The NeoSmart Files

The Windows Vista Monster Review

Windows Vista RC1 (screenshots!) was released this week with great fanfare. Coming after the highly-successful pre-RC1 build 5536, it had quite a lot of high expectations, and it certainly exceeded quite a few of them. In a word, Windows Vista RC1 is too good to be true. If it wasn’t for the pre-RC1 build, we wouldn’t be able to believe it. The last non-RC1 branches build we receive, build 5472, was a mess. It lacked a sense of completion, it crashed, it was buggy, and it was huge. RC1 couldn’t be further from that harsh reality.

Windows Vista Build 5600 is release candidate, and comes close to the meaning of that word. Generally speaking, an RC build is “ready for release” unless major bugs come up. With Vista or any other OS, there are bound to be quite a few major bugs left by RC1, and it’s the way the company handles them that matters more than anything else. And with Vista, we’re really impressed. We can finally present a honest look at what Vista will be. This isn’t just RC1 being reviewed, this is Vista.

We may have complained quite a lot before and after RC1 was released, but don’t let that mislead you, RC1 is good. Really good for a product that just a month ago was a complete and utter disaster as far as usability and stability were concerned. This review focuses on all aspects of RC1, which after all is the first real look at what we’re going to end up getting. What makes this review a bit different from our previous reviews is a more on-the-spot focus about the good and the bad. It’s a mega-review, it features subjective and objective tests, and every step of the way we’ll be giving our feedback about what works and what doesn’t. You can go ahead and press the next page link and read it from start to finish or you can use the mini-ToC below; each section is more or less independent of the rest.

Subjective Experiences on Windows Vista

It may be a bit hard to explain or put down in words, but Windows Vista has finally become “livable.” Throughout the beta program, Vista was like alien territory; even with the most experienced beta testers, there was something difficult about sticking to Vista, no matter how dedicated you were, going back to XP always brought some feeling of relief for no tangible reason. Build 5472 was a lot better, but its only with RC1 that most people we’ve talked to are finally just as comfortable in Vista as they are in XP, if not more so.

It’s more than just vibes or karma, it’s something that can only be described as the “completeness” of the entire operating system as a whole. It’s the way that everything fits together, the way Windows Media Player doesn’t disappear when you close Windows Explorer, the way Internet Explorer doesn’t crash when a page takes too long to load, and the way you can be just as productive on Vista as you are on Windows XP or Linux. Vista RC1 brings a host of minor changes that finally turn it from a unfinished product to something actually usable, that doesn’t exude of incompletion and breakage at every moment.

That said, Windows Vista certainly is a lot faster. Technically speaking, it had better be faster than Windows XP, after all, that’s why it’s called an upgrade and not a ‘sidestep’ or alternate Windows path.’ All of the reviews comparing Windows Vista to Windows XP and concluding Well gee, it’s a really big improvement over a 6-year-old OS that never was good in the first place are a bit pitiful. Vista is a new OS for a new era. Everything shipping out now is labeled “next-gen,” and indeed, Windows Vista is a next-gen OS for next-gen computers throughout the new generation.

At the NeoSmart Labs, we have PCs pre-loaded with Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Linux (Fedora Core 5 or 6T2). In the past, most coding projects were preformed on Windows XP and publications were done on Fedora, with Vista only being for testing purposes. But now our team members are more productive on Vista than even Linux – quite an accomplishment. What does “productivity” refer to though?

With Vista RC1, programs install and run faster. On Linux one must install all dependencies first, and with programs like Yum(ex) it isn’t hard, but it certainly is time-consuming. It was faster than setting programs up on XP, but with Vista the entire framework has been given an over-haul. SharpDevelop installs in under 1 minute and AutoCad 2007 in less than 2. That’s fast. With Vista, Windows finally ships with all you need to get going, and indeed besides Office 2007 we haven’t installed anything for the past two days, and we’re still getting along great. Other programs that normally take quite some time to run (like Word 2007, Zoundry Blog Writer, and Outlook 2007) start up instantly, and even Photoshop CS2 loads in under 30 seconds, something that could never be done on these same PCs under XP and run significantly faster than their Linux counterparts like Gimp or Evolution.

But it’s not perfect. Things like Windows Media Center have barely been touched since Beta 1. They’re just as slow and buggy as they were builds ago, except with a couple of new (and unrefined!) features added to the mix. Mad props should go to the Internet Explorer 7 team, but it’s CSS and DIV support is far from perfect. A lot of these things are discussed later on in greater detail, but suffice to say that Windows Vista is still lacking when it comes to standards and supporting them, but it has certainly improved. Windows Vista may boot in under 20 seconds, but it still takes 3 minutes to shutdown.

While Microsoft has made UAC amazingly easy to use and far less obtrusive, and it may no longer take 7 steps to delete a simple shortcut, but certain power-user tools are made much harder to reach, such as viewing available wireless connections or configuring network adapters. It has taken the power out of “administrator” and not because of UAC, but because of a simple lack of proper layout techniques.

Windows Vista Explorer / User Interface Review

The Good

The big thing in Vista is the look. While that’s public enough knowledge, there are some subtle changes that have happened since the start of the RC1-branches builds that have greatly enhanced the quality and perfection of Windows Vista’s visual effects. Prior to RC1 branches, Vista’s (in)famous ‘Aurora’ theme was overdone and exuded of nostalgia and clutter. Comparing the old Aurora and MCE ‘stage’ of previous builds to the new Aurora effect. The difference is very subtle, but the effect is colossal.

