"We're getting more frequent and better feedback than we have ever gotten before in any previous release of Windows, and it is making the product much better," Shanen Boettcher, senior director in Microsoft's Windows Client group, said during a conference call with media on Monday.
The latest test version is being made available to about half a million people, including a pool of technical testers as well as members of Microsoft's MSDN and TechNet developer programs.
Testers will see a number of new features in the update, several of which are on the security front:
• Windows Defender, an update to Windows AntiSpyware, is designed to protect Windows PCs against spyware, rootkits and other threats. Windows Defender has improved detection and removal capabilities as well as a new user interface which, according to Microsoft, is simpler and fits better with Windows Vista.
• BitLocker Drive Encryption is meant to protect data on computers when lost or stolen. The full disk encryption feature is designed to work with a chip called the Trusted Platform Module, or TPM, which offers protected storage of encryption keys, passwords and digital certificates.
• Tighter control over removable storage devices lets system administrators centrally block the installation of, for example, USB flash drives and external hard drives. This feature is designed to help prevent corporate intellectual property or sensitive data from being compromised or stolen.
• Parental controls designed to let parents limit and monitor computer usage, including setting time limits, restricting Web sites that can be visited and generating reports on computer usage.
Other than security, the new Vista preview release promises enhancements in performance. For example, USB flash memory drives can be used as additional memory for Windows SuperFetch, a new feature in Vista that caches often-used information, making it accessible faster, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft has also updated the Vista user interface, adding transparent windows, smoother transitions and a redesigned start menu, the company said.
The new preview release also includes an update to Windows Media Player and gives a peek at the successor to Windows XP Media Center Edition with the new Windows Media Center. Microsoft will share more details of Vista's media features at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company said.
The latest Vista preview doesn't include all of the features that Microsoft has planned for the Windows XP successor, Boettcher said.
"We're on a path to be code complete by the end of 2005, so we will see that likely in the next release of the CTP," Boettcher said. Microsoft anticipates that the next preview release will be early next year, he said.
Boettcher would not detail which features Microsoft has yet to add to Vista.