Microsoft has released a new beta of Windows Vista that sheds some light on how the software giant plans to improve networking and PC manageability in its new OS.

The new release also gives testers an early look at some new features in Internet Explorer 7.0.

The beta software was released to Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program customers late last week and a broader Community Technology Preview (CTP) release was put out yesterday to approximately 500,000 testing members.

Microsoft released its first beta of Vista in July and then followed up with a CTP update at its developers conference last month. With this third release, the company has focused on features that would matter most to technical users, said Mike Burk, product manager for the Windows client team at Microsoft. "What we tried to do this time was look at it from the perspective of people who were most likely to use this," he said.

New diagnostic software will be able to detect and resolve problems in the computer's memory or on the hard drive. For example, it will be able to warn users whenever the hard drive begins to show signs of failing, Burk said. "The PC is able to diagnose problems before they become full-blown problems," he said.

The latest beta code also includes a feature called Network Center, which allows users to store and manage their network settings in one location. Network Center will be part of the Windows Control Panel and will consolidate a number of the Windows configuration and troubleshooting tools, Burk said.

The new Internet Explorer code will expose Vista testers to some new browser features, including Quick Tabs, which displays thumbnail versions of tabbed pages in a single window, and Tab Groups, a feature that allows users to save a set of tabbed pages into a single group within the browser's "Favorites" list. Users could, for example, set Internet Explorer to open this group of tabbed pages every time the browser was launched.

The IE 7 beta will also be able to zoom in and out of Web pages and feature a phishing filter as well as improved printing capabilities.

Also included in the October CTP release are:

  • Windows Mobility Center: Located within the Control Panel, this feature will give users a single place to set things like display brightness and power use.
  • Media Player 11: A first look at the new interface and features of the upcoming version of Microsoft's media player.
  • Digital signatures for the XML Paper Specification (XPS) format: Software that lets users digitally sign documents to make it more clear who actually created and modified the work.

Windows Vista is expected to be released some time in the second half of 2006. In addition to the upcoming CTP releases, which will continue to be released about once a month, a "Windows Vista Beta 2" release is expected before the final product ships, Burke said. He would not say when the Beta 2 code is expected.

The next CTP release will be some time in November, he said.