Other effects such as the copy/move/delete dialogs have undergone major enhancements, while ‘heavy’ animations such as Flip3D and the alt-tab sequence have undergone heavy improvements since the original, with anti-aliasing added in subsequent builds and ending with the perfected Flip3D of RC1 with it’s 8x anti-aliasing effect and anisotropic filtering.

Windows Vista has nice new effects all over the place, when you’re maximizing windows, booting up, shutting down, or looking for some nifty widgets to tell you the time, take notes on, or check out the weather. Glass has finally been improved, as can be seen by comparing the old and the new versions of Windows Media Player 11.

A user interface is something far bigger than just pretty icons and flashy effects, it’s the whole way that the operating system interacts with the user and vice versa. Windows Vista puts a whole new spin on the way an operating system works. It may not be Windows 95 all over again, but Windows Vista can be seen as the “evolution finale” of the graphic desktop. Windows XP was “GUI-Complete” in that one didn’t have to touch the CLI to make things work, unlike Windows 2000 or any and all flavors of Linux, but there were always things like the registry to deal with.

Vista has put a lot more control in the hands of the user, almost any feature can be tweaked and modified to one’s liking, whether it’s the desktop, the audio controller, hard drives, or anything in between; the entire interface to modifying certain parts of the OS has been overhauled and is much easier to use. But again, it’s not perfect. Being able to change tint & opacity of window borders isn’t everything.

The Bad

Vista RC1 may finally be feature-complete and comfortable to use with everything tied in, but its UI is almost the total opposite. Some aspects of Windows Vista feature a “bars” UI such as Windows Mail with it’s blue bars across the front, and the “balls” that include Windows Media Player and Windows Photo Gallery that are made up of a see-through control bars at the bottom and large, circular control buttons in a bar. Then there’s Aero Express with it’s largely boxy & opaque sky-blue appearance, and then you have MCE with it’s dark blue theme with the really nice rollover effects. Each is, in its own right, a decent enough display, but they don’t really fit together the way one would expect for the default programs that ship with a single OS.

This post on Teching it Easy best explained the mess behind the GUI disunity present in Windows Vista, ever since the “improved” Aero Express theme was launched. But if that was all that was wrong with Vista’s GUI, it’s not a problem. We’ll get used to it the same we got use to the ghastly and garish bright blue of Windows XP (not Royale Blue of MCE!). But it’s not.

The bigger problem is in how Vista makes everything just a hair’s-width too far. Checking available wireless networks requires right clicking the icon in the taskbar, opening the Network and Sharing Center, and choosing to connect to a new network. 4 steps. In XP it was just a double-click away. In Linux it’s right there on the desktop (well, it depends on the flavor, but you get the gist). It’s the same with uninstalling programs, changing the system time, or modifying virtually anything in Windows Vista. It’s easy, it’s all in the same place, it’s all very powerful, and it’s all just a bit too far for comfort.

In earlier builds UAC/LUA was a nightmare to use, but in RC1-branches it almost never comes in the way, and when it does, it’s worth it. But that doesn’t mean that RC1 is suddenly power-user friendly. To the contrary, Vista provides a hell of a lot more features for tweaking, but at the same time, it makes performing any advanced changes to the OS beyond what’s already available quite a painful process. The Control Panel has been revamped, it has a lot more power, but nevertheless, for power users there will be a bit of exasperation involved.

Windows Vista Networking Reviewed

One of Windows Vista’s biggest improvements and source of problems to date is the all-new networking TCP/IP stack and front-end. Besides the (largely BS) security bulletin published by Symantec, there have been a host of other “previously neutralized” TCP/IP bugs that still existed in Windows Vista. But since then Vista has come clean. We haven’t been able to replicate any of the vulnerabilities detailed in Symantec’s security bulletins.

Vista’s new Network and Sharing Center is a very important step in bringing security down to the average man’s playing field. Our security professionals at NeoSmart Technologies have analyzed the host of options available in the Network and Sharing Center, and they do sufficiently address the shortcomings and major sources of insecurity in previous versions of Windows.

Improved TCP/IP Stack

Windows Vista’s major bragging point compared to any other modern (and big) operating a system is a TCP/IP stack written from scratch with complete IPv6 and advanced routing support. Most other operating systems have an ancient networking stack that is constantly being updated with new components. Besides the obvious negative performance and security impacts of such a model, it also means that the operating system will never completely interface with the newer features of the networking stack as well as it could if it were written from scratch.

But though the Vista networking stack may be new, it sure as hell isn’t from scratch. The TCP/IP stack has been rewritten from the start, but old code has been recycled, a practice that just means that you’ll be doing a lot of hard work but not reaping the benefits as much as you could. Vista’s networking stack wasn’t written with clean code, and as a result old holes and vulnerabilities existed; though they were patched in later updates of Windows XP, the fact that Vista used the original code meant that it was still vulnerable. Though the security vulnerabilities brought to attention by Symantec (everyone’s favorite company) may have been addressed, chances are there are still a couple (or more) bugs that were previously patched for other OSes that are still present in Windows Vista.

Besides the avoidable kinks mentioned, Vista has another disadvantage in using a brand-new TCP stack for a production-grade OS. All the past builds sent out to testers focused more on stability and performance tests, no one was too concerned with testing the security of the operating system, after all, that doesn’t really matter if the OS already crashes on its own. Only now can security professionals truly focus on finding vulnerabilities in Windows Vista. This doesn’t mean that there has to be bugs or holes in it, but it just makes it more likely.

But it’s not all bad news for Vista. The new networking stack far surpasses Windows XP’s or even Linux’s networking performance, with internet pages loading up to 8% faster than XP and up to 4% faster than Linux on identical web browsers in our tests (Opera 9.0.1 and Firefox 2.0 Beta). IE7 loaded pages 2% faster on Vista than on XP in our tests. Plus, Vista’s domain support is much more functional in Windows Vista than in previous versions to date, which will be a definite advantage in the corporate playing field.

Network and Sharing Center

We first reviewed Vitsa’s Network and Sharing Center when it first made its debut in build 5231. Since then it’s come a long way from the unstable program and buggy interface it was infamous for. The new Network and Sharing Center provides several very important security enhancements. Instead of making it hard for end-users to safely and securely set up a home network, the Vista Network and Sharing Center puts all the security tools where they belong: right in the users’ lap.

Users no longer have to go with an ‘all or nothing’ approach where you must choose between security or usability, with the new networking center it couldn’t be easier. A series of checkboxes and radio buttons let you choose what you want to do, from enabling viewing other PCs, sharing printers, files, and enabling passwords on file shares. It makes it really easy to keep security up and yet keeping everything simple.

What’s even more useful is it’s adaptable network profiles. Vista will remember every network you connect to, so it can have different security levels at work, home, school, and the local Starbucks without requiring the user to ever press a button. It would be nice to have per-network assignable static IP addresses, but for now, security’s good enough. Windows Vista has finally accomplished something special, and with the prevalence of wi-fi hotspots today, it’s just in time.

Network Instability

Vista’s new network stack isn’t perfect, and besides the possible vulnerabilities discussed, Windows Vista does have a couple more shortcomings. Wireless network reception under Windows Vista is several notches less than that under XP, but at the same time it doesn’t suffer from the “wi-fi lockup” symptoms that Windows XP was occasionally prone to. Nothing is perfect, and Vista’s networking stack isn’t an exception. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. It may be the best, that remains to be seen. It’s faster than the rest (including Linux and Mac OS X), but it’s not the most stable. The network center doesn’t freeze when renewing an IP (what XP’s “Repair Connection” button was famous for), but it doesn’t always succeed in renewing an IP when it should.. It needs more polishing before it’s ready for prime-time.

Productivity

“Productivity” is hard to define, and though we touched on this subject earlier, it’s far from being complete. In the subjective summary we outlined how Vista’s improved installation and runtime speeds for various programs made it a “more productive” operating system than the rest, but it’s much more than that. Vista’s productivity suite is getting better and better, with quite a few valuable applications in the mix.

 

Windows Mail Review

It’s no Outlook, but Windows Mail (formerly Outlook Express in case you haven’t heard) is no longer in last place when it comes to email clients of choice. With integrated Spell Checking, a much refined interface, performance that’s been rewritten from scratch, and a host of a new options (some of which that aren’t even available in Outlook 2007 yet!), Windows Mail is in a prime position to overtake Thunderbird as the free Windows email client of choice.

Outlook Express has traditionally lagged behind Outlook TM in that it never was a true PIM. It may have had basic contact support, and with a lot of hacking it could store appointments, but it was more like listing appointments and contacts on a big, messy notepad. It had little to no organization for those fields, and it was near impossible to tie them in together. But now with Windows Vista, Outlook Express Windows Mail is no longer just something a newsgroup client. It interfaces directly with the much improved Windows Contacts and the new Windows Calendar, posing a real challenge to other PIMs of its price (free!) and even threatening to take market share away from Outlook TM.

We’re not going into details about Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts right now because they’re reviewed right below, but suffice to say that they’re quite powerful. What makes Outlook TM different from Windows Mail is once you get to the business aspect of things. For an individual managing the day’s activities, Windows Mail and it’s various sub-components are more than enough: access to Hotmail or Gmail via the native POP or HTTP webmail protocols, sending messages via SMTP, a place to store your contacts, a way to reference them from emails or appointments and vice versa; it’s enough.

But when you get to anything more than that, say a way to access the company’s Exchange Server 2007, or if you have to manage various profiles and several accounts; and at the same time juggle several calendars for various appointments, Windows Mail just won’t cut it. Windows Mail is missing anything that is normally associated with businesses, such as SharePoint compatibility or even the ability to minimize to the taskbar, something that has long been requested from Microsoft (you can use Nighthawk’s WMTray application to pull that off though!). But overall, Windows Mail has everything the average home user or technology enthusiast will ever need from a mail client, including RSS support and a very flexible frontend.

 

Windows Calendar

You can take a look at Windows Calendar for yourself, it’s quite easy on the eyes. At face value, it’s very similar to Outlook 2007’s own stunning calendar design (which is no surprise, it’s the same company after all!), but that’s about where the similarities end. That’s not to say it’s not a good program, but you need to put it in its place. Windows Calendar is a great utility to quickly schedule appointments and keep track of your time, but if you’re looking for an advanced interface that lets you synchronize your mobile device with your contacts and merge the info into your calendar, you’re out of luck. Even without the mobile device bit.

Windows Calendar is a home utility that lets you put your appointments in a graphical interface, create occurrences, remember your wife’s anniversary and your kid’s half-birthday, and that’s about it. The funny thing is, it synchronizes with SharePoint Server. No, we’re not kidding. It literally strips all the (really useful) information out of the SharePoint sync, then it pastes it as plain text smack-dab in the middle of your calendar. Useful, but a bit unbalanced. If Microsoft is going to provide SharePoint connectivity as an option, what about SharePoint compatibility too?

