What's New On Windows Vista?

The Windows Vista interface has been garnering most of the attention in the
beta program, but Vista also offers plenty of new and improved features under
the hood, as the next few sections show.

Support for Document Metadata

Metadata is data that describes data. For example, if you have some digital
photos on your computer, you could use metadata to describe each image: the
person who took the picture, the camera used, tags that describe the image
itself, and so on. Windows Vista comes with built-in support for document
metadata, enabling you to add and edit properties such as the Title, Comments,
Tags, Author, and Rating (1 to 5 stars).

Windows not only gives you easier ways to edit metadata (for example, you can
click the Edit link right in the folder window's Preview pane), but it also
makes good use of meta-data to make your life easier:

  • Searching - The Windows Search service indexes metadata (tags) so
    you can search for documents using any metadata property as a query operand.
  • Grouping - This refers to organizing a folder's contents
    according to the values in a particular property. This was also possible in
    Windows XP, but Windows Vista improves upon XP by adding techniques that
    enable you to quickly select all the files in a group and to collapse a
    group to show only its header.
  • Stacking - This is similar to grouping because it organizes the
    folder's contents based on the values of a property. The difference is that
    a stack of files appears in the folder as a kind of subfolder.
  • Filtering - This refers to changing the folder view so that only
    files that have one or more specified property values are displayed. For
    example, you could filter the folder's files to show only those in which the
    Kind property was, say, Email or Music.

Performance Improvements

When I tell people that I'm testing a prerelease version of Windows, the
first question they inevitably ask is, "Is it faster than [insert their current
Windows version here]?" Everybody wants Windows to run faster, but that's
primarily because most of us are running systems that have had the same OS
installed for several years. One of the bitter truths of computing is that even
the most meticulously well maintained system will slow down over time. On such
systems, the only surefire way to get a big performance boost is to wipe the
hard drive and start with a fresh OS install.

The Windows Vista Setup program essentially does just that (preserving and
restoring your files and settings along the way, of course). So the short answer
to the previous question is, "Yes, Vista will be faster than your existing
system." However, that performance gain comes not just from a fresh install, but
also because Microsoft has tweaked the Windows code for more speed:

  • Faster startup - Microsoft has optimized the Vista startup code
    and implemented asynchronous startup script and application launching. This
    means that Vista doesn't delay startup by waiting for initialization scripts
    to complete their chores. It simply completes its own startup tasks while
    the scripts run in their own good time in the background.
  • Sleep mode - Actually, you can reduce Vista startup to just a few
    seconds by taking advantage of the new Sleep mode, which combines the best
    features of the XP Hibernate and Standby modes. Like Hibernate, Sleep mode
    preserves all your open documents, windows, and programs, and it completely
    shuts down your computer. However, like Standby, you enter Sleep mode within
    just a few seconds, and you resume from Sleep mode within just a few
  • SuperFetch - This technology tracks the programs and data you use
    over time to create a kind of profile of your disk usage. Using the profile,
    SuperFetch can then make an educated guess about the data that you'll
    require; like XP's Prefetcher, it can then load that data into memory ahead
    of time for enhanced performance. SuperFetch can also work with Vista's new
    ReadyBoost technology, which uses a USB 2.0 Flash drive as storage for the
    SuperFetch cache, which should provide improved performance even further by
    freeing up the RAM that SuperFetch would otherwise use.
  • Restart Manager - This feature enables patches and updates to
    install much more intelligently. Now you often have to reboot when you
    install a patch because Windows can't shut down all the processes associated
    with the application you're patching. Restart Manager keeps track of all
    running processes and, in most cases, can shut down all of an application's
    processes so that the patch can be installed without requiring a reboot.

Stability Improvements

The second thing that people always ask about a forthcoming version of
Windows is, "Will it crash less often? Microsoft has had nearly a quarter of a
century to get Windows right, so why can't they produce a glitch-free operating
system?" I have to break the news to my frustrated interlocutors that what they
seek is almost certainly impossible. Windows is just too big and complex, and
the number of software permutations and hardware combinations is just too huge
to ensure complete system stability in all setups.

That doesn't mean that Microsoft isn't at least trying to make Windows more
stable. Here's what they've done in Vista:

  • I/O cancellation - Windows often fails because some program has
    crashed and brought the OS down with it. The usual cause of this is that a
    program has made an input/output (I/O) request to a service, resource, or
    another program, but that process is unavailable; this results in a stuck
    program that requires a reboot to recover. To prevent this, Vista implements
    an improved version of a technology called I/O cancellation, which can
    detect when a program is stuck waiting for an I/O request and then cancel
    that request to help the program recover from the problem.
  • Reliability monitor - This new feature keeps track of the overall
    stability of your system, as well as reliability events, which are either
    changes to your system that could affect stability or occurrences that might
    indicate instability. Reliability events include Windows updates, software
    installs and uninstalls, device driver installs, updates, rollbacks and
    uninstalls, device driver problems, and Windows failures. Reliability
    monitors graphs these changes and a measure of system stability over time so
    that you can graphically see whether any changes affected system stability.
  • Service recovery - Many Windows services are mission-critical,
    and if they fail, it almost always means that the only way to recover your
    system is to shut down and restart your computer. With Windows Vista,
    however, every service has a recovery policy that enables Vista not only to
    restart the service, but also to reset any other service or process that is
    dependent on the failed service.
  • Startup Repair Tool - Troubleshooting startup problems is not for
    the faint-of-heart, but you may never have to perform this onerous core
    again, thanks to Vista's new Startup Repair Tool (SRT), which is designed to
    fix many common startup problems automatically. When a startup failure
    occurs, Vista starts the SRT immediately. The program then analyzes the
    startup logs and performs a series of diagnostic tests to determine the
    cause of the startup failure.
  • New diagnostic tools - Windows Vista is loaded with new and
    improved diagnostic tools. These include Disk Diagnostics (which monitors
    the Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, or SMART, data
    generated by most modern hard disks), Windows Memory Diagnostics (which
    works with Microsoft Online Crash Analysis to determine whether program
    crashes are caused by defective physical memory), Memory Leak Diagnosis
    (which looks for and fixes programs that are using up increasing amounts of
    memory), Windows Resource Exhaustion Detection and Resolution (RADAR, which
    monitors virtual memory and issues a warning when resources run low, and
    also identifies which programs or processes are using the most virtual
    memory and includes a list of these resource hogs as part of the warning),
    Network Diagnostics (which analyzes all aspects of the network connection
    and then either fixes the problem or gives the user simple instructions for
    resolving the situation), and the Windows Diagnostic Console (which enables
    you to monitor performance metrics).

