Vista Takes Windows to New HeightsBy Jason Brooks | Posted 2006-11-26 Email Print
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Review: Microsoft's Vista improves manageability and usabilitynot to mention takes on a slick new lookbut corporations can squeeze much of the same capability out of Windows XP.Finally, Vista is here. Was it worth the wait? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.
eWEEK Labs has been testing Microsoft Windows Vista builds for more than three years, and our evaluation of the final code shows that the new operating system is a significant improvement over its predecessor, Windows XPchiefly in terms of Vista's capacity for manageability and the tools it offers knowledge workers for juggling their data. What's more, with a raft of subsystem and driver model improvements, Microsoft has laid out in Vista a solid foundation for stability and usability gains in future Windows versions.
For enterprises running XP on their desktops and notebooks, however, a Vista upgrade is no slam-dunk. While Vista's new UAC (User Account Control) facilities can make it easier for companies to appropriately lock down their desktops, for instance, it's quite possible to run a well-managed shop of XP machines, either out of the box or with the aid of lockdown tools.
Also likely to give enterprise IT organizations pause is the expansion of the product activation program that Microsoft began at XP's launch. This program requires consumer customers to transmit to Microsofteither over the Internet or by phonea code unique to their hardware. This assures Microsoft that each licensed Windows copy was installed only on one machine. Significant changes to the hardware installed on a system trigger a request for reactivation of Vista, and PCs that fail the activation check are rendered useless.
With Vista, Microsoft has opted to extend this scheme to its volume-license customers. IT managers now will have to allow individual machines to contact Microsoft for clearance to operate or deploy a key-management server within the enterprise.
Also, in many cases, Vista will require new hardware and software to deliver on its potential. For example, much has been made of the requirement in Vista for gaming-level graphics cards to unlock visual effects such as window border translucency and three-dimensional window shuffling. More germane to the needs of enterprise IT, however, is Vista's new WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model), which runs outside of kernel mode and, as a result, works to prevent display driver failures from bringing down the entire system.
Unfortunately, it's been our experience that graphics cards that don't make the 3-D effects cut lack WDDM-style drivers. Where this is the case, companies will have to pay for 3-D capabilities they don't need in order to acquire the driver stability from which any user could benefit.
There are a number of Vista features that depend on an application that doesn't technically exist yetWindows Longhorn Server. These features include Vista's support for network access control. While it sounds cliché, enterprises that want to deploy Microsoft's new operating system may want to wait at least for Vista Service Pack 1, as Longhorn Server is scheduled to ship at the same time Vista SP1 is released (sometime in the second half of 2007). It also makes sense to wait until then because more Vista drivers should be in place and software incompatibilities should be ironed out.
Compared with its non-Windows rivals, such as Apple's Mac OS X and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, Vista maintains the same advantages XP did: The operating system maintains compatibility with Windows-only software, as well as good support for open-source alternatives, such as the Openoffice.org productivity suite, the Firefox Web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client.
Another network-effect fruit of Windows' monopoly status in the computing market is Vista's hardware support. Vista, like XP before it, will tend to be hardware vendors' primary supported platform (with Linux and its open-source driver efforts following behind, and with Mac OS X, unfortunately, relegated to being a value-add for the machines that Apple markets).
Cost and Licensing
The Vista SKUs relevant to business users are Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Enterprise. The only difference between the two SKUs in terms of capability, as far as we can tell, is that Vista Business lacks the system's BitLocker feature. Vista Business also ships without Microsoft's SUA (Subsystem for Unix-based Applications), but this has been a free add-on in the past, and we imagine the same will hold for Vista. The Vista Enterprise SKU is available only to volume-license customers.
Also available is a Windows Vista Ultimate Edition, which ships with all home- and business-oriented functionalities.
A full copy of Vista Business Edition retails for $299, and upgrade copies sell for $199. Microsoft wouldn't share its volume-license pricing with us, so consult your reseller for pricing on the Vista Enterprise Edition.
