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Windows Vista Beta 2 Up Close and Personal

by Wei-Meng Lee
05/30/2006

Last week, Microsoft released the Beta 2 of Windows Vista. This beta comes a bit closer to what the real thing will eventually look like. In this article, I bring you a quick overview of some of the features available in this new beta release.

Installation Woes

Before I discuss the new features available in the latest release of Windows Vista Beta 2, I will share some of my installation experiences.

I first tried to install Windows Vista Beta 2 on Microsoft Virtual Server 2005. I mounted the .iso image as a virtual DVD drive and reached the point where I was asked to enter the product key. For this beta, there are four different versions of Vista that you can install:

The version that is installed is dependent on which product key (obtainable from MSDN if you are a subscriber) you enter. However, I could not get past this stage; the product keys I entered were not recognizable and there were some file-loading problems. Finally, I resorted to installing Windows Vista Beta 2 on a notebook with a fresh hard disk. This time, it installed nicely and worked the first time around. For this article, I installed the Windows Vista Ultimate Beta 2.

However, I could not connect to my wireless network. No matter how hard I tried, it just stubbornly refused to connect. Frustrated, I gave up and got connected using an Ethernet cable. (Note: I'm not the only one to experience this; many beta testers have had the same woes.)

Figure 1 shows Windows Vista Beta 2 up and running.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Windows Vista Beta 2 up and running

Improved User Interface

In this beta of Windows Vista, the user interface has markedly improved and reflects how much effort Microsoft is putting into enhancing Windows usability.

Start Menu

The Start menu is one of the causes of frustration among Windows users. To launch a program from the Start menu, you have to click through several levels of menu. And how many times have you tried to click on a desired menu item, only to have the entire menu collapse unexpectedly?

In Windows Vista Beta 2, the Start menu is much more streamlined than the current versions of Windows. There is no more "Run..." option, in place of it is the new Search textbox (see left of Figure 2). You can type the commands that you want to execute here and Windows Vista will automatically launch them (if the application/command can be found). As you type, the menu above the textbox will change dynamically to match the string entered (see middle of Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. The much improved Start menu

To find your regular list of programs, click on All Programs. In place of a nested menu tree, you will find a tree view display of all the applications. You can expand and collapse folders (see right of Figure 2) and you do not have to worry about the collapsing floating menus anymore.

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Sidebar

The Sidebar (see Figure 3) is restored in this version of Windows Vista. The Sidebar is a panel that displays useful information (using little applications known as gadgets), such as RSS feeds, picture slideshows, a clock, etc.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The Windows Sidebar

Besides the gadgets shipped with Windows Vista (see Figure 4), you can also visit the Vista gadget website for more gadgets.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Adding gadgets to the Sidebar

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer now displays paths using breadcrumb-like menus in the address bar (see Figure 5). Although this display format allows you to jump directly to a directory without needing to navigate the directory tree, it requires some getting used to.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Windows Explorer displays paths using breadcrumb-like menus

Internet Explorer 7+

Internet Explorer 7 is now known as IE 7+ (see the IEBlog for more details). IE7+ is a Windows Vista-specific version that takes advantage of the new features in Vista, such as Protected Mode, Parental Controls, and improved Network Diagnostics.

This name change should not affect most developers, but checkout the link above for candid feedback from users and developers on the name change.

Search

Search is deeply entrenched in Vista, and you can save your searches in virtual folders (see Figure 6) so they will always contain the latest result as new files are add or updated.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Saving your searches as virtual folders

User Access Control

The User Access Control (UAC) is much improved in this beta of Windows Vista. One of the nagging issues about Windows is that you need to login as an Administrator before you can do anything useful on your computer. In the last beta of Windows Vista, whenever you needed to perform a task that required administrator rights, you were prompted to logout and re-login as an administrator, which is troublesome and time-consuming. It also discourages people from logging in as standard users.

In Windows Vista Beta 2, the UAC is much improved. If you perform a task that requires administrator rights, you will be prompted to enter a password (see Figure 7) for the administrator account. You can then proceed to perform the specific action.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Prompting for administrator rights before continuing

If you are logged on as an administrator, you will still be alerted about the escalation of rights that is needed (see Figure 8). This is useful to prevent unauthorized changes to the computer.

Figure 8
Figure 8. Alerting you about the use of administrator rights

Bundled Applications

Windows has long been criticized for the lack of useful bundled applications (contrasted with Apple's Mac OS X's wealth of useful bundled applications). In Windows Vista Beta 2, Microsoft has included a set of cool new applications. I will highlight some useful ones in the following sections.

Windows Collaboration

One useful bundled application in Vista is Windows Collaboration (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Windows Collaboration is a collaboration tool

Using Windows Collaboration, you can start a presentation by sharing your desktop with other invited users. At the same time, you can distribute handouts to participants to collaboratively edit or review the handouts (see Figure 10). Windows Collaboration detects participants using the People Near Me functionality.

Figure 10
Figure 10. Windows Collaboration in action

Windows Collaboration will be useful in classroom environments and will be a powerful tool to promote collaborative learning.

Windows Calendar

Windows Calendar (see Figure 11) is a calendaring application that is fully compatible with the popular .iCalendar format (a standard for calendar data exchange). The .iCalendar format was made popular by Apple's iCal application, which is one such implementation of .iCalendar.

Figure 11
Figure 11. Windows Calendar

Windows Calendar lets you import and export calendar information to and from other applications and websites. For example, you can subscribe to iCal calendars.

Windows Defender

Vista Beta 2 ships with the Windows Defender (see Figure 12); it is essentially a spyware detector and protector.

Figure 12
Figure 12. Windows Defender

Accessories

Besides the new bundled applications described in the previous section, Windows Vista Beta 2 also comes with new accessories.

Snipping Tool

The Snipping Tool (see Figure 13) is a screen capture tool that simplifies the task of taking screenshots.

Figure 13
Figure 13. The Snipping Tool

With Snipping Tool, you simply highlight the portion of the screen that you want to capture (see Figure 14) and it will then automatically copy the highlighted screen onto the clipboard. You can paste the copied screenshot into your own application, or save the picture to file.

Figure 14
Figure 14. Using the Snipping Tool for capturing screenshots

Input Panel

If you have a Tablet PC (or a tablet, such as those from Wacom), you can use the Input Panel functionality (located under Accessories-->Tablet PC) for pen inputs (see Figure 15). The Input Panel has three styles for input -- Writing Pad, Character Pad, and On-screen keyboard.

Figure 15
Figure 15. Input Panels

Media Center

Finally, in Windows Vista Beta 2, you can transform your PC into a Media Center (see Figure 16).

Figure 16
Figure 16. Media Center

Equipped with a TV tuner card and a sufficiently powerful graphics card, you can now turn your desktop/notebook into an entertainment center (see Figure 17).

Figure 17
Figure 17. Playing music using Media Center

Summary

In this article, I have shown you some new features in Windows Vista Beta 2. As the launch date of Windows Vista gets nearer, additional features will be added and the existing features will be refined. As of now, Windows Vista shows a lot of promise.

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) http://weimenglee.blogspot.com is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions http://www.developerlearningsolutions.com, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.


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