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Windows Vista Beta 2: First Impressions

Microsoft (MSFT) announced today that Windows Vista Beta 2 is available for general download. If you want it, head to the beta site, sign up, and start downloading.   

The code today is the same build as was distributed to MSDN subscribers a few weeks ago, and I’ve been using it with varying degrees of success around the house and in the office.  I would heed the warning Microsoft gives:

This is beta code and should not be used in a production environment or on a main machine in the home. Beta 2 is intended for developers, IT professionals and technology experts to continue or begin their testing of Windows Vista. Before you decide to use Beta 2, you should feel comfortable with installing operating systems, updating drivers, and general PC troubleshooting. Some risks of using beta operating systems include hardware and software incompatibility and system instability. If you have concerns about installing this beta software on your computer, we encourage you to obtain the final release version of Windows Vista when it is available in 2007.

In other words, this is not a release candidate.  That’s coming next year.

I’ve installed the software on my Toshiba Tecra S1 laptop, and on my HP TC1100 tablet.  Both of these systems are a little underpowered for Vista, which means it runs a little slowly on them.  The Tecra is a 1.4Ghz Centrino system with 1.2 gigs of memory, and the TC1100 is a 1.4Ghz system with 1 gig of memory.  The Tecra got a clean install, and the TC1100 got an upgrade from Windows XP SP 2.

Installation on the Tecra was flawless.  Insert the disk, reboot the PC, and start to work.  Microsoft has moved the license key entry page right up front in the installation, which means that it’s very easy to fire up the install and forget it.  This was a nice change from prior installation programs.

Once installed, the UI is beautiful.  It’s a dramatic change from Windows XP, with shadowing, translucent panes, and new features galore.  I haven’t yet experienced it with a fully capable video card, as the best PC in the house to run this UI on is also the big Athlon in my office, which many of my family use throughout the day.  For now Vista is combined to places where its impact is on me. 

The gadget bar, which gets talked about a lot, is an interesting curiosity at this point for me.  It’s pretty to look at, but I haven’t installed anything really useful in it.  The one item which is potentially very useful is the RSS gadget for reading feeds, but I haven’t had the time to play, and learn how it behaves.  I have my feeds running in Bloglines just fine, doncha know!

Mostly, my favorite old software continues to work as before.  There have been some unusual behaviours, for sure, but it mostly just works.  There are some underlying changes which work fine with Microsoft products but break one or two other products which I’ve seen.  For instance, changes in the Windows Messenger system break iotum’s software which listens for messenger events. 

The new security is as intrusive has been previously reported.  I think folks are making a mountain out of a molehill though.  In most cases it’s one extra click as the OS warns you that an application is trying to do something that it doesn’t have any context for.  If you’re comfortable with a desktop firewall, then this is only slightly more intrusive, and will likely be refined before the final release.  The one place where it seems to significantly impact is application compatibility, and mostly these are timing issues induced by network delays as Vista queries you prior to letting the application access the internet.  Gizmo Project, for instance, experiences these kinds of problems.  However, they can be solved by simply trying again.

Desktop search is dramatically better than in Windows XP.  Microsoft appears to have integrated some of the capabilities of their LookOut acquisition from last year, which means speedy searches through the entire OS, including your email folders.  It takes fractions of a second to find anything on the desktop now, and once found you can easily browse it, open it, edit it, and so on.  If you’re a Google Desktop Search user, you’ll be dumping the Google software in favor of this.  I wish they’d also put the search field back into the toolbar, which is where I now expect to find it.

Battery management, as has been reported elsewhere, is terrible. I’m averaging less than 40 minutes per charge.  Vista doesn’t seem to know how to manage any of the powersaving features on the Toshiba.  I can’t even, for instance, reduce screen brightness.  It doesn’t matter so much, though, because this is an older laptop that I simply don’t travel much with.  It’s been reduced to a portable PC, useful for blogging the hockey game, or keeping track of the music lists in the CD jukebox.

