Hands On: Windows Vista Release Candidate 2

The changes in Windows Vista Release Candidate 2 amount to refinements rather than significant innovations. Build 5744 of Vista contains no laundry list of new features and functions, but the release is significant nonetheless.

The new Media Center improves on its predecessor's ease of installation and performance, and reduces its bugginess. The new Sleep power management mode is another welcome enhancement. Vista continues to be exceptionally stable. There's no question that this new Windows is more reliable than XP.

Setup Certainty

I installed RC2 on three test machines--one Windows XP Pro upgrade and two clean installs. One upgrade installation screen notes that your "upgrade could take several hours" to complete. Mine didn't, though it did run a little over an hour and a quarter. The two dual-boot clean installations were swifter than with Release Candidate 1 and showed some minor visual changes.

The results of RC2's setup process were a tad cleaner than RC1's. My three test machines were manufactured in different years--2003, 2005, and 2006. The two newer models are laptops that have proprietary software for controlling hardware. Though all three systems have hardware for which Vista was unable to provide drivers, the new operating system quickly accepted legacy drivers designed for XP, with just a couple of exceptions.

Vista's driver pack support for recently released hardware continues to be a weak point. I had expected that with this release the driver pack would be better than it is. For example, Vista RC2 lacks a driver for the Linksys EG1032 Gigabit Peripheral Component Interconnect network interface card. The OS also was unable to locate a driver for SoundMax audio cards on my oldest and newest machines. SoundMax audio is widely distributed, so there's no excuse for this omission. However, I was able to easily find and feed Vista my reseller-provided XP drivers for these devices.

Not so easy to get around is the fact that Vista lacks drivers for Lenovo's UltraNav built-in pointing devices (which have been shipping with ThinkPads for years). Nor was Vista able to run these XP drivers, even when I tried using some of Vista's compatibility tricks.

Since Windows XP shipped five years ago, many more laptop PCs have been sold. Therefore, Microsoft needs to include drivers for laptops or make the drivers available via Windows Update. If this product is going to ship in January--especially if there's truth to the rumors about Vista-upgrade coupons being distributed for the holidays--proprietary-driver support is key. History teaches that relying solely on resellers to provide this support doesn't get the job done.

For more Vista information, tips, and answers to frequently asked questions, subscribe to PC World's Windows Vista newsletter.

What Works

No previous 32-bit desktop version of Windows has shown the stability that Vista offers. I'm not basing that statement on comparative testing, of course, which is impossible at this point; months of real-world use and tracking of reliable uptime will be required first. But the Vista code base, which took life from Windows Server 2003, is absolutely solid when properly installed. XP offered a significant stability improvement over the 9x-based versions of Windows. Since Vista Beta 2, I've noticed an additional improvement over XP.

Boot times and the speed with which dialogs, menus, program windows, and folders open under Vista are also better than in XP--as long as you're running modern hardware with Vista-class video.

In all previous versions of Windows Vista, I had at least some sort of problem with the Media Center features. In RC2, finally, everything works the way it's supposed to. I didn't need to update the video driver to a beta Vista driver from ATI Technologies. In fact, there were no glitches at all. I prefer the latest Media Center changes to what the XP iteration offered, though overall the differences seem pretty minor.

In the three RC1-era builds that I examined previously, a problem with the new Vista Sleep mode caused my Dell Inspiron E1505 dual-core laptop to crash. The PC would go to sleep and never wake up, requiring a hard power-down. Readers reported similar problems in connection with various other laptop hardware and with earlier builds of Vista. I'm happy to report that the problem is cleared up in RC2.

Imperfect User Experience

The User Account Control (UAC) security feature, which seeks your confirmation before it will allow various programs to run or dialog boxes to open, still rankles. Here are a few of the operations that require such confirmation: opening Disk Defragmenter, System Restore, Task Scheduler, or Windows Easy Transfer; connecting to a Network Projector (twice); and opening the Add Hardware, BitLocker, Device Manager, iSCSI Initiator, Parental Controls, Advanced System Settings, System Protection, and Remote Settings control panels. Having to confirm the control panel settings seems reasonable, but other demands for confirmation do not. Also, why do the Windows SideShow and Tablet PC Settings control panels show up on computers that don't have that hardware?

Finally, although RC2 tweaks file-permissions problems related to UAC, people who install Vista in a dual-boot arrangement are going to find that some folders they created on their XP drives may not be accessible from Vista without complex security-permissions changes.

Since its introduction in Beta 2, UAC's user experience has been improved. But it's still onerous enough that a significant number of people will either turn it off or be frustrated by it. During testing, I have left it on. And I'll probably continue to advise the average user to do so. But I'm pretty sure--if and when I move to Windows Vista--that I'll turn UAC off on the machines I use most frequently.

You can read what I think about Vista's Software Protection Platform and the evolution of WGA antipiracy functionality in my recent blog item on the subject, "Microsoft Places Its Vista Antipiracy Concerns Above User Security." I hear a lot of people expressing distaste for the digital rights management (DRM) features baked into Vista. Microsoft, of course, has not talked at all to reviewers about these features. It's as if the DRM features don't exist.

With Windows XP, you have 30 days to activate the operating system using Windows Product Activation. If Vista RC2 is any indication, you will have only 3 days to activate Vista before "automatic activation" occurs.

Finally, software compatibility still has a way to go--and this late in the development cycle, that could be a problem. During the upgrade process, the setup routine required me to uninstall Eset's Nod32 antivirus program, Symantec's Norton Ghost 9, and the Toshiba software that provided the Bluetooth stack.

Utilities, especially apps that relate to files, are often incompatible with new versions of Windows; and I suspect that such software incompatibility could be a problem with this operating system. Most of my business software works, but the revised namespace alone could cause problems. Windows Vista expects data files to reside in specific places so that it can protect them better. Security is a good reason for the change, but user preference and software compatibility may suffer initially.

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