by Dustin Sklavos
You’ll probably tell me I am being presumptuous with this article/editorial, and that I am running around with my head cut off screaming "THE SKY IS FALLING! THE SKY IS FALLING!" I wouldn’t totally disagree with you.
But here’s the bottom line: Windows Vista’s effect on the market will be catastrophic, and OEMs and PC users alike are in for a very rough go of things over the next year or so.
Without further delay, let’s talk about why you should be concerned … and talk about solutions to the problems.
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THE WRITING ON THE WALL
Before I get into the specific problems, it’s worth mentioning why I’m even here talking about this at all. If we could blindly march forward secure in the faith that "In Microsoft We Trust," I wouldn’t need to write this. If it was just my personal feeling that Vista was a disaster, I wouldn’t need to write this.
But it’s not.
The OEMs and retailers know Microsoft shoved a lame duck onto the market, and Microsoft’s behind-closed-doors arm twisting forced them to push Vista – and only Vista – on their machines. And why wouldn’t Microsoft care? They’ve been able to more or less dictate to us what we will and will not use, and they’ve pretty much dominated the market. They are – make no mistake – the very definition of an anticompetitive monopoly. Microsoft doesn’t actually need to pay a whole lot of attention to what the customers want, because its livelihood stopped depending directly on customers, and because Microsoft is in a position to tell customers what they want.
The OEMs and retailers, on the other hand, know who butters their bread. If Microsoft is the top of the food chain, the OEMs and retailers are the middlemen, and it’s really their responsibility to shove Vista out the door. Most of us aren’t rushing out and dropping the cash to buy retail copies of Vista; Vista’s user base is being built on the backs of the OEMs and the new computers that only offer Vista. But because these companies are the middlemen, they’re also the ones in more or less direct contact with the customer. Where Microsoft competes with no one, the OEMs, like HP and Dell, are locked in tight competition and they MUST answer to the customer.
Don’t forget, too, that these vendors aren’t just operating in the consumer market, but the equally (and possibly more so) cutthroat enterprise market as well, where there is a LOT of money to be made with exclusive contracts from major businesses and corporations. Capitalism is operating alive and well in these markets, where competition is heavy.
I’ll make an aside here: Dell and HP are the two largest consumer and enterprise vendors.
The reason I’m explaining all of this to you in such "well duh" detail is so you can really understand the ramifications of what I’m about to tell you:
Dell and HP are making Linux more available to corporate customers. For example, you can now order a business class HP Compaq notebook with Debian installed.
Dell and HP still offer Windows XP on their corporate systems.
These things should jump out to you because they’re heretofore unprecedented. Even Windows ME didn’t receive an industry backlash of this scale. We can all quibble over the reasons why this is the way it is, but bottom line:
- When I’m browsing laptops at Fry’s the salesman informs me they still have an XP system available, showcased in all its grandeur away from the other machines.
- I regularly hear customers asking if they can put XP on the shiny new Vista laptop.
- Game developers like id Software and Electronic Arts are paying more attention to Mac OS X.
- There’s very real public sentiment that Windows Vista is the "upgrade" almost no one wants, that it is a lame release, and that Microsoft’s monopoly is starting to crack.
I want to be clear and somewhat controversial here: a monopoly on operating systems, managed reasonably, would not necessarily be a bad thing. PCs thrive on standards, because consumers HATE competing standards and when they buy something they want it to just plain work. It’s when a company tries to strongarm the public with an inferior product – like Vista – that things start to really deteriorate.
So why are things falling apart, and why are we about to have a really rough go of things?
GROSS INCOMPATIBILITY AND POOR PERFORMANCE
One of the major complaints with Windows Vista has been compatibility or the lack thereof. Vista’s shiny new Aero Glass theme winds up being a minor nuisance, randomly turning off for seemingly no reason, and I can’t fathom why it’s abstracted in such a way that if one program can’t run it, it reduces the quality of all of them. And why is it if I run Trillian from the desktop, it’ll work fine, but if I run it from the quick launch, it has to shut down Aero Glass? This is a really minor gripe and certainly not deal breaking, but it’s symptomatic of the kinds of problems people have with Vista.
The honest truth is that sometimes, programs just don’t work for any apparent reason. When I made the jump to XP x64 from Vista on my desktop, I actually could not burn the ISO for the x64 trial. None of my software would work under Vista, and when I tried to find new software, I wound up with a lot of coasters. What the hell? This isn’t a complex task, this is burning a CD image!
One of the really nasty quirks of Vista that’s been making the rounds has been miserable file copy performance, and the reason for this is because Vista is checking for DRM bits. The DRM infection in Vista is actively reducing usability for the end user, and what troubles me is that Microsoft has such a stranglehold on the PC market that they could’ve easily told the media industry to go forth and multiply. Does anyone remember when the RIAA told Apple to switch to variable pricing on iTunes? You guys all remember how that turned out, right?
