The New Windows View

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2005-08-22
 
 
 

The New Windows View


Its been nearly four years since Microsoft Corp. released Windows XP, and itll be at least another year before the next-generation Windows client—the newly named Windows Vista—hits the streets. However, now that Vista has reached its initial beta release, we have a chance to see what Microsoft has been doing in all that time—and how much remains to be done.



Click here to read the full review of Windows Vista Beta 1.

Windows Vista Review


Its been nearly four years since Microsoft Corp. released Windows XP, and itll be at least another year before the next-generation Windows client—the newly named Windows Vista—hits the streets. However, now that Vista has reached its initial beta release, we have a chance to see what Microsoft has been doing in all that time—and how much remains to be done.

In both instances, it looks like quite a bit. Following eWEEK Labs tests of Build 5112 of Windows Vista, we can say were pleased overall with the direction in which Microsoft is taking its flagship product, but we also note that there are many wrinkles left to iron out during the year to come.

For instance, it appears that Windows Vista will be the release in which Microsoft finally gets serious about enabling regular users to run with appropriately constrained system privileges, but the quirks we encountered while using Vistas limited-privileges mechanisms left us flummoxed at times.

Companies with access to the Vista beta (MSDN subscribers have access now, and Microsoft will broaden access with Beta 2) should set aside at least one test system to begin locating possible application incompatibilities and determining whether Vistas new features merit a prompt deployment once the final version ships.

Next Page: Hardware requirements.

Hardware Requirements


One of the new aspects of Vista thats gotten much more than its fair share of attention is Aero Glass, the new operating systems hardware-accelerated user interface. Most of the fuss focuses on whether Aero Glass will force organizations to purchase new, more powerful hardware.

Aero Glass does require a gaming-level graphics card—we had to swap out our test systems Nvidia Corp. GeForce4 MX 420 card for a more powerful GeForce FX 5950 Ultra to enable all the eye candy that the system could offer—but as far as we can tell, the only thing Aero Glass gets you is translucent window decorations. The translucency looks cool, but we found that the effect made it difficult at times to discern where our window borders were, and it led to fumbling when dragging windows around.

We also tested Vista on a notebook system with no 3-D capability, 256MB of RAM and an Intel Corp. 900MHz Pentium M. Although we had to downgrade to the Classic style (which looks just like Windows 2000) on this level of hardware, Vista worked fine for us, without loss of any real functionality.

We expect that Vista will run well with 512MB of RAM and pretty much any CPU that has shipped during the past few years.

Next Page: Dealing with Data.

Dealing with Data


One of the most immediately visible differences between XP and Vista is the new systems overhauled file manager, Windows Explorer, into which Microsoft has stuffed a bunch of potentially interesting new features.

Explorer now sports a search box in the upper right corner of the interface. If you type in a search term and hit Enter, the search tool will deliver results from the file names, keywords and other metadata of the files in the folder you have open.

If you type in a term and then click the magnifying glass icon next to the search box, the utility will deliver results from the computer as a whole—much like the Spotlight tool in Apple Computer Inc.s Mac OS X 10.4—including mail messages from the version of Outlook Express that ships with Vista.

We could save our search as a virtual folder that we could revisit later to find updated results. We could search through files from a network share by browsing to the share and choosing to synchronize its contents to our test system. Vista cached locally and indexed the files wed chosen.

Once wed come up with a list of files that matched our search terms, we could filter and organize those files in several ways.

We could stack, group or filter our files based on a broad range of metadata items, such as the computer on which the file was stored or the subject line of indexed mail messages. In fact, the mail message searching, filtering and organizing features of Vistas Explorer were some of our favorite Vista capabilities. Unfortunately, its not clear at this point whether mail clients other than Outlook Express will be able to interface with Vistas file manager in this way.

As we learned in tests, the much-publicized pullout of the WinFS framework from Vista wont prevent Microsoft from making good on many of the information management promises initially attached to Vista. But because WinFS was to be the means by which third-party developers could partake in this search-and-sort goodness themselves, these benefits are, for now, reserved for Microsoft-developed applications.

Although we were impressed with the search-driven capabilities of Vistas Explorer, our experience with Explorer wasnt all wine and roses. Vistas new search and virtual-folder proficiency comes along with much new confusion for traditional file-browsing activities. At this point, Explorer is a jumble of real and virtual folders thats, frankly, very confusing to navigate if youre simply traversing directories.

The Explorer interface is packed with little drop-down boxes and file-sorting dialogs, some of which sent us off to virtual directories. We expect to see Microsoft put in work tightening up the Explorer interface before Vista ships, but its likely that those users who are upgrading will require an adjustment period before becoming comfortable with the new application.

The build of Vista we tested shipped with an automatic backup application called SafeDocs, which automates the process of backing up user data to writable CDs or DVDs, network shares, or other removable media. SafeDocs looks promising, but we couldnt get the utility to work with a network share. Some of the basic Windows networking services, including the Computer Browser service, wouldnt start on the Beta 1 bits we tested.

Next Page: Least Privileges.

Least Privileges


Much of the spyware scourge that Windows users have been struggling with during the past several years can be attributed to the difficulty of running Windows in limited-rights mode—in fact, so many activities and applications require administrative rights to operate that running with elevated rights is the norm.

When users are logged in as admins, all the processes they run share these same privileges, which is how pesky adware applications manage to burrow in too deeply to remove.

