Windows Vista Beta 2: Great Search, Improved Security, Hardware Snags

Preston Gralla takes a close look at the new features in Beta 2. Mostly the news is good, including improved security and searching features. Vista snags when it comes

May 25, 2006

13 Min Read
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When Microsoft offered up its February CTP (Community Technology Preview) of Windows Vista, the company said that the build was nearly feature-complete. (We covered those features in our review Vista Visuals: Windows Sidebar, Gadgets, Media Player 11, And More.) There were still some missing pieces, however. This time, the just-released Beta 2 of Microsoft Vista goes a long way toward showing off what the final operating system will look like -- and in most respects, it's a winner.

New In Windows Vista Beta 2

•  Better User Account Control•  Search Is Finally Here•  Improved Firewall, Fit And Finish•  There's Still Work To Be Done

The much-ballyhooed search feature is turned on for the first time, and it's just about everything that Microsoft promised. The universally disliked User Account Control (UAC) has received significant work, and is finally usable, helping to lead the way to a more secure operating system. And overall, there's a better organization and "fit and finish" to this beta than previous Vista versions.

Still to be resolved, though, are a variety of hardware compatibility issues that could delay the Vista launch date. And although the Windows Firewall has been improved, users may have trouble finding its advanced controls.

Much-Improved User Account Control

The most reviled feature of earlier Vista builds, User Account Control (UAC), has thankfully been reined in with Beta 2. For the first time, it is actually useful, and goes some way toward solving a security problem that has long bedeviled Windows.

Most people run previous Windows versions in administrator mode, because unless you do, you are blocked from performing many system operations and simple tweaks. But running Windows as an administrator brings with it a host of security problems -- notably, if someone malicious gets control of your PC either remotely or physically when you're logged in as an administrator, they have the run of your entire system and can do serious damage. In addition, if inexperienced users run as administrators, they can accidentally wreak havoc on the system by making harmful system changes.To try and solve this security problem, Microsoft baked UAC deep into Vista. The idea was to get people to run as standard users as a way to increase security by not making them log on as an administrator every time they wanted to make a change. Instead, in some instances, users simply received notification they were about to make a system change, and had to confirm it. Many other changes required administrator's credentials that forced the person to type in the administrator password. And of course, there were still some changes that required users to log on as an administrator.

Unfortunately, Microsoft went wild with what standard users were not allowed to do in earlier Vista builds. Want to set your system clock? Before this beta, you'd get a notification that you couldn't, and you had to log in as an administrator just to set the system clock -- or the calendar for that matter. The same held for changing power management settings, changing your time zone, and plenty more.

Users of earlier Vista builds complained long and loud to Microsoft about this, and with good reason. It was especially galling because, for years, power users (using administrator's rights) have been able to make countless changes without getting these kinds of warnings. But in the last Vista build, UAC forced the operating system to act like a kind of nagging super-nanny.

Thankfully, Microsoft listened to its beta users, and toned down UAC in Beta 2. There are far fewer times you'll get notifications -- so you can now set your system clock and calendar, change your time zone and power management settings, set up a Virtual Private Network, and a lot more without getting nagged. Microsoft says that it is going through the entire operating system and will get rid of other notifications as well before launch.The result? UAC is actually usable. In previous Vista versions, I refused to run as a standard user; now I always do. I won't be alone in this. It will mean a more secure operating system, because more people will run as standard users.

Search Is Finally Here

Possibly one of the biggest advantages Vista will have over previous versions of Windows is its desktop search features. From the beginning, Microsoft has been touting these improved search features, but up until now, they've only been promises. This version turns on search, and the more I used it, the better it looked. It's fast, it's built into everything, it's context sensitive, and it lets you easily create saved searches, which is a big timesaver. There are some issues with it, as I'll explain, but to a great extent it fulfills Microsoft's initial promises.

Search has been integrated into every level of the operating system, and it has been done in a very intelligent way. A search box appears when you click on the Start button; simply type in your search term and Vista returns results literally as you type.

Similarly, Windows Explorer has a search box in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen. Here's where the true power of search starts to come into play. Search is context-sensitive, so you'll search only within the folder and subfolders of your current location. This not only makes it easier to quickly find files, but it merges searching with browsing in a clever way, because you can literally search as you browse.

Windows Explorer also includes a Search Pane that you can turn on and off. The pane lets you filter your results by file type, so you can view results only for e-mails, documents, pictures, music, and in many other ways -- even by e-mail attachments. And to show how much Microsoft believes in TV-PC convergence, you can even filter your search results to show TV shows you've recorded that match your results. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it's in there.

New In Windows Vista Beta 2

•  Better User Account Control•  Search Is Finally Here•  Improved Firewall, Fit And Finish•  There's Still Work To Be Done

Want more search features? You can use Boolean searching and you can also search by file properties, such as the last time a file was modified, the time it was created, the file extension, and so on.

Another useful aspect: search looks through metadata associated with each of your files. So if you searched for Mozart, you'd be able to find a Mozart symphony and a portrait of Mozart -- and a recorded TV show, for that matter -- if that information is included in the metadata.

If you find yourself regularly doing the same searches over and over, you'll appreciate the ability to save a search by simply clicking the Save Search button. Whenever you browse using Windows Explorer, that search will show up in the Searches folder. And it's a living search -- so if you save a search for Mozart, whenever you add more of Mozart's music to your PC, that music will show up in your Mozart search folder.

