Saturday, August 27, 2005

Microsoft’s Vista is on the Right Track but there’s Still Much to do.

Microsoft released their much anticipated updated beta of Vista on July 27th and I’ve finally gotten a chance to really set down and check it out. Even with the stupid name it looks like it will address a lot of the security problems that have plagued Win XP.

So after two days of really putting it through its paces I’ve got some initial personal reactions about it to share with you.

The General Look and Feel

First, as usual, Vista includes the usual superficial bells and whistles that Microsoft loves to put in its OSs. It has sharper graphics (With the price of needing a much more powerful graphics card.) and a different look to the windows frames called “aero glass”. Aero glass gives a cool see-through effect to the window frame boarder.

The sharper graphics seem nice and the over all draw and opening time of windows programs seems faster and crisper. (Of course with the powerful graphics card this OS requires to display “aero glass” and other such graphics enhancements they should be.) So when it comes to cool looks Vista is on track. And while this is certainly nice it’s hardly a major reason to run out and buy Vista.

I did also find “aero glass” makes some actions harder. Dragging and dropping and other similar actions are trickier since you can’t easily tell just where the edge of the window frame is located since they have a semi transparent look with edges that fade into the background.

Much more impressive to me are the graphics icons that the system uses to represent files and folders. Now a document or folder will be represented by a graphical representation of the actual document or file not the stored, stylized, generic graphics used in XP. Now just like all of your program shortcuts your file and folder icons will use distinctive representational icons.

They have also changed the look of the standard application menu bar that contains the file, edit, view, insert, and other such function menus in windows. Now they have either eliminated it or moved it to the bottom of the window. I’ve not decided what I think of this change yet. It will take some time for me to decide on this one as I fail to see a reason to change this except to try to look different from XP and the other windows flavors.

I was also disappointed to find that Vista doesn’t seem to boot up or shut down with out taking all day to get it done just like XP and all the other versions of windows before it. It has always amazed my how long it takes to turn off Windows. What can it possibly be doing that takes it sooooo long to get it over with.

Search and moving around within Vista is also one of its bright notes. Everywhere you look you can find a search box or an icon to help you find a file or move to another location. It’s just too bad that this comes almost too late since so many search tools (many free to boot) are becoming available that do the job even better. I guess it’s just like many of the other features found in Windows. Use what comes with Windows if you don’t need a full set of features for the job but if you need a complete solution then get a third party solution.

As to the many other features like virtual folders and such I didn’t really look at them since it seems that they it will be a much later before they are fully implemented (If they aren’t dropped like the new file system Microsoft promised but like so many of their promised “features” not delivered.)

Under the Hood

But the real changes we’re all looking for relate to improvements in the basic underlying security and stability of Vista. On this issue the jury is still out since the final features that will be in the “finished” product are hard if not impossible to predict yet.

The ability to easily use programs in Vista at a reduced rights level rather than always needing to be logged on with Administrator rights promises to be one great security addition that will most definitely be implemented. It still is a little rough around the edges in this version but it seems likely that Microsoft will work out most of the problems by its release. Being able to use programs like internet explorer at reduced user rights really improves a user’s ability to protect against malware. It only remains to wonder why Microsoft took so long to do this for internet explorer.

Microsoft is also promising other safety security features but they are harder to see or substantiate since some of them aren’t in this beta and others seem to work poorly. An example is their claim that the OS will have the ability to detect imminent component failure (hard drives, video cards, DVD’s and such) and suggest data backup and other protective actions before these problems strike.

In an attempt to prove if that feature works or not I installed a hard drive I had which had gone bad sometime ago. This drive had developed a loud squealing noise (Bad bearings I guess.) and wouldn’t always let windows boot due to read problems on some sectors. Luckily I’m one of those guys that always hangs on to such junk so I had what I needed to test Microsoft’s claims on this one.

Well after three tries the system booted and I was able to install Vista on to this hard drive with out any real problem except for listening to the noise of the drive grind and screech away. (Really I ducked out and only checked in once in a while because I just couldn’t stand to hear this drive trying to self destruct.)

As a testament to Western Digital though the drive made it through the install and I allowed it to run for over an hour while rebooting it two or three times. After all that not once did Vista ever complain. This is not a scientifically controlled test but since the drive was so bad it was a real disappointment that Vista didn’t complain even a little bit.

Vista is also suppose to be able to detect whether a system has been tampered with and know what files have been changed. This should make it much easer to prevent malware and viruses from changing anything in the system files and folders with out detection. I’m betting that this feature will work and work well in the final release but I didn’t try to test it since the question shouldn’t be if this feature works or not. The question should be why has it taken so long to get it as a feature. Up to now Microsoft’s attempt to detect or detour intrusions to the critical systems files has been worse that poor it’s been totally lacking. Much of the real problem with security and Windows is that everything is just too open. With lots of sharing of everything from dll’s and services to drivers it’s surprising that there aren’t more security problems.

So to sum it up the jury is still out but it seems that Vista is headed in the right direction but it will be interesting to see how long it takes to live up to it’s promises. It has take XP until service pack 2 to have the features and security that it should have had right out of the box! I’ll bet Vista will take a year or two to really deliver on its potential. That means that most likely a rush to up grade isn’t necessary.

Tomorrow we’ll look at Internet Explorer’s update beta that shipped with Vista and see if it is really ready for prime time and ready to fight Foxfire’s growing popularity.

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