Next Page: Usability.
Probably the best way to sum up the usability improvements in Vista is to say that the operating system makes it easier for users to find thingsbe they documents, e-mail messages, applications or configuration settings.
Central to Vista's new facility for finding things is the system's overhauled indexing engine, which improves upon elder Windows versions' indexing services with much greater speed, the capability to index a wider variety of data and pervasive integration though the Vista interface.
We found that the fastest way to find what we were seeking in Vista was to open the Start menu and type into the Search box at the lower left corner. As we typed, Vista returned results right in the Start menu pane, from which we could select one of the results or view all results and further edit our query in an Explorer window.
We could also save our searches as virtual folders that would update themselves as new results appeared in the index.
Vista ships with a few premade search folders, such as the Recently Changed folder, which returns recently modified files. We found, however, that this search folder will only return changed files for which Vista supports indexing. We created a Word-formatted document in Openoffice.org 2.0, which Vista could index and would list in search results. The same file saved in Openoffice.org's ODT format, however, didn't show up in our search.
It's understandable that Vista would ship with filters for searching certain file types and not others, but we expected Vista at least to recognize that our ODT file existed and had been recently modified.
Vista's indexing service depends on the same IFilters for parsing different file types as do Microsoft's other indexing engines, such as the engines for Office SharePoint Server and for the Windows Desktop Search add-on for XP.
We found and installed an IFilter for adding indexing support for OpenOffice.org documents (from here), but our Vista test machine still would not recognize these files, even after we rebuilt our index. We hope to see this wrinkle ironed out soon, as extensibility is key to the usefulness of Vista's new search capabilities.
Vista's indexing engine takes advantage of a new Vista feature that provides for I/O prioritization: During tests, the indexing service throttled back its I/O usage while we were doing other things with our test system so that it wouldn't be disruptive.
The indexing service rightly raises battery life concerns for Vista on laptops, as reading from changed files on disk and writing to the index mean more activity and shorter battery life. We were pleased to see, therefore, that we could opt to curtail indexing from Vista's Power Options configuration dialog.
In Vista, a handful of other background-type applications, such as Windows Defender and the system's SuperFetch memory optimization function, also employ I/O prioritization to stay out of the wayand developers may use these features in their own applications for Vista as well.
Vista sports a heavily overhauled Explorer file manager that offers up several ways to view and organize files based on their metadata. We could assign bits of metadatasuch as tags, stars or author namesthrough a new pane at the bottom of an Explorer window. We could opt to view these bits of metadata in columns alongside traditional attribute columns, such as file type or date modified, and we could view our files split into metadata-based groups or stacks.
We see a lot of potential in this approach, but metadata-based organization techniques aren't much help without metadata with which to organize. Until applications begin doing a better job of automatically creating metadata for the files they create, users will have to spend time adding this information themselves. We'd like to see a product that can scan through a directory of documents and create tags automatically for the directory's files. For certain applications, Vista includes a new File Open and Save dialog that enabled us to apply tags to files as we saved them.
One trouble spot we encountered using Vista's Explorer metadata organization tools was the lack of support for some of the file types we commonly use. For instance, JPEG files happily take attributes under Vista, but PNG files do not.
Along similar lines, Vista would not apply metadata to files we had created in the OpenOffice.org format. And, strangely, our attempts to apply metadata to documents created in OpenOffice.orgin Microsoft Office formatwere greeted with an error message. We didn't experience the same problem with an Office-formatted document we created using Google Docs & Spreadsheetswe could apply metadata to that document as expected.
Another potential issue for those making a switch to Vista is that Explorer's interface has changed enough to make it initially confusing to use. The familiar Explorer menu barFile, Edit, View, Tools, Helpis hidden by default in the new Explorer, and we found ourselves fumbling around a bit in search of the old ways of getting things done.
Also, Explorer now features a new address bar that made it easier to navigate around in the nest of folders in which we found ourselves, but only once we'd gotten used to it. Expect to spend a bit of time adjusting to the new Explorer.
