The Windows restore features can also be accessed from here, and owners of the Business, Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows can also make use of a tool known as file shadow copies. This feature, which originally debuted on Windows Server 2003, runs alongside system restore, tracking changes made to files and folders. When you right-click a file or folder with the feature enabled, you now get the option to restore a previous version without having to restore the entire system.
Vista also includes parental controls, which is likely to be a big selling point for those with wee ones. Now personally, I have my doubts about any kind of parental control – once your kids have figured out how to hack into the administrator account (and they will), it won’t be of much use anyway – but it is a handy tool if you want to leave them unsupervised for a few minutes here and there.
The tool enables you to create a log of computer activity for set user accounts so you can see what they’ve been looking at while your back was turned, apply filters for which web sites they can look at, set time slots for when they can and can’t use the computer, and block specific programs altogether.
But the biggest news on the security front, and a development that has sparked plenty of debate, is the introduction of UAC, or user access control, a change intended to help prevent unauthorised changes being made to your system.
With Vista’s UAC switched on, most users run in a pseudo-restricted mode, in which permissions can be elevated to Administrator level at any time. When a process that could compromise the security of your computer (driver or other software installation, for instance) begins, Vista generates an alert box asking for permission to proceed and locks down all other Windows tasks so you have to focus on allowing or denying it permission to continue.
This certainly has its advantages for systems administrators and IT professionals. With restricted user accounts, administrators can now run software installs and change settings without having to log out and log in with administrator privileges – a process that proved a real pain in XP. Account privileges can simply be elevated on a task-by-task basis; you can simply right-click an install application, choose Run as administrator, then enter your administrator username and password to install a new driver or software package.
But for home users it’s not so helpful. There are two main problems with it from this perspective. First is the fact that, on most standard home PCs and laptops, the main Windows Vista user is still set up as an Administrator. This means that a careless click of the Continue button (in an administrator account, further password entry is not required) could allow a dubious item of software to go ahead and wreak its havoc. Second is the irritation factor. After a few days of installing software, updating drivers and having to click Continue every time, it’s very easy to get annoyed and simply turn it off. And this is not difficult to do.
Finally, for owners of Ultimate and Enterprise versions of Vista, there’s Bitlocker. In conjunction with a TPM (trusted platform module) chip or USB key, Bitlocker allows you to encrypt not only files and folders, but the whole system volume too. This means that if, for instance, your laptop is stolen, accessing encrypted files and folders on the hard disk will much more difficult than simply booting the computer using an alternative operating system or boot disk.