My advice to all such whingers: spend 10 days using the latest version of Windows and you'll realise that you are living in a world of relative bliss.
I asked my editor, Stan Beer, if he had a Vista pack for a cursory look, out of sheer curiosity. You hear so much about Vista on the net but there's a good deal of truth yet in the old saying, "seeing is believing."
At times I could not believe what I saw during the 14-odd days that I played around with both versions of Vista Ultimate – the 32-bit and 64-bit versions.
Microsoft has admittedly set the bar pretty low for this new avatar; the marketing blurb on the pack says "the most secure Windows ever." I couldn't help a snigger when I glimpsed this – the same slogan was used to try and sell Windows XP.
There are certain names which come to mind when one associates the word "security" with XP, names like Sasser, Blaster, Sobig and so on. Not to mention the fact that there was a second service pack issued for XP in August 2004 — well over three years after it was launched — which had 810 fixes and updates.
I was thus prepared for low-key peformance with lots of eye candy. I was disappointed. At the end of the testing, when I gratefully used a CD of the latest Ubuntu release (and I don't have a very high opinion of that as regular readers of this column would know) to wipe Vista off my drive, I realised that even those expectations had been too much.
But enough of generalisations, let's get down to some specifics. I had to build a new box to install Vista (for which iTWire picked up the tab). I kept it minimal, but these days even the word minimal has been redefined – an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600 and 2 Gig of DDR2-667 RAM isn't exactly low-spec in any dictionary. I used an all-in-one motherboard with an nVidia geForce 6100 onboard. A 250-gig Western Digital SATA drive and an LG DVD rewriter were the other components.
A note to the reader: I wasn't looking for special effects, bling or eye candy; I was looking for genuine improvements.
Before I installed Vista, I checked the hardware by installing a Linux distribution – that's something which I do with every box I build. This time I used PCLinuxOS and incidentally noticed that it has much to recommend.
Back to the world of Windows. One improvement is actually present in Vista – disk formatting takes much less time than it did in XP. The installation takes a little longer than any modern Linux distribution – 64-bit was expectedly a bit faster than the 32-bit version.
Any sensible person who reads the end user licence agreement accompanying Vista would, I'm sure, prefer to opt for a cell in Guantanamo; you basically have to spread your legs wide and bend over if you want to use the operating system. Of course, the average user never sees the licence, let alone read it. Ignorance, they say, is bliss.
I found it funny that the administrator account disappeared when one creates an account for using Vista; this user is said to have administrative privileges but anything and everything — installing software, even making minor changes — can only be done after going through a nag screen. Ah, those nag screens, what would Windows be without them? I guess people would be left with a sense of emptiness in their lives if all these nag screens disappeared overnight.
But then on reflection, I realised that this hiding of the administrator account is merely an extension of the thinking which has always prevailed in some sections of the tech industry – security can only be achieved through obscurity. You can get back the admin account if you wish but who among the great unwashed would know how to do it?
It's easy to administer a system with an all-or-none approach and Microsoft has taken the latter option; the days of permissiveness yielded nothing but complaints so the company is now in Taliban mode. When will someone come up with a happy middle road? But that would require intelligence and a bit of thought and maybe that's too much to ask for.
Once you look around the Vista landscape, you realise that for all the sound and bluster, there's precious little available for you, the average PC user, to work with. There's no decent word processor, mail client (unless you are prepared to apply that adjective to Microsoft Mail, the descendant of the illustrious Outlook Express), or browser.
Internet Explorer 7 is every bit as sad as its predecessors; I downloaded Opera, Firefox and Safari, the last-named fortuitously being released a few days before my examination of Vista ended. Opera is about the fastest but Firefox is more configurable and, for control freaks like me, it is the best choice. Safari has too much advertising material thrown in to warrant a second look from me.
IE7 has tabs — about three years and more after Firefox made them popular — but the furniture has been moved around in a meaningless way. In both IE7 and the entire layout of Vista I was reminded of one thing – the way my wife often re-arranges our old furniture to provide the illusion that something has changed.
One can understand change if it is logical but in the case of Vista, there is often change for the sake of change. There is no point in renaming a utility or changing the layout of a certain window if there is no productivity gain. It is just plain silly. Colour it purple or pink if you want instead.
Stability-wise, Vista is much worse than XP with all its bandages. Security fixes continue to be applied to Vista — I had a total of 15 applied during my brief period of usage — but the stability leaves much to be desired. Each and every time a security fix was applied, I had to reboot the machine.
There are times when the whole system seems to seize up for no apparent reason; at others, it seems to take forever for a simple function to be performed. Is 2 gig of memory then too little? Sounds crazy when you consider that Vista is produced by a company whose joint founder Bill Gates once decreed that nobody would ever need more than 640k of RAM!
There is constant disk activity and it would appear that this is happening for the purpose of indexing in order to make desktop search faster; at the rate the disk is written to, I would suspect that its lifetime will be seriously reduced. I did a few tweaks to reduce the activity as I need this machine to test other software down the road.
I had a look at the Windows Media Centre and tried to make a CD but gave up after a while; the interface is clunky, non-intuitive and anything but user-friendly. I needed to make the CD in a hurry so I used my son's MacBook — something I am rarely allowed to touch, as he is highly possessive about it — and figured out how to make the disc in a matter of minutes. It was the first time I had used the MacBook for that purpose.
In all, I had to download about 200 meg of software just to make Vista usable – and a word processor wasn't among the lot. No, you need to get in AdAware, Spybot, WinZip (or WinRar), Adobe Reader, a Torrent client, an SCP client (I could only find a trial version), QuickTime player, VLC media player and a few browsers. Vista had no drivers for my monitor (a 22-inch flat screen) or my printer (a Samsung SCX-4200).
The funny thing is, Vista would not recognise the printer even though the manufacturer has supplied drivers specifically for the O-S; it is a unique printer in that it comes with drivers for Windows, Linux and the Mac! But Vista doesn't want to have anything to do with it.
The same printer works fine with my daughter's XP laptop and my son's MacBook. Life is full of such imponderables.
When it comes to media files, Windows Media Player wants to hog the show. Now I wouldn't have minded if the app can handle all media types. Such, sadly, is not the case. I downloaded an MP4 of a rugby game (it was shown on ABC 2, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster) but all I could get out of Media Player was sound. (I copied the file over to my Debian AMD64 box and watched it – excellent stuff, both in terms of video quality and the game itself). Interesting to note that neither VLC media player nor QuickTime could play the video stream on Vista.
A similar thing happened with an .avi file; Media Player indicated that the proper codec had been downloaded but once again there was only sound, no vision. Once that file was on my Debian box it played without any problem.
With the 64-bit version of Vista, my monitor resolution was changed nearly every time I restarted the machine. Each and every time, I had to reinstall the manufacturer's drivers to get the best resolution which happens to be 1680 x 1050. But when I shut down and restarted, the screen would generally revert back to a much lower resolution. Take it from me, it is annoying.
It is really difficult to find genuine 64-bit drivers and applications; Vista has the necessary libraries for 32-bit apps and I noticed that most of what I installed were the x86 versions. So much for 64-bit computing. BTW, I've been running the 64-bit port of Debian for the AMD since March 2006.
Towards the end of my evaluation, the nag screens about activation started appearing. Of course, with the installed software being a genuine copy (that sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?) I could have gone through with it, but I had had enough.
A couple of days before I planned to end the experiment, I ran a packet sniffer for about two hours, leaving the PC idle. I was left wondering why packets need to be sent to wwwbaytest2.microsoft.com and data.tvdownload.microsoft.com. Can someone from Microsoft give me an answer?
I had two more experiments to carry out – I asked my wife to watch a DVD which I had got for her, a murder mystery sold by the Agatha Christie estate. If anything is legit, then this DVD is. But midway through the film, Windows Media player stopped with a message that some copyright or the other had been violated!!! To pacify my wife, the next day I had to buy a new DVD player and install the old one in our bedroom so that she could watch the movie to completion there; like all old houses in Melbourne, our lounge is rather cold during winter.
The final challenge I gave to my son – I asked him to try and crash the system. He was able to achieve it in about seven minutes. His description: "...was browing, pressed 'show desktop', waited, pressed again... waited... hit ctrl, alt, delete, task manager showed up, hit cancel and the whole thing stuffed up." He had a couple of choice things to say as well, but after two months of life with a MacBook what he said wouldn't stand scrutiny in parliament.
I note with amusement that Microsoft has now set up a "fact-rich" program to try and persuade people to move to Vista. As the old song goes, "when will they ever learn?"