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Good and Bad Betas

The meaning of "beta"--a term meant to describe a largely completed software release ready for the stress of real-world testing--has gotten awfully muddy in practice.

Some applications, such as Google's Gmail, can spend years in beta status but feel as polished and stable as any 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 release. Others can be advertised as "finished" but still suffer defects that should have been found and fixed before release: Think of the complaints I've seen about Apple's Mac OS X Leopard, and the considerably larger number of gripes about Microsoft's Windows Vista.

You should exercise caution with anything explicitly labeled as unfinished. But the ubiquity of public beta releases makes it hard to ignore this category of software on principle; some betas justify the added risk. How do you tell? Consider the worst-case scenario--if this program malfunctions, how bad could things get?

One just-released beta, the Beta 2 release of the Mozilla Firefox 3 browser delivered this morning, seems worth the trouble. As long as you don't have any browser add-ons installed for older versions (which probably won't work in this release), you don't have much to lose--at worst, the browser crashes, you uninstall it and you revert to the current 2.0 release--and you do have a decent amount to gain.

The new browser makes it easier to find a page you just visited--just start typing a word that appeared in its title, and it will suggest recently visited pages that match. Its bookmarks-management screen offers additional ways to make sense of your Web favorites. The most valuable feature here, however, may be the promised performance improvements; anything that makes an application I use for hours a day feel more responsive is good news to me.

I might not add this program to my primary work desktop, but I certainly will put it on the work laptop.

And then there's the other beta announcement I received--a press release from Symantec, announcing the mid-January availability of a beta version of its Norton 360 security and maintenance suite. The tricky thing is that the first sentence of this announcement might make you think it's the actual, final version:

CUPERTINO, CA, Dec 18, 2007 -- Symantec Corp. (NASDAQ: SYMC) today announced that version 2.0 of its market leading all-in-one security solution, Norton 360, will be available by early-January 2008.

In fact, the real thing won't ship until "sometime in March," company publicist Spencer R. Parkinson wrote in response to my query.

Symantec is unwise to treat the release of a beta version of this program as something worthy of public attention.

I'm nervous enough about installing completed security software--it must operate at the deepest levels of Windows, where a malfunction can lead to catastrophic damage throughout the system. (Put another way: Would you rather have a fire break out on the deck of the ship, or in the engine room?) And now Symantec is going to suggest that people try out a security program that it's still working on?

No thanks. Let the company pay its own software testers to find the bugs.

Tell me about your recent beta experiences--what's the last time you regretted trying a beta release that needed more time in the oven? And when was it worthwhile to load a beta release that cured problems present in an older, "finished" version?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 19, 2007; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  Windows  
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Comments

Trying the VMWare Fusion beta convinced me to buy the real thing. USB devices weren't working 100% reliably, but the rest worked fine. The only changes I saw in the release were improvements to hardware support and some interface tweaks.

Posted by: BR | December 19, 2007 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Apple's Boot Camp Beta also worked very well early on for me. Boot Camp was one of the reason's I got Leopard early on to allow my wife to run her "special" windows only software at work....

Posted by: CPS | December 20, 2007 7:04 AM | Report abuse

Been running the Firefox 3 betas (on XP at work and Mac at home) for a couple weeks now. The two extensions that I really need, Gmail Notifier and (especially) Adblock Plus, have versions for FF 3 Beta.

No crashes, it's much faster than FF2, and most of the memory leaks seem to have been plugged.

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Handbrake for the Mac is at 0.9, which is technically considered to be a pre-release version (1.0 will be the release version). Love it. Rips every DVD I've thrown at it on my 24" iMac (purchased last March), with 1 GB ram, in reasonable time. Roughly 1 hour to rip a one hour movie.

The "iPod Hi-Res" preset seems to give the best results for my Archos 605. But it took several tries to determine that that one was best. Each try taking about an hour becasue you have to: Rip the episode of BSG from the DVD, copy it to the Archos, and then watch the first minute or so.

