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Tested: Vista's latest build

PC Advisor discovers whether the trouble spots have been improved in Vista’s interim beta build 5,472.

This article appears in the October 06 issue of PC Advisor, which is available now in all good newsagents.

We recently obtained an interim build of Windows Vista – build 5,472. It shows that Microsoft is making progress in the areas of performance and installation time, has refined the UAC (User Account Control), updated the Control Panel, included mild design improvement to the Vista Basic video mode and improved the way Media Center works.

Installation time has been cut by 40 percent, making it the best Windows installation experience ever. Overall performance of this build is noticeably faster, including boot times and the opening and closing of applications.

The Flip 3D window-switching feature gets a quiet improvement in build 5,472, graphics are a little better and there’s a ‘Switch between windows’ icon on the QuickLaunch bar. Thankfully, the windows’ open and
close movement is more fluid, too.

Better networking all around

This build of Vista shows a remarkable improvement in network browsing speed. When you open the Network window, the delay before all available workstations appear is only 5-10 seconds on a typical 6-node peer network of mixed Vista and XP systems. Larger networks didn’t require noticeably longer wait times, either. Even first-time connections are fast. In Beta 2.0 this could sometimes be measured in minutes – and some workstations never showed up.

Microsoft has completely reconsidered its user experience strategy for networking controls. Beta 2.0 had four separate networking control panels; build 5,472 has one: the Network and Sharing Center. There were four or five additional wizards that managed several aspects of network configuration, too, but it wasn’t clear what other wizard or dialog you had to launch to get to them.

The new Network and Sharing Center is a vast improvement over the earlier design. It offers one-stop shopping, while the things you most need are mounted as a tasklist for accessing dialogs, settings and wizards.

What was previously called the Network File and Printer Sharing Wizard is built into the bottom of the Network and Sharing Center. Perhaps best of all, you can now right-click the Network desktop icon and choose Properties to open the Network and Sharing Center.

Two functions that appeared more window dressing than useful in Beta 2.0 – Network List and Network Map – are missing from build 5,472. They’ll probably make a reappearance later on, but we hope in the Network and Sharing Center, instead of cluttering up the Control Panel.

One of the confusing things about Beta 2.0 was the difference between public and private networks. When you create a network connection, it asked you to classify the network as one or the other. There were many situations in which even experienced users weren’t sure which their networking environment applied to. Private sounds more secure, but in reality was less so. Microsoft has changed this to Home, Work and Public Location.

UAC moving in the right direction

In build 5,472, the UAC feature is still in a state of flux. Microsoft has listened to the many UAC criticisms and is attempting to minimise user frustration by cleverly refining the way this security technology works.
The purpose of UAC is to make Windows users aware of potentially dangerous activities on their PCs. The potential threat is that a hacker, or malware program, could be carrying out a scripted set of steps that will lead to a negative event, such as the loss of data or damage to your Windows installation. In a nutshell, the UAC asks: did you initiate this process that’s attempting to run?

The easiest example to understand is the prompt that pops up when an unsigned program installation begins to run. In build 5,472, it reads: ‘An unidentified program wants access to your computer’. Your choices are Cancel or Allow. If you initiated the program installation and you trust the source of the software, you should click Allow.

But what if you didn’t initiate a program installation?

That’s the time when Alex Heaton, Microsoft’s senior product manager for UAC, says you should choose Cancel.

In this interim build, Microsoft has changed how UAC manifests itself. When a background application or service trips UAC, instead of interrupting what you’re doing in the foreground, it flashes orange in the taskbar.

The good news is that a long list of previously annoying – and in some cases unnecessary – UAC prompts have been banished. Microsoft is localising UAC protection to the areas that are most dangerous, such as attempting to turn off the firewall or change its settings.

In some cases, Microsoft has smartly reconsidered the existence of UAC prompts. There’s no longer any UAC prompt with the use of Windows Defender, the Setup Fax Wizard or the Scanners and Cameras control panel.

One of the most mystifying UAC behaviours in Beta 2.0 caused a prompt to appear when you tried to delete some desktop program shortcuts. If the program was installed for use by all accounts in Vista, UAC blocked the deletion of the icon with a permission prompt. Since there’s no
way for Windows users to know which way the program was installed, even experienced beta testers were confused. For build 5,472, so long as the running account has administrator privileges, icons installed on the public desktop will be deleted without issue.

Finally, Heaton acknowledges that file operations and UAC – the prompts you may see when you open specifically protected file folders in Vista, such as the Program Files, Windows and Desktop folders – is the main focus of continued UAC development leading up to RC1.

Media Center still buggy

No interim Windows beta build, including 5,472, is ever the refined, comparatively bug-free set of code that a more heavily tested Beta 2.0 is or RC1 (Release Candidate 1) will be. Microsoft spends days and weeks refining a release designed for larger numbers of people. So it’s not surprising that Media Center tests of 5,472 were less successful than tests conducted for Beta 2.0. There are some minor improvements in the way Media Center works, and it shuts down very quickly.

But getting it to turn back on was problematic. In this build, it had trouble with volume control – it could lower but not raise the volume. And occasionally, it sent the tuner driver into a tailspin. Overall, the experience wasn’t better, but there are no conclusions to draw at this time.

As a tune-up to the next major beta release of Vista – RC1, expected in the second half of August – the technical release 5,472 shows Vista clearly improving. Several of the biggest gripes about Vista Beta 2.0 are being addressed.

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