First Windows Vista release candidate available

Microsoft has taken a big stride toward finalizing Windows Vista by issuing a first release candidate for its next-generation operating system.

A release candidate is a near-final version of the OS that is supposed to be changed only to fix bugs and tweak performance. The arrival of Vista RC1 in the first week of September keeps Microsoft on track for shipping the OS in November as planned.

Jim Allchin, Windows Platforms and Services copresident, announced the completion of RC1 in a blog posting to some 20,000 business and IT users in Microsoft's Technical Beta and Technology Adoption Program. Code was made available to these testers today, but Allchin promised it would go out to the additional 500,000 IT pros and developers in the Microsoft Software Developers Network and Technet soon.

"You'll notice a lot of improvements since Beta 2," Allchin wrote. "We've made some UI adjustments, added more device drivers, and enhanced performance. We're not done yet, however -- quality will continue to improve."

"The operating system is in great shape with RC1," Allchin added in his message to Microsoft's core beta testers, "but there's still a lot of testing to do. You've come through for us so far, and I'm asking you to once again put the pedal to the metal and send us feedback."

In addition to members of the technical community, some 1.5 million general users have received Beta 2 since its release last May by signing up for the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program. At the time, Microsoft said these users would have access to RC1, but there was no immediate word on how the company would be servicing them.

(For those who like to keep track of such details, RC1 is build 5600; Beta 2 was build 5384.)

Microsoft officials say RC1 will time out on May 31, 2007, meaning that people who install it will have to upgrade to the shipping OS by then. It's not clear whether they'd be able to roll back to Windows XP.

What's New Since Beta 2?

Christopher Flores, group product manager for Windows Marketing Communications, said one area in which RC1 is most visibly different from Beta 2 is in its handling of User Account Control technology, which seeks to improve system security by requiring approval, even from people logged in with administrative privileges, for software installations or settings changes.

Testers had complained that the OS popped up windows requesting approval for changes that were trivial or that clearly came from trusted sources (such as Microsoft itself, in the case of Windows updates). Microsoft eliminated some of these prompts, such as those seeking approval to view firewall settings, open the Scanners and Camera control panel, or perform Media Player's Express setup. Also, UAC requests no longer appear as windows that steal focus from applications, which can be distracting. Instead, they appear on the taskbar as flashing buttons.

The OS also now uses less system memory to run, which should speed up overall performance. And it includes support for both of the high-definition video media formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Vista's underlying WinFX graphics system (now called .NET 3.0) is installed by default; previously it had to be user-installed.

Media Center viewers now recognize user-applied tags to photos and videos, and can filter content accordingly. System pop-ups are automatically suppressed when using presentation settings. Additionally, Flores says this version of Vista comes with drivers for thousands more devices than were included with Beta 2.

Microsoft still plans to release final code to volume license customers (primarily enterprises) in November. Systems with Vista preinstalled and upgrade versions of the OS at retail are slated to follow in January.

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