Computerworld obtained a recent interim build of Windows Vista, Build 5274, that shows Microsoft is making progress in the areas of performance and installation time, has refined the User Account Control (UAC), updated the main Control Panel that manages networking access and settings, included mild design improvement to the Vista Basic video mode, and improved how Media Center works.
Installation time, something an earlier Computerworld story criticized, has been cut by about 40 percent -- making it the best Windows installation experience ever. Overall performance of this build is noticeably faster, including boot times and general performance of opening and closing applications, windows and dialogs.
The Flip 3D three-dimensional window-switching feature gets a quiet improvement in Build 5472. The graphics are a little better -- thanks, it appears, to a tipping back of the windows so they're not quite so vertical. That eliminates some of the jaggies. There's also a new "Switch between windows" icon on the QuickLaunch bar (beside the Start button), which initiates Flip 3D and is especially good for mouse-centric people, because it requires no key pressing. The windows-open-and close movement is a tad more fluid, too. All in all, this Apple ExposA©-like visual task switcher and desktop-reveal feature is shaping up well in Vista.
Better networking all around
This build of Vista shows a remarkable improvement in network browsing speed. When you open the Network window, which displays other workstations on a network, the mild delay before all available workstations appear is in the 5- to 10-second range on a typical 6-node peer network of mixed Vista and Windows XP machines. Larger networks didn't require noticeably longer wait times either. Even first-time connections are fast. In Vista Beta 2 and earlier, the network browse-to-completion time could sometimes be measured in minutes, and some workstations never showed up. The peer networking balkiness of early versions of Vista (XP, Windows 2000 and the Win 9.x clients) appears to be gone -- at least, in Vista Build 5472.
Computerworld criticized the involved and overly complex user interface design that Windows Vista Beta 2 presented for managing and accessing networking. It appears that Microsoft has completely reconsidered its user experience strategy for networking controls. Beta 2 had four separate networking control panels; Build 5472 has but one: the Network and Sharing Center. There were also four or five additional wizards that managed several aspects of network configuration, but they weren't presented in one place and it wasn't clear what other wizard or dialog you had to launch to get to them.
The new Network and Sharing Center is a vast improvement over the earlier design. It finally offers one-stop shopping, and the things you most need are mounted as a task list for accessing dialogs, settings and wizards. And what was previously called the Network File and Printer Sharing Wizard is built into the bottom of the Network and Sharing Center. Perhaps best of all, you can now right-click the Network desktop icon and choose Properties to open the Network and Sharing Center. Instead of of being worse than XP's networking controls, the new network center Control Panel in Vista has now become a notable improvement.
Two networking functions that seemed more like bells and whistles than anything useful in Beta 2 -- Network List and Network Map -- are missing from Build 5472. They will probably make a reappearance in later iterations. But lets hope that Microsoft adds them as tasks in the Network and Sharing Center instead of cluttering up the overflowing Control Panel any further.
One of the confusing things about Vista Beta 2 was the difference between Public and Private networks. When you create a new network connection, Vista Beta 2 asked you to classify that network as one or the other. There were many situations in which even experienced users weren't sure which of the two classifications their networking environment applied to. Private sounds more secure, but it was actually less secure. So, Microsoft has changed this for the better in Build 5472. There are now three classifications, Home, Work and Public Location.
UAC moving in the right direction
In Vista beta Build 5472, the User Account Control (UAC) feature is still in a state of flux. Microsoft has listened to the many UAC criticisms (including Computerworld's) and is attempting to minimize user frustration by smartly refining the way this security technology works.
The purpose of UAC is to make Windows users aware of potentially dangerous activities on their computers. The potential threat is that a hacker, or more likely a malware program, could be carrying out a scripted set of steps that will lead to a negative event on your computer, such as the loss of data or damage to your Windows installation. In a nutshell, the question UAC asks is: Did you initiate this process that's attempting to run? When the answer is yes, you click OK or Allow to permit the action. When the answer is no, your prudence in letting UAC block that action could save you from a very bad experience.
The easiest example to understand is the prompt that pops up when an unsigned program installation begins to run. In Build 5472, it reads: "An unidentified program wants access to your computer." Your choices are Cancel or Allow. If you initiated the program installation, and you trust the source of the software, you should click Allow. But what if you didn't initiate a program installation? That's the time when Alex Heaton, Microsoft's senior product manager for User Account Control, says you should be careful and choose Cancel. "Be wary of prompts that come out of nowhere," he said.
In this interim build, Microsoft has changed how UAC manifests itself. When a background application or service trips UAC, instead of interrupting what you're doing in the foreground, it flashes oranges in the taskbar. You can complete what you're working on and then click the flashing orange program button to answer the UAC prompt.
The good news in Build 5472 and beyond is that a long list of previously annoying -- in some cases unnecessary -- UAC prompts have been banished. One way Microsoft is going about that is by localizing UAC protection to the areas that are most dangerous. For example, opening the Windows Firewall Control Panel no longer requires you to click OK to a UAC prompt. But attempting to turn off the firewall or change its settings does spawn a UAC prompt.
In some cases, Microsoft has smartly reconsidered the existence of UAC prompts. There's no longer any UAC prompt surrounding the use of Windows Defender, the Setup Fax Wizard or the Scanners and Cameras Control Panel (which Computerworld criticized in an earlier story).
One of the most mystifying UAC behaviors in Vista Beta 2 caused a prompt to appear when you tried to delete some desktop program shortcuts. If the program was installed for use by all accounts in Vista, then UAC blocked the deletion of the icon in Beta 2 with a permission prompt. If the program was only installed for the current account, then deletion of the same program shortcut would occur normally. Since there's no way for Windows users to know which way the program was installed, even experienced beta testers were confused. For Build 5472, so long as the running account has administrator privileges, then icons installed "on the public desktop" will be deleted without issue when you drop them into the Recycle Bin.
Finally, Heaton acknowledges that file operations and UAC -- the prompts you may see when you open specifically protected file folders in Vista such as the Program Files, Windows and Desktop folders -- is the main focus of continued User Account Control development leading up to and probably beyond RC1.
Has UAC been cleaned up enough to make it workable for millions of Windows users the world over? It's too early to call. But Microsoft is moving Vista in the right direction.
Media Center still buggy
No interim Windows beta build, including 5472, is ever the refined, comparatively bug-free set of code that a more heavily tested Beta 2 is or Release Candidate 1 (RC1) will likely be. Microsoft spends days and weeks refining a release designed for larger numbers of people. So it's not surprising that Media Center tests of 5472 were less successful than tests conducted by Computerworld for Vista Beta 2. There are some minor improvements in the way Media Center handles windows, and it shuts down very quickly. But getting it to turn back on proved problematic. In this build, it also had trouble with volume control (it could lower but not raise the volume). It also occasionally sent the tuner driver into a tailspin. Overall, the experience wasn't better, but there are no conclusions to draw at this time.
As a tune-up to the next major beta release of Vista, RC1 -- expected sometime in the second half of August -- the technical release 5472 shows Vista clearly improving. Several of the biggest gripes about Vista Beta 2 are being addressed.