As Microsoft's five-year-long development effort slouches toward completion, details began to emerge last week that showed the company is (finally) gearing up to release Windows Vista after the new year, as promised. Pricing information popped up on a Canadian Web site, and Amazon.com told visitors that the new OS would be going out on Jan. 30, only to replace that date with a squishier "Early 2007." Finally, by the time you read this, Microsoft has promised to release the penultimate test version of its Vista operating system, dubbed "Release Candidate 1" to an army of testers around the world.
Are anticipatory chills running down your spine? They shouldn't be.
Because a Release Candidate must be stable enough to allow corporate buyers to evaluate the product for deployment, Microsoft will have done quite a bit of work to RC1 over Vista's previous beta incarnations; so get set for a number of improvements. On the other hand, because of this concentration on stability, don't look for any noteworthy new features.
Here's what Vista RC1 will likely have to offer:
Installation: A late beta release dubbed "Pre RC1" received kudos from more than one online reviewer for the improvements in this area, and rumors out of Microsoft say RC1 is the first version of Vista (or any Windows version) that has seamlessly installed on a variety of new notebooks and desktops -- no muss, no fuss, and with full detection of PC Card and USB peripherals.
Graphical interface: Aero has reportedly given Microsoft quite a few Advil moments, and even Beta 2 users were reporting intermittent difficulties. Look for this to be smoothed out in anything that receives RC status. That doesn't mean, however, that you should try to run it on your anemic graphics subsystem from 2003. Microsoft recommends at least 32-bit-per-pixel graphics capability. To you and me that means that for really smooth Aero-nautics, you should have a DirectX 9-capable 3-D accelerator card with 128MB of dedicated video RAM. If your test box lacks this video muscle, RC1 will support a non-Aero interface for weaker or older PCs.
Audio: Microsoft has been having trouble with audio in even its most recent Vista Beta release. Toolsmixer controls are intermittently absent, and audio playback is often interrupted or missing. This should be solved in an RC1 release.
If you're a systems or network administrator, RC1 won't be much different from Beta 2. The new release will ship with Internet Explorer RC1 installed, but even that has few differences from IE7 Beta 2. There will be a new, easier-to-use integrated backup tool, but it's of little interest to corporate users who'll most likely be using a centralized third-party app or Windows Shadow Copy.
The pricing and availability info -- coupled with the OS's slow march toward "gold," aka a finished version of Windows Vista ready for manufacturing -- shows that Microsoft is serious about meeting its ship date. However, the key criterion for Vista RC1 will be stability. If it installs smoothly, runs smoothly, and gives us the full Vista experience that Microsoft's been promising, consider it a success. If not, it's back to the drawing board.