First Look: Windows Vista RC2

Release Candidate 2 is slated to be Microsoft's final interim version of Windows Vista before it's prepped for shipping. We put it through its paces to see if the operating

October 10, 2006

6 Min Read
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With Vista Release Candidate 2 -- likely the final "official" interim version of the operating system before Microsoft releases it to manufacturing in the next month -- the folks in Redmond have pulled together a product which simultaneously teases, vexes, and impresses the prospective user.

First Look: Vista RC2

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Since this is Microsoft we're talking about, let's take those out of order. The biggest annoyances with RC2 involved installation issues. Despite assurances to the contrary, I wasn't able to upgrade to RC2 from the previous Vista Beta version I had on my test machine. Instead, I had to do a fresh, full re-install. (Interestingly, while RC2 put up a message threatening to wipe my disk clean, that's not what it in fact did; a look at Windows Explorer revealed a directory called "Windows.old," where it had placed the earlier build.)

You'd expect Microsoft to have focused on squeezing out all the stumbling blocks to a smooth installation. After all, isn't one of Windows' big selling points its purported easy installation as compared to Linux? Pretty clearly, that no longer obtains, especially given the fact that many Linux distributions aren't as driver-deficient as in the past. On the other hand, after the initial crop of users upgrading from XP, most Vista users won't be installing the OS themselves -- they'll be getting a pre-install on a new PC.With RC2 ready to roll, I was afraid I'd run into some of the issues which have challenged other beta testers. Chief among those has apparently been a problem getting some systems to switch on Vista's Aero interface. Aero is Vista's premium GUI, creating a screen with see-through, 3-D-like elements. In earlier betas, Aero would only kick in if your PC was outfitted with a graphics card carrying at least 128 MB of video memory.

Following criticism of this rather onerous video-memory requirement, there was some talk of Microsoft scaling that back to 64 MB. Perhaps that's gone out the window, because the message traffic on Microsoft's Aero forum indicated that some users having problems had 512-MB video cards. (Microsoft seems to be aware of the issue, and there is a workaround.)

One final piece of collateral information indicating that Vista is going require heavier duty graphics than do today's PCs if it is to shine is provided in RC2's Windows Experience Index. That's the hardware assessment tool previously known as the Windows System Performance rating, or WinSPR. The experience index continues to use graphics as the gating factor. My test PC was equipped with a 3.2-GHz dual-core Pentium 940, which got it a subscore of 4.8 on the processor portion of the test. However, my 256-MB graphics card rated only a 3.1. That limited the final score to 3.1, since the final rating is determined by the lowest subscore.

First Look: Vista RC2

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Fortunately, my 256-MB graphics card ran Aero just fine. Which brings me to the "impresses" part of this review. Vista's GUI continues to improve. It certainly is pretty. More importantly, when one compares RC2 to RC1 and previous betas, Microsoft is clearly making intelligent tweaks to the interface. There's a subjective sense that the UI has settled down, and that changes to color, shape, transparency, and position have been done from a solid human-factors perspective rather than by some programmer run amok.

On the function front, Microsoft has improved the control-panel settings used to select UI color. It also appears to have moved the selection of Aero options ("glass" or "classic") one level down, which is intelligent because it's something you don't want uninitiated users playing with.

Now for the "tease" I mentioned up top. RC2 continues Vista's tactic of offering the kind of glitz that Microsoft must be hoping will convince home users to upgrade. Consider Vista's Gadgets, the great-looking little applets that reside on the right side of your desktop. (So what if the feature was borrowed from Apple?) Microsoft has been criticized for a paucity of gadgets; with early builds there were only 10. Now, a Gadgets Web site has upped that number to 54. Sure, we're got the UK Weather Track, but it's clear that Microsoft is intent on building up its portfolio of cool accessories.

Other apps obviously designed with eye-candy appeal in mind include Vista's Windows DVD Maker and the new Mail system, which replaces Outlook. In terms of functionality, I was most impressed with the Network and Sharing Center, a feature intended to smooth connecting to the Internet (this was also in RC1).

First Look: Vista RC2

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On the negative side, the Security Account Controls designed to make Vista more resistant than XP to viruses and malware are still more obtrusive than they need to be.

Vista's Media Center features, which I liked in my review of Beta 2, still have a clunky feel. Design-wise, I didn't like the fact that Media Center seems to "take over" my PC by going to a full screen. That's a counter-intuitive comment, since it makes sense for a movie and music interface to go wide. But that's not what you want with software that feels less than rock-solid. Since Vista is nothing if not a Trojan Horse through which Microsoft hopes to take over the living room, one would expect that the Media Center would be glitch-free.

Performance-wise, RC2 looks and feels good and marks a continued progression from RC1. (I had only one unexplained reboot!)

The bottom line is that, with RC2, Vista is increasingly looking like a smart combination of heavy duty functionality sure to be welcomed by corporate users and an increasingly good-looking presentation (read: Aero) that'll appeal to consumers.0

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