Last Friday, Microsoft pushed Windows Vista Release Candidate 2 (RC2), build 5744, out the door. There's no laundry list of new features and functions associated with this build of Vista, but there is something significant about it. You can sum it up in one word: refinement.

The areas of installation, performance and bugginess associated with Media Center and the new Sleep power management mode have all been improved. Vista continues to be exceptionally stable. There's no question that this new Windows is more reliable than XP.

We installed RC2 on three test machines, one Windows XP Pro upgrade and two clean installs. One upgrade installation screen notes that your ‘upgrade could take several hours’ to complete. Ours didn't, although it did run a little over an hour and a quarter. The two dual-boot clean installations were swifter than with Release Candidate 1, and showed some minor visual changes.

The results of RC2's setup process were a tad cleaner. My three test machines were manufactured in different years - 2003, 2005 and 2006. The two newer models are laptops that have proprietary software for controlling hardware. Although all three have hardware Vista was unable to provide drivers for, with just a couple of exceptions, the new OS quickly accepted ‘legacy’ drivers designed for XP.

Vista's driver pack support for recently released hardware continues to be a weak point. We’d expected that, with this release, the driver pack would be better than it is. For example, it wasn't able to locate a driver for SoundMax audio cards on my oldest and newest machines. SoundMax audio is widely distributed and there's just no excuse for this. It was easy for me to find and feed Vista my OEM-provided XP drivers for these devices, however.

Not so easy to get around is the fact that Vista doesn't contain drivers for IBM/Lenovo's UltraNav built-in pointing devices (which have been shipping with ThinkPads for years now). Nor was Vista able to run these XP drivers, even whenweused some of Vista's compatibility tricks.

Microsoft needs to include drivers for laptop hardware, or make them available via Windows Update. If this product is going to ship in January, especially if the rumours of Vista-upgrade coupons being distributed for the holidays are true, proprietary driver support is key. History teaches that relying solely on the OEMs for this doesn't get the job done.

No previous 32-bit desktop version of Windows has shown the stability offered by Vista. I'm not basing that statement on comparative testing, which is impossible at this point. Months of real-world use tracking reliable uptime will first be required. But the Vista code base, which took life from Windows Server 2003, is absolutely solid when properly installed. XP offered a significant stability improvement over the 9x-derived versions of Windows. Since Vista Beta 2, I've noticed an improvement over XP.

Boot times and the speed with which dialogs, menus, program windows and folders open under Vista are also better than XP - as long as you have modern hardware with Vista-class video.

In all previous versions of Windows Vista, we had at least some sort of problem with Vista's Media Center features. In RC2, finally, everything just works the way it's supposed to. There's no need to update the video driver to a beta Vista driver from ATI. In fact, there were no glitches at all. We prefer the latest Media
Center changes to what came with the XP iteration, although overall, the differences seem pretty minor.

In the three RC1-era builds we examined, a problem cropped up with Vista's new Sleep mode that caused my Dell Inspiron E1505 dual-core laptop to crash Vista. It would go into sleep and just never wake up, requiring a hard power down. Readers had also reported this problem to us with various laptop hardware, and also with earlier builds of Vista. I'm happy to report that the problem is cleared up in RC2.

A final review of Windows Vista is in the works that will examine the strengths and weaknesses of next version of Windows, now nearing completion. In the meantime, we welcome reader e-mail detailing your own hands-on experiences with Windows Vista.