In Windows Vista, Microsoft is working to address this issue, in part by making it easier for users to escalate their privileges only when needed by entering administrator credentials in a pop-up box that appears when launching applications that require these rights (the same way Linux and Mac OS X handle the issue).

Our experience with this feature in Vista, which Microsoft calls UAP (User Account Protection), was mixed. When we installed applications as our limited-rights user, the elevated-rights box worked as advertised.

However, when we then browsed to the administrative tools folder in our Start menu and launched the services configuration tool, we received no rights prompt, and our attempt to restart a running service was denied. Confusingly, when we were logged in as users with administrative rights, the same visit to the services configuration tool did prompt a request for credentials.

One place where Vista Beta 1s UAP feature is implemented well is in the dialog box for changing the systems time and date. The relevant dialog box includes an unlock button; pressing the button brings up the admin password prompt, in much the same way that the settings dialogs in OS X and KDE (K Desktop Environment)work.

Whatever style it chooses, we hope to see Microsoft standardize on one interface metaphor throughout Vista and to do so in time for the product launch.

For now, the UAP credentials pop-up can be switched off—which is good news because we found that Vistas SafeDocs application wouldnt launch at all with the UAP mechanism enabled.

Next Page: Bits for the Administrator.

Bits for the Administrator


While Vistas user-oriented features have grabbed much of the attention surrounding the upcoming release, the new Windows client will bring benefits for administrators as well.

Vista has a new event viewer that provides access to a great deal of information about the system. We could create event views through which we could query multiple system logs at once and save those views for future reference.

We also found promising the event viewers capacity for attaching actions to particular events—for instance, to notify an administrator of a system error or to trigger a cleanup script when a disk becomes too full. However, in tests, the event viewer was one of the most poorly performing parts of Vista. The viewer ran sluggishly, and we had to force it to close more than once.

The event viewer hang-ups we experienced were one of the spots where we ran into Vistas expanded diagnostic tools. These tools collect information about Vista failures, offer to transmit the data to Microsoft and, ideally, make a suggestion about a solution. In tests, however, the closest thing we got to a suggested solution was a notice that the driver issue that apparently was responsible for blue-screening our test machine was being addressed in Vista Beta 2. Were looking forward to seeing how the new diagnostic features in Vista develop in future releases.

XImage, the image-based deployment tool that will ship with Vista, will be of definite interest to system administrators. Administrators will be able to use XImage to create an image by capturing a volume and to update an image simply by mounting it, making changes and then unmounting it. As a result, Vistas installation process will be image-based and should be very fast. However, it doesnt appear that the Vista beta installation is similarly image-based—the process took at least an hour to complete on all three of our test systems.

Aside from speed, the new Vista installation/upgrade process should deliver better results than in the past because it involves blowing away the existing Windows installation and, for upgrade cases, migrating existing files, applications and settings.

Next page: Evaluation Shortlist: Related Products.

Evaluation Shortlist


Evaluation Shortlist

Apples Mac OS X 10.4 Apples Tiger, or a future big cat, already boasts the sort of interface to which Vista aspires. Its tough to imagine that Vista will eclipse OS X in the search and privilege management areas in which Tiger already excels. If Apple opts to change course and unbundle its x86-powered OS X from Apple-only hardware, it would be set to give Vista a real fight (www.apple.com)

Microsofts Windows XP Professional Probably Vistas toughest competition. While long in the tooth, Service Pack 2 at least stopped up many of the security holes that could have sent users streaming to Vista (www.microsoft.com)

Novell Inc.s OpenSuSE 9.3 The worlds various Linuxes, perhaps led in feature breadth and completeness by Novells offering, run on more hardware than Windows or Mac OS, and SuSE ships with the best of what the fast-moving open-source software community has to offer (www.novell.com/suse)

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.

Next Page: Whats Coming Your Way.

Whats Coming Your Way


Whats coming your way

Microsofts Vista Beta 1 offers an early look at the next-generation Windows client. Which features will affect your organization?

  • Better diagnostics and reporting In Vista, Microsoft has beefed up the error-monitoring facilities of Windows and has overhauled the systems task monitor, both of which should make it easier for administrators to track down and solve system problems.
  • User Account Protection Everyone agrees that running Windows with administrative privileges is a bad idea, but only now is Microsoft doing something about it. Vista will make it easier for users to gain elevated rights only when they need them, which should make Vista a much more securable operating system.
  • New Windows firewall Vistas native firewall gains support for filtering outgoing traffic, a change that will deliver security benefits but also new application compatibility roadblocks.
  • Internet Explorer 7 Vista will ship with a new version of IE. It will be nice to have the option of tabbed browsing in IE, but more valuable will be the option of running the new Web browser in a limited-rights mode.
  • "Avalon" and "Indigo" frameworks Vista offers developers new methods for building user interfaces and for creating Web service-consuming applications.
  • Deployment Vista ships with new goodies for administrators charged with system deployment, including image-based installation options and a new pre-execution environment for configuring and patching Vista machines before letting them connect to the network.
  • Search and data organization Vistas Explorer offers users new ways of grouping and searching through their local data, and new offline-files features do a good job of extending this support to data on network shares.
  • Peer-to-peer capabilities Vista will make it easier for individual users to share files and collaborate with other members of their domain. Whats more, administrators will be able to push system updates across the Vista systems in their care with a peer-to-peer mechanism.

    Source: eWEEK Labs

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