Next Page: Control Panel.
With XP, Microsoft introduced a new organization scheme for its Control Panel, in which the classic Control Panel layoutwhere all available configuration tools sat together in a single windowwas broken up into categories. Microsoft preserved the option to revert to the classic layout, which we tended to do because it seemed to take more time to figure which category your desired tool lived in than to simply scan a listeven if that list had grown rather ungainly.
In Vista, Microsoft has paired the configuration tool categorization efforts it began in XP with integrated search, which makes finding the tool you know exists a lot faster than scanning through a big list or spelunking down through Control Panel categories.
Vista's Control Panel also tracks recent configuration tasks users have undertaken, keeping a list of the last three in the lower left corner of the Control Panel.
Helpful as well is the Control Panel's knack for offering up links to configuration tools related to the one you're using. For instance, in the screen on which we could select a power management plan, a panel listed links for requiring a password on wakeup, choosing what the power buttons would do, choosing what would happen when we closed our laptop screen, creating our own power plan and choosing when to turn off our display.
While Vista definitely makes it easier overall to find configuration options, there are a few places where the interface changes have, to our displeasure, added extra steps to perform some common operation. For instance, we are accustomed in XP to checking the IP address and other status information for our network adapterand to request a new IP address from our DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) serverby right-clicking on the network adapter icon in the task bar. In Vista, these options are missing, buried instead in a new Network and Sharing Center that's decently helpful but less immediately accessible than we'd like.
Probably a better place to conduct these sorts of quick-hit information checks and operations, anyway, is Vista's command line, the state of which Microsoft has improved considerably in Vista. Vista's directory naming conventions, for instance, are much improved from a command-line user's perspective: Gone is "Documents and Settings" and the "My" prefix for "Documents," "Pictures" and other folders of their ilk.
Microsoft has also introduced Unix-style symlinks in Vista. These links direct applications aimed at those bygone, multiword directory names to their new and simpler-named successors. Microsoft's search folders also make use of Vista's new link capability.
Microsoft has created an impressive-looking add-on terminal shell for Windows, called Powershell, which should bring Windows closer to Linux in terms of command-line usefulness. At the time this review was written, the Powershell was available only for XP and Windows Server 2003. A Vista version of Powershell is slated to ship at the beginning of 2007.
Vista inherits from Windows Server 2003 a nifty feature known as Previous Versions. We could right-click on a file or folder, choose the Previous Versions tab, and check out a list of earlier versions of that file or folder, each coinciding with one of Vista's periodic system restores or with a backup operation.
For example, we consulted the previous versions of our Desktop directory to find items that were on our Desktop but had since been moved or deleted. We could browse that past Desktop through Explorer and copy items we wanted to restore. We could also restore a file or folder to one of its previous states.
We expect to see this feature of Vista reduce a portion of the restore-from-tape chores that IT staffers must perform as part of their duties, which is better both for the IT staffers and for the users looking to restore lost or changed data.
Vista includes a new volume mixer tool that allowed us to control independently the volume of Windows' system sounds and those of individual open applications. This will come in handy as the number of sound-producing applications on one's system continues to multiply.
Vista also now includes a new control dialog, called the Mobility Center, which collects configuration options related to Tablet PC or notebook PC usesuch as battery, Wi-Fi radio and file synchronization controlsinto a single location.
Vista ships with built-in support for speech recognition, a feature that helps fill out a generous suite of accessibility tools. We spent limited time with Vista's speech recognition tools, but we were impressed by some of the solutions Microsoft has pursued with the goal of making speech recognition useful.
For instance, with speech recognition turned on, we could say "Show numbers," and the application in the foreground would appear with numbers superimposed on all of the application's buttons and fields. We could then press a button or enter a field by speaking the number associated with it.
