Microsoft's latest operating system is due to hit the market at the end of the year, but is it worth making the upgrade? We think there's a lot of potential.

This column appears in the May 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Vista is assuming its final form. According to Microsoft, the latest beta of the forthcoming Windows OS (operating system), Build 5270, is nearly feature-complete, although some of Vista's interface, code-named Aero, isn't yet in place.

We took the beta version for a spin. The OS's focus on security and performance looks promising, but it still needs a fair bit of polish.

We had hoped that Vista's firewall would address a major shortcoming in XP's built-in protection by alerting you about outgoing as well as incoming traffic, but it monitors only inward connections by default. Microsoft has claimed that this is sufficient for most people. Perhaps, but we'd recommend you replace it with a bidirectional product, such as Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm.

More impressively, Vista's BitLocker feature adds security to laptops and PCs by allowing you to encrypt the entire hard drive. If your computer – or just the hard drive, for that matter – is stolen, the thief cannot access your data without knowing your 48-digit encryption key.

If your computer carries the non-profit Trusted Computing Group's Trusted Platform Module chip, the key is retrieved automatically when you log into Windows. Otherwise, you can put the key on a USB drive, which you then use to unlock your hard drive every time you boot, or enter the key manually whenever you start your machine.

It's too early to test Microsoft's assertion that Vista will start up more rapidly than other versions of Windows, but the Superfetch feature might speed up your work. Superfetch cleverly remembers the programs you use most frequently, and keeps some of their components in memory for faster relaunching.

Whenever you attach a drive to your USB port, Vista asks whether you want to use some of the drive's capacity to improve performance via Superfetch. If you agree, the OS shuffles files from your hard drive over to the USB drive, potentially making access to those files much faster. We didn't notice any difference, but it's still in beta.

Windows XP has difficulty going into and waking from hibernate mode or sleep mode on some computers – your system hardware may override your power-saving choice. In Vista, however, you simply click the Power Off button for the best of both worlds. Your data is saved to disk in case of a loss of power (as in hibernate mode), but it stays in memory for a short time, too (as in standby mode), so it revives faster.

The Vista version of WMP (Windows Media Player) replaces the previous release's boring text lists of song titles with album graphics. WMP 11.0's main menu makes finding tunes and accomplishing other tasks easy. The program's search box appears centre stage, and it works better as well, with partial-match results appearing as you type.

If you own Windows XP MCE (Media Center Edition), it probably came bundled with a PC or media-extender device. In the future, MCE will be part of Vista and may be sold in a standalone version, making it easier to assemble your own media-oriented PC. MCE is undergoing tumultuous changes with each Vista release. Chances are the MCE in this build will change significantly by the time Vista appears on shelves late this year.

If Vista can live up to its promises, hit the shelves free of bugs and smooth out those rough edges, the OS may prove a worthy successor to XP. But that's a lot of ifs.