Windows Contacts

Windows Contacts is Windows ME’s “Windows Address Book” reborn. There’s only so much innovation that can go into an address book itself (by “itself” we mean other than interoperability with email clients and Exchange servers), and Windows Contacts seems to have mastered them all. It’s the WAB with several new fields, and a kick-ass new interface to match. It looks Vista through and through (which is more than we can say for some other applications *cough* Windows Mail *cough*), and has all the 3D effects one would expect from their everyday address book. After all, what’s a contact manager without several photos for each contact and revolving 3D frames around their (hopefully) smiling faces? OK, maybe this bit of the review isn’t all that deep, but it’s an address book, it works, it looks OK, and it synchronizes with Windows Messenger (but not WLM) and Windows Mail. What more do you need?

Windows Meeting Space

Windows Meeting Space is one of those things in Windows Vista that have been severely under-advertised thus far. It’s an amazing improvement over NetMeeting, with support for ad hoc wireless networks to create a meeting, perfect for those last-minute meetings in the big conference rooms where you plan to fire the IT guy because of how easy it makes using advanced features on the PC.

Windows Meeting Space is a NetMeeting replacement, but you wouldn’t guess it from the performance or the interface. It works perfectly with any microphone or webcam that Windows Vista recognizes (the whole bunch really), and seems to work great with 802.11b even, though with slightly less quality than 802.11g-capable laptops. However, it disappoints us that there is no remote capabilities available, so that other users can tunnel-in through the big tubes that connect computers together all around the world.

It only works with Wi-Fi networks as far as we can tell, so that’s kind of a disappointment. It also doesn’t allow for “server-mode” connections and is capped at a maximum of 10 users (probably for bandwidth reasons, and it can probably be hacked by a registry tweak). It’s a no-nonsense application, it’s not heavy on graphics like the rest of Vista, but it works.

WordPad

Believe it or not, Windows Vista ships with WordPad in its original undying glory and complete with its antediluvian icons. It’s amazing just how well this amazing program has survived through the years, ever since Windows 95 when we were thrilled to see a Notepad replacement that didn’t actually replace Notepad. Seriously speaking though, if Microsoft isn’t going to provide a heavily stripped-down version of Microsoft Word 2003 (no need for 2007!), then they shouldn’t ship Vista with WordPad included.

It’s a down-right shame for such a modern OS to have spell-checking in it’s Calendar but not in its word processor. WordPad needs to go, and MS needs to figure that out. But the odds are, come Windows Vienna, WordPad will still be there (together with the ever-living Fonts Dialog!!).

Windows Vista Security Review

Microsoft’s currently advertising Windows Vista as being “The Most Secure Windows Ever!” Well, it had better be, because becoming less secure with each passing version sure isn’t a pretty sight to see. But they’re right, it is more secure than Windows XP, and even more secure than Windows Server 2003, which really is something. Believe it or not, it’s actually on-par with Linux and Mac OS X as far as defensive mechanisms go, with little to no BS involved this time around.

General Malware/Vulnerability Security

Windows Vista has a new TCP/IP stack built from the ground up with security in mind. As priorly discussed, it’s not purely new code; a lot of old code from Windows XP has been recycled, but that doesn’t necessarily make it just as insecure. A vulnerability can come into being due to poorly coded TCP/IP networking stacks, or it come as a result of poorly designed networking stacks.

Vista uses old code at the low level. So that bit is theoretically poorly coded, and hence the vulnerabilities that Symantec reported exist. These are vulnerabilities in the Windows Core from older versions of Windows that were patched in subsequent hotfixes, but weren’t applied to the base code, therefore they weren’t present in Windows Vista. These kinds of bugs are one-time fixes. They probably still exist in Windows Vista, but they’re easy fixes, and most of them have probably pinned down in recent builds (the Symantec report is ancient).

The second type of vulnerability has largely been eliminated (as far as our security team has been able to discern with our limited testing on Vista thus far). Windows Vista’s new networking stack has been redesigned from scratch, and the new networking stack seems to be resistant to the traditional attacks. Besides the fact that it was designed with security in mind, it is also genuinely more secure. With lighter code and less bloat, there’s no need to spread your security team too thin. And even more importantly, it has a properly designed designated route-of-traffic, which dictates where and when traffic packets go through. Windows finally has an organized networking stack that seems to properly deal with incoming network bits, and can properly classify incoming & outgoing communications the way they should be. It’s a good sign.

The new Windows Firewall bears no semblance to its original namesake, the Windows XP Firewall. To be totally frank, it’s most similar to the firewall that ships with ISA Server 2006 – one of the very best enterprise-grade firewalls out there! For Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 NeoSmart Technologies’ firewall choice has long been the Symantec-razed Sygate Personal Firewall Pro, which far surpassed the Windows XP Firewall and all other 3rd party firewalls.

However, the new Windows Firewall sits right in MMC 3.0, and taps right into the power it provides. It’s easy to make new rules, and they’re even more powerful than the traffic signatures that Sygate allows users to create. Plus, it’s on by default, ships with it activated, and the only satisfactory way to turn it off is to install an alternate firewall or disable the firewall service. It’s brilliant, and it’s just as powerful as the new Linux firewalls and as protecting as SELinux – but with an excellent graphic interface to match.

But to a lot of people what matters is how it works with the firewall off! In a word, it works great. Between UAC/LUA (see below) and the enhanced Internet Explorer security rules and the redesigned TCP/IP Windows core, it’s quite a secure deal.

Internet Explorer Security

Windows Internet Explorer 7+ (as it is now called) is a far cry from the pitiful excuse for a web browser that was IE6. We already reviewed Internet Explorer 7 Beta 3 and RC1 before, but here’s a de-brief on the security status of Internet Explorer at RC1.

The most important of these is Internet Explorer’s “Protected Mode,” which is the epitome of online security. Your web browser runs in a virtual environment with practically no rights. To access data on your PC (not temporary internet files but real, hard data) it must “tunnel in” through a specifically established protocol where the user is prompted every step of the way. At first it’s annoying, but when you realize that 99% of all vulnerabilities find their way to the PC via the web browser, you’ll come to appreciate it. Just for example, the WMF vulnerability of December 2005? With Protected Mode it would have never been an issue. It’s not a fix for a particular bug, it’s a protective measure that just works.

User Account Protection

Several builds ago, UAC was the most irritating concept to ship with windows Vista to date. Three builds later, UAC has actually been perfected. User Account Protection properly safeguards limited users and administrators alike from the power they wield. It may not be much, but the power any locally logged on PC user is a hundred-fold more than what a hacker needs to bring a PC down to its knees, and UAC magically steps in to make sure you know what it is you’re doing.

But for many, it’s just as important for the operating system to “not get in the way” as it is for it to protect the user. Four builds ago, it took 7 steps to delete a simple, innocent, meaningless icon from the desktop while logged in as an administrator! But never fear, it’s been fixed since. Now, UAC doesn’t bother you at all unless you open a system properties dialog or try to delete a system file. And when it does, it’s really nice about it, it only asks once and then it lets you do what you like.

Compare this to Windows XP or, god forbid, Windows 98/ME (not that we’re going to!). In Windows XP, an administrator could do anything he or she wanted, and quite a few things they didn’t want. For instance, if an administrator wanted to delete a couple of system files, there would be nothing to stop them – no problem. But if a program that snuck into the system under the administrator account tried to delete those files, it would also be allowed without batting an eye. On Vista, it’s easier. If you really want to delete that file, you can. But if something tries to delete it without your permission, Vista will make sure you know about it, and ensure nothing goes wrong without your knowledge.

It’s even better than Linux. I never thought I’d live to the day when I can honestly say “Windows security for user accounts is much better than that of Linux.” Scary? Unbelievable? It’s true. Linux has two types of accounts: Normal, and Super-User. That’s like having “Restricted User” and “Administrator” on Windows, with nothing in between. On Windows, there are a hundred different in-between accounts, and users can actually log on as Administrator for day-to-day activities. Even more so, on Linux when you request higher privileges

su -

You can then proceed and do whatever you like. On Windows, it’s a per-task deal. Both are secure, but, believe it or not, Windows is more secure – from that aspect anyway.

Internet Explorer 7 Review

We may have reviewed Internet Explorer 7 RC1 when it first came out for Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, but this is a different kind of review. That review focused on improvements in RC1 over Beta 3, and expectations for IE7 RTM. Here we’ll be focusing on improvements in IE7 since version 6 SP2, and even a couple of things that make Internet Explorer 7 a better browser than the competition – and where it fails.

Compatibility

Before anyone can discuss compatibility in the same sentence as Internet Explorer, it’s important to remember one thing: this is a browser that comes from a company that, six short years ago, made all the rules. It’s going to be a long road to recovery for this browser, and in the words of Microsoft itself, “fix the most significant bugs and areas which caused the most trouble for developers, and then improved coverage of the standards would come later.” Internet Explorer 6 was a standards-in-compliant mess, and Internet Explorer 7 is a very decent effort at cleaning up IE’s act.

Internet Explorer 7 is 100% compatible (or as near to it as possible) with HTML 4.01, CSS 1, XML 1.0, XSLT 1.0, and DOM v1. These were the technologies of the 90s, and if IE7 wasn’t compatible with them then it would have no hope. As of RC1 however, it is also mostly compliant with XHTML 1.0 with the exception of the infamous DIV Rounding Error that has been repeatedly bugged and will most likely not be fixed by RTM; resulting in the incorrect rendering of a majority of complex XHTML 1.1 site designs.

Internet Explorer 7’s CSS 2 support is patchy but consistent: in keeping with their above-mentioned goal for IE7, Microsoft has provided near-complete support for initial display-based CSS commands, such as those used for DIV “table” designs, initial-layouts, and other pure-design elements of the CSS 2 standard.

Where IE7 fails is when it comes to DOM-related CSS changes, CSS hover effects, browser-specific entities like textarea:XXX, etc. aren’t very well implemented (as can be seen here on this blog). Anything dealing with dynamic HTML entities, things that change with response to the users actions: where they click, where they point, what drop-down item they select; those things aren’t well implemented with IE7, and as such most AJAX implementations made for IE6/FF2 will need to be completely overhauled to make them work with the new generation of Internet Explorer.

Security

In the previous section we lightly discussed Internet Explorer 7’s major security enhancements, and in particular, the new Protected Mode. Protected Mode is an extra layer of protection of that provides a way for Internet Explorer to run in its own memory space with less permissions than even a guest account with UAC, in what is practically a virtual environment with no unmonitored access to anything on the local PC other than the temporary internet files.

In order for Internet Explorer to request data from the local PC (say a file to upload or a configuration file or ActiveX to load) it must go through a pre-configured tunnel wherein it is subject to a variety of tests as specified in the Windows core and culminating with a user-prompted UAC dialog for any such activity. It may be a tad strenuous, but seeing as virtually all vulnerabilities come from the web in one form or the other, it’s definitely worth it.