While dictating to our Vista test machine, we could correct words and phrases that Vista had recognized incorrectly by choosing from a list of similar words or phrases. We could use Vista's dictation tools not only in applications that shipped with Vista, but in any application we were running. For instance, we dictated our way through part of a chat session using the open-source Gaim instant messaging client.
Another new feature on the Vista usability front is the system's Sidebar, which hosts mini-applications much like those that reside in Mac OS X's Dashboard. There's probably opportunity here for some interesting, in-house-developed applets, but we've taken to disabling the Sidebar because we've not yet found itor the relatively small number of so-called gadgets for itparticularly useful.
Next Page: Security.
Vista is certainly the most security-conscious Windows release to date, and the first Windows client to ship in the wake of Microsoft's much-heralded Trustworthy Computing initiative.
Vista's security story begins with the system's new UAC feature, which encourages IT organizations to turn from the too-common practice of configuring regular users' accounts with administrative permission.
Running regular users with admin rights is certainly more convenient, but doing so places in users' hands the power to modify fundamentallyand, in many cases, imperceptiblythe systems on which they run.
Previous versions of Windows did a lousy job of enabling appropriate user rights. Vista changes things by expanding the sorts of operations that regular users can carry out, by making clear which operations require admin rights and by bringing up an authentication prompt when users attempt to perform an operation that requires elevated rights.
One of the most interesting aspects of UAC is that users with administrative rights actually run as standard users and must click "allow" in the pop-up authentication dialog to carry out operations with admin rights. In this way, organizations that wish to grant users full control over their systems can still ratchet up the protection for these users.
In some cases, we encountered operations that did not bring up a prompt where required, but we could typically right-click on commands to run them as administrator where Vista failed to prompt us automatically.
We also encountered strange performance issues while running a test version of the Thunderbird mail client. We attempted to use Thunderbird's built-in update facility to update our installation, but the update wouldn't take. We then ran Thunderbird as an administrator via right-click, as we've described, and the update worked. After that, however, Thunderbird triggered a UAC prompt each time we launched it.
There's a compatibility option within Vista for running applications automatically as administrator, but we had not enabled it for Thunderbird. While we've had mostly smooth sailing with UAC in our tests, we expect to see error situations like these surface while Microsoft and application developers work out hidden kinks.
Along similar lines, individual services in Vista run under accounts with rights profiles that have been tailored to their needs, rather than running as all-powerful system users. This rights-tailoring should help limit the damage that these services can do to a system in the event that they become subverted.
Internet Explorer 7, itself a common target for subversion, runs under Vista in a "protected mode," in which the operations that IE is allowed to carry out and the file locations to which IE is allowed to write are tightly constrained.
We'd like to see Microsoft provide facilities through which IT administrators could similarly sandbox any application of their choosing.
Vista also ships with built-in spyware detection software, the aforementioned Windows Defender and a new firewall that filters outgoing traffic in addition to the incoming traffic that the XP SP2 firewall filtered.
Next Page: Diagnostics.
Among the new views of Vista that impressed us during our tests was the system's significantly improved suite of diagnostic tools. The inner workings of Windows have long been too obscured for our liking, so we're pleased by Vista's new facilities for exposing the system's operations.
Vista's overhauled Event Viewer scanned our system's logs and presented us with a summary of events, grouped into Errors, Warnings, Informational Items, Audit Successes and Audit Failures (with counts of each event type in the last hour, day and week of system operation).
This summary event log is an example of the new Event Viewer's capacity for presenting custom views from multiple system logs. We could create custom views based both on individual system logs and on particular event sources from within different system logs. For instance, it took less than a minute for us to point and click our way through the creation of a custom view that presented all errors associated with our test rig's UAC and UAC file virtualization subsystems.
Another Vista diagnostic addition that caught our eye is the system's new Reliability and Performance Monitor, which offers up a summary view of the current load on a machine's CPU, memory, disk and networking systems, as well as the option of drilling down for more details on the particular processes responsible for that load.
