Windows Vista: The Best Case for Windows XP Ever

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by Dustin Sklavos

In this editorial Dustin shares his Windows Vista upgrade experience and why he’s running with open arms back to Windows XP.

INTRODUCTION

I’ve been following Vista’s development since builds before Beta 1. I’ve been able to play with Vista as it’s grown up. My experience with the RTM version was a positive one, positive enough that I set aside a partition on my desktop explicitly for installing Vista on when it came out. And so when it came out, I got a retail copy of Vista Home Premium to install on that waiting hard drive space.

After using Vista for a bit, I’ll be going back to XP and using that partition as a scratch disk for quite a while.

When you use a beta you operate under the assumption that it’s a beta, thus flawed, and that these flaws will eventually be corrected. As a result, I was fairly positive about Vista last year. I felt like once these details were taken care of, we might have a worthy upgrade.

Of course, this was before any of us knew just how badly Microsoft was going to screw us, and unfortunately there isn’t any better way to put it. Someone, somewhere in the heirarchy decided that "customer" was synonymous with "beta tester." If that were the end of our woes it might not be so bad, but it’s not.

So before I launch into what will wind up being a fairly damning tirade, I’ll get to what ISN’T so bad about Windows Vista.

WHAT DOESN’T VISTA DO WRONG?

Well, provided you don’t buy Vista Home Basic, the "Intel Core Solo" mongoloid inbred cousin of the family that no one talks about, you get to enjoy Aero Glass which is, admittedly, very pretty. If Microsoft did one thing right with Vista, it’s with how they handle the personalization of the operating system. It’s something they take so seriously that they’ve actually reorganized these features into a "Personalize" menu that shows up on right-clicking the desktop where "Desktop Properties" used to be. It’s a nice touch.

The Games Explorer, ignoring how poor a choice for gaming Vista is right now, is a very welcome addition as well. It’s "smart." It’s also a part of one of the smarter organizational changes of Vista.

Unless you’ve serviced a computer or gotten into the nitty gritty of your own, you may not be aware of how asinine the organization of your files is in XP and its predecessors. In Windows XP, your "My Documents" folder is located at:

C:\Documents and Settings\yourname\My Documents

That’s not too bad, until you see all the crazy folders scattered around these that lead up to it.

In Vista, it’s:

C:\Users\yourname\Documents

Cleaner, simpler. The newly redesigned start menu dedicates individual folders to music, pictures, video, documents, games, and so on. If you click your name, it’ll show you these folders and a couple more, including a nicely dedicated download folder. No more downloading crap straight to your desktop or losing it in My Documents.

This abstraction is a far cry from having to make folders in old Windows versions and mixing up all your stuff. It’s a really nice organizational touch and one of Vista’s stronger, subtler points. Because of it, the casual user will NEVER have to think of the directory tree again.

Windows Sidebar is also a cute feature, but it’s one that’s better suited to the dual-monitor setups which are becoming a bit more common. It’s a nice addition that’s unfortunately undermined by a lot of the buggy gadgets floating around online, gadgets that may have worked in betas, but in newer versions have serious problems. Unfortunately, installing new gadgets isn’t all bread and roses, as I’ll explain later.

Windows Sidebar and Gadgets can be seen on the right side of the screen in this Vista screenshot

The Mobility Center is a nice idea that unfortunately isn’t being embraced like it should. This isn’t unexpected, it’s just a shame. Clumping all of these laptop controls in one place is a great idea, but it’s ultimately up to the manufacturers to take advantage of it.

Windows Vista Mobility Center

Beyond Aero Glass, Vista’s just plain…nice to look at. Icons are vivid, operations are more animated, and the UI moves more fluidly by virtue of being offloaded to the graphics processor.

Windows Vista Aero in action

And hey, even Solitaire got a makeover.

WHEN "INTUITIVE" STOPS BEING INTUITIVE

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s developers hate you. When you use Mac OS X, it’s really designed to abstract you from having to deal with the internals of your system. It’s all designed to create an experience, and consistency is key.