This one has, however, crashed a couple of times. Which can be annoying if you've almost finished the rip of Battlestar Galactica Razor and have to restart it.

----
If you're considering reviewing those personal/portable video/media viewer/recorder devices (including the iPod touch) you really need to look at the Archos 605 (the 405 has a smaller screen, 705 a larger one). It has WiFi, and you can get a copy of the Opera browser to run on it. I've got the 30 GB version, there's an 8 GB version with an SD slot, and a 120 (or maybe 80) GB version. Movies and TV shows, handheld, are surprisingly watchable on the 800x480, 4.3 inch, screen. Note: I said "watchable", not "wonderful". Good Enough for on the road or airplane.

There's a device you can plug it into that breaks out video and audio into RCA jacks for attaching it to a TV. I plan on testing that out next week when I'm visiting Dad in Utah. He doesn't have cable. Being a masochist, at least in testing tech, I may try hooking it up to my 42" Sharp Aquos HDTV and seeing just how bad it looks on that screen.

Got the TV at Best Buy for $900 last Saturday. "Damaged, open box." The damage being a missing remote and no manuals. So I got one of the Logitech eHarmony remotes, which is the Best Programmable Remote Ever. EVAR. Even the obscure settings buttons get mapped.

Now all I need to do is get one of those calibration DVDs so I can get the settings tweaked right. Best Buy had it set up to look nice in the store, and it's too damn red (and a bit too green, how'd they manage that?) for me.

Posted by: wiredog | December 20, 2007 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I just installed the Windows XP service pack 3 beta. It went in without a problem, hung when I first booted it up, and unhung after I pushed the reset button, and it has been perfectly tame since then. I've noticed only one glitch so far: Skype video shows me only a still photo. I've had Skype video calls from only one person so far, so it might be something between his system and mine, but the ten times we have talked, his video wasn't videoing. He says that he sees himself moving on his monitor.

I tried Firefox beta 3, but because the five extensions I use were not available for it, I immediately uninstalled it. No extensions, no point. Sorry about that.

Posted by: Huizhe | December 20, 2007 8:37 PM | Report abuse

What's interesting is that ever since I started playing with various Linux distros (MAN I love VMWare on my MacBook!), I've become much more trusting of Beta software than I have in the past.

Partly that's due to the way Linux handles the install/remove process, but partly it's due to the fairly impressive stability of much of the 'beta' ranked software I've tried.

And, as you note, why do their work for the software companies? With the open source community, it's an easier step to take b/c you're not putting your machine at risk to make Bill Gates (or His Jobsness, or...) richer. It's a win-win!

Posted by: Bush -- not related | December 20, 2007 10:40 PM | Report abuse

Wiredog said:
"Rips every DVD I've thrown at it on my 24" iMac (purchased last March), with 1 GB ram, in reasonable time. Roughly 1 hour to rip a one hour movie."

If you think 1:1 is a "reasonable" DVD ripping time, I'm guessing you have never used DVD Decrypter on a Windows PC. It can rip a 2-hr movie in about 30 minutes, a 4:1 ratio. It's for Windows only, but there MUST be a ripper for Macs that can do better than 1:1.

Posted by: Gosseyn | December 21, 2007 5:49 AM | Report abuse

What's FireFox without add-ons? I'm very much looking forward to the release that "Tab Mix Plus", "IE Tab", "NoScript", "FasterFox", and my favorite theme integrate with. Why would I go nuts using a new version without helpful extensions I'm used to, and rely on, when 2.x is really very good and has them all functioning?

Posted by: Internet2k4 | December 21, 2007 8:18 PM | Report abuse

There is NO bug-less software, so in that sense, all software is beta. The company itself decides whether to call it beta or a finished product, and this depends on product quality, pressure to get it to market, or other considerations. Judging by many people's experiences with Windows Vista, it would seem that MS bases its decisions on the latter criteria. I have had uniformly positive experiences with all the Google betas I have used, and would consider most to be finished products.

Posted by: Jim | December 22, 2007 9:01 PM | Report abuse

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