Does anyone really believe iTunes has a bigger user base than Windows?
An issue I had using Vista – and this is purely anecdotal – has been with its SuperFetch technology. Understanding idle performance is for the most part wasted performance, we also know that the hard disk is the biggest bottleneck in a system. Whether SuperFetch wants to be inobtrusive or not, I don’t want to be competing with my operating system for disk access. Finding my RAID inexplicably being near-constantly accessed under heavy load isn’t just disruptive to my computing experience, it’s frankly loud.
These are all things that average consumers may or may not run into, but the end result is the same: people are having problems with Vista. They hear from multiple family and friends not to make the jump.
SOLUTION: Continue running Windows XP.
If the problem were just Vista being a bunk product, I wouldn’t need to write this article. However…
2GB IS ENOUGH FOR ANYBODY
Has anyone else noticed how mainstream machines are shipping with 2GB of RAM standard now? After a slow and steady arc up, we’re all sort of stuck at 2GB. RAM has gotten dirt cheap, so why aren’t enthusiasts embracing 4GB as rapidly?
Let’s ignore the middling performance benefits currently gained from going up to 4GB for a second, because this wasn’t at all uncommon to when people were starting to make the jump to 2GB. Anyone who doesn’t think 4GB will be standard within the next couple years is just naive.
And herein lies the rub. In order for our operating system to fully appreciate 4GB of RAM, we need to make the jump to a 64-bit OS. This shouldn’t be a big deal; the installed hardware base is certainly there, at least on the desktop, with 64-bit starting to make its presence known in the mobile segment. In fact, I’d wager by the time 4GB of RAM is affordable and accessible in notebooks, 64-bit hardware will be much more common and entrenched.
The software, however, is lacking. When XP x64 was released, it was mostly derided. After all, there was really no reason to run it instead of regular 32-bit XP. Microsoft’s implementation of 64-bit code was…poor to say the least. Of course, this isn’t as true today: I’ve found XP x64 to be pleasantly stable on my desktop and a welcome alternative to Vista.
Unfortunately, compatibility issues prevalent in Vista get compounded when one makes the jump to the 64-bit version as more applications get broken. Again, this wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that we’ve hit the 2GB wall and the jump to 4GB really does merit a simultaneous jump to a 64-bit operating system, unless you want hordes of consumers screaming "I paid for 4GB of RAM and my system only shows 3.5GB!" They aren’t interested in the esoterica of 32-bit addressing, they just want the computer to say "4GB."
Anyone else notice how OEMs are almost entirely shipping 32-bit Vista on their machines? This is understandable and I’ve talked about this at length before, but the problem here is twofold.
First, their desktop machine – which everyone is used to being upgradable – is now arriving with a couple extra RAM slots, but the RAM itself is pretty much maxed out for the operating system. They’re going to need to upgrade to 64-bit Vista.
Second, this means they’re going to have to buy Vista all over again. Most people aren’t going to understand why they’re purchasing an operating system they really already have. Upgrading your operating system was a pain to begin with, but now it’s going to cost more money on top of the extra RAM.
This all wouldn’t be a huge deal if there were a viable 64-bit operating system for the OEMs to ship their computers with, but there isn’t. I don’t blame HP and Dell for not wanting to do any more of Microsoft’s tech support. By botching the 64-bit implementation instead of making the transition graceful (like Mac OS X does), they effectively stall out the market at 2GB.
I spoke to a designer from Voodoo PC at the GDC earlier this year and asked her about this 2GB wall; I asked her if they had a plan or a solution. Essentially, she shrugged. I say this not as a dig at Voodoo PC, because she definitely knew what she was talking about when I discussed it further with her, I say this as an indicator that professionals, that the designers themselves, are at a loss for how to solve this problem.
Vista should’ve shipped 64-bit only and it should’ve shipped with a polished 64-bit implementation. This would’ve been the right play for Microsoft as an industry leader, allowing XP to continue running on 32-bit systems, because this would’ve forced a transition to 64-bit hardware and thus avoided this mess entirely.
SOLUTION: For those of you wanting to make the transition to 4GB or more of RAM, you may find XP Professional x64 Edition to your liking. A free 120-day trial is available on Microsoft’s site, and I’ve found the software compatibility to be exceptional, and the system itself to be rock stable and an excellent performer. Driver support is still hit and miss, however; while finding 64-bit drivers for my desktop was no problem, they were virtually impossible to find for my laptop. Still, those wishing to avoid Vista while still enjoying the benefits of 4+ GB of RAM will likely be well served by XP x64.
