Search in Context
One of the more helpful changes: Context-sensitive search windows appear everywhere in Vista. The Start menu, which in most respects looks much like its counterpart in XP (and can be reset to resemble the old Windows 95/98 Start menu), provides a small search field at the bottom. Start typing, and Vista replaces items in the menu's left column with the names of the programs on your PC that best match your search term. Alternatively, click All Programs, and the left pane lists your programs. If they can't all fit, a scroll bar appears--and it is much easier to navigate than the three or four splayed columns you see on XP's All Programs menu. (Go here and read "Tool of the Month: Shipshape Start Menu" at the bottom of the page for Steve Bass's instructions on changing XP's All Programs list to a scroll bar.)
You'll also find search fields located to the right of the Address bar in Windows Explorer (and Internet Explorer 7, for that matter--see "Two New Internet Explorers"). In the beta, the Windows Explorer search appears to index only file metadata, the same information you can view (and sometimes edit or enter) in XP by right-clicking a file and choosing Properties. Microsoft says that the shipping version will offer more search capabilities. Click the Search icon on the Start menu to open the new Search Center, which allows you to perform multiple layers of filtered searches.
Windows Vista's Virtual Folders find documents even when you aren't searching for them by dynamically updating the results of a saved search when you click the folder. This feature will be available for all Windows applications once Microsoft implements the WinFS file system that was originally slated for Vista. Until then, however, no third-party apps will be able to take full advantage of Windows Vista's search capabilities.
Microsoft preinstalled several Virtual Folders in Beta 1, but some are confusing: The Documents folder replaces My Documents, but there's also a Virtual All Documents folder with different content. The Music and Pictures shortcuts on the Start menu point to Virtual Folders, not to the Music and Pictures subfolders of the Documents folder.
Missing completely from the beta are support for Tablet and Media Center PCs, and a promised new version of Windows Media Player. We anticipate seeing more of these items as future builds surface. The next milestones on the road to release are Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in September, and Beta 2, which may be made available to the general public (but for which no release date has been announced).
Clearly a work in progress, Windows Vista may not be a revolutionary departure from XP--but that's not necessarily a bad thing. If the OS delivers on Microsoft's ambitious promises, especially for security and reliability, PC users won't care whether they're getting a complete overhaul or a simple renovation.