen (Figure). Maybe in April.

During the first boot experience, you create a user with optional password, give the PC a name, choose a desktop background, and boot into the desktop for the first time. It's all very straightforward and very similar to the December CTP, though there is a nice new animated background when the first boot experience first appears.

Hardware support

Compared to previous betas, build 5308 features better to stunningly better hardware support. That is, previous CTP installs all had a variety of problems, where particular hardware devices weren't detected properly or the system didn't include the proper drivers. Until this build, I was unable to get a totally clean Device Manager on any one system--that is, a Device Manager in which every single hardware device attached to the system had a properly working driver. Because of this, and for performance reasons, I was unable to use Vista full time with any of the previous builds. And I had been hoping to run Vista full-time since last summer.

With build 5308, that's all changed. To be fair, each system I installed the build to did require some driver tweaking. But the problems are far less onerous than they were with previous builds. In build 5308, the predominant hardware issue appears to be sound drivers. On each of the systems, the sound card was not correctly detected during install and I had to manually install the proper XP driver. But my primary desktop was the biggest surprise. On this system, only the sound driver was not installed. And when I went to install the XP sound driver, I found another huge improvement over previous builds.

You may recall that software compatibility has been an issue with previous versions of Vista. The workaround was to use Vista's compatibility mode features, in tandem with an option to always run particular applications as an Administrator, to fool the system into running certain legacy applications. This same trick sometimes worked for EXE-based drivers as well (but not for drivers you install through Device Manager). Sometimes it didn't.

In 5308, when you run an EXE-based device driver installation routine (or an application installer) that is designed for Windows XP, it will often fail the first time. However, Vista will then alert you to try again. And when you do so, the driver install works. This is how I got sound working on my primary desktop and achieved, for the first time ever, a completely clean Device Manager in any Vista build. Needless to say, this was a joyful event in the Thurrott household. Not so much for the kids, but you get the idea.

Upgrade

For the first time, Microsoft has enabled the ability to upgrade an existing Windows installation to Windows Vista. I tested this new capability with a virtual machine-based version of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, which I updated with all of the Microsoft Update-based updates. I also installed a small suite of applications--including Adobe Reader, Mozilla Firefox, Apple iTunes, and other applications--to see how Vista handled legacy applications. I also installed a few applications I knew wouldn't work in Vista, including Zone Alarm Security Suite.

Compared to a clean install, the upgrade was surprisingly similar. The steps are basically all the same, except that when you first choose Upgrade from the Setup routine, Setup performs a driver compatibility check (Figure) and reports back which might cause issues (Figure). This part of setup is incomplete looking and gave me some spurious results.

Once setup is complete, you skip the clean install first boot experience and proceed directly to the Vista Welcome screen (Figure), which lets you logon to a previously-configured user, put the machine to sleep, shut down, or restart (Figure). When you logon, Vista retains some of your settings (like the desktop background) but not others (like the desktop icon size) (Figure).

Many of you will be interested in how the various applications and hardware devices survived the upgrade. The results weren't too encouraging, though to be fair, Microsoft did warn me that upgrading with this build would be rough. Adobe Reader 7, Apple QuickTime 7, Microsoft Windows Live Messenger Beta, Mozilla Firefox, and WinZIP 10 all made the transition just fine. Meanwhile, Apple iTunes 6, Microsoft Cmd Here PowerToy, Microsoft WMP 10 Energy Bliss Visualization for Windows Media Player 10, and ZoneAlarm Security Suite had essentially disappeared. It was if they had never been installed (a repair of the iTunes application failed to fix things).

What do we take away from this? Not much, to be honest. It's early yet, and since this is the first build in which this feature was even enabled, we'll want to see how things progress over the next few months. But I don't think upgrade issues are a big problem at this point. You'd have to be crazy to upgrade a real PC to Vista at this point.

On to Part 3...