Windows Vista RC1 (build 5564) should mark the final stretch for Microsoft's new operating system, but don't be surprised if Microsoft issues one more public release candidate before making Windows Vista final.
The term Release Candidate is given to software considered to be feature complete and stable and, if no major bugs are found, is usually followed in short order with the Release to Manufacture (RtM) version (for OEM vendors) and final code (for sale to the general public). But unlike the release of Windows XP RC1 on July 2, 2001, when Microsoft issued a press release announcing 115 days until Windows XP's final release (a promise it kept), Microsoft is still unable to provide an exact date for the final release of Windows Vista, although the online retailer Amazon is taking preorders for with a release date of January 30, 2007. Windows Vista RC1 feels a little unbaked and could probably benefit from more user testing.
For this First Take, CNET had access to Windows Vista RC1 (build 5564), which may or may not be the same build number released to the public, and is a more mature build than the pre-RC1 released to the public at the end of August. For a look inside, see our Windows Vista RC1 slide show.
Windows Vista RC1 features fit and finish, mostly trivial improvements when compared with Windows Vista Beta 2. For example, there's an icon in the task tray to restore the Sidebar feature when it's disabled, and there's tighter integration with the Windows Live family of online services, such as Windows Live OneCare. The real improvements are under the hood and are present in increased performance and greater stability.
Our installation of Windows Vista RC1 onto a dual-core Acer TravelMate 8200 laptop was fast; RC1 installed onto a clean partition in about 30 minutes as opposed to 45 minutes for Beta 2. After a series of questions--such as choice of account name, PC name, and wallpaper--Vista launches with the familiar Sidebar gadgets of a digital clock, photo gallery, and RSS along the right-hand side of the desktop, on by default. All of our laptop's drivers installed during installation and did not, as in previous builds, require us to search for updates. New to the desktop is an icon for the Windows Vista compatibility wizard (see below), where you can configure your favorite software to run on the new operating system.
Also new are the introductory sounds when booting into and exiting Vista; these are not the final musical cues for Vista, just placeholders, but sounds have been noticeably absent in previous builds. There's a built-in screensaver now, and you'll notice more fading in and out when accessing the desktop. And we also found Vista's ability to sleep and wake up is much improved in build 5564; previously we've had to reboot our laptop, thereby losing our previous sessions.
The Welcome Center, which greets new users upon bootup, includes the standard help features, such as how to configure your network, your printer, and connect to the Internet. New are links to Microsoft Windows Live online services, such as Windows Live OneCare, Windows Live Messenger, and Windows Live Mail (formerly Hotmail).
The Program Compatibility wizard identifies third-party software on your desktop and, if necessary, creates a "Vista shim" to fool the program into thinking it's running on an older operating system, perhaps the OS it was designed to run on. It's a clever idea. However, I think malicious coders may find a way to exploit this feature in the future. This is one of a few security concerns I have with this supposedly secure operating system from Microsoft.
User Account Control
While maintaining that Vista is the most secure operating system it's released to date, Microsoft has also backed off in this RC1 release on its aggressive User Account Control (UAC) protection. Previously, some early testers had complained that access to most features was blocked by an annoying message asking the user to obtain permission or, if the user was already an administrator, to simply click through a warning dialog box first. Worse, while the UAC message appears, the entire desktop darkens so that one has to acknowledge the message before continuing. In our testing, RC1 (build 5564) has introduced some graphic distortion every time a UAC message appears onscreen; while this distortion is minor, it wasn't apparent in previous builds and will need to be fixed before final release. Overall, Microsoft has relaxed its criteria for issuing a UAC warning within RC1; for example, you'll no longer see a UAC warning whenever you delete an icon from the desktop. A list of other UAC changes in RC1 can be found in this blog. As administrator, it is also possible to turn off the User Account Control completely.
Unfortunately rumors circulating on the Internet suggesting that Microsoft had discontinued the practice of declaring the person installing the OS to be the default administrator are false. In Vista RC1, it is still possible to install the OS and not create a password yet enjoy full administrator privileges--we did so. This is a dangerous proposition, as remote attackers can use this lack of an all-power administrator password coupled with a disabled UAC to escalate privileges on your system and therefore take over your PC. In other operating systems, such as Max OS X and Linux, operating as administrator without a password is not possible. We were also able to create new users without password protection; a simple dialog-box warning told us that one or more users did not have password protection, but the accounts were created nonetheless.
Individual password-protected accounts are critical to Windows Vista's new built-in Parental Controls feature. Present in previous builds, Parental Controls don't look all that different in RC1, but behind the scenes they're supposed to be smarter. We couldn't find direct evidence of that in our initial testing; the configuration panels have not changed much since Beta 2, but Microsoft Windows Vista group product manager Chris Flores suggested that filters within RC1 are more sensitive to age ranges, allowing parents more granular control of the sites blocked automatically. Windows Vista will use the same filters as Windows Live OneCare Family Safety. Without password protection on any of the accounts, however, we were able to switch the user back to administrator and tweak our Parental Controls account more to our own liking.
Eye candy in Windows Vista RC1
The Windows Photo Gallery has been tweaked and now allows you to play videos within slide shows you can create by simply clicking your selected images or clips. You may also tag your video and images, allowing more flexibility in sorting and searching.
Windows Media Center has also been tweaked further in RC1 and now displays a visual image that responds to the songs being played or will play a slide show of images culled from your Windows Photo Gallery.
A new feature resides within the Windows Mobility Center, a collection of tools used by laptops, such as the battery meter and the control to switch the display to a projector or other monitor during meeting presentations. New in RC1 is the ability to default to a neutral desktop wallpaper during presentations and to turn off screensavers, IM messages, and system messages (such as UAC). This should prevent cute pictures of your kid or a quick IM from an old college buddy from distracting your clients during a sales presentation.
Another useful enhancement is tucked within Windows Meetings Space: an ad hoc wireless collaboration tool used to share or transfer any file from one system to another that warns of potential dangers in accepting certain file types. In Windows Vista RC1, Microsoft has imposed the same blocked extension rules used by Microsoft Outlook, meaning that EXE files, for example, would trigger a warning that accepting such files might expose your system to malware.
Buried deep within Windows Vista RC1 is the latest iteration of WinFX technology. Renamed .Net Framework 3 in RC1, this new technology allows developers to create new graphics-dependent browsers, such as the new viewer being built by Microsoft for the New York Times online. Unlike previous .Net technology, .Net Framework 3 will be native to Windows Vista and not require an additional download.
Overall, Windows Vista RC1 still feels unbaked in spots, and I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft exercised its option to roll out one more release candidate (RC2) before sending coding to manufacturers or setting a final ship date for customers. Windows Vista RC1 is good, but don't be alarmed if some aspect of this ambitious new operating system doesn't work as advertised.