Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

Now that it's gold, here's an inside look at the best and the worst of Windows Vista

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When you first make a connection, you can name each new wireless connection and save it. Vista will then connect to that network automatically when you're in range. Vista also saves security information about the network -- whether it's a public network or a private one -- and changes your security settings to reflect that.

If you're in range of two wireless networks that you've saved, you can configure your wireless connections so that one wireless connection takes precedence over another. Windows XP automatically connects to the strongest nearby network, which causes problems if the strongest network isn't necessarily the one to which you wanted to connect. With Vista, you first have to accept a wireless connection as one of your permanent ones before it will connect automatically. That way, you'll automatically connect to only the networks you want, even if more powerful ones are nearby.

Another nice touch: If you connect wirelessly as well as via Ethernet to the same network, Windows Vista automatically recognizes that it's the same network. It will even include both adapters on a network map. And it will automatically use your Ethernet connection rather than your wireless connection to make use of Ethernet's superior speed.

This isn't to say that networking is perfect. The Sync Center, which can be used to synchronize network folders across a network, has an extremely confused interface. And overall, there are too many different links that all lead to the same location. But these are minor quibbles; overall, networking support is one of Windows Vista's greatest strengths.

Enterprise Features

Windows Vista includes a raft of new features aimed at corporate IT departments. Here's a rundown of some of the most significant improvements.

Expanded Group Policy settings (including USB device lockdown)

Group Policy support is built into Vista, and it comes with hundreds of new settings that can be used to configure limits and make the operating system better suited to specific corporate environments. You can say no to USB memory sticks, for example, while allowing USB ports to be used for other things. There are also numerous new settings and limits for power management, wireless networking, printing, browsing and many other areas.

Get control over your users with Group Policy settings.
Get control over your users with Group Policy settings. (Click image to see larger view)

File-based imaging for installing and maintaining Vista

Vista comes with new technology called Windows Imaging (WIM), a hardware-independent system image file format that allows companies to maintain fewer desktop images. Microsoft's compressed, modular approach allows variations, such as language options, to all be incorporated into one image.

If a company requires multiple images -- for instance, if more than one Vista edition is deployed -- those images can be stored in a single WIM file to save space. IT pros can also make changes to the image offline, without starting up each desktop to create a new image.

Nondestructive image application for Windows upgrades

When performing an in-place upgrade from a previous version of Windows the new User State Migration Tool (USMT) allows you to keep user data and state/profile information on the user's hard drive while you clean-install Vista, then apply the existing user data and settings to Vista. Whether you're performing an in-place upgrade or migrating to a new PC, Vista's built-in migration capabilities automatically import specified user files and settings from Windows 2000 or XP.

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