Vista may mark OS revolution

I'm obstinate. It's a character flaw. But it's deeply ingrained, so when everyone started pumping out Vista Beta 2 reviews I was determined to hold my head up high and not bother. Until someone in command pointedly asked me why I'd ignore something like that if the column's purpose was Windows in the enterprise.

Fine, damn it. Because we had some downtime before the upcoming 10-gig switch test at the ANCL Lab in Honolulu, I decided to use it -- and Contributing Editor Brian Chee's infrastructure -- to test my fresh Vista Beta 2 ISO. Except Brian told me to take a flying leap when I suggested approaching his humming Linux workstations with my fresh Microsoft meat.

So instead, I bundled up my hardware-heavy Acer Aspire 9500 notebook and shipped it to Honolulu to kill the XP and resurrect it as Vista. (Fortunately, I shipped it solo, as UPS sent the rest of my ANCL-bound boxes to Australia. Hugely competent.) When I got there, Brian had set up an out-of-service Opteron server with a new video card as another Vista-risking machine, so I got to do some basic testing on what Vista's real hardware requirements are.

As to my experiences with the new operating system itself, well here goes. First, you're blinded by Aero. This is Microsoft's new desktop user interface, and it's definitely slick: new 3D effects as part of the basic desktop scheme as well as a neat transparent effect that allows you to look through unused window panes to open windows beneath. It's very cool and obviously a we-need-to-be-cooler-than-OS X feature.

Things get even slicker when you flick the Win+Tab buttons. This turns windows on their sides to get a 3D scrolling effect across all open windows. Selecting among them is a simple mouse click away. This is especially cool when you're running a Flash video in a Web browser or an AVI in Windows Media Player and then flip it on its side -- the video keeps on running. Microsoft has also included desktop widgets a la Yahoo's Widgets (Microsoft calls them Gadgets), but so far these are mere toys and will undoubtedly annoy the average IT administrator enough to tempt many of them simply to turn the feature off.

More downside? A Schwarzenegger-esque flexing of the video card is pretty much a requirement simply to run Aero. Happily, if you're not into that, you can opt to turn the environment off in favor of more classic Windows desktop designs.

I also like the new network configuration tools. These are based in the new Network Center and still work similar to the old ones. New features include a small network topology diagram, which can be handy for smaller workgroups, although possibly annoying in really large installations. Diagnosing a network problem is a much more wizard-driven process than even Windows XP offers, but I'm still not impressed with its problem-finding capabilities. Most network issues are weird, and these types of tools can really only be definitive about the obvious stuff -- network cable unplugged, can't ping the router, and so on. Anything more strange than that and they're out of their element.

Security is also a big change in this release, and here I really am impressed. For one thing, user account management got a lot more Unix-like in its conception. Microsoft has built-in a UAC (User Account Control), which keeps track of all accounts on the system. Administrator is the equivalent of a Unix root account and just like under Unix, Microsoft recommends not running the Admin account as a daily log-on -- especially for end-users. That way, if a user attempts to access admin-only functionality, the system blocks the attempt. From there, the user can either cry to the network administrator or can log in with admin credentials if the user has them. Fortunately, the user won't have to bother logging out and then in again; the user can simply use the "runas" command to use admin credentials for the duration of that particular operation (another Unix-like command).

Yet more UAC sweetness is that whenever passwords are entered or user management is performed, the Vista desktop automatically switches into Secure mode. This locks out remote-control functionality and makes things such as Trojans or keyloggers impossible to run. I'll need to test this to be sure, but if it works I thought it was very slick.

I'm out of space already, so this will have to be a two-parter into next week's column. But without spoiling things for next week, so far I'm highly impressed by what Vista is trying to become. Some pooh-poohers are billing this as an evolutionary upgrade rather than a revolutionary one, but honestly, after looking at for a couple of weeks now I've got to say I'm leaning more toward revolutionary. This is a ground-up redesign, and it really shows. More next week.

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Oliver Rist

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