These extra layers of security that have been added throughout Vista’s development period are true innovations in the quest for fail-proof security. They have never been seen before, and even browsers with a relatively clean vulnerability history like Safari or Konqueror are far from having the advanced security present in the more recent IE7 and Windows Vista builds – a true accomplishment and an honest surprise.

Features

Although a browsers primary function is to render and style (X)HTML into a human-readable format, browsers have traditionally taken on a greater role in the past. While most of the features are along the lines of improving the end users’ online experience, each browser adds its own special twist – its what sets them apart in the end. Here’s what we like about IE.

There are quite a few new things in Internet Explorer 7. Their only goal? To reclaim lost end-usership.. It’s too early to tell if it’ll work, but one thing is for sure: Internet Explorer 7 is going to put up quite a fight.

Final Thoughts

It doesn’t really matter how much Internet Explorer 7 has improved over previous versions, what matters is how they market it. Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, and if previous trends are any measure, Microsoft is in for a very tough battle. Back in 2003 when Windows Server 2003 was released, it came on the heels of the ever-buggy and more-holes-than-swiss-cheese Windows Server 2000 with IIS 5.0. While Windows Server 2003 was (and still is) one of the most secure server operating systems ever released to date (Linux and BSD included); it had a bad name and a very long rep sheet it needed to make up for. IIS 6 had fewer major vulnerabilities than you have fingers on one of your hands (assuming you haven’t lost too many of them!), but its bad reputation with IIS 5.0 stuck, and to this day, few are willing to believe that IIS 6 really is that secure (it is).

Internet Explorer 7 is now in the same spot IIS 6 was in 4 years ago. If Microsoft decides to pretend that IE6 wasn’t a mistake, that it was a normal, everyday kind of web browser that was just mistreated and gossiped about, it won’t go down well. But it doesn’t seem that way. To date, Microsoft and especially the Internet Explorer team have been very forthcoming with criticism for their past mistakes for Internet Explorer 6, and have repeatedly promised they’d do their best to avoid making the same mistake twice.

It all depends on RTM and where Microsoft goes from there. With Windows, it’s been one version of Internet Explorer per OS, and that was the death of IE6. But if Microsoft is willing to continue constant development of upgrades and not hotfixes for IE7 that add functionality and improvements to the browser, leading up to and including Internet Explorer 8.0, anything can happen. Yes, even Internet Explorer 7 regaining its good name and Microsoft coming clean. Even that.

Windows Vista & Entertainment Reviewed

Windows Media Player 11 Review

Windows Media Player 11 isn’t much of an upgrade as far as features are concerned. It’s a media player. After a media player reaches a certain level, it’s hard for it to keep improving drastically. But there are differences for those that pay close attention, and some of these can be quite useful.

There really isn’t much to be said for WMP 11. It’s really good, it looks great, it doesn’t eat too much memory, it sounds great, it has excellent audio boosts, and it’s probably the very best player out there at the moment. It certainly beats iTunes, and unless you are already in love with Media Player Classic (not Microsoft’s), then this is definitely for you.

Games

It’s been a long time since Microsoft provided a new source of entertainment go along with an OS, but this is Vista, and entertainment is a big deal. Several new games, great graphics, and a terrific interface makes these games worth wasting your time over.

Windows DVD Maker

When Windows XP first came out, it didn’t even have a decent CD burning wizard, and people were forced to use pitiful supplements like Roxio’s buggy CD-Burning Suite. But Windows Vista seems to be prepared and with the times. No, this OS won’t be the first to natively support Mt. Rainer for drag-and-drop mountable CD and DVD authoring interfaces that let you treat a CD like a hard drive, but it does provide an easy and reliable way to author DVDs (and CDs too if you still use them!) any way you like. Together with Windows Movie Maker (see the next section), Windows users can finally easily burn any type of data to a DVD.

If you want to a simple montage of pictures and movie clips then you can use the Windows DVD Maker to put them in the order of your choice and save them as DVD image ready for burning (natively via Windows). If you want to save documents or files to a CD/DVD, the procedure hasn’t improved much over Windows XP’s in-built CD-burning wizard. You open “My Computer,” select the CD/DVD writer, open it, and copy the files you want burned to the folder. Then you click burn and you’re done.

However, as far as we can tell this is where the similarities end. The IMAPI service, long one of XP’s weak points, has been completely overhauled. CDs burn at much faster average rates than before, sessions no longer fail (thus far anyway), and the service no longer consumes > 60% of the CPU nor does it cause system instability. At the end of the day, Windows’ DVD burning facilities don’t stand out too much, but they’re adquate for most purposes, and there really isn’t much room for criticism here.

Windows Movie Maker

The complement to Windows DVD Maker, Windows Movie Maker is the tool of choice for amatuer home movie making. It provides a lot of the higher quality effects provided with intermediate-level movie editing like Sony Vega or entry-level products such as Sonic MyDVD. It looks decent, it provides an easy-to-use “time-line graph” for piecing the bits of the movie together, and most importantly, it burns the DVDs (with menus) perfectly every time.

Screensavers

While screensavers may not exactly be the highlight of an operating system (no more than Windows Vista’s stunning wallpapers at any rate!), they’re considered entertainment for some of us, so here’s the list (click the names for a screen capture):

Paint

There really isn’t much to be said.. After all our ranting about WordPad and ancient font dialogs, Microsoft told us there might be some improvements for Paint lined up down the line, but it seems that it’s not going to happen – unless Microsoft pulls another Windows XP on us between RC and RTM and does some major changes to non-core components (such as the design and extra apps like this). But, but, there is one change: the paintbrush colors are now at the top!

