In my last post I talked about some of the features that make Vista worth looking into. However, there are two more that are worth consideration: security and networking. The former has been much maligned in XP due to repeated problems with security holes, especially in Internet Explorer. The latter has just been frustrating.

Better Security. Microsoft allegedly worked very hard on getting the security issues right with Vista. This can be seen in certain features, although they are not always welcome by users. For one thing, the included firewall now blocks unauthorized outgoing traffic as well as incoming, which makes it a more useful tool. However, you might still want to look into other free alternatives, like Zone Labs‘ Zone Alarm. Even the for-fee versions by Zone Labs, McAfee, and Norton, can be worth the investment in more robust features. In any event, at least Microsoft is providing a better firewall out of the box.

Internet Explorer 7 is supposed to be a huge leap forward in security. However, since it is still tied to Windows for some of its functions, and as such, any problems from bugs get passed on, it is still not the poster boy for security in browsing. For example, less than a day after its release, a Danish security firm found a security hole. That being said, there is some good stuff there.  For example, the Vista version runs in Protected Mode by default. This means that system files and settings for the browser cannot be changed by malicious code unless you change the setting.  In many other respects, however, the XP version of IE7 has most of the same improvements, so it alone does not compel an OS upgrade.

There is also a bundled anti-spyware program, Windows Defender, which has garnered some positive press. It shows you programs that run on startup (along with ones currently running) plus whether any of those programs have been classified as malware. If it is malware, you have the choice of disabling or removing it. In any event, it can save you the cost of a third party program. Even if you do get one from companies like McAfee and Norton, it is better to have more than one, as no one anti-spyware program catches everything.

Maintaining security on all the machines in a network can also be a hassle, but Vista’s Network Access Protection helps. It lets network administrators set security requirements for PCs to connect to the network (e.g. having updated virus definitions, firewall and spyware versions, etc.) thus preventing the “weakest link” from causing a network-wide problem.

The one major annoyance, and Microsoft a** coverer, of Vista’s security is User Account Control. This feature requires you to enter a password or click “Okay” when dealing with PC security issues, such as turning the Vista firewall on or off, modifying user accounts, or even just running a particular application. This was created, ostensibly, to prevent malware from doing these things in the background, and to protect you against yourself and your actions that might unknowingly lead to a problem on your machine. This is a good idea in theory, but many are saying that Microsoft has extended it too far by including things like changing Windows’ font size or the computer’s name. You can turn off this feature, but then you proceed at your own risk, and Microsoft can wash its hands of any security holes you may have exposed in the process.

Better Networking. Vista has been designed to address many of the networking frustrations users have experienced with XP by presenting your network as a natural extension of your PC. It makes configuring a network, sharing files, and managing several networks (wireless or otherwise) much easier, while supporting all the network technologies, including ethernet, WiFi, and Bluetooth. It does this in several ways, including putting all the networking tools in one place: the Network and Sharing Center. One useful new tool is the network map, which gives you a visual representation of your network and its resources. Clicking or hovering over a resource icon reveals its properties.

Wireless networking has also been made easier. Vista saves the wireless settings for networks you access often for automatic connection when you are in range, and you can specify a priority of networks where they overlap.

One problem for road warriors is that file synchronization between your laptop and your server is still not the best, and Vista’s Sync Center does not improve enough on XP. Unless you need to synchronize the contents of your server onto a laptop to “take the office with you,” and if all you need to do is to work on a few key files away from the office, I would recommend the method I use: put a Windows Briefcase on a flash drive then drag and drop the files you need to work on onto that. Plug the drive into your laptop, work from the file on the flash drive (do not copy the file to the laptop’s hard drive), then synchronize the files in the Briefcase when you get back to the office. Microsoft offers help in using Briefcase on Vista and XP.

All in all, there is enough worthwhile stuff in Vista regarding security and networking to make it worth the eventual upgrade. Although many are calling Vista Microsoft’s version of the Mac OS X operating system (and they may be right), there are enough concrete advantages to PC users to upgrade.