March 21, 2006 4:00 AM PST
An inside look at Windows Vista
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Security and networking
If you've used Windows XP in the last few years, you know security hasn't exactly been its strong suit. Numerous folks have shown that an unprotected PC with a fresh install of Windows XP can be compromised within minutes of being connected to the Internet. Microsoft has released a series of security updates and service pack releases over the years, but it has been tough keeping up when all the black hats are gunning for you. You can find a plethora of antivirus, antispyware, and malware companies shilling their wares to make up for the inadequacies of the PC operating system.
Microsoft hopes to walk down a more secure path with Windows Vista. Jim Allchin, co-president of the Platforms Products and Services Division at Microsoft, stated that security will be one of the top reasons to upgrade to Vista. The new OS comes with an upgraded, built-in firewall, new user-access protocols, a more secure version of Internet Explorer, a new version of Windows Defender, and sports new features like parental controls, full-drive encryption, and device-driver blocking.
User Account Protection, originally called Least Privileged User Account, helps users safely operate their computers by making non-administrator logins more appealing. Similar features existed in Windows XP, but they didn't offer enough power to wean users off logging in as an adminstrator, since many programs required the use of an administrator account, and simple things like adding a WEP code or a printer required full access to the computer. As a result, most users opted to log in as the administrator to get their work done. Logging in as the administrator is a double-edged sword. The user has total access to the OS, but it also gives spyware and malware programs unfettered access to core system files, which makes it all too easy for them to gain a foothold in the system.
A secure Vista
Windows' chief gives tour of antiphishing and parental-control tools.
For Windows Vista, Microsoft tweaked the user accounts to offer extra privileges, while reserving critical privileges for special use on the administrator account. Users should now be able to run all programs and change minor settings without being logged in as the administrator. To enhance security further, even if you log in as an administrator, Vista will automatically prompt the user for the proper credentials before continuing with a program's request.
Microsoft released Windows AntiSpyware to tackle the growing spyware and malware threat a couple years ago. The system, now called Windows Defender, acts as an always-on monitoring service; it constantly checks for suspicious activity and prevents unwanted software from installing. You can install Windows Defender right now, but expect to see a considerably more advanced version with the release of Windows Vista.
For the past few years, one of the largest weak spots in Windows XP's defenses has been Internet Explorer. Competing browsers, like Firefox, gained considerable market share simply because IE became a serious security risk with new IE exploits appearing seemingly every day. Microsoft has changed many of Internet Explorer's core functionalities with respect to security for Vista. IE will be "sand boxed", meaning it will have just enough privileges to wander the Web, but not enough to cause any real harm to the OS as a whole. Microsoft will also include new protective measures, such as constantly updated phishing filters, and quick cache clearing.
Windows XP currently offers a built-in firewall, but you'll get an improved version in Windows Vista that gives you more control over what gets in and out of the system. You'll be able to set what programs get access to the Internet.You can even block all IM and P2P applications across certain users. The firewall relies on rules set forth in the Windows Service Hardening platform. These rules limit how applications can access core system files, and whether they can access them at all. Windows Service Hardening acts to protect the core system in the event that a malicious program manages to get into the system.
Vista will also provide extra hard-disk security. BitLocker Drive Encryption, a hardware-based data-protection scheme provides full-drive encrypting. Enterprise editions of Vista will come with BitLocker and will require trusted platform modules for maximum effectiveness. This feature is more for the corporate user, but, who knows when a PC gamer might need to protect a Battlefield 2 config from nefarious siblings. Another feature that will only excite enterprise IT security departments, Vista can block unauthorized device drivers on the system. This means that you won't be able to use a USB storage device in a computer that has blocking enabled. The feature, while not particularly useful for home computers, will help companies prevent data theft.
Parental controls will receive a considerable boost in Vista. Parents will be able to monitor the actions of their children with detailed reports and control what Internet sites they can visit. Parents, or precocious administrators, can also limit access to the computer to certain hours of the day. Kids will have to keep an eye on the clock if they're in a 40-person Blackwing Lair "World of Warcraft" raid. We found that the system will automatically log the user out and prevent him from logging back in once the clock hits the time limit. We tried being sneaky by attempting to push the system clock back a couple hours to give us more free time, but the OS stopped us cold by prompting for an Administrator password on the date/time adjustment screen. (We were able to overcome the time constraints by going into the system BIOS and changing the system clock there.) Additionally, Vista will make use of ESRB ratings to help parents determine which games to allow their children to play.
Windows Vista will come with a completely reworked networking stack. The next-generation TCP/IP stack will work with IPv4 and IPv6, and will also support auto-tuning and quality-of-service features. Wireless traffic will receive numerous boosts in technology to better accommodate for lost packets, bad signals, and large amounts of electromagnetic interference. All these features boil down to better, more-consistent transfer rates for your existing Internet connection.
Compound TCP, or CTCP, helps to improve transfer rates by optimizing how the sender and receiver handle data. The software has a built-in feedback mechanism that responds to delays and compensates for latency. As a result, Vista can automatically adjust how much data is sent at a time, even varying how often data is sent, providing for improved data-transfer rates.
Quality-of-service (QoS) features will provide for improved audio and video streaming from local and remote servers. A subset of the QoS modules called qWAVE (Quality Windows Audio/Video Experience) will give priority to audio and video packets, while at the same time monitoring the network's changing conditions to adjust bandwidth usage dynamically. Microsoft is also working on off-network media playback quality. If you launch a new program while playing a media file, Vista promises seamless playback without any video or audio hiccups thanks to smarter resource allocation.
Windows Peer-to-Peer Networking, introduced in the advanced networking pack for Windows XP, will get a makeover for Vista. The additional changes in Vista will enable users to run P2P applications easily, with overall better performance. People Near Me is a new feature within Peer-to-Peer Networking that enables users to share files locally with friends without having to go through multiple complex hurdles.
From a user standpoint, the average person won't notice the difference because things will just work the way they are supposed to. Connecting to other computers, locally or over the Internet, will be easier, faster and hopefully more secure.
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