For example, when the hard drive in a Vista-based machine is thrashing wildly, it's possible to use the Reliability and Performance Monitor to zero in on the processes doing all the reading and writing to disk by expanding the Disk section of Vista's Resource Overview page.
We also appreciate the changes Microsoft has made in Vista's Task Manager, which now sports a Services tab and offers up more information in its Processes tab, including the command-line item with which each process is associated and a brief description of each process.
We could also create customized performance charts drawing on a large number of network, disk, CPU and memory counter types, reflecting either current load information or load data from saved logs. We could include information from our local machine and from other machines in our network.
In addition, Vista's diagnostic tools offered us the option of specifying particular sets of data collection points to track and analyze. The system ships with built-in data sets for LAN, wireless and system diagnostic reports, as well as a set for creating system performance reports.
During tests, we ran a system diagnostic report based on one of Vista's ready-made data sets, which was configured to collect particular system information over a 1-minute period. We could adjust this collection period as we chose. After the test ran, Vista presented us with a report citing potential issues, such as the fact that we had no anti-virus software installed and that one of our network adapters was disabled.
Vista also now contains a Reliability Monitor tool that displays a graph over time of all the software installs and uninstalls; system restore points; and hardware, application, Windows and miscellaneous error events that have occurred. Negative events, such as system and application errors, are reflected by downturns in the graph's line, and continuous periods of normal operation nudge the line upward.
The graph's importance is open to debate, but we appreciate the effort by Microsoft to give administrators a high-level view of a machine's working order over time, which should help determine whether particular applications are destabilizing a system or whether a machine is due for a reinstall.
Also worthy of mention is the Vista tool called System Configuration, which does a great job of concentrating important system facilities and options into a very slim tool.
From this application, we could opt to restart in a diagnostic or selective mode. In the latter mode, we could limit the services and startup items that launched to, for example, troubleshoot an issue. We could also configure an array of boot options, quickly disable particular services and view only non-Microsoft services, view and disable startup programs, and launch every diagnostic or setup tool in Vista's arsenal.
Vista also includes a new image-based deployment system that should make life easier for IT.
Next Page: Hardware and software issues.
Vista comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. The 32-bit release supports x86 processors of 800MHz or better. The 64-bit version supports Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon 64 and Opteron and Intel's EM64T (Extended Memory 64 Technology) processors. (The 64-bit chips will also run the 32-bit version of Windows.)
eWEEK Labs tested Vista on a variety of machines, including a Lenovo ThinkPad T41 with 1.5GB of RAM and a 1.6MHz processor, and a single-processor Opteron-based desktop system with 2GB of RAM. We tested the 32-bit version of Vista on the laptop and the 64-bit version on the desktop.
Based on our tests of Vista, both of the RTM (released to manufacturing) code and of the many builds leading up to it, we can report that a 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and pretty much any graphics adapter can perform acceptably under Vista, but we consider each of these to be bare minimum requirements. For older, less resource-rich machines, either XP or one of the popular Linux distributions would be a better bet for lengthening these machines' lives.
Vista's new ReadyBoost feature, which makes use of flash memory from sources such as USB drives, should offer a performance boost to memory-poor machines. We're withholding our judgment regarding ReadyBoost's true usefulness, however, until we conduct performance tests with the first OEM-blessed Vista-ready machines we get our hands on. But the concept is certainly promising.
As far as graphics are concerned, little of Vista's new functionality actually depends on the gaming-level graphics required to earn Microsoft's Vista Capable or Vista Premium designations. Vista's interface steps down rather smoothly from the bells-and-whistles Aero Glass to the rather similar-looking but 3-D-free Aero to the Windows 2000-style Classic interface.
Overall, we've found that Vista works fairly well with applications designed for earlier versions of Windows, but, as with every operating system upgrade, there are classes of applications that require lower-level access to Windows' workings. For these applications, such as Cisco's VPN client or any sort of anti-virus software, you'll need to check with your vendor for a Vista-compatible version.
Advanced Technologies Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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