Review: Windows Vista RC 1 Is Almost Ready For Prime Time

The new release candidate of Microsoft's next OS shows a lot of promise and only a few remaining glitches. Is it possible Microsoft may get this one right?

September 6, 2006

10 Min Read
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The new release candidate of Microsoft's next OS shows a lot of promise and only a few remaining glitches. Is it possible Microsoft may get this one right?

The long wait for a usable version of Windows Vista is finally over -- the newly released Release Candidate 1 (RC1) version of Windows Vista is faster, fitter, and sports a leaner, far easier-to-use interface. Up until now, I've been a skeptic, not convinced that Microsoft would be able to meet its planned date of January 2007 for consumer availability. But this most recent release has turned me into a believer.

RC1 Vista shows an operating system with significant performance improvements over Beta 2; much-improved networking and wireless support; a leaner, better-designed Control Panel; and overall better "fit and finish." For the first time, it seems as if Vista may well be on track to meet its January 30, 2007, ship date. This is an operating system that, while not quite ready for prime time, is clearly out of dress rehearsals.

While this version of Vista is not significantly different than the version released to a few testers in July, it is considerably improved compared to the Beta 2 release that I reviewed last May.(Note that this review was written based on pre-RC1 code released several days before the actual RC1 code released by Microsoft. Microsoft claims that the interface and features of RC1 will have only subtle differences compared to the build I tested.)

Better Installation And Performance
Vista's performance improvements are noticeable, and at times dramatic. Screens display more quickly, applets load faster -- overall, the operating system is more responsive than previously. I saw little sign of sluggishness. In previous versions, it felt as if you could get a cup of coffee waiting for certain tasks to complete. This time around, the operating system seems caffeinated.

This is especially true when running applications on top of Vista. Microsoft Word, for example, is significantly speeded up. In Beta 2, it took an exceedingly long time to save a file for the first time. In fact, it was so slow that as you saved the file, you saw a slow-motion animation of the file being saved, something that you normally don't see because saving is normally nearly instantaneous. In RC1, by way of contrast, a file save felt immediate, and no slow-motion animation was visible.

Similarly, bringing up a search box in Word Beta 2 took an excruciating amount of time, so much so that I found myself manually scrolling through files, looking for text, rather than doing a search. That's no longer the case, and it happens at the speed you would expect.

Installation time has also been cut. Previously, installation typically took well over an hour. That time was down to about 40 minutes with this Vista version. That's still too long for an operating system to install, from my point of view, but at least it's bearable.

The Network And Sharing Center
The most obvious change, and perhaps the most significant, is the change to the newly renamed "Network and Sharing Center," previously known as the Network Center, available from Control Panel > Network and Internet. The old Network Center was well-nigh useless, offering very few obvious ways to perform networking-related tasks such as turning on and off network discovery, and customizing file sharing and media sharing. To do them, you often had to use the Networking and Internet Control Panel.The New Network and Sharing Center is far more useful. It includes single-click options to perform a wide variety of networking tasks, such as turning file sharing on and off, customizing how file sharing works, and giving a quick overview of your current network connection, including its strength. The Center also includes links to various ways to control and customize your network. It's a great way to get a quick network rundown, and quickly and easily make changes. Rather than avoid it like the plague, I find myself coming here often. In fact, I've created a shortcut to it on my desktop so I can get to it quickly.

The new version also fixes one of the most maddening things about the old Network Center -- the icons in the Status area weren't live. Click on the Computer icon, the Network icon, or the Internet icon, and nothing would happen -- the icons seemed to serve no discernible purpose.

In the new version, the icons are live. Click the Network icon, for example, and you get a Windows Explorer list of every device on the network so you can easily connect to each. Click the Computer icon, and you are offered a Windows Explorer view of your system. Click the Internet icon and Internet Explorer launches. That's more like it.

There are plenty of other useful networking changes as well. The first time you connect to a wireless network, you're asked if you want to make it your default network. You can save it to a list, making it easier to switch among multiple networks.Customizing network properties is easier as well, and offers more choices than before, including the ability to merge multiple networks into a single network, useful for those who are running several wireless and wired networks, and want to create a single network out of them.

One of Microsoft's biggest promises for Windows Vista was that it would make networking easier. In Beta 2, that promise was unfulfilled. This time around, Microsoft has hit the mark, and for people like me who have small networks of a half-a-dozen or more PCs, this is one of the most important reasons to upgrade to Vista.

