On the right side of Vista's home screen is the new Windows Sidebar - with little applets the user can choose.
By Columnist
updated 5/24/2006 3:13:36 PM ET 2006-05-24T19:13:36

I've just spent the past four days living and breathing Microsoft’s Windows Vista Beta 2.

I would like to tell you how easy it was to install and how much fun I’ve had using Vista Beta 2 over the past few days, but I can’t. That’s because the combination of Beta 2 and the laptop computers I tried to install it on was like trying to mix oil and water.

The version of Vista I was testing was given to me about a week before the official Beta 2 release announced Tuesday in Seattle at WinHEC, Microsoft's conference for Windows hardware engineering.  I’ve been using what was described to me as a "very near Beta 2." (MSNBC is a Microsoft – NBC joint venture.)

Beta, or pre-release, software is notorious for being... let’s say quirky.  I had a feeling going in to this that I might have a few problems to deal with.

The stuff that works on Vista seems to work well. But getting the Beta on to a computer was another matter. Installing Vista Beta 2 was one of the worst operating system experiences that I’ve ever encountered.

It took me days to install a working version on a new Lenovo ThinkPad X60 laptop with 2GB of memory and all sorts of built-in wireless networking. I tried installing it as an update to the laptop’s Windows XP — but after four hours of churning away the laptop shut down and wouldn’t reboot.

I tried again on the ThinkPad as a clean install, which meant wiping out everything on the hard drive and starting from scratch. That took about an hour to complete. It also removed every device driver that I needed to run the laptop.

Downloading the drivers from the Lenovo Web site took a long time, but after a while I had downloaded and installed the package. Unfortunately, not everything I downloaded is Vista-ready so rebooting had to occur after every 10 minutes of computer use.

Also, the built-in audio and wireless connectivity devices don’t work.  I do have an 802.11b/g PC card that was recognized by the system.

I did try installing Vista on two other laptops. One, it turns out, needs a new Real Time Clock battery (a trip to the manufacturer is needed) and another which had a massive hard drive failure at the beginning of the installation process.

I did not try to install the Vista Beta on the computer I’m using to write this. I'll bet you can figure out why.

After a weekend of frustration — more than 30 hours of my time — and some help from Microsoft — I have Vista almost Beta 2 running (somewhat) on a laptop.

Beta 2 is a good looking operating system with a number of new features, which will be familiar to you if you’ve played with recent versions of Apple’s OS X. And Vista seems to be a competent operating system when it’s running. Here are some highlights in this early version:

  • A streamlined Start menu.
  • Instant Search in every Explorer window.
  • Search Pane lets you organize information by author, date, or type of document.
  • Windows Sidebar puts frequently used information and tasks right on the desktop.  This feature will remind OS X users of that system’s Dashboard feature.
  • Network Explorer puts all network connections — like printers, other computers, and devices - into one centralized location.
  • Sync Center helps users manage all their devices from one place.
  • Tablet PC functionality is integrated into most versions of Windows Vista.
  • Windows Media Center 11, also standard in Vista, includes live and recorded television, music, photos and videos.
  • Improved Windows Media Player.
  • New power management features for mobile computers to optimize battery performance.
  • Windows Defender regularly scans and removes spyware and other unwanted software.
  • Classic Windows games, as well as several new ones.
Windows Flip lets you browse through the programs and dociuments you're currently using.

Think of Vista’s new features as similar to what you might find on a new model car — shiny new mag wheels, a finely tuned suspension and a set of high-performance, all-season tires.  It still looks like a car and you’re still going to know where the pedals are and how to drive — but you will find that you’ll be able to push it to a new set of higher limits.

The Vista Beta I got to play with over these past few days is definitely a work in progress. Microsoft, though, still has time to improve it.  By the time it is released early in 2007, it's likely Vista will be a lot more stable on any hardware you can throw its way. 

At least, I hope so.

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