On Wednesday, November 8, 2006, Microsoft released its new operating system, Windows Vista, to hardware manufacturers, marking the end of the development phase and the beginning of the distribution phase. For more than a year, we have seen various builds, most of them private but some public, with ever-increasing build numbers. The final number is build 6000 (with a string of lesser numbers following). Although CNET received a build that is technically a pre-RTM build, all of the markings, both internal and external, say Windows Vista RTM build 6000 and reflect all the final fit-and-finish enhancements expected in a final software release. On November 30, 2006, Microsoft will make business editions of Windows Vista available to enterprise environments, with consumer retail editions slated for January 30, 2007. For a look inside, see our slide show.
Before installing Windows Vista, there's an option to go online and use Microsoft Vista's Upgrade Advisor on your current PC. The downloadable ActiveX component will inventory your current hardware and determine which version of Windows Vista is best suited for you: Windows Vista Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business, or Windows Vista Ultimate. On our test laptop, an Acer TravelMate 8200, Microsoft recommended Windows Vista Business. Microsoft suggests that you run the test now to see if new hardware makes sense for the holiday season, then run the Advisor again in January 2007 to see if your hardware still makes the final requirements. (Microsoft says the Advisor is dynamic and will be updated as more and more software and hardware vendors post updates to the Microsoft site.)
For us, the installation took a little more than one hour. It's pretty much an automated process, with the installer first copying the ISO image onto the new hard drive or partition, then expanding that image. Once again, we experience uncomfortably long plateau at Expanding: 27 percent, as with previous builds, we waited about five minutes before the expansion continued. About halfway through, the installer reboots and continues the installation in Windows Vista.
Once fully installed, Windows Vista first asks for your country or region, then time and currency, and, finally, the desired keyboard layout. Next, you'll choose a username, a user icon, and a password. Then select your desktop wallpaper and security settings: Automatic, Install Important Updates Only, or Ask Me Later. After reviewing the computer's time and date settings, there's one more message: "Please wait while Windows checks your computer's performance." Here, Microsoft grades your computer on a five-point scale, with the overall rating based on your system's lowest score (in our case, that was for the video card).
This final build of Vista includes the new sounds for Windows Vista, written by veteran musican Robert Fripp. Compared to the familiar start-up tones for Windows XP, Windows Vista is lighter, almost spritely. The sounds for User Account Control and Log Off are also perkier than those found in Windows XP.
Right away, first-time users will be greeted by a Welcome Center, complete with tools to migrate data from another partition or hard drive and various services offered by Microsoft, plus the new Sidebar component, preloaded with three Gadgets--one each displaying time, a photo gallery slide show, and an RSS feed. Other than a rounded, more stylized Start menu, the changes aren't immediately apparent.
Longtime Windows users will appreciate the built-in file metatag and desktop search capabilities within Windows Vista. For instance, within the Start menu there's no need to use All Programs; instead, simply type the name of the app you're looking for, and a shortcut will appear as a search result. If you miss All Programs, it's still there, but now it's a hierarchy with expandable sections; instead of application lists building out onto the desktop, they push down the Start menu list. For Windows Explorer, type the author of a document and save the search results as a virtual file folder of that author's works. This a paradigm shift from Windows XP; now you can create folders of similar content, even if the content resides within different physical folders on the system's hard drive. There's no longer a need within Windows Vista to move files among various folders in the directory.
The new Aero graphics engine within Windows Vista is dynamic, so file icons not only show you the contents of the file but also scale to the size of the page. And now you can view thumbnails of any open task across the bottom of the screen. These, too, are dynamic; you could, for example, monitor the progress of a sporting event just by passing your mouse over the open application.
Until now, we've seen builds of Windows Ultimate, the full-blown version of the new operating system with all the bells and whistles turned on. Going forward, Microsoft will issue keys that are specific to each edition of Windows Vista. For example, most people will purchase the Windows Vista Home Premium edition, which includes Windows Gadgets, Windows Vista Media Center, and Windows Tablet PC, along with the ability to author and burn DVDs. Office users will get Windows Vista Business, which includes Windows Meeting Space, for setting up secure ad hoc wireless peer-to-peer collaborations, and the Windows Mobility Center, for controlling laptop functions and PowerPoint presentations on a display screen. At the low end is the Windows Vista Basic edition, which doesn't include the entertainment or mobile features, nor does it contain the Aero graphics system. Designed for older hardware, Windows Vista Basic includes the new file search capabilities and parental controls, with a lot of extra media functions.
All editions of Windows Vista will include Windows Sidebar, Windows Media Player 11, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, Windows Firewall, Windows Defender antispyware, Parental Controls, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, Games Explorer, and several other features. For a full list of the programs in a certain edition, see the Microsoft site.
With the release of Windows Vista RTM, Microsoft is not really finished; in fact, the company will continue to work on Windows Vista code up until the business release on November 30, 2006 and the retail release in January 2007. We identified a few glitches that struck us as significant and were apparent as recently as last month (in Windows Vista RC2). According to Chris Flores, Microsoft Group Product Manager for Windows Vista, the visual glitch on our laptop when the User Account Control notice appears is a known bug within the ATI device driver and should be fixed by January 2007. The battery drain issue we identified in Windows Vista beta 2 is a bit more complicated to resolve, but Flores says it should be improved by the general availability date in January 2007. Finally, we called out that the Program Compatibility Wizard was missing; it was not user accessible via search, nor was it apparent as an option from the Start menu. The Program Compatibility Wizard, which allowed you to tweak the operating system to behave like Windows 95 with only 128-bit graphics in order to run older applications, was totally buried under Start, Control Panel, Programs and Features. Now, in the final Windows Vista release the Program Accessibility Wizard is accessible only after an incompatible program crashes under Windows Vista.
Overall, we find this Windows Vista RTM build very stable and feature rich, and we look forward to reviewing the final release on January 30, 2007. Given the way the installation process checks for program updates, Microsoft has the opportunity to roll out the operating system with a few known bugs. So long as Microsoft is able to fix these bugs by its self-imposed general availability date, we think Vista could be a worthy upgrade for most PC users.