My biggest beef at this point is with the networking system.  Networking, at best, is arcane.  Microsoft, to their credit, has done a ton of work to try to simplify this for end users.  Creating new VPN connections, connecting to wireless networks, and so on, for the most part, simply works.  In fact, the new wireless connection wizard completely does away with the arcane handling of WEP keys, and just asks you for your key and connects you to the network. Sweet!  It’s when it doesn’t work that Vista’s approach is a problem.  The error messages seem to have disappeared.  Even though networking error messages in Windows XP are mostly unhelpful, you can still glean something from them.  You don’t even have unhelpful messages in Vista.  So, for example, I transposed two of the four numbers in the IP address for the iotum VPN.  Vista simply told me it couldn’t connect, and that I should try again later.    A helpful message would have been something along the lines of “there’s no VPN server at that address, you turkey!”.

As I mentioned, my Tecra is a little underpowered for the OS.  What that means is periodic episodes of “I’ve gone to never never land, Alec.  Go refill your coffee.”  Most of the time it comes back.  The Vista core seems to be at least as stable as XP.

Generally, once I worked through the install issues, I would rate my experience with Vista on the Tecra as pretty good. I use it daily, and plan to keep it on the Tecra.

Unfortunately, installation on the TC1100 did not go so well.  I chose to upgrade the TC1100, rather than install from scratch.  The opening screen hung several times, necessitating a three fingered salute, and restart.  The culprit seems to be the process Microsoft uses to fetch components from the web that have been updated since the disk was created.  I found that once this had hung, it would hang the installation every time.  The only solution was a reboot, and immediate install. 

Once installed, the TC1100 specific features uniformly didn’t work.  Power management, as on the Toshiba, was poor.  Utilities for managing my wireless connection were broken, and most of the pen utilities that ship with this tablet PC were broken as well.  For instance, I was unable to change the orientation of the screen from landscape to portrait using the button mounted on the frame of the screen.  I did note that the tablet input panel seems to have been updated, and now lives in a spiffy slide-out tray on the left side of the screen. 

For now, I’ve returned the TC1100 to Windows XP.

If you’re planning to try the Vista beta:

  1. Do a fresh install, rather than an upgrade.  The upgrade process seems much more fragile than the clean install.
  2. Be prepared to mess around with networks for a while to get them working properly, unless all you have is a single LAN network.
  3. Don’t install it on any PC you rely on day to day.  It’s just not ready.  You may find yourself, for instance, inexplicably unable to connect to networks.
  4. Installing it on a tablet may mean compromises.  Many tablets rely manufacturer specific software for significant parts of their experiences, and this is simply not present in the Vista beta builds. 

I’m impressed by the progress that’s been made.  It looks like shipping Vista in Q1 of next year may be on track.

First impressions of Office 2007, tomorrow.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Russ Campbell June 8, 2006, 9:42 am

    So it seems that the much awaited longhorn/vista will be a real product by Q1 2007 — it's about time. And I'm encouraged to hear that it runs on relatively older/slower hardware. Some earlier reports went so far as to suggest a new PC might be needed for Vista.

    I've also heard that there will not be the multiple versions, i.e., Home, Pro, Tablet, et al. Is this the case? Any word on Price?

  • Alec June 8, 2006, 10:08 am

    I don't know about price, Russ. There will be multiple editions, it's true. I ran Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Ultimate, and Windows Vista Tablet in my tests.

  • Marc June 15, 2006, 6:03 am

    Hi there,

    I also have a Tecra S1 with Vista on it. For some reason I can't use the built-in WiFi. Do you know where I can get Vista drivers for the S1?

    Thanks,
    Marc

  • Alec June 15, 2006, 6:25 am

    Hi Marc,

    They worked on mine, but I let it run the Windows Vista version of Microsoft update. Do you have it hooked up to a wired lan?

    A

  • Marc June 15, 2006, 11:28 am

    No, I don't have it hooked up. But let me try that.
    Thanks

  • James June 30, 2006, 4:30 am

    I also installed on an HP TC1100. As with Alec, it did not like the upgrade and no wireless connections could be established (no ip address from DHCP server could be optained while the wireless connection was excellent). Talk about frustration. When I did a clean install, it worked rather well. The biggest complaint I had was that the Mobility settings, specifically the screen orientation were not available. For a TC1100 to only be used in landscape is prohibitive at best. I think it will be a rather nice system when it gets all the problems worked out (and allows tablet users to change screen orientation.) Good article Alec!

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