Since writing Part 3 of this review, Microsoft has shipped an interim build of Windows Vista, build 5342, and is preparing to ship a second any day now. Build 5342 is not markedly different from the February 2006 Community Technical Preview (CTP), and includes just a few obvious new features and many bug fixes. For this reason, I'll be incorporating build 5342 into part 4 of this review. In addition to the improved applications listed in this part of the review, build 5342 includes a number of other updates. For example, in the Desktop Background section of the Control Panel's Personalization area, you now see a list of new pictures types including System Wallpaper, Black and White, Textures, Fine Art, Vistas, Widescreen, Abstract, Pictures, Public Pictures, and Solid Colors. Most of these, however--including Black and White, Textures, Fine Art, Vistas, Widescreen, and Abstract--currently feature only placeholder images. Presumably the actual picture files will be seen in a later build. There are, however, new pictures in Sample Pictures.

There are other non-application-related improvements in build 5342. Now, the system respects resolution changes between users. So you might set up the display for 1024 x 768 for one user, but 1600 x 1200 for the next. As you move back and forth between user accounts, either via Fast User Switching or logging off and logging on, the system will switch resolutions as needed as you move into each account. Eureka.

Also, a number of readers expressed concern that I was never going to finish this review. My intention was always to complete it, but obviously as time slipped from March into April 2006, it became less and less clear how it would all turn out. This is, after all, a review of the February CTP (now amended to include late March's build 5342 release). Well, I think I'll be able to finish it, though other pressing events--like the release of Apple's Boot Camp software (see my review) have obviously conspired to keep me away from this review. What the heck, let's get it done.

In this part of the review, I'll be focusing solely on bundled applications that did appear in previous Vista builds but were upgraded in some way between builds 5308 and 5342.

Contacts

One of the early promises Microsoft made about Windows Vista was that it would include a deeply integrated Contacts store that would replace the old Windows Address Book (WAB), which has been kicking around for years. As with most things in Vista, however, the eventual reality of the new Contacts functionality is dramatically reduced from the original vision. In builds 5308 and 5342, we can see what Contacts is really going to look like in Windows Vista, and while it's certainly an improvement over XP's WAB, it's hardly as interesting as originally promised.

What we've got this time around is the old WAB-style address book, this type presented in an Explorer-style user interface (Figure). This means that your contacts are typically shown via the Explorer shell, and not via a more typical application. Indeed, the address book is basically elevated to the status of a special shell folder, and the new Contacts folder sits below your user account folder, alongside Desktop, Documents, Favorites, and the other user-specific folders.

From within Contacts, you can use Vista's new Explorer view styles to organize your contacts, add new contacts and contact groups, import contacts (from the same lame list of sources Outlook Express supports: CSV, LDIF, vCard, and WAB), and export contacts (to CSV or vCards). Nothing dramatic, really.

Individual contacts are displayed and configured via a dialog box that is actually quite similar to the old WAB Contacts Properties dialog (Figure). The only big change is that you can now add a picture to represent each contact. When you do add a picture, the contact's icon changes in Contacts to match (Figure).

Games

The Games special shell folder has been augmented to provide the user with some information and configuration options for the folder the first time it's accessed (Figure). Additionally, the InkBall game--previously available only to Tablet PC users--is now included (Figure), though I couldn't get it to work properly on a normal notebook machine.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer doesn't get a lot of respect, but then that mistreatment is deserved given its legendary security problems. That said, IE 7, the version included in Windows Vista, is coming along nicely and will likely win over a lot of people who were previously testing the Firefox waters. No surprise there: IE 7 copies virtually every major Firefox feature (with a few exceptions like inline search, themes and extensions, and the download manager). But Microsoft deserves some credit for creating some truly unique IE 7-only features as well, including Quick Tabs. The IE 7 version included in build 5342 is only slightly updated from previous builds and is roughly analogous to the IE 7 Beta 2 Refresh that Microsoft released for Windows XP last month.

Media Center

I will be writing a lot about Media Center in the next and final part of this review, and a lot of it won't be complimentary: Microsoft has taken much that was good about Media Center, beaten it senseless with an ugly stick, and left it for dead. I feel bad about that, because Media Center was previously one of the most innovative and elegant solutions Microsoft had ever created. It's astonishing how much they got wrong in the Vista version, given their previously untarnished success record.

Complaints aside, Media Center has been improved dramatically, most obviously in build 5342, which is what I'll focus on here. First, there are now onscreen controls that appear when you move the mouse or use the remote control (Figure). These controls include Back and Start buttons in the upper left of the display as well as a nice set of media playback controls in the bottom right. The idea here is clear: Because most Media Center users aren't, in fact, using Media Center with a TV and remote control, these onscreen controls will help mouse users interact more easily with the system. And these controls nicely fade into the screen, regardless of what you're doing, which creates a nice effect during TV show, video, or photo slideshow playback (Figure).

Sadly, basic Media Center functionality hasn't changed since December: It's still ugly, busy, and non-intuitive for the most part, and relies too heavily on horizontal navigation. Again, I'll discuss Media Center's many problems in the next part of this review.

Sync Center

Sync Center has finally been updated and while the UI is obviously still not final, you can see some of the functionality Microsoft's been talking about for a long time. Specifically, it's now possible to synchronize your documents and settings between two Vista-based PCs (Figure). Well, that is, if it worked. But crashes aside, the UI here is finally coming together and the functionality is finally starting to move beyond the old XP-style IE synchronization seen in previous builds. I do have one question, however? Where's all the great device synchronization stuff we were promised?

Windows Calendar

If you've seen Apple's iCal, then you've seen Windows Calendar (Figure). I'm not sure what else to say. As Shawn Morrissey of Microsoft's Platform Incubation Team told me back in January when I pressed him about the similarities, "there are only so many ways to do a calendar application." Sure. But my guess is there at least two ways. Microsoft might have avoided some uncomfortable questions had they not completely copied Apple's application.