A More Logical Design
The overall design has been improved as well. The Control Panel has been made more logical, with fewer duplicated choices, and links that more clearly state what clicking on them will accomplish. For example, in Beta 2's Network and Internet control panel, there was an option to set up a network -- except that it really only applied to setting up wireless networks, even though the option showed up on wired networks as well. That option, and others like it throughout Control Panel, have been eliminated.

The new Welcome Center, which launches by default every time you boot Windows, has been made more useful as well. Previously, it seemed little more than a beginner's guide to Windows. Now, it includes more icons that let you accomplish tasks, such as a link to the Backup and Restore Center.

There are plenty of new, spiffier-looking icons sprinkled throughout the operating system. And Flip 3D, one of Aero's niftiest touches, has been put in easier reach -- an icon in the Quick Launch area lets you use Flip 3D, so you don't have to use the key combination to launch it. (Flip 3D is a three-dimensional task switcher that lets you scroll through live versions of your open windows. It's a far better and niftier way to switch among windows than using Alt-Tab.)Also improved is the User Access Control (UAC) feature, designed to keep the operating system safer. In pursuit of that goal, UAC prompts often pop up, asking you to type in a password or continue whenever you're doing something that could conceivably harm the operating system.

In the earlier versions of Vista, the prompt seemed to appear practically any time you touched the keyboard or mouse. It was so maddening that after ten minutes of using Vista, I felt as if I had just been holed up for two weeks with the world's worst nag. No, I don't want to eat my vegetables -- and yes, I do want to change that setting!

With each release of Vista, it became less and less annoying. Finally, with this release, it's calmed down so much that I rarely notice it any more, and it actually makes sense now. Far fewer tasks involve UAC. For example, previously if you wanted to use Windows Defender anti-spyware, you had to go through a UAC prompt -- an odd choice, considering that Windows Defender is designed to protect your computer, not harm it. Now you can get to Windows Defender, and many other tools and settings, without having to be annoyed by a UAC prompt.

Internet Explorer And Other Improvements
Internet Explorer has been upgraded as well, with a variety of additions and fixes, including RSS fixes, improved responsiveness, and some minor interface changes (for details, see Review: What's New In Internet Explorer 7 RC1). To a great extent, the version of IE in Vista now matches IE 7 RC1 for XP. The primary difference is that the Windows Vista version is more secure because it uses the secure Protected Mode, which the Windows XP version does not have.

Many people may not notice one big change -- much-improved driver support. One of the biggest complaints about Beta 2 was how sketchy its hardware support was, with many people experiencing significant problems getting it to recognize their hardware. On my Dell Inspiron E1505, for example, it refused to recognize my built-in Wi-Fi adapter, and forced me to download and install drivers manually. With this installation, it recognized the adapter without a hitch. There has been less hue and cry online, with few people complaining about hardware woes.Still Work To Be Done
Windows Vista may be closer to release, but as I said before, it's not quite ready for prime time. Network support for XP-based PCs, for example, remains flaky at best. The computers often do not show up at all in the Network Map or when you're using Windows Explorer, but then for no apparent reason they suddenly appear -- and disappear again. For example, I had computers showing up in the Network queue when using Windows Explorer, but not in the Network Map.

There are problems with notebooks as well. When I close the lid on my Dell Inspiron E1505, for example, Vista RC1 won't wake properly from hibernation. I need to unplug it and take out the battery in order to restart.

Beyond that, the Control Panel and its associated categories and applets should be tweaked again. Microsoft has done a good job streamlining all this, particularly with the Networking category and Networking Center. But more could be done to prevent minor confusion. It's unlikely that will happen, though, because Microsoft says that the user interface is done. We'll see.

For example, in the Network and Internet Control Panel, there is a large icon for Networking and Sharing, and then a text link underneath it, titled "View network status and tasks." Clicking on the icon brings you to the Networking and Sharing Center, as you might expect. But clicking "View network status and tasks" brings you to the Center as well. What's the point of that?

One other minor change that may affect some users: The free avast! anti-virus scanner, one of the few anti-virus programs that works with Vista -- and the only free one to do so -- doesn't work with the RC1 code as of this writing.The Bottom Line
RC1 is solid, fast, and much improved over Beta 2. It's still too early to tell whether Microsoft will meet its goal of a January 30, 2007, consumer launch of Vista. But for those, including myself, who were skeptical that Redmond would meet that date, this new release may put those fears to rest.

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