Windows Vista is assuming its final form. According to Microsoft, the latest beta, Build 5270, is nearly feature-complete, although some of Vista's interface (code-named Aero) isn't yet in place.
We took the beta for a spin and found that its focus on security and performance looks promising--yet still in need of much more polish.
Security Highs, Lows
We expected Vista's firewall to address a major shortcoming in XP's built-in protection by alerting you to outgoing as well as incoming traffic. But the new firewall monitors only incoming connections by default. Microsoft contends that this is sufficient for most users. We continue to recommend that you replace it with a bidirectional product, such as Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm.
Vista's BitLocker feature adds security to notebooks and other PCs by letting you encrypt the entire hard drive. If your computer (or just the hard drive) is stolen, the thief can't access your data without your 48-digit encryption key. If your computer carries the not-for-profit Trusted Computing Group's Trusted Platform Module chip, the key is retrieved automatically when you log in to Windows. Otherwise you can put the key on a USB drive, which you then use to unlock your hard drive every time you boot, or enter the key manually whenever you start your machine.
Fast On, Off
It's too early to judge Microsoft's assertion that Vista will start more rapidly than other versions of Windows, but the new Superfetch feature might speed your work. Superfetch remembers the programs you use most often and keeps some of their components in memory for faster relaunching. Whenever you attach a drive to your USB port--be it a big external hard drive or a little flash thumb drive--Vista asks whether you want to use some of the drive's capacity to improve performance via Superfetch. If you agree, the OS shuffles files from your hard drive over to the USB-connected drive, potentially making access to those files much faster. We didn't notice any speed difference in our tests, but it's still beta time.
Windows XP has difficulty going into and waking from hibernate mode or sleep mode on some computers, and your system hardware may override your power-saving choice. In Vista, however, you simply click the new Power Off button for the best of both worlds: Your data is saved to disk in case of a loss of power (as in hibernate mode), but it also stays in memory for a short time (as in standby mode), so it revives faster.
A Better Player
The Vista version of Windows Media Player replaces the previous release's boring text lists of song titles with album graphics, and the new WMP 11 main menu makes finding tunes and accomplishing other tasks easy. The program's search box appears center stage, just where you want it; and it works better, as well, with partial-match results appearing as you type.
If you own Windows XP Media Center Edition, it almost certainly came bundled with a fancy new media PC (or via a media-extender device). In the future MCE will be part of Vista and may also be sold in a stand-alone version, making it easier to assemble your own media-oriented PC. MCE is undergoing tumultuous changes with each Vista release. Chances are the MCE in this build will change significantly by the time Vista appears on shelves late this year.
If Vista can live up to its promises, ship relatively bug-free, and smooth out this beta version's many rough edges, the OS may prove a worthy successor to Windows XP. Of course, that's a lot of ifs.