Windows Vista Beta 2: An Improvement?

Beta 2 is put through its paces to see if the hoopla around the next-gen operating system is merited.

May 23, 2006

13 Min Read
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Now that Microsoft has reached a major milestone with the release of Vista Beta 2, channel players are more curious than ever about what Vista has to offer. CRN Test Center engineers set out to put Vista Beta 2 (Ultimate Edition, Build 5381) through its paces to see if the hoopla around the product is merited.

While beta 2 has made significant improvements, Vista is still a little rough around the edges when it comes to hardware support and driver compatibility. Those issues became evident as Test Center engineers installed Vista on several test systems.

Test Center engineers worked with the ultimate edition of Vista, which offers the complete feature set for the product, including media center capabilities, mobile computer support and tablet computer enhancements. The Other 5 versions of Vista will offer less features and will be available at lower price points.

To leverage the mobile enhancements most appropriate for upgrades, Test Center engineers focused on the mobile technology arena. Computers such as laptops, notebooks and tablets will offer the biggest challenges for upgraders, mostly due to the inability to enhance the integrated hardware, such as video cards and microprocessors.

Test Environment & Initial Installation
The first system selected for testing was a HP/Compaq NC6320, a recently released notebook system geared for the performance-orientated mobile worker. The NC6320 runs an Intel Core Dou 2Ghz Processor, features 1Gbyte of ram, and the Intel 945GM chip set. As a higher end notebook, The NC6320 is a unit designed for high performance for the business user and is chock full of options.Surprisingly, several issues were encountered with the installation of Vista on the NC6320, making the overall experience far from ideal. Performance took a big hit on the unit, with Vista running noticeably slower than Windows XP.

A fresh install of Vista was time consuming. The basic installation took almost 2 hours—albeit with little user interaction required—a significant amount of time to spend on a basic OS installation. After the lengthy install, Test Center engineers encountered several driver problems. Several components of the NC6320 lacked compatible drivers and were rendered useless.

Those non-functioning devices included the Integrated Wi-Fi radio, Bluetooth radio, sound card, integrated modem, fingerprint scanner and EVDO modem. Other devices were configured with generic drives, which allowed those devices to function, but not at optimal performance. Those devices included the Video card, Hard Disk Drive and LCD Display panel.

A visit to Windows Update (via a wired Ethernet connection) did not offer any new drivers to solve the problems. Test Center engineers then attempted to install Windows XP drivers from HP's Web site and were met with limited success.

While some updated drivers brought functionality back to the Wi-Fi connection, Bluetooth and modem, there was no way to get the EVDO radio and fingerprint scanner to work. A new video-card driver solved some of the initial configuration problems, but still proved to be problematic for optimal operation of the Vista OS.The most noticeable problem was the inability to run the Aero interface. The key to running the Aero interface is to use a graphics card and driver combo that supports WDDM (Windows display driver model). When asked, both HP and Microsoft said that a WDDM compatible driver for the Intel 945GM-based display adaptor would not be available in time for the launch of Beta 2.

Test Center engineers found that running a Windows Performance Rating assessment using Vista's built-in performance tool would cause the system to crash with a blue screen stop error during the display adapter test, a clear indication of a video driver incompatibility problem.

Surprisingly, the NC6320 scored an overall performance score of 1 on the Windows Performance Rating Scale, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 being the highest. The assorted problems encountered with getting Vista to work to its full capability forced Test Center engineers to select another system for testing. The next system tested was a Lenovo/IBM ThinkPad T42, which is built around a Pentium M 735 (1.7Ghz) processor, including 512Mbytes of RAM and video graphics powered by an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 video card.

Installation on the T42 also took nearly two hours, but the end result was much more complete than on the HP/Compaq NC6320. Vista Beta 2 identified all of the primary hardware and availabledrivers to make most everything properly run. Even the 3D Aeroglass interface worked, thanks to the ATI video card, and no special configuration steps were needed.

One exception was the integrated fingerprint reader, but a quick driver download from Lenovo's site solved the problem.

Test Center engineers found that everything worked as expected on the T42. Surprisingly, the T42 offered a higher overall performance rating score of 2, despite the T42's use of a slower processor and less RAM then the NC6320.Test Center engineers had a similar experience with a Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad X41ultraportable tablet PC. The X41 is powered by a 1.5Ghz Pentium M 758 processor, sports 512 Mbytes of RAM and video is provided by the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 GM. Test Center engineers first performed an upgrade install from XP Tablet Edition to Vista Beta 2.

Although the process worked, the upgrade created confusion between the bundled XP tablet applications and Vista's replacement applications. To solve the problem, bundled applications that duplicate features or create a less than intuitive environment must be uninstalled. It is worth noting that the upgraded machine performed sluggishly.

With those challenges in mind, Test Center engineers formatted the hard drive and performed a complete, clean install of Vista Beta 2 on the X41 tablet.

Once again, installation took around two hours, but Vista for the most part, identified all of the appropriate drivers and configured the machine properly.

The only exception being the integrated fingerprint reader, which was solved with a driver download from Lenovo's Web site. The X41 did not have the graphics processing power to run the Aero interface, but the unit still managed to post an overall score of 2 on the Windows System Performance Rating Scale.For further evaluation of Vista, a Media Center-style desktop was selected for testing. Test Center engineers used a custom-built media PC which was configured with an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) dual-core Athlon 64 FX-60 processor, an A8N-SLI motherboard from ASUS, 2Gbytes of RAM, Nvidia e-GeForce 7800 GT Video Card, and a Hitachi 250-Gbyte SATA Hard Disk Drive.

For Media Center functionality, an EVGA NVTV card was added to the mix. As expected, a fresh install of Vista Beta 2 took well over an hour. Most of the components were properly identified and drivers were automatically installed.

Test Center engineers did, however, try several different drivers for both the video card and TV tuner card to get those items to work properly.

First Impressions: Notebook PC
Although performance was sluggish and lacked the snappy performance the system had under Windows XP, the ThinkPad T42 system was quite reliable with Vista Beta 2. Solution providers should be aware that the lack of performance may not be a permanent handicap as Microsoft is still performance-tuning Vista, which should provide a performance boost by the time the product is released.

Graphics were crisp and the Aeroglass interface was a welcome enhancement to the GUI. Window animations, program switching and menu access have all changed for the better. On initial startup, users will be presented with a welcome center, which offers easy access to the most pertinent configuration options. From the welcome center, users can select themes, customize the display, configure users, set security preferences and much more.More and more applications will become available as Vista grows in popularity. One of these addition are gadgets. Gadgets are small applications that can be assigned to a sidebar and include applications for CPU performance, weather reports, stock tickers and more.

An integrated search feature brings a new level of sophistication to the environment; a search dialog appears on almost every applicable window and can be used to find information most anywhere on the system. The search feature is able to look inside of identified file types to locate matches and offers a slew of filtering items.

With the integrated search comes a greatly improved Windows Explorer experience. Explorer offers several views into a folder, including folder icons that thumbnail the contents of the folder. Photos are presented as thumbnails, which can be quickly manipulated. Selecting a thumbnail of an item allows the user to display meta data and all file related information. A double click on the item will launch the associated application, as expected.

Vista uses Microsoft's shadow copy technology to keep previous versions of files available to users, a handy feature for rolling back documents. However users should be warned that if they restore a previous version, the current version of the file will be lost. Microsoft could prevent that scenario by automatically adding the current version to the revision list, before overwriting that file.

Users will find connecting to networks a much easier task; a new Network Center control panel helps to consolidate management of connections and aids in connecting to wireless networks, allowing users to quickly select a wireless connection then define whether that network is a private or public network. That choice controls what type of external access and sharing capabilities are offered to external users.Private networks are considered secure LANs, where a user wants to share and communicate with other users, and a public definition prevents external users from accessing the system, thereby helping to maintain security. Wi-Fi users will appreciate the dailogs offered for connecting to wireless networks.

One word of caution though, if a user sets an incorrect encryption key for a wireless connection, it takes a little digging through the sub-menus of Network Center to reset the key. This would most likely be alleviated if an encryption or security button were added to the main wireless dialog screen.