DIRECTX 10 IS BAD FOR GAMERS
So DirectX 10 is supposed to be the next big thing for gaming. Interfacing directly with Windows, it promises faster performance, more impressive effects, makes your coffee, does your dishes, and impregnates your wife for you.
Okay, maybe not that last one.
We’ve heard a lot of promises about DirectX 10, but it has a fatal flaw: it’s tied to Vista, and Vista, at least presently, offers a miserable gaming experience. Four months after the fact we still don’t have stable drivers from either graphic vendor really, but least of all nVidia, who incidentally sports the only DX10 hardware on the market. Why would this be so catastrophic?
Well, nVidia’s driver team isn’t stupid. In fact, no doubt someone at nVidia is beavering away on the Vista drivers as I write this and as you read it. But Vista was being worked on down to the wire, so when vendors are having a hard time putting together solid drivers for it, especially with hardware as complex as nVidia’s and ATI’s, you can sort of understand why.
The problem remains that DX10 is tied to Vista, and Vista is not an ideal gaming operating system.
This just gets worse with recent DirectX 10 capable games, such as Company of Heroes, Call of Juarez, and Lost Planet: Extreme Condition. Now granted, none of these are native, but the idea was supposed to be that DirectX 10 would make things faster, not slice framerates in half.
The argument that these games weren’t natively written for DirectX 10 just doesn’t hold water with me, especially when compared to games that got Shader Model 3.0 patches back in the day like Far Cry, games which saw performance boosts along with their shiny new visual effects. The fundamental selling point was that we would be getting more performance with the same hardware, provided that hardware was DX10 capable. This hasn’t been the case. At all. And theoretically, developers could (and should) just be adding features until achieving performance parity with DX9 and I don’t think anyone would complain.
So refresh my memory: why exactly are we supposed to be jumping for this?
And the only games that have come out explicitly tied to Vista are Halo 2 and Shadowrun, neither of which have reviewed well. In particular, Halo 2 seems to run fairly miserably for how it looks.
DirectX 10, however early, hasn’t lived up to any of its promises, and in fact has been a titanic disappointment. More than that, the features that are supposed to be unique to DirectX 10 can also be exposed in OpenGL. Given how few people readily jumped on the Vista bandwagon, it’s safe to suggest there might be a slight paradigm shift to favoring OpenGL, especially now that DirectX has had its components largely broken up (more on this in my next section). It bears mentioning that id Software chose to debut its next generation technology at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference this year, and went so far as to point out that it was being developed on Macs. Likewise, Electronic Arts announced the releases of four new, high profile titles on the Mac platform.
A rejuvenated interest in Mac gaming more than likely means rejuvenated interest in OpenGL, which is NOT platform dependent as DirectX 10 is. A rejuvenated interest in OpenGL means the potential for DX10 features outside of Windows XP.
In short, DX10 is, at least at the moment, bust, and the features it boasts so proudly may indeed wind up making the journey back to Windows XP in the form of updates to OpenGL.
SOLUTION: Wait for OpenGL to update with DirectX 10 capable features, or just enjoy DirectX 9 games in Windows XP. XP is a mature platform, and DirectX 9 is mature, well-optimized technology that still boasts some very impressive effects. More than this, DirectX 10 grade parts still offer solid performance – downright ridiculous if you look at nVidia’s 8800 series. If you’re buying a notebook right now, you’re going to want a mobile nVidia 8 series part, though. Just because these features aren’t being exposed well in Vista doesn’t mean you’ll never need them, and beyond that, these parts offer plenty of performance on their own. On a desktop? The GeForce 8800GTS 320MB goes for under $300 now, and is worth every penny for the frugal PC gamer. The future is a bit uncertain, but I wouldn’t be caught without a DirectX 10 capable part if I was even a semi-serious gamer. Even if DX10 doesn’t catch fire, OpenGL may very well pick up the slack.
With Windows Vista, Microsoft launched their Live service on the PC as well as their "Games for Windows" marketing program. Now this would all be well and good, except for a curious omission they made: the removal of the hardware abstraction layer for sound hardware. What does this mean? In short, your shiny new sound card can’t hardware accelerate sound anymore. Most of us are running on our on-board sound chips, so it won’t matter. But if you have a PCMCIA Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS, or were looking into the upcoming Sound Blaster X-Fi for ExpressCard, well…you’re going to hit a snag.
EAX, the major sound technology that’s most widely used in games, relies on having a direct interface to sound hardware. What most people don’t realize is that your sound hardware can directly affect your gaming performance; if your sound card can’t process sound in hardware, you WILL lose performance. In addition, you also lose immersion. While I hate Creative as much as the next guy (and maybe a bit more), EAX is a desirable trait to find in games and in sound hardware. Not being able to enable it in what’s supposed to be a gamer’s operating system is just absurd.
So why was it taken out? Microsoft has stated that a lot of the blue screens that occurred in XP were the result of driver malfunctions/failures, many of which stemmed from the sound hardware. Given my recent headaches in trying to get EAX to work with 4GB of RAM in XP x64 (I had to use hacked drivers for an X-Fi), I can understand this. Creative’s driver team, for whatever reason, is absolutely awful, yet somehow still has their jobs. So instead of trying to deal with the problem by at least talking to the team directly or trying to help them write their drivers, Microsoft pretty much just "nipped it in the bud" and tried to kill EAX entirely.
The light at the end of the tunnel is that OpenAL still works for hardware sound, but it’s puzzling why Microsoft would outright axe a key feature of DirectX in Windows Vista. Beyond that, Creative has a program called ALchemy that basically translates DirectSound calls to OpenAL in Vista, allowing EAX to be utilized in Vista on X-Fi, with development for Audigy cards on the way. But your EAX game has to be supported by ALchemy.
SOLUTION: Upgrade to a Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi and use ALchemy in Windows Vista. Alternatively, continue enjoying all your favorite games in XP, where EAX isn’t an issue.
Here’s something really funny. Windows ReadyBoost technology is designed to make use of a USB flash drive (or flash memory embedded on the motherboard) to improve performance in Windows Vista, chiefly as a quick fix for low RAM. Which is great, because you’re going to need it with how much RAM Vista hogs. Well, except for one fatal flaw. I’ll illustrate it for you.
First, Windows Vista’s sweet spot is between 2GB and 4GB of RAM. That’s fine, 2GB is pretty much standard these days anyhow.
Second, at around 2GB, performance improvements from ReadyBoost are negligible, and I’ve seen benchmarks that actually show a minor degrade while using it with high amounts of RAM. Of course, we’re talking about fractions of a second here, but we’re also talking about fractions of a second here. Which is to say, completely negligible and likely unfelt by the average user.
Now, keeping these things in mind, the fatal flaw is:
ReadyBoost only really improves performance at 512MB or 1GB of system RAM, where Vista will be crippled by the low RAM anyhow. In situations like these, Windows XP would be the better choice, as the operating system has substantially lower overhead.
In short, ReadyBoost only "benefits" computers that shouldn’t be running Windows Vista anyhow. Who needs this?
We’ll compound this further. ReadyBoost also requires you to buy a halfway decent flash memory stick to use. If you buy the cheapie at your local Fry’s Electronics, the $30 for 4GB, chances are the access time will be so dog slow that Vista won’t use it – and will tell you so. Why didn’t you just go buy 2GB of RAM for a little over twice that, and actually get your money’s worth out of it?
SOLUTION: There is no solution. ReadyBoost is a feature looking for a market. People with systems running 1GB or less of RAM would be better served by just running Windows XP and forgetting about Vista. That said, if you already have Vista on one of these systems, ReadyBoost is the cheaper choice, but you would be better served just buying more RAM.
I haven’t even touched on how nasty the networking interface is in Vista, or how the allegedly "improved" security really isn’t a great improvement over XP’s after all. The fact of the matter is that Vista is bunk, but more than that, potentially marks a real sea change in the market. I’ve seen more and more Macs running around on campus at UC San Diego over the past year, and everyone is taking notice. After all, Intel Macs really are FAST. Actual open interest and development of a gaming engine on the Mac platform should be a big sign, too, along with the general distaste OEMs seem to be exhibiting for Vista (note: they sell it because they have to.)
Linux and Mac OS X continue to eat into Microsoft’s market share. With Microsoft aggressively trying to force XP out of the marketplace, they leave end users with two essential options: suffer through Vista, or switch to an alternative operating system or platform. While I don’t personally endorse or care for Linux, the Ubuntu distribution has been making major headway and seems to be a very hot topic.
Vienna, Microsoft’s next Windows, is due in 2009, and amusingly was announced not long after negative public sentiment toward Vista was beginning. Let’s hope they get it right this time and actually give us features we need.
I may seem hard on Vista, but I have honestly tried using it on multiple occasions with varying levels of disaster. My sister, anxiously awaiting my finished review of her shiny new Pavilion dv6500, is planning on "downgrading" to XP, finding that some of the programs she needs to run for her business don’t run in Vista. I’ve tried making the jump several times and even championed it in its beta days. But here we are, six months after the fact, and nothing has changed or improved, and I just don’t see what can really be done to improve it. We didn’t have these problems when XP was released, at least not to this degree. Device drivers weren’t a huge deal because XP was really just 2000 with a couple of the good features from Windows ME (yes, they exist) and a shiny new coat of paint. Drivers in Vista are a mess because it was being worked on right up to the deadline, and because it’s built on a heavily modified XP codebase that specifically changed how drivers interfaced with the operating system.
Oh well. Here’s waiting for Vienna.