Vista shares a common index with 2007 Microsoft Office's search, so when you do a search in Vista, you'll be able to search in Outlook, for example. And Vista search will also be able to display preview thumbnails of Office documents -- you'll see the actual picture and text from the document right in the thumbnail.

This isn't to say that search is perfect, because there's a considerable chance for confusion. Vista can actually search in two different ways on your PC -- it can either search your index or your computer. Searching the computer takes considerably more time, and may return different results than just the index. So when searching, one should always choose the "Search the Index" option.

The Firewall Improves...But How Do You Configure It?

The Windows Firewall has been improved as well. It now adds two-way filtering, so that it can block outbound connections as well as inbound connections -- but if you want to configure how it blocks outbound connections, you'll have to find a hidden configuration screen that can't be accessed via the Control Panel, the Security Center, the Windows Firewall dialog box, or any other obvious method.To get to the hidden configuration screen, type "Windows Firewall" in the search box, then click "Windows Firewall with Advanced Security." After clicking through a UAC dialog box, you'll come to a screen (shown below) that lets you configure the firewall in exquisite detail. You'll be able to configure inbound and outbound rules, establish rules about how the firewall should work when making direct PC-to-PC connections, and much more. The level of detail is extraordinary; you can even customize how it handles the IPsec security protocol.

There has been a great deal of confusion about the precise workings of the Windows Firewall. Some press reports have said that outbound filtering will be turned off by default. That's not true, according to Microsoft's Austin Wilson, director for the Windows client. At a reviewer's conference in Seattle, Wilson said that Windows core services will be blocked from making outbound connections for security reasons. Other outbound connections will be allowed, although they can be blocked on an application-by-application and port-by-port basis. To do that, get to the "Windows Firewall with Advanced Security" screen.

New In Windows Vista Beta 2

•  Better User Account Control•  Search Is Finally Here•  Improved Firewall, Fit And Finish•  There's Still Work To Be Done

Microsoft has added other security features in the firewall, notably allowing different firewall rules to be set for public networks, private networks, and domains. The firewall settings are less restrictive for private networks than public ones. For example, you might want to do file sharing on your private home network, but wouldn't want that to be allowed when you're at a public hotspot. So the firewall ships with different profiles for different kinds of networks, and these profiles are automatically applied when you connect to each different kind of network. You can customize these profiles from the "Windows Firewall with Advanced Security" screen.

Better Fit And Finish

In addition to fixing UAC and adding search, this version of the beta has more polish and "fit and finish" -- the interface is cleaner and better organized. This becomes apparent when you drill down into the Control Panel. It's now far easier and less confusing to accomplish many tasks.One of the best examples is the Network and Internet applet. (Get there by choosing Control Panel, then clicking "Network and Internet.") The Sync Center was missing from the previous version of this applet, a glaring omission. In addition, there were three different ways to view a map of your network: by clicking "Network Map," "View a map of your network," or "View network map." In the current beta, there's only one choice, "Network Map," which cleans things up.

These kinds of changes have been made throughout Vista. And there are nice new additions as well, such as a new Backup and Restore Center that makes it much simpler to find and use Vista's backup and restoration tools.

Another nice addition is the Snipping Tool utility. It's a clever new applet that lets you copy any portion of any screen, annotate it, then send it via e-mail, copy it to the clipboard as a graphic, or save it as an HTML file or graphic file. It's a great way to capture and annotate screenshots, or information or graphics you find on the Web, and then share them with others.

There's Still Work To Be Done

As with any beta, there are rough edges. Some people have reported installation woes. And device support is problematic, especially for wireless networking. Vista refused to recognize the Wi-Fi adapter built into my Dell Inspiron E1505, for example, and had trouble recognizing a NetGear USB wireless adapter as well, although I eventually got that working. Similarly, it didn't recognize the Wi-Fi adapter, Bluetooth, and other adapters on an HP/Compaq NC6320 laptop.

New In Windows Vista Beta 2

•  Better User Account Control•  Search Is Finally Here•  Improved Firewall, Fit And Finish•  There's Still Work To Be Done

Networking remains very much a work in progress. Vista could recognize only the wired part of my network, for example -- and even then, couldn't find one of my wired PCs. In fact, it didn't even recognize that a wireless network exists -- the network didn't show up on the wireless networks list. It did, however, recognize other nearby wireless networks. So if I need to connect wirelessly to my neighbor's network, I'm all set; it's my own that I can't find.

Given that this is beta software, all this should come as no surprise. But it does not necessarily bode well for Microsoft meeting its stated shipping date of January 2007 for consumer availability. Once Vista is in the hands of many thousands of people, other device problems will be found as well, and tracking every one of them down may take some time.

In fact, if there are going to be Vista delays, as analysts expect, and has been hinted by Steve Ballmer, it's likely they'll be caused by driver problems and hardware compatibility issues more than anything else.

The Bottom Line

So what's the bottom line for this beta? If you're thinking of installing it, give yourself plenty of time for potential hardware problems and realize that wireless networking in particular may be problematic. (For an account of how the CRN Test Center handled various installations, check out Windows Vista Beta 2: An Improvement?)Once you've got it installed, you'll find that Microsoft Vista Beta 2 is a big improvement, especially for search and UAC. It's also cleaner than earlier versions, and once you've managed to track down the "Windows Firewall with Advanced Security" screen, you'll have a great deal of control over the firewall options.

You can find the download of the latest Vista beta on Microsoft's site.

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