Security is a top-tier feature with Windows Vista, several technologies have been incorporated to improve security, including Window's Defender, an anti-malware application. Other security enhancements include the operating system notifying the user if any application is trying to be installed. While that offers enhanced security, the feature can be annoying during legitimate application installs.

Security is implemented in a layered fashion, with Window's Defender offering the first line of defense. That said, solution providers will still want to implement third-party security solutions, such as antivirus, antispam and other applicable security products.

While all of the above capabilities are important to the mobile user, most, if not all, are applicable to any system using Vista. For mobile users, a new feature called Windows Mobility Center offers a quick and easy method to control all of the aspects associated with mobile computing, including battery and performance settings, along with screen brightness and display selection. Users can setup mobile profiles and quickly switch between them for a variety of situations, from long battery life, to high performance presentation modes. All in All, Vista looks like it will turn out to be a good operating system for the mobile user.

First Impressions: Tablet PC
For the tablet user, the experience and tools will be much the same as the notebook user, with the exception of tablet specific tools. Users will find a new Input Panel, which docks to the side of the screen, the input panel is maximized with a touch of the pen.Other enhancements include "pen flicks" technology, which allows users to scroll through long documents using the input pen, a simple but very welcome enhancement. Users will find better support for handwriting via the Handwriting Personalization features, which is more capable of fine-tuning handwriting recognition than previous versions of tablet software.

Vista's integrated voice recognition is worth mentioning, although it may not be a full fledged replacement for some of the third-party voice recognition products on the market, Vista's bundled voice recognition does a very good job at dictation and seems to be a natural extension for a tablet PC user. Alongside the voice recognition is a tool called narrator, which does a decent—albeit mechanical sounding—narration of dialog boxes on the screen.

Also of note is Vista's Snipping tool, which allows users to quickly setup screen captures and save those as editable files. The snipping tool supports cut and paste, along with user-defined selection areas, in other words a user can select just a portion of the screen to capture.When it comes Tablet computing, users will find Vista more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary change, that said, Vista could still invigorate the Tablet PC market.

First Impressions: Media Center PC
Surprisingly, those using Windows XP Media Center will find Vista's implementation of the Media Center applet very familiar. Vista Media Center has pretty much the same look and feel as the XP version, but there are some recognizable refinements.

The associated media center tools, such as burning disks, work more intuitively, offering simpler menus and clearer end user instructions. The "sync" tool greatly simplifies moving, synchronizing and sharing digital media with other devices.A built-in Showcase feature uses the Web to bring additional high profile content to the user, including services such as MovieLink, XMRadio and Napster. All and all, the Media Center capabilities overwhelmingly impressive, but they do bring some welcome additions to the media-centric experience.

For those users with XP's Media Center, there may not be enough here to mandate an upgrade, but those looking to get in the Media Center game next year will welcome Vista.

Conclusions
After spending a great deal of time working with Vista Beta 2, Test Center engineers came up with some conclusions that will help those in the channel.

Initially, solution providers need to be aware of the hardware challenges associated with testing the product. The latest hardware may not be the way to go. The lack of drivers for newer hardware proves is an impediment with Vista. Test Center engineers found that hardware that's been on the market for six months or more tends to be supported the best with Beta 2.

Solution providers should not expect to set any performance milestones with Vista. The operating system has significant overhead, and possibly a great deal of diagnostic code, which slows performance. Test Center engineers did encounter increased performance on a dual core system with 2Gbytes of RAM, where using Vista become a pleasant experience. But the performance conundrum right now is the lack of support for the latest hardware, negating any speed advantages offered by faster components.Vista is loaded with all sorts of features and should not be treated as just an upgrade. Solution providers will find refinements and differences throughout every level of the operating system.

Key areas to look at include backup, remote access, file management, integrated searches and the plethora of software tools bundled into the OS. Of course, features such as security, networking and the interface will have the biggest impact on future users and those that support them. The key here is to get familiar with Beta 2 and learn Vista before the shipping version arrives.

Also, check out TechWeb's review of Vista Beta 2's features from a user's perspective.

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