(Computerworld) - Microsoft today released Release Candidate 1 (RC1) of Windows Vista, a significant milestone on the road to the launch of the new operating system, which has been in the works for five years.
The RC1 version of Vista offers a long list of operational and performance improvements over the Beta 2 version, including faster performance, improved driver support, an easier-to-use networking interface and a variety of changes to the "fit and finish" of the operating system, said testers.
In addition, the User Account Control (UAC) security feature, which has been frequently maligned by beta testers because of its intrusiveness has been reined in so that it does not intrude as much on the user experience.
Microsoft has said that it could ship Windows Vista to consumers as early as January 2007. Industry observers said that Microsoft expects to wrap up the final version of Windows Vista by Oct. 25. That's consistent with Microsoft's earlier projection to release Vista to enterprise customers this November, which was reaffirmed earlier this week by Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows.
The release of a stable RC1 is an important step toward that timetable, because it will get the new operating system into the hands of millions of new users, helping Microsoft track down bugs, and ensure that Windows Vista works with as wide a range of hardware as possible.
Toward that end, Microsoft today is rolling out a sweeping plan to get RC1 into the hands of testers.
RC1 will be distributed to 20,000 users already in the technical beta program, 500,000 MSDN and TechNet subscribers, and 1.5 million people who were in the Beta 2 Customer Preview Program (CPP), or public beta test. Microsoft intends to significantly widen the distribution by opening the door to new CPP testers. Information about the public beta test will be made available at a later time.
In addition, the software company has made arrangements to distribute RC1 DVDs as "cover mounts" on magazines, so that magazine readers can install the latest version as well. According to Sullivan, RC1 will be the most widely distributed pre-release version of Vista to date.
RC1 will work until May 31, 2007, when it will time out and no longer function. Microsoft will continue to issue updates and patches to RC1 until it is released to manufacturing, at which time the operating system is considered finished, and the manufacturing and distribution process will begin.
Changes In RC1
In RC1, Microsoft has made numerous changes to the operating system. Of particular note is that the newly renamed Network and Sharing Center has been thoroughly redesigned, making it easier for users to perform tasks such as sharing files, folders and media or viewing a full map of the network and all of its devices.
Internet Explorer now includes security and performance improvements, including blocking toolbars that may cause instability.
The Parental Controls feature has been redesigned to simplify the task of filtering content for children.
In addition, performance improvements have been made possible by fine-tuning I/O of background services. For example, Windows Defender is given lower I/O priority and so does not slow down performance of other applications, as it did during Beta 2. That and many other refinements add up to faster Windows performance in this release, Sullivan said.
The UAC feature has been significantly streamlined and presents far fewer prompts. Administrators can delete shortcuts from the public desktop without a prompt, for example, and users can copy files to newly formatted external drives without a prompt.
Microsoft also claimed that it has improved multimedia capabilities. In the Windows Photo Gallery, for example, users can browse by filtering on metatags. According to Microsoft, Windows Media Center performance and reliability are also improved. Windows Meeting Space, an onboard peer software collaboration tool, has also received some updating.
For this release, Microsoft said it has substantially enlarged the driver pack to make it work better with a wider range of components and peripherals. The number of printer drivers in particular has been increased in RC1, and the new build also supports the Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition DVD standards.
Microsoft claimed that it has made significant changes under the hood as well. The programming interface for Microsoft .Net Framework 3.0, previously called WinFX, is now installed by default. In Beta 2, it was not installed but was available as an add-on option. Because it is now part of the operating system, claimed Microsoft, programmers will be more willing to write to it, knowing it will be available on every copy of Windows Vista.
Microsoft also said that the Windows Vista application programming interfaces are locked with RC1 and will not change. This means that developers can begin writing Windows Vista-specific applications and utilities, knowing that they will work on the shipping product.