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An In-Depth Look at Vista, Part 1

by Wei-Meng Lee

The long wait for the first beta of Microsoft's new Windows operating system is finally over. On July 27, Microsoft released Beta 1 of Windows Vista (formerly code-named Longhorn). Available for download to MSDN subscribers and selected beta testers, the beta is a good opportunity for customers to see Microsoft's progress in building the next-generation Windows operating system.

In this article, I'll present my first look at the latest build, 5112, of Windows Vista Beta 1.


Installation was straightforward. I set up Windows Vista Beta 1 on a new machine (not VPC). The setup routine will:

After that, Windows Vista reboots the system once during its install, and it is done. Note that as usual, installing on a PDC requires that the disk image be formatted with NTFS or it will fail.

Figures 1 and 2 shows the two new wallpaper designs in Windows Vista Beta 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Longhorn wallpaper in Windows Vista Beta 1

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Windows XP wallpaper in Vista's beta

The Start menu in Windows Vista Beta 1 is pretty similar to that of the earlier build (5048) as well as Windows XP. It looks as if the new search text box (see Figure 3) just above the Start menu is here to stay; it was present in Build 5048. Using the search text box, you type the name of an executable; a list of matching executables is shown as you type. Beginning users may not find this feature useful, but for power users it should be nifty.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The Start menu

Note that I didn't manage to get Aero (the new user interface in Windows Vista) working on my machine. I have heard that Aero is automatically enabled by default if one has the right graphics card. So I presume I lack the graphics card needed to support Aero. If Aero is enabled, you will see translucent windows, and buttons that light up as you move your pointer over them.

Searching and the Preview Pane

An important feature in Windows Vista Beta 1 is Search. Type the search keyword into the search text box (see Figure 4), and the items in the current window are filtered accordingly. Note that this search is performed only on the items in the current window; if you want to search the entire computer; you need to click on the Search button and select the Search the Computer button.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Performing a search

In Windows Vista Beta 1, the preview pane dynamically changes to reflect the content of the folders. Figure 5 shows the content of a folder that shows some of the images contained within the folder.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Previewing a folder

One of the inconsistencies in the display is that as you navigate from one folder to another, the preview pane is sometimes displayed on the right and sometimes at the top (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. The preview pane displayed at the top

Virtual Folders

A new feature in Windows Vista Beta 1 is virtual folders. Before we look at examples, it helps to think of virtual folders as shortcuts in Windows XP. A shortcut is basically a file that points to the actual location of a file. Shortcuts allow you to quickly locate a file without needing to know where it is physically stored. Microsoft has brought this concept to Windows Vista in an attempt to make the organization of files easy to understand. Unfortunately, I think this is likely to confuse many new users, and it took me some time before I really understood how it works. And there are still times I think I am a little confused.

To see virtual folders in action, click on the Start menu and you will see the Documents, Pictures, and Music folders (see Figure 7). These all point to virtual folders.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Virtual folders

For example, if you click on the Music item, the Albums virtual folder will be displayed as shown in Figure 8. Note that in my case, my Albums folder contains three items.

If you click on the space as shown in Figure 8, you will see its absolute path (see Figure 9).

Figure 8
Figure 8. Displaying a virtual folder

Virtual folders are stored in the C:\Users\<username>\VirtualFolders directory (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. A virtual folder's absolute path

Note that the virtual folder does not actually contain the files as shown, but rather references to the items. The items are located in other physical locations. For example, the Turnaround item displayed in the Album virtual folder is actually stored in C:\Users\Administrator\Music\Westlife (see Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10. Actual location of files

The idea behind virtual folders is that users should never need to be aware of the actual locations of files; virtual folders serve as a one-stop location for users to find files of interest.

Besides using the various built-in virtual folders in Windows Vista Beta 1, you can also create your own virtual folders. As an example, suppose you want to consolidate all files with the .txt extension (scattered in all different folders) in one virtual folder. To do so, first use the search facility to search for all files with the .txt extension. Then click on the Organize button and select Save Search (see Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11. Saving a search

In the Save As dialog, name the file All Text Files (see Figure 12). Notice that the file is saved in Virtual Folders, indicating that you are creating a virtual folder.

Figure 12
Figure 12. Creating a virtual folder

If you now go to Virtual Folders (see Figure 13), you will see the All Text Files virtual folder. From now on, any .txt files you create will appear in this virtual folder, regardless of where they are stored. Windows Vista adds them automatically.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Viewing the newly created virtual folder

Internet Explorer 7

Windows Vista Beta 1 ships with the long-awaited IE 7 Beta 1. IE 7 supports tabbed browsing (see Figure 14).

Figure 14
Figure 14. Tabbed browsing in IE 7

There is also a built-in search text box that lets you choose your favorite search engine (see Figure 15).

Figure 15
Figure 15. Web searching in IE 7

I will talk more about IE 7 in a future article.

Other Features

Aside from the various features just described, here are some other areas worth noting.

Windows Media Player 10

Windows Vista Beta 1 ships with Windows Media Player 10 (see Figure 16).

Figure 16
Figure 16. Windows Media Player 10

Network Presentation

A new application known as Network Presentation is embedded within the Start menu (see Figure 17). Using Network Presentation, you can broadcast a presentation using a wireless network to a remote projector. As I do not have a projector on hand, I wasn't able to test this feature out. But this should be a cool application.

Figure 17
Figure 17. Network Presentation

Windows Explorer

If all of these virtual folders make you dizzy, the venerable Windows Explorer is still available (see Figure 18).

Figure 18
Figure 18. Windows Explorer


Windows Backup is now known as SafeDocs (see Figure 19).

Figure 19
Figure 19. SafeDocs


Surprisingly, this build of Windows Vista is pretty stable, and the performance is quite good. While it is definitely not feature-complete, it is a good indication of what is to come in the next beta. I will talk more about the features of Windows Vista Beta 1 and IE 7 in my upcoming articles on Stay tuned!

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.

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