Security Enhancements

With reports of new Windows XP vulnerabilities coming in with
stomach-lurching regularity, we all hope that Vista has a much better security
track record. It's still too early to telland nefarious hackers are
exceptionally cleverbut it certainly looks as though Microsoft is heading in the
right direction with Vista:

  • User Account Control - This newand very controversialfeature
    ensures that every Vista user runs with only limited privileges, even those
    accounts that are part of the Administrators group (except the Administrator
    account itself). In other words, each user runs as a "least privileged
    user," which means users have only the minimum privileges they require for
    day-to-day work. This also means that any malicious user or program that
    gains access to the system also runs with only limited privileges, thus
    limiting the amount of damage they can do. The downside (and the source of
    the controversy) is that you constantly get pestered with security dialog
    boxes that ask for your approval or credentials to perform even trivial
    tasks, such as deleting certain files.
  • Windows Firewall - This feature is now bidirectional, which means
    that it blocks not only unauthorized incoming traffic, but also unauthorized
    outgoing traffic. For example, if your computer has a Trojan horse
    installed, it may attempt to send data out to the Web, but the firewall's
    outgoing protection will prevent this.
  • Windows Defender - This is the Windows Vista antispyware program.
    (Spyware is a program that surreptitiously monitors a user's computer
    activities or harvests sensitive data on the user's computer, and then sends
    that information to an individual or a company via the user's Internet
    connection.) Windows Defender prevents spyware from being installed on your
    system and also monitors your system in real time to look for signs of
    spyware activity.
  • Internet Explorer Protected mode - This new operating mode for
    Internet Explorer builds upon the User Account Control feature. Protected
    mode means that Internet Explorer runs with a privilege level that's enough
    to surf the Web, but that's about it. Internet Explorer can't install
    software, modify the user's files or settings, add shortcuts to the Startup
    folder, or even change its own settings for the default home page and search
    engine. This is designed to thwart spyware and other malicious programs that
    attempt to gain access to your system through the web browser.
  • Phishing Filter - Phishing refers to creating a replica of an
    existing web page to fool a user into submitting personal, financial, or
    password data. Internet Explorer's new Phishing Filter can alert you when
    you surf to a page that is a known phishing site, or it can warn you if the
    current page appears to be a phishing scam.
  • Junk Mail Filter - Windows Mail (the Vista replacement for
    Outlook Express) comes with an antispam filter based on the one that's part
    of Microsoft Outlook. The Junk Mail Filter uses a sophisticated algorithm to
    scan incoming messages for signs of spam. If it finds any, it quarantines
    the spam in a separate Junk Mail folder.
  • Windows Service Hardening - This new technology is designed to
    limit the damage that a compromised service can wreak upon a system by
    (among other things) running all services in a lower privilege level,
    stripping services of permissions that they don't require, and applying
    restrictions to services that control exactly what they can do on a system.
  • Secure Startup - This technology encrypts the entire system drive
    to prevent a malicious user from accessing your sensitive data. Secure
    Startup works by storing the keys that encrypt and decrypt the sectors on a
    system drive in a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2 chip, which is a
    hardware component available on many newer machines.
  • Network Access Protection (NAP) - This service checks the health
    status of a computer, including its installed security patches, downloaded
    virus signatures, and security settings. If any of the health items are not
    completely up-to-date or within the network guidelines, the NAP enforcement
    service (running on a server that supports this feature) either doesn't let
    the computer log on to the network or shuttles the computer off to a
    restricted area of the network.
  • Parental Controls - This feature enables you to place
    restrictions on the user accounts that you've assigned to your children.
    Using the new User Controls window in the Control Panel, you can allow or
    block specific websites, set up general site restrictions (such as Kids
    Websites Only), block content categories (such as Pornography, Mature
    Content, and Bomb Making), block file downloads, set time limits for
    computer use, allow or disallow games, restrict games based on ratings and
    contents, and allow or block specific programs.

Windows Presentation Foundation

The Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is Vista's new graphical subsystem,
and it's responsible for all the interface changes in the Vista package. WPF
implements a new graphics model that can take full advantage of today's powerful
graphics processing units (GPUs). With WPF, all output goes through the powerful
Direct3D layer (so the CPU doesn't have to deal with any graphics); this output
also is all vector based, so WPF produces extremely high-resolution images that
are completely scalable.