Microsoft releases the first public beta of its new Windows Vista operating system.
Warning: Your Vista mileage will vary
Microsoft has published the minimum hardware requirements to run Vista, however, the page includes two columns: requirements for systems that are either capable of or optimal for running Vista. Microsoft says: "Windows Vista-Capable PCs will be able to run at least the core experiences of Windows Vista...[while] Windows Vista Premium-Ready PCs can deliver even better Windows Vista experiences." That means different hardware will give users different Vista experiences; for example, many beta testers will not be able to experience the Aero graphics capabilities on their current machines.
Also, beta 2 contains what Microsoft calls its Windows Vista Ultimate edition, meaning that every possible feature is available in this build. When Vista goes to market early in 2007, there will be considerably fewer features available in Windows Vista Home and Windows Vista Home Premium, the editions expected to be available on retail store shelves and to ship OEM on all new PCs. Business and Enterprise customers will have more networking features but fewer entertainment features. For a breakdown of what's expected to ship in each edition, see this News.com article. All users will be able to purchase Windows Vista Ultimate; however, marketing strategies and prices have yet to be announced.
Since beta 2 is not ready for prime time, you should install it on a new partition or on a nonproduction PC. Microsoft has attempted to make the installation process as fast as possible, copying an image of the operating system onto your hard drive, then expanding that image into individual files. Once complete, Vista asks for a username, a choice of icon, and a password for the primary account holder. You then get to choose your wallpaper design. Finally, you are asked to set the security levels, with the default letting Vista make the right choices for you. Without a reboot, the new operating system starts.
When you first launch Vista, aside from the impressive graphics, you should also see a Welcome Center dialog box. The box includes details about the PC you are using, plus icons to answer common questions such as how to transfer files from your old OS, add a printer, connect to the Internet, set up Windows Media Player, or view your computer details and Windows settings.
Windows Vista launches with three default gadgets (widgets) on the far right side of the desktop. These include a slide show, an analog clock, and a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) reader. A plus sign near the top opens additional options, including games, a calculator, a currency translator, an onscreen notepad, and an onscreen computer diagnostics gauge.
Start meets Search
New users will appreciate the streamlined Start menu. The right column has been simplified to show tasks, such as Documents, Pictures, Music, and Games. While you can still view All Programs, Microsoft has included the tree structure within the Start menu. But if you want to find what you're looking for fast, try the new integrated search. Type word, and instantly find and execute your copy of Microsoft Office Word, or, if you prefer, Wordpad.
In the lower right, Microsoft gives you more options than just "change user" and "off." In Vista you can instantly turn off your PC by quickly capturing your active desktop session in memory so that you can keep working when you restart your PC. You can also lock your computer, set it to sleep, hibernate, or completely shut down.
New in Windows Vista beta 2 is a fully fleshed out help and support section. Vista still includes built-in help FAQs and online resources from the Microsoft knowledge base but adds several more options. For example, within the Help window, you can now arrange for remote assistance from a fellow Vista user, join an online forum, or contact Microsoft support. Some FAQs also feature automated help. By clicking "Check the version of a driver," for example, then "Do it automatically," your desktop dims slightly as an illuminated arrow floats across the screen, showing you what you would click if you were doing this yourself. At several points, the animation stops and a dialog box opens to request an answer before proceeding.
New file structure
Forget back slashes and directory trees. Windows Vista allows you to move files around on your hard drive--even virtually--without physically moving the files. You can, for example, save a file to a remote drive within the Save As window; no need to create a new folder, name it, then populate it with a file.
One feature that's gotten a fair amount of press but will be available only in the Ultimate and Enterprise editions is BitLocker, a way to encrypt your entire hard drive. By encrypting the contents of your hard drive, hackers will have a harder time benefiting from the theft of a laptop. Unlike third-party drive encryption, which requires you to log in, then boot into Windows, Microsoft combines these steps for faster access to Windows Vista.
Don't have enough RAM to launch an application? If you have a USB drive greater than 258MB installed, a feature called ReadyBoost can direct Windows Vista to use some of that flash memory for an added assist. If you have a hybrid hard drive with built-in flash, Windows ReadyDrive can use that memory to save your desktop work session for fast access upon reboot.
Don't remember how to connect your PC to a LAN or your home wireless network? Windows Vista takes all the related tools and conveniently relocates them in one, easy-to-use center.
Windows Meeting Space
Formerly known as Windows Collaboration, Windows Meeting Space allows up to 10 wireless users to establish an ad hoc network, allowing the members of that ad hoc session to share Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentations, control of another's desktop, and individual files. This is designed for business travelers meeting in a cafe or waiting for an airplane.
And there's more...much more
See also our individual First Takes and slide shows for coverage of what's new in Internet Explorer 7 for Vista, Windows Defender, Windows Media Center, and Windows Media Player 11.