Windows Vista’s Media Center in Review

Windows Media Center is one of the biggest improvements and most significant new features in Windows Vista. The new interface (which we cannot take screencaptures of – read on) is really nice, and far surpasses the rest of Windows Vista in terms of true style and nice effects, not overdone, but great looking nonetheless. It appears that in between build 5472 and RC1 somewhere along the way Microsoft decided to switch from the native Windows forms API to a DirectX-powered rendering engine (which cannot be captured with Print Screen).

The interface hasn’t changed much (at all) since 5456 however, so these old captures show how it really is. The only reason Microsoft would switch to a different rendering engine is in an attempt to improve Media Center performance, which has thus far been absoloutely dismal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been of any use. Media Center still bogs down even our powerful test machine (Core 2 Duo Inspiron), takes forever to load, and is laggy at the best of times.

Windows Media Center is now a complete OS Shell in its own right: without leaving it you can connect to wireless networks, search the web for music and videos to watch, configure your display, resolution, and audio (independantly of the rest of the OS), as well as tune in to your cable or sattellite TV channels. In a word, it’s complete. But it’s terrible.

There may still be hope for it, after RC1, technically speaking, all a company should do is optimize, and optimize some more. But at the same time, RC1 is full of optimizations for other parts of the OS, and nothing hasn’t been optimized.. except for Windows Media Center. It’s a real shame because it’s far better than it’s predecessor, Windows Media Center Edition, and all it needs is a bit of effort to make it great..

Power, Portability, and Mobility with Windows Vista

Previous versions of Windows shipped as an operating system and nothing more. As seen in the previous pages, Windows Vista is going to lenghts to make it a lot more user-friendly from the minute you install it; and perhaps here is where it’s most visible. The normal way of making a laptop travel friendly was to install all the extra junk that comes from the OEM in order to add better battery power-profiling and mobility applications.

Windows Vista come’s with three things that make this different (different isn’t necessarily better though!). First is the excellent power-profiling plans, and then there are two more applications dedicated to mobile users – in theory they’re great, but in reality, not so much.

Power Profiling on Windows Vista

If you ask anyone about power profiles on Windows, they’ll tell you two things: One, that they’re really easy to set up, and two, that they just plain suck. Vista changes that. It still has the plain-and-simple power dialog, but at the same time, it introduces a new and very powerful advanced settings window.

From there you can specify how your laptop (or desktop for that matter) acts to anything, down to the last detail. You can configure what happens to PCI-E and AGP devices separately, you can define triggers (power source, button press, lid closing, etc.) and make complex plans that suite you perfectly. With it, you can make sure you use power only when you need it and that when you really need it, it’ll be there for sure. It’s not that easy to configure, and it’s not too well labeled on some things, and there seem to be certain drop-down boxes missing the “never” option, but it’s really great.

Mobile Synchronization

Ever since Windows CE first came out and the PDA craze began, Windows users have been forced to use a wide range of increasingly crappy and unstable mobile synchronization programs in order to keep their data up-to-date – until ActiveSync 4.0 that is. ActiveSync and its predecessors were unstable, prone to extreme data loss, and sudden, unfixable no-longer-working moments.

But when Windows Mobile 5.0 came out last year with its excellent PDAs, Microsoft decided to do something about it, and ActiveSync 4.0 was released. It was great; and didn’t suffer from any of the old issues, and Microsoft promised to integrate it with their upcoming Windows Vista and let the fireworks fly. But unfortunately, Microsoft just bungled it up again.

The “ActiveSync” that comes with Windows Vista is worse than the versions that shipped with Windows-based PDAs ages ago, and almost never works. When it does its slow and tempramental, and only synchronizes with Windows Mobile 5.0 PDAs; no Windows CE or PPC (2002/2003) PDAs work with it. To top things off, Microsoft also decided to take the perogative and disable ActiveSync from running on Windows Vista – so PDA users are, at the moment, left stranded. Let’s not forget, this is RC1, and Vista isn’t complete.. But RC1 is supposed to be code-complete and virtually ready for release…. *grumbles*

Portability & Performance

Windows Vista comes with enhanced networking all over the place. It looks great, and it’s really powerful, but (just like everything else) it has terrible performance. Wireless network profiling is great, with automatic detection of networks and on-the-fly network security application. But wireless reception is absoloutely dismal at best, and if a wireless network loses range, 9 out of 10 times you have to restart your PC for the signal to become visible once more.

Bluetooth can partner with phones and PDAs without a hitch, and even send files… but don’t think about receiving anything without a really big, bad headache. Performance is OK, but if it can’t receive files, what’s left?

Interoperability & Program Compatibilty on Windows Vista

Windows Vista has done well with program compatibilty, which has steadily improved since the first alpha & even beta builds. At any rate, it’s far better than when people started to use Windows XP straight from Windows 9x; that was a completely different kernel and gave everyone hell all over the place (remember Roxio anyone?).

Windows Vista offers several layers of program compatibility ranging in ease of use and likelihood of success.

  1. Basic backwards API compatibility

    Windows Vista’s API preserves most (almost all) previous functions. This means that if you coded an application (or are using an application that was coded) in a way that is 100% compliant (or close to that) with the Windows API, not breaking any rules or using any unpublished hacks, the program should work perfectly on Windows Vista by RTM. This requires no end-user action, and works automatically, and without issue all of the time.

