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Inside Windows Vista Beta 2

Microsoft continues to make improvements to the OS, flesh out the bundled programs' capabilities, and clean up bugs (though there are still plenty).

It's been a long and arduous journey, but Microsoft continues to make progress in its plan to release Windows Vista. This week, at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle, Microsoft is unveiling Beta 2 of its next-generation operating system, marking a critical milestone on the release plan.

Because Vista code, at this point, is essentially feature-complete, Beta 2—also known as build 5384.4—doesn't contain a lot of readily visible changes from the builds we've covered previously. But in the months since the February CTP (Community Technology Preview) release, Microsoft has continued to improve Vista's fit and finish, flesh out the capabilities of bundled programs, and clean up bugs (though there are still plenty).

One of the significant differences in Beta 2 is that the implementation of UAC (user account control) privilege elevation is much more intrusive—objectionably so, in our experience so far. UAC's fundamental purpose is laudable: It aims to enable most users to spend most of their time running with limited-privilege accounts, constraining the ability of malicious software to inflict damage. In Vista, many users should be able to use non-administrator accounts routinely—a feat that's possible in principle but rarely practical in Windows XP. Even when you log in as an administrator on Vista, the OS creates a "filtered token" with limited rights that it uses for most operations. When you perform a task that requires administrative privileges—that is, request privilege "elevation"—the OS explicitly requires your confirmation. Vista has three different types of elevation dialogs that it can display, depending on whether the component requesting elevation is a core part of the OS, a signed application, or an unsigned third-party program.

In Beta 2, the elevation dialog doesn't just pop up; it switches Vista into what Microsoft calls "secure desktop" mode. The OS takes a bitmapped snapshot of currently displayed windows, grays them out, and overlays the elevation dialog box. The result is a rude interruption to whatever you may be doing. Microsoft representatives readily acknowledge that this experience is problematic for users, and say the company is continuing to work both within the OS and with third-party software vendors to reduce the frequency of these interruptions.

As with earlier Vista betas, Beta 2 will be available to hundreds of thousands of MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network), TechNet subscribers, and corporate beta testers. We also expect that Microsoft will make it available more widely, to around 2 million early adopters in the general public. Beta 2 will eventually be followed by one or more release candidates (RCs), leading up to RTM (release to manufacturing). If the current schedule holds, it will be available to enterprise customers in November and to consumers in January 2006.

We've already published slide shows of many of the core Vista features, but here's a look at some of the new features and changes that are visible in Beta 2. Vista now enables the Sidebar by default and includes some new gadgets such as an egg timer. Close-ups of all the Vista gadgets currently available, as well as Vista highlights, are in the slide show as well. We're tracking all of the latest Vista developments on our Microsoft Windows Vista special report.
Inside Windows Vista Beta 2 - Tuesday, May 23, 2006 -

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