Caution: objects in Windows may be closer than they appear...
So a friend let me play with his Vista Beta install, and one thing we discovered was that it doesn't install on Virtual PC due to some kind of BIOS incompatibility. I thought that was amusing, since there's really no true BIOS to begin with in Virtual PC, but oh, well. I dredged up an old hard drive and wiped it in order to install the Beta, and the first thing I noticed was how idiot-proof it is. It asks for the activation code and where you want to install, then says, "thanks--that's all we need from you;" no region and languages settings, no chance to customize the system--just shove in the disc and go get a Coke. Definitely an upgrade, as sitting and waiting for the install to ask you which keyboard layout you'd like to use was irritating.
Once XP was up and running, the first thing I thought was, "Who Aqua-fied XP?" Yes, Windows is now glassy and shiny. The default color scheme is based on a slate gray, with subdued colors compared to XP's almost brash use of bright greens and blues. I find it an improvement. The next thing that struck me was how complete this release is--I shared a folder and my Mac saw it instantly, just like my XP install does, and even Firefox worked perfectly. I'll try a couple games tomorrow and see what happens. ATI has a driver out for Vista, both 32- and 64-bit versions, but I had difficulty installing it; whether due to the beta nature or an operator error, I don't know.
Minor differences are more improvements on XP than revolutionary changes. For example, the search bar is now at the bottom of the Start Menu (when extended), instead of having to manually click "Search." Minor, but definitely an improvement. For that matter, Search is now metadata-based, and works far better than the old "wait for 20 minutes for it to tell you it can't find the file" method, although the search window proper shows a disturbing resemblance to OS X's search window. Convergence, coincidence, or just a lack of any other ways to really show a search window?
Overall, it is far less of a revolutionary change than many of us were hoping for--it seems to be more a final version of XP with necessary security upgrades and minor improvements, especially since the new filesystem is delayed indefinitely. Maybe there'll be sweeping changes before the official release, but I'll be less excited about it then.