Review: Vista October CTP Pre-Beta 2

Another Community Technology Preview release of Vista adds features for networking and the Control Panel, including a great new Mobility Control.

October 31, 2005

8 Min Read
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Following on the Windows Vista September CTP (build 5219) Microsoft a couple of weeks ago released the October CTP (Community Technology Preview), build 5231 of Windows Vista, a slightly newer pre-beta-2 release. In addition to several new features in Vista itself, the October CTP is notable for changes to Internet Explorer 7 (see "New Internet Explorer 7 Features Revealed").

Network Center

Perhaps the most prominent new feature in this build of Windows Vista is Network Center, a replacement for My Network Places and Network Neighborhood.

Network Center shows up as a system tray icon. Single-click that icon and an Explorer window opens that's loosely akin to Windows XP Service Pack 2's Wireless Networking Wizard, but with a larger purview. Network Center offers a long list of tools and options for configuring and working with wired and wireless networks, including Network Map, which is designed to show all the nodes on your network, including the switches and access points. There's a Diagnose facility that ostensibly will help you figure out network problems.

(So far Microsoft has provided very limited information about new features showing up for the first time in the CTP builds. One thing the company has said is that Network Center will provide network diagnostics and make it easier to attach and configure network media players, routers, and wireless access points.)

The Network Center is Windows Vista's next-generation version of Network Neighborhood. So far, so good, but not much works here yet.Click to Enlarge

At least on my network, most of Network Center's functionality isn't working or isn't working properly. Some items lead to a crash; nothing happens when you click others. This is the typical experience in a beta product, so Microsoft has done nothing wrong. On the other hand, without deeper information from the software maker on how this is supposed to work, I'm operating in guess mode. As it stands, Network Center in build 5231 doesn't even reliably deliver the more limited functionality provided by My Network Places in Windows XP. That's probably why the XP-level network user interface continues to be available in this build.

This is also the first widely distributed build to include the long-promised new IPv6 protocol. Both IPv4 and IPv6 are installed, as well as Link-Layer Topology Discovery Mapper I/O Driver for NDIS 6 and Link-Layer Topology Discovery Responder for NDIS 6. Among other things, these layers support the Network Mapping and diagnostics functionality that's not all there yet.

Microsoft's new IPv6 TCP/IP protocol, as well as the Link-Layer Topology Discovery layers provide the horsepower to support many of the new features in Network Center.

Considering that I have been critical of Windows XP in the networking area, I am glad to see Microsoft making this an important new design point for Vista. We'll have to wait and see, though, how well this works in the real world.Diagnostics

Microsoft's description of Windows Vista build 5231 begins with "built-in diagnostics," including Windows Memory Diagnostics, Windows Disk Diagnostics, and network diagnostics. The network diagnostics feature either isn't properly hooked up, or it's not going to be very helpful. We'll have to wait for later builds to gauge whether this functionality will prove to be a boon, or like Windows' Help troubleshooting tools, a bust. Right now, it can find no problems on my network, which I find difficult to believe given the networking performance and browsing issues with this build of Vista.

If Vista's network diagnostic is toothless, at least so far, the disk and memory diagnostics are just nowhere to be found -- even though Microsoft says these tools are in the October CTP. The disk diagnostics have been described in past as a service designed to warn you of pending catastrophic failure. Presumably, the memory diagnostics work the same way. But should there be a tool you could run to manually check for problems? The Windows Memory Diagnostic is available to Windows users now as a separate download.

I count 44 Control Panel applets in Vista build 5231. Windows XP SP2 on my main computer has 31 (not including OEM-specific controls). The new control panels include Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls. Some control panels have been renamed or recast. The Accessibility control panel, for example, is called Ease of Access in build 5231.

Control Panel now sports several new configuration applets, Auxiliary Displays, Indexing and Search Options, iSCSI initiator, Mobility Center, Network Map, Peer-to-Peer, Saved Networks, Secure Startup, Solutions to Problems, and Windows Parental Controls.Click to Enlarge

For more on Auxiliary Displays, check the October 2005 issue of Scot's Newsletter.

Throughout Vista's development cycle Microsoft has been messing with Control Panel applets, and some new ones have come and gone. It's too early to get serious about nailing down the configuration controls Microsoft will be adding to this version of Windows, but two areas are notable. The Mobility Center is a new Control Panel applet for portable computers that's designed to be one-stop-shopping for many of the things mobile users frequently need to control, such as configuration settings for LCD brightness, battery charge, wireless connections, external displays, and syncing. Many OEM notebook makers offer their own utilities that handle chores such as saving network-connection settings by location and managing external displays and presentation projectors. Mobility Center is barely even turned on and most of its settings areas are disabled in this build (at least, they are on my ThinkPad). So, again, it's too soon to comment. But the direction is interesting.

The new Mobility Center isn't hooked up yet, but it aims to be a mini Control Panel aimed at common mobile computing configuration tasks.Click to Enlarge

One thing that is hooked up in Vista build 5231 is the power-management feature in the Power Options control panel. Although it's in need of a much better organized UI that displays the settings on something other than a blizzard of drop-down menus, Power Options' many settings are finally up to date, robust, and reflect the actual functions of today's (and tomorrow's) PCs and portables. Trust me, whatever you want to do in controlling power and systems based on battery or AC power, it's in there. And for the first time these features are working pretty reliably in Vista too.

The vastly expanded functionality of the Power Options control panel is a lot of new power looking for a more usable interface.Click to Enlarge

Network Sharing

I'm skeptical about a set of features Microsoft has talked about for Vista: network sharing functionality. In the name of protecting us from ourselves, Windows XP made network sharing on a LAN so preposterously difficult at times that running a peer network (especially one that mixes wired and wireless networking) has become a black art instead of something you just do. Security became such a mantra at Microsoft that apparently the company forgot that people actually want to access data from anywhere on their small networks. What do I want to access? Oh, stuff on the desktop, stuff in My Documents. Horror of horrors, those things shouldn't be accessible!

Hooey. Security protections can be a lot smarter than they are in Windows XP. A lot of this starts with sharing, sharing permissions, sharing by account, and it's an absolute mess in XP. So when Microsoft tells us it's going to make sharing easier in Vista, you'll forgive me if I'm from Missouri (the Show Me state) on this one. Some of this new sharing functionality (or at least user interface) is visible here and there. But in the October CTP, networking is less functional than it was in the September CTP. Just one more thing that'll have to wait.

This appears to be an early placeholder, or one part of, the network sharing features Microsoft is intending to deliver.

Click to Enlarge

Looking AheadFor more information about the October CTP straight from the horse's mouth, Microsoft released a Microsoft Windows Vista October Community Technology Preview Fact Sheet with build 5231.

Some of the things that Microsoft is still actively working on for future builds include Windows Media Player 11, a new Migration Wizard (for when you switch PCs), Windows AntiSpyware, and Windows Calendar. In terms of schedule, more than likely there'll be another pre-beta-2 CTP release in November. Beta 2 may be in the offing after that. That's how I read the tea leaves anyway.

Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

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