That said, Windows users have lacked a good iCalendar-based calendaring solution like iCal (and let's face it, Mozilla hasn't exactly been cracking the whip on whoever is working on their Sunbird calendaring application). And Windows Calendar, ultimately, is a nice-looking, fairly full-featured calendar, with the ability to publish to WebDAV-based Web servers and subscribe to all the great iCalendar-based content that's on the Web today. My guess is that most Vista users will find this to be a wonderful solution for scheduling home and personal events.

Windows Defender

Windows Defender has been updated to closely resemble the public beta that Microsoft shipped in February 2006 (see my review). That is, it includes the new Defender dashboard as well as a number of under-the-cover improvements that makes this product quiet enjoyable. That is, it doesn't annoy you all day long with pop-up windows, a huge advantage over competing products.

Windows Easy Transfer

The old File and Settings Transfer Wizard has been rebranded as Windows Easy Transfer, a name that is certainly easier on the eyes (Figure). Windows Easy Transfer is a wizard-style application that, curiously, takes over the entire screen while presenting a fake Aero-style window that is, in fact, a bitmap. During the wizard, you step through the process of installing the application on your old computer, selecting the files and settings you'd like to transfer to your new Vista-based PC, and then actually transfer the files and settings to the new PC.

Windows Mail

I was so excited to hear that Microsoft was developing a new mail client for Windows Vista. Imagine, then, my disappointment when I figured out that Windows Mail is simply a warmed over version of Outlook Express, one that is visually and functionally almost identical to its predecessor. What could be more boring? I'm having a hard time imagining.

Windows Media Player

Like IE 7, Windows Media Player (WMP) 11 will surprise a lot of people, especially those who foolishly thought the poor performance and text-based interface employed by iTunes somehow represented the state of the art in media players. Thanks to its highly visual music browsing and management system, WMP 11 is both good looking and highly functional (Figure). Too bad you can't natively use an iPod with it. (To be fair, WMP 11 does owe a few nods of recognition towards iTunes. It has been drastically simplified when compared to WMP 10, for starters, a trend that can only be called iTunes-esque.)

The version of WMP 11 in build 5342 includes a number of subtle improvements, most related to subtle fine tuning. It includes five sample songs, all with album art of course, so you can at least check out the player before copying over any of your songs. The online stores portion of WMP 11 doesn't currently work very well: In build 5308, the URGE service appeared as the default choice, but didn't work. In 5342, URGE is gone, but nothing works. They'll get there.

Windows Movie Maker

Is it me, or is Windows Movie Maker (WMM) just incredibly ugly-looking in Windows Vista (Figure)? I mean, look at it. You'd think we'd see something that visually resembles Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Media Player, but no, WMM is just various shades of gray with virtually no differentiating UI bits. I hope they fix this in future builds. More important, perhaps, where is all the new functionality?

From what I can tell, this version of WMM is simply a small update over what we got in XP. It doesn't appear to be much different. There's a weird new pseudo toolbar that offers options for showing and hiding the task bar and collections view, a way to switch between effects, transitions, and imported media, and a way to switch between Thumbnails and Details view. Previously, these options were all available in the normal application toolbar.

An Import Media button is now prominently fixed to the upper left of the window. This button simply launches an Open file dialog so you can, well, import media files. In WMM 2.1, you did this via the task pane or the File menu. But now ... it's more obvious, I guess.

If you take the time to painfully compare every single menu and UI option in this application, as I just did, you'll discover there's precious little new here. Is this is a joke? Microsoft took the time to include a DVD making application in Windows Vista, but it let Movie Maker simmer on the back burner? Seriously?

Windows Photo Gallery

It's easy to discredit Windows Photo Gallery as an Apple iPhoto rip-off because, frankly, that's exactly what it seems like (Figure). But the truth is that Photo Gallery is really just a lite version of the Library application in Microsoft's Digital Image Suite product line, which both predates iPhoto and is currently in its 11th major revision. The truth is also that Photo Gallery represents a major step back for Microsoft. But not because it's a bad application--far from it, actually.

In XP, Microsoft made a bet that users would enjoy managing digital photos with the Windows shell. With Windows Vista, Microsoft is tacitly admitting that they were wrong: Now, users will be able to manage digital photos using a dedicated iPhoto-like application instead. This change of heart is interesting for a number of reasons, but in my opinion the big news is that application-centricity has won out over the task-based interfaces Microsoft plugged in XP.

Enough philosophizing. Photo Gallery is a decent application, and it will indeed meet the requirements of most users. Compared to Digital Image Suite 2006 Library, it's a bit bare bones, however, so users who need more could step up to the full Digital Image Suite product, I guess. Anyway, Photo Gallery is basically a subset of the Library app from DIS 2006, with a few changes. The toolbars on the top and bottom of the application are unique to Vista, for example. And Photo Gallery includes a search box, of course. This is Vista, after all. The Info bar in Photo Gallery is on the right side of the application window, whereas in DIS Library 2006 it's on the bottom. No big deal there.

Conclusions

The more time goes by, the more it seems that we're not going to be seeing many surprises in Windows Vista. Many of the applications listed here are warmed over versions of applications you've seen before in Windows XP or even Mac OS X, and precious little is changing from beta to beta. Part of me wants to believe that that's OK. After all, the operating system needs to stabilize so it can be completed by the end of the year. But so little is changing, even when compared to XP, that another part of me is quite nervous that Windows Vista is going to be a huge disappointment. I'm going to let that part take the reins for a bit in part five of this review, where I'll examine the many places in which Windows Vista is a complete letdown. Stay tuned.

Part 5 coming soon...