Vista – Microsoft’s Prescott?

SUMMARY: Vista – a 50/50 proposition.

Many readers remember when Prescott came out – basically Intel hit the wall with Prescott, with cooling issues severe enough to render this CPU as a problem. Fast forward and now we see CPUs where raw speed is not the paramount issue and cooling is not as severe a challenge as with Preshott – a decided marketing shift from the horsepower race.

I think it’s fair to ask if Microsoft has in fact hit the wall with Vista – an operating system that has garnered decidedly mixed reviews with users. There are a number of factors cited:

  • The need for LOTS of RAM
  • UAC (User Account Control)
  • Lack of driver support (improving over time)
  • Problems with legacy devices
  • Cost of hardware upgrades to make Vista run well
  • Minimal performance difference between Vista and XP

I read through all the emails and tallied the following results:

Vista Worth It?

47% Yes

44% No

9% Maybe

Not what I would call an overwhelming endorsement! And maybe not unexpected – I remember resistance to XP when it first came out. Overall consumers get used to their OS and changing it it not all that pleasant, and more so when the perceived benefits are not apparent.

Andrew, a computer tech at a software company, wrote:

“The biggest problem I find is that common users HATE Vista. 80% of the people I talk to wish they had never gotten it or had a choice between XP and Vista. They cannot get the things they want done and knew how to do with XP.”

Areas that received a number of mentions as negatives were the lack of driver support for legacy devices, the need for LOTS of memory to make it truly functional and UAC (User Account Control) as the single most annoying aspect of using Vista. As James wrote:

“Vista has the impression of being a much cleaner OS, once the horrible User Account Control (UAC) is turned off. UAC requires a confirmation literally every time you click something. Even with it turned off, there are a lot of confirmation windows in Vista.”

And as Ed wrote:

“Another thing I find annoying is the pop-up warnings you get whenever a program tries to run. MS needs to update the OS so you can give a program permission to run without the warning, similar to popular Zone Alarm firewall.”

Many user’s reacted to UAC with this fix – turn it off, which defeats its purpose. While I’m all for security of this kind, in my book it also speaks to the vulnerability of Windows OS’s.

Ed Bott’s article “What triggers User Account Control prompts?” lists actions that lead to this prompt:

“The types of actions that require elevation to administrator status (and therefore display a UAC elevation prompt) include those that make changes to system-wide settings or to files in %SystemRoot% or %ProgramFiles%. Among the actions that require elevation:

  • Installing and uninstalling applications
  • Installing device drivers
  • Installing ActiveX controls
  • