On Friday, as expected, Microsoft shipped Windows Vista Release Candidate 2 (RC2), the final public prerelease version of its next-generation OS. However, contrary to internal documentation that I viewed last week, the company has elected to make RC2 available to a much wider audience: Customers who previously signed up for the Vista Customer Preview Program (CPP) will be able to download this Vista version.

"Today, Microsoft distributed Windows Vista RC2, build 5744," a Microsoft spokesperson told me Friday. "To prepare for the upcoming launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft continues to encourage partners and customers to test for deployment and certify their products for Windows Vista logos."

According to Microsoft, Vista RC2 includes improvements to performance, application compatibility, and fit and finish. In my own testing of the RC2 release over the weekend, I saw evidence of these improvements: Previously incompatible applications such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0 now run without any warnings, and Microsoft has made visual improvements to Control Panel and maximized shell windows. However, given its near-final status, RC2 doesn't include any major new features or changes.

Microsoft reiterated that it’s still on schedule to ship Vista. "We expect the RC2 build to be the last interim release before the product is released to manufacturing," the spokesperson said. "We continue to target Windows Vista availability for volume-license customers in November 2006 and general availability in January 2007, although the final delivery will be based on quality."

Microsoft Co-President Jim Allchin appeared ebullient that the company had finally reached this important milestone. "We are just around the corner from RTM and shipping this great product to the world," he wrote in a message to beta testers and CPP members on Friday. "Please keep the feedback coming so we can hit the finish line. Thanks for your help in finishing the job!"

You can download Vista RC2 at

   http://download.windowsvista.com/preview/rc2/en/download.htm

 

Note, however, that you need to have previously signed up for the CPP to obtain the product key necessary for installing RC2.

I won't be reviewing RC2 because of the impending final release and the minimal changes, but I’ve provided a screen shot gallery on the SuperSite for Windows at

   http://www.winsupersite.com/article/showcase/windows-vista-release-candidate-2-rc2-screenshot-gallery.aspx