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Windows Vista Beta 2: The key word is 'Beta'

On the right side of Vista's home screen is the new Windows Sidebar - with little applets the user can choose.
On the right side of Vista's home screen is the new Windows Sidebar - with little applets the user can choose.Microsoft

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.

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.