Now, Microsoft’s developers feel that the menus at the top of the screen – you know, File, Edit, and their kin – are past their prime and not the way things should be. They could be right.

The problem is that we’ve been using those for ten years now. We use them in EVERY OPERATING SYSTEM ON THE MARKET. Even the primary innovators in user interfaces, Apple, haven’t disposed of it. Why? BECAUSE WE’RE USED TO IT. Whether or not it’s the best way to handle it is irrelevant at this point.

I refuse to believe there isn’t a better option for controlling a computer than a keyboard and mouse (it’s at least a fact that the QWERTY keyboard layout is not the most efficient). But they’ve been in use for over two decades. They’re pretty much the way it is. Everyone is used to them. Such is the way of the menu bar.

You may wonder what the heck happened to it in Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and elsewhere. I know I wind up getting mixed up.

And this is the problem with Vista’s interface: it’s not intuitive. In fact, it’s LESS intuitive than its predecessors. Windows tend to be busy, full of color and information that, while nice to look at, can easily confuse the neophyte. People that have spent years getting used to Windows now need to change their habits again.

Why?

Because Microsoft thinks making you learn a new system is better, underlining the difference between what a programmer finds intuitive and what an average joe finds intuitive.

USER ACCOUNT CONTROL (UAC)

User Account Control (UAC) is a feature that has been relentlessly derided since some of the earliest builds of Vista, and it’s easy to understand why. Simply put: it’s annoying as hell.

Windows Vista needs your permissioin…again

Let me explain. When you try to install a program, UAC will dim your entire screen and lock up the machine until you respond to the window in the middle of the screen that asks for your permission to run the file. Until you do this, you can’t do anything else.

Okay, well…you double-clicked it. I know when I double-click something that usually means I want it to run, but your mileage may vary.

The intended purpose of UAC is security, and the idea behind it is that if spyware or malware tries to install itself in your system, it’ll pop up so you can deny that software access to your machine. And that’s not necessarily a bad idea.

The problem is that it asks you ALL. THE. TIME. With legitimate programs! I’m no designer so I can’t tell you how to solve this problem, but it seems like Apple did.

I’ll tell you where it gets really stupid, too. You remember Windows Sidebar? Well, let’s say you find a gadget on their site you want to install. Here’s what will happen:

  1. Internet Explorer will ask you if you want to download file.
  2. Internet Explorer will ask you where you want to download the file to.
  3. When you try to run the file, Windows will first ask you if you’re sure you want to.
  4. UAC will then tell you the file is trying to run, and will ask you if you want to allow it.

…that’s four freaking steps to install a plug-in for a program that not only comes with Vista, but in fact starts up with Vista by default!

Probably the most damning aspect of all this is the realization of how little it actually achieves. Sure, it will help reduce the number of spyware and malware infections out there by a little. But it will wind up pissing off a lot more users, and it shows up so frequently that people will just start clicking "Allow" without even thinking about it, much as people did to ActiveX prompts when spyware and malware were just starting to become a problem.

One step forward, two steps back.

What makes it more frustrating is that this feature was routinely derided and complained about throughout beta testing, and has successfully made it to retail release almost entirely unchanged despite frequent and almost universal protests. Why bother accepting feedback on it at all?

DRIVER PROBLEMS

Most people who’ve used Vista or at least "caught a whiff of it" by now know that it’s having some driver issues (putting it mildly).

Two of the major offenders right now seem to be nVidia and Creative. Now while I’ll take any chance I get to throw rocks at Creative’s drivers, I’m going to be an nVidia apologist. The fact of the matter is that Vista got rushed out. More than that, the designers, despite using XP’s architecture for Vista, changed the way the system handles drivers, citing "driver failure" as the leading cause of XP blue-screens.

This is not untrue. 90% of my OS crashes and blue-screens have been from driver failure. (The other 10% was just bad RAM.)