  2. Windows XP Compatibilty Mode

    Enabling Windows XP Compatibility Mode on Windows Vista takes place on a per-application basis. Basically, you view the properties for an executable file, and tell it to enable Compatibility Mode – and Vista “takes care” of the rest. Basically it attempts to head-off incorrectly coded programs by “intercepting” calls to no longer present files or functions in the Windows Core. Success rate is a modest 70% – 85% for most “normal” applications that don’t do any low-level access or modification. This isn’t Computer Programming 101, so that’s it for now.
  3. Virtual Store

    This is one of Windows Vista’s big changes. With the enormous underlying changes to the NT kernel with Windows Vista, sometimes the first two just don’t cut it. Microsoft has a decent solution of sorts, where it runs programs in a “virtual” environment. It’s not like Apple’s on-the-fly virtualization for pre-OS X software, but it provides a folder with on-the-fly sym-linking for any of the major files. It has all the old XP directories and DLLs (though they’re not actually there) and is an excellent idea for running old code well without resorting to the bad-performing virtual machines. But there is one problem: it doesn’t always pick up when it should be used and when it shouldn’t; and severe loss of data may occur.

Overall, Windows Vista’s compatibility with Windows XP programs is good. Not spectactular, but nowhere as poor as originally forecast.

Drivers on Windows Vista is another story. Theoretically, it’s good. Indeed most XP drivers work great with Windows Vista, even video and audio – which are the areas with new driver models, though they do disable the newer features such as virtual sound and Aero/DWM. But if a driver contains a single line of 16–bit code (as many “unified driver kits” do), Vista will go on the fritz and never boot again. Examples include the latest versions of XP drivers for Creative’s audio devices which include Unified Driver Support for the older 16–bit audio cards.

On the whole, interoperability is good.. Not perfect, but quite good and fairly thorough. In all likelihood, a user running the newest versions of the most popular media/productivity/business/eduction programs won’t have to bat an eye. But be careful nevertheless!

Overall Performance of Windows Vista RC1

Technically speaking, after RC1 all what happens is performance tweaks and slight appearance changes. Obviously Microsoft has a lot more than that to accomplish in the upcoming builds, but nevertheless, this section in particular applies to Windows Vista RC1 and RC1 alone. That said, Windows Vista has undeniably improved performance-wise since the last build.

RC1 has improved memory management (and all the leaks have been plugged too!!) but more importantly (from the layman’s point of view), Windows Vista has been optimized. Very much. Each and every line of code seems to have been thoroughly cleaned up and heavily scrubbed. Debug code is (mostly) all gone, and the rest has been optimized on a processor-architecture basis.

Memory usage in Windows Vista RC1 is surprisingly close to Windows XP + a bit of overhead. For example, Windows Vista seems to be stuck on 500MB of memory. It boots at or around that much (in use!!), but the surprising thing is, it keeps it that way. With Windows Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook 2007 running, Windows Vista consumes 550MB of memory. With Visual Studio .NET 2k5 on top of that, it reaches 600.

It’s obvious that the base architecture of the Windows NT Kernel has been completely revamped and geared towards maximum performance, but nevertheless, don’t let the numbers above fool you. That’s 500–600 MB of memory in use on average! That means, it’ll go up, it’ll go down, and it all depends on what you’re running and what it’s running on. If you turn off Aero (and use Aero Express instead) 512MB will be barely enough. Turn on Aero, and watch your memory fly.

Somewhere along the way, Microsoft realized that the majority of PCs on the market today lull users into buying them boasting high clock speeds for the CPU: Everything else is garbage. So Microsoft switched from GPU-driven animations to a more balanced mix of CPU/GPU, which means the memory takes a hit. Open several Windows Explorer windows and watch the memory soar. It’s not the program, after all, it’s just a shell. Rather, all the nice Aero effects on the window borders and the desktop naturally bog the system down. So stock up on the memory, you’re going to need it.

The shameful thing is that Microsoft still refuses to use processor-specific commands. That means all those memory optimizations, from MMX to SSE4 are useless. When Microsoft planned to make Windows Longhorn run on .NET, it meant higher memory usage but much more efficient utilization of the CPU! .NET automatically converts programs (and operating systems) from .NET pre-compile code (ILDASM) to processor-specific commands. That means it automatically applies whatever processor-specific architectural commands it can find, and runs your programs on them. That’s really the biggest (and one of the few) advantage of .using NET for an OS, but it can easily be circumvented by proper coding techniques that ensure an application uses some of the mandated architectural requirements. But Windows Vista doesn’t.

Although (as previously discussed), Windows Vista on the whole is quite snappy and runs certain programs that tie into Windows services quite fast, some parts of Windows Vista are still not up to scratch. Namely, Windows Media Center. We talked about this earlier in our WMC review, but it certainly deserves another mention here. WMC blows – quite literally. Performance is terrible, the amazing GUI effects are completely undermined by the too-visible lag and the frame-freezes. Playing a DVD in WMC is far less of a media experience than playing it on Windows Media Player. And no, it’s not the drivers, because with Aero Express on and using the real and fully optimized Windows XP drivers in compatibility mode, WMC is just a bit better. WMC needs help, and Microsoft needs to know.

That’s RC1, and it’s bound to change. It’s improved by leaps and bounds, but it still has a long way to go, because despite what everyone else may say, Windows Vista isn’t “just” an upgrade to Windows XP, it’s also a challenge to Mac OS X and Linux, and at the moment, it’s not winning any awards or making many switch. It’s a good upgrade, but that’s just not good enough.