Since last October, I’ve been poking and prodding at the first beta release of Whistler, Microsoft’s upcoming upgrade to Windows 2000 and Windows Millennium Edition. In two columns last year, TechRepublic members enthusiastically offered their advice to Microsoft on what features and functions to put in Whistler:

This week, I’ll share some of the more interesting hidden gems I’ve discovered while working with this early Windows version. Although most of the publicity you’ll hear about Whistler focuses on its glitzy and controversial user interface changes, there’s plenty for IT pros to like, too.

Headless server—One of the most frequent requests from network administrators is the ability to install and manage a server without requiring a display, keyboard, and mouse. Whistler supports this “headless” configuration, with options for remote installation, management controllers, and management ports that allow servers to be managed at system start or after a crash.

Credential Manager—This is a secure store of user credentials, including passwords and X.509 certificates. When you access an application that requires authentication, the credential you supply is saved on a digital “keyring.” Later attempts to access the same application use the saved credential. In an ideal setup, a user would access the keyring using a smart card, instead of a potentially insecure username/password combination.

Device Driver Rollback—The scenario is all too familiar. You install a new device driver and it takes you straight to the Land of Blue Screens. With Whistler, you’ll be able to boot into Safe Mode, access the Driver dialog box in Device Manager, and click one button to roll back to the earlier driver version. Why didn’t Microsoft add this feature years ago?

Remote Desktop Connection—Anyone who’s deployed Windows 2000 Terminal Services knows that this is the “killer feature” for that OS. In Whistler Professional Edition, it’s readily available to any user. Allow Remote Desktop Connections, then lock your office computer and head home. You can tunnel in over the Internet and keep working. Unlike its Windows 2000 predecessor, this version doesn’t require complex setup or additional client access licenses.

Fast User Switching—This feature doesn’t work on domains, but it will be a time-saver on stand-alone machines (especially at home) or in simple workgroup settings. Instead of closing down all running programs and logging off, use the Switch User menu option to lock the current user’s session and quickly log on using a different account. The original user’s tasks, including downloads, remain running in the background.

Personal Firewall—Here’s yet another feature that won’t be of much use in corporations, but it should be a hit among home users connected directly to cable modems and DSL lines. This feature (barely implemented in Beta 1 but definitely scheduled for release in the final version) protects users from unauthorized connections over the Internet and logs unauthorized access attempts.

Migration Wizard—One of the biggest headaches for end users is the nightmare that occurs when you replace your PC. How do you transfer all those installed apps and buckets of data to the new box? This tool eliminates some, but not all, of the headaches of moving files, folders, file associations, and user settings from PC to PC. It doesn’t, however, move installed programs.

If you’re an IT professional, some of Whistler’s whizziest new features might not be so welcome. Because it brings together the consumer and business Windows families, even the Professional version of Whistler adds disk-clogging, time-wasting consumer media tools like Windows Movie Maker and Windows Media Player without providing any way to remove unwanted components or customize a default installation.

Whistler is far from finished, and it should be fascinating to watch its evolution throughout the year. I’ll keep you posted. If you have any comments or questions, start a discussion below.

Here’s Ed’s new Challenge
My trusty desktop PC is about to turn two years old, which means it’s practically prehistoric. It’s time to put together a brand-new Windows dream machine, and I need your help with the video subsystem. Which video cards should I buy? Yes, I said cards, plural. At the top of my wish list is Windows 2000 multimonitor support. I’m not a gamer, so blazing 3D performance isn’t important. But I do want the ability to run at very high resolutions, using 24-bit color, without having to watch the screen repaint itself. Oh, and I don’t have unlimited funds, so price is a consideration. Come on, hardware fanatics! Help me find the best video card for Windows. If you think you’ve got the perfect candidate, click here and add your input in this week’s Microsoft Challenge.