HOWEVER. Graphics driver related crashes that bring the system down almost NEVER occur during normal use of the operating system. XP is surprisingly stable, no matter how much the slashdot crowd wants to throw stones. Graphics driver related crashes and hiccups occur when? During gaming. And if you’re gaming with super important stuff loaded in the background, well…why haven’t you closed it? You’re wasting performance. ;)

The point I’m getting at is that this is a cure that’s worse than the disease. I wonder why performance is bad and drivers are having a hard time maturing? Maybe because it’s XP but it’s not, and everyone has to scramble to write Vista compliant drivers.

This, of course, isn’t the worst of it. But the worst of it you can level at the vendors and not Microsoft.

I had to go through the forums here, plus ASUS’s website, and use a little old-fashioned know-how, just to get drivers that worked on my Asus A8Jm. Worse than that, the power management software that I enjoyed using in XP was crappy in Vista.

At least nVidia tells you where you can download your wonky drivers. ASUS makes you hunt for it while you stare at that "Windows Vista Capable" sticker on your laptop, wondering "what did I do to deserve this?" and "wouldn’t it just make sense to put a Vista link on the front page?"

Oh, and so we’re clear, the driver salad I wound up having to install was a nightmare. I know what I’m doing and this was too much, I can’t imagine Joe Sixpack having to go through this hoopla.

And for all that effort, what happened? 100% CPU use coming out of hibernate/standby, an internet connection that drops me randomly assuming it works at all, a full 45 minutes less battery life, and for all this it nearly cost me a midterm.

Why was Vista released again?

DEFECTIVE BY DESIGN: DIGITAL RIGHTS MANAGEMENT

This is the one that the Slashdot crowd keeps barking about, and with good reason: no matter how much spin Microsoft or any one of the other bigwigs puts on it, DRM is bad for consumers. They claim that DRM allows them more avenues to release things to you, the consumer, thus giving you more ways to enjoy these…things.

But the reality is that any one of these things, be they music, video, even computer games, could’ve been released without digital rights management. I used Apple’s iTunes store once to buy one album, and when I found that music basically marooned on my iPod because iTunes refused to work properly, I decided it wasn’t for me. I paid for it, why can’t I do what I want with it?

This is what Vista’s DRM promises to do for you. And by for you, I mean to you. Integrated into the system is technology called HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection), designed to "close the analog hole" as the bigwigs like to say. Basically, what HDCP means to you is that if you have an HDCP-enabled monitor, and an HDCP-enabled video card, you can enjoy HDCP-protected media.

Pardon me for being vulgar, but HDCP can kiss my analog ass. I have an HDCP card and an HDCP monitor because I’m an insane enthusiast, but many people don’t have these luxuries. To enjoy these, desktop users’ll be spending a minimum of $200 on a shiny new flat panel that is HDCP enabled and a minimum of $60 on a shiny new video card that is HDCP enabled, and this is all assuming that these pathetically cheap discounts are upgrades on your existing hardware. And notebook users? Well, it’s not like you can change either your monitor or video card.

I don’t see HDCP going very far, but its existence is pretty offensive to begin with, and allegedly is going to be tied to HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Another delightful new technology is the TPM, or Trusted Platform Module. This is hardware that’s been quietly shipping for a little while now, and you may or may not know if you have it. It’s a little chip in your computer that does the following:

  1. Makes your computer distinctly identifiable to you and only you, as no two TPM chips are identical.
  2. Makes it so that DRM-encrypted data produced on/downloaded to your computer can ONLY be used on your computer.

More information is available in its Wikipedia article (found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trusted_Platform_Module).

The first is a massive privacy violation; the second doing nothing more than facilitating even more restrictive DRM.

Windows Vista will inevitably make use of either, but its biggest use at this point is for what Microsoft calls "BitLocker Drive Encryption." For notebook users this is conceivably a good thing, as it allows a user to encrypt more or less their entire hard drive. The problem as I see it, however, is that this encryption is tied strictly to Vista.

I remember going to a seminar delivered by Microsoft when Vista was still in beta in early 2006 and asking the presenter what exactly could prevent Microsoft from basically "switching off" your access to the encrypted volume. He couldn’t give me an answer. So if you’re pirating a copy of Enterprise, this is food for thought for you. I don’t condone piracy, but I don’t like the idea of Microsoft reaching out and touching anyone.

Mercifully, BitLocker’s only available in Enterprise and Ultimate versions of Vista.

Of course, the nastiest bit of DRM in Microsoft’s stable is for "protecting" their own baby, Vista itself. Most of you are probably pretty familiar with Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), which is a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one. The WGA included in Vista is capable of shutting down important parts of the operating system; Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer has gone on record recently as saying "We have new technologies built into Windows Vista, something we call Windows Genuine Advantage [that] we’ve really dialed up in capabilities with the Vista release…We [will] really ferret through how far we can dial it up, and what that means for customer experience and customer satisfaction." (http://www.arnnet.com.au/index.php/id;7680622;fp;16;fpid;1)

Most peoples’ experiences with WGA in XP have been pretty dismal: some legitimate users have been locked out of their legal versions of XP by it, while some pirates have been free to continue using their illegal copies. So to say that Vista’s WGA is even more potent doesn’t exactly make me want to race to install it.

Ultimately, Microsoft insists that its stance on DRM, particularly HDCP, was the result of pressure from the movie studios, which I find somewhere between hard-and-ludicrous to believe. Windows is a monopoly; everyone knows it. Just like how the RIAA told Steve Jobs to change the prices on iTunes and he was able to tell them what to go do with themselves, Microsoft could VERY easily have told the MPAA off. But they didn’t.

CONSUMER UNFRIENDLY: UPGRADES / VERSIONS

To me, some of the nastiest DRM is when for all intents and purposes you should be able to do something, and you can’t. There’s no reason you can’t other than a flag in the software that says "no." So I can’t help but get a little bit irked by the fact that every version of Vista is on each DVD of it sold, regardless of how it’s labeled, but you can only use certain features if you have the right key. It makes the differences between the myriad versions that much more absurd.

Oh my, and how many versions there are. First of all, keep in mind there are 32-bit and 64-bit versions of each of these excepting Starter:

  • Starter
  • Home Basic
  • Home Premium
  • Business
  • Enterprise
  • Ultimate

I’ll condense the nonsense for you. Starter doesn’t exist for most people. Home Basic is the "Core Solo" of the Vista line-up, offering none of the bonuses that most people would want Vista for, namely Aero. Home Premium offers you Media Center functionality (which I admittedly do like), but the Mobility Center (Microsoft’s feature geared towards notebook users) is (inexplicably) minorly crippled; I believe the "Sync Center" allowing synchronization with a desktop is missing. Business is more secure and has more fully-featured networking abilities. Ultimate just plain has everything. Enterprise is strictly for business customers.

One of the most damning things about this market segregation is the fact that Microsoft’s site doesn’t make any of this crap easy to learn. Beyond that, Home Premium is more expensive than XP Home Edition is; I had to pay extra when I ordered my laptop to get Premium instead of the useless pile Basic is, and I’m going to wind up paying extra again to get a copy of XP to install on it so I don’t have to use Vista.

It gets worse, though. Here are some other restrictions you should know about:

  1. Only Ultimate ships with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions included. All other retail versions ship only with the 32-bit software; you’ll have to order the 64-bit discs from Microsoft. Your license WORKS with it, but you need to order the disc if you don’t have one handy.
  2. OEM versions come in 32-bit and 64-bit only. So if your shiny new notebook came with Vista and you eventually want to make the jump to the 64-bit version, good news! You’re going to have to buy Windows Vista. I mean, you already own it, but you’ll have to buy it to get the 64-bit version. Sure, you can order an OEM 64-bit version, but you still have to pay for Windows Vista AGAIN.

But wait! There’s more!

Let’s say you’re upgrading to Windows Vista from XP or 2000. Now, somewhat more knowledgable users know that upgrading an existing operating system installation to a new one is generally a bad idea. XP had a scheme wherein if you had the upgrade version, you could do a clean install if you verified you had a CD of the older operating system. Not anymore with Vista!

If you buy the upgrade versions of Vista Home Basic or Premium, you’ll need an activated installation of XP already on your system. So if you reformat your system once in a while (I do it almost pathologically), you’ll now need to install TWO operating systems to get an install of Vista going.

As of the writing of this article, the only way to get a clean install of an Upgrade version is to install from the CD without using a CD key, and instead of activating it, promptly do an in-place upgrade of Vista with the key. This is a hole that I suspect will be closed at some point.

People like me who would’ve considered buying the upgrade version of Home Premium are now basically looking at spending up for the retail version if they want the freedom to do a clean install. Hooray!

64-BIT HOSED AGAIN

How Microsoft can continue screwing the pooch on 64-bit operating systems, I’ll never know. The hardware is by and large out there. The majority of shipping notebooks now have 64-bit capable processors. The VAST majority of shipping desktops have 64-bit capable processors.

So when I look at Apple, who can change their underlying hardware from 64-bit to 32-bit to 64-bit and the end user NEVER NOTICES, I have to wonder why Microsoft has to ship different versions at all.

64-bit Vista has inherited all the problems of XP 64-bit as well: no 16-bit application compatibility, touchy 32-bit compatibility, hit-and-miss hardware compatibility. It requires 64-bit drivers even though I seem to remember at some point Microsoft saying that Vista would use a unified driver for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista. Oh well. Who needed WinFS anyhow?

64-bit processing is supposed to IMPROVE performance, but performance in 64-bit Vista is generally down over the 32-bit version (whose performance is also down from XP!)

What really concerns me is that 32-bit Vista is the one being rolled out right now, even on 64-bit hardware, which is again going to seriously cripple widespread adoption of 64-bit computing. And remember what I said about OEM versions of Vista not being licensed for 64-bit? ;)

This wouldn’t be a huge deal if it wasn’t for the fact that high end users like yours truly are about to hit the 4GB limit of system RAM. 32-bit Vista (and XP) can only address a total of 4GB of RAM; even then, the operating system will never show that much RAM installed. Usually it displays an amount between 2.75 GB and 3.25 GB being available. Long story short: the RAM limit in 32-bit computing is about to get hit, with even mid-end notebooks now shipping with 2GB of RAM installed.

Vista was supposed to be the great savior for 64-bit computing, but it’s a bust.

CONCLUSION

Windows Vista is Windows ME Part 2. It took five years to develop because three of those were spent building a brand new code base that didn’t work at all and wound up getting scrapped, and the remaining two were spent just tweaking the XP code base. Almost all the features we were promised early on were discarded and what we end up with is a warmed over Windows XP that doesn’t even do us the dignity of working properly out of the box. I think it’s particularly telling that they’ve already announced the next major Windows release for late 2009.

It shouldn’t have been rushed out. It shouldn’t have even been released in its present state. This launch is vastly worse than XP’s was, and reeks of arrogance on Microsoft’s part, leveraging a monopoly on a world of consumers. I couldn’t NOT get it on the laptop I ordered from HP. I’m not going to sit here and preach about Linux, which I still think is even LESS ready for primetime than Vista is. What I AM going to tell you is that against XP, the security features in Vista aren’t worth it if you compute smart (something I wrote an article on a while back), DirectX 10 will take a while to reach critical mass for gamers, and frankly…XP just works. And it works a heck of a lot better right now.

Microsoft doesn’t want to wait another five years for its next operating system release, but have you noticed anyone really complaining about the wait for Vista? I only complain because I think for five years of development you should have something to show other than an interface overhaul and widgets. We didn’t NEED Vista the way we needed XP when it was released.

Vista offers no compelling reason to upgrade. There are other, better places to spend your money, and the only reason I can think of for forcing OEMs to produce machines with Vista AND ONLY VISTA is to make some extra money on all those copies of XP that they’re going to sell when consumers figure out what a pile Vista is and make the jump back to XP.

AVOID.

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