Test drive: Windows Vista shows promise for security

Vista sports a sleek new interface and more robust file management features, including virtual files.

Late last month, Microsoft Corp. released the first official beta version of Vista, aka Longhorn, aka the next version of the Windows operating system. The final program isn't due until the second half of 2006, but after four years of development and speculation, Beta 1 is a significant milestone, particularly in terms of security.

By Microsoft's own admission, Beta 1 is geared more toward developers and other highly technical users who want to work with the software to gauge performance and other elements. It offers many new features, including a new Start menu, an early version of Internet Explorer 7, full-volume encryption, and new desktop search and organization tools.

But Beta 1 does not have all of Vista's bells and whistles turned on. New system management tools, multimedia handling capabilities and other features won't be functioning until Beta 2. Microsoft has also said Beta 2 will have code that improves the way people turn a Windows PC on and off, plus new technology that should prevent system hang-ups. The company has not said when Beta 2 will be available, but it will hand out an up-dated Beta 1 at its Professional Developers Conference in September.

Still, Beta 1 of Vista affords a first-hand look at what the new operating system has in store for users. Microsoft sent GCN a copy of the software for our evaluation.

A promising debut

I installed the OS on a standard 2-GHz PC with 512M of RAM that formerly ran Microsoft XP Home edition. My initial impression was that with Vista, the response time to operate and activate programs seemed a bit quicker than with XP, although this would hardly be enough reason to upgrade.

Looking at the overall interface, it is much easier and more intuitive to navigate. The huge cluttered mess of most people's desktops could become a thing of the past. You no longer have to create dedicated folders to hold your files. You can simply group related files together in a virtual folder regardless of where the files exist on your hard drive.

For example, in a single virtual folder, you could have documents that live in an area on your hard drive where you normally save your Word files, plus other files you've backed up on an external drive. All the documents appear together in the virtual folder for easy, logical access.

Finding files also is quite easy in Vista. You can search in a variety of ways, including looking for them from the standard Windows Start menu or from within the new Internet Explorer 7. You can switch directly from Web browsing to a desktop search without pause.

More than skin-deep

All these changes are good, but mostly cosmetic. The biggest changes come in the area of security. Vista seems to be shaping up as one of the most secure OSes available, which is no small feat, considering that it's balanced against ease of use.

The biggest security feature comes right from the Linux world. Anyone who uses Vista is by default given user-level access, even if they're the only person who uses the computer. When you set up the OS, you also need to create an administrator password. To perform any advanced functions, such as installing files or drivers, you need to log in as the administrator or use the administrator password to access those rights.

This might seem a bit annoying to people who are used to working however they like, but it will stop many viruses and spyware threats cold.

Say a bit of spyware comes onto a system and attempts to install itself. It won't be able to do so because it would not have administrator access. A user would have to provide the administrator password for the spyware to install. I tested this with a Web site that I know secretly installs spyware on a visiting computer, and the protection worked like a charm.

But Vista goes a step further by thinking of each computer as a part of a network. Administrators can set up standard security protocols on their networks that computers running the Vista OS have to follow.

Let's say a traveling employee is away with their computer for several weeks. During that time there is an outbreak, and Microsoft releases a security patch that must be installed on all networked computers. When the user returns, unless they have applied the patch, they won't be able to connect to the network.

This also goes for security configuration settings that may have to be changed before access is granted. Most of these are set by the network admin at the server level, but it is good to see the Vista client support such robust security protocols.

Software-hardware integration

There is also a very tight integration between hardware and software. Regardless of your hardware platform, Vista tries to nurture it and keep it safe. If your RAM starts to fail, for example, the OS will warn you and ask you to initiate a check procedure.

The same goes for your hard drive. Mine happened to be an old, refurbished drive that was getting ready to fail, so I was able to check out this feature. Vista prompts you to create a backup image of your drive so that when it does fail, you can restore your data.

As a final note, computers running Vista boot faster. This is because when you switch the system on, it basically tries to drop you into the OS as quickly as possible, even if it is still running start-up programs in the background. For me, this reduced boot time from 55 seconds under XP to 25 seconds in Vista. Granted, the computer runs a bit slower than normal during those extra 30 seconds or so, but at least I am working and not just watching the OS thinking screen.

Vista is still in Beta 1, so there are many bugs and incomplete features. A lot could go right and wrong with it before next year. But if Vista continues on a smooth path, it could become one of the best OSes to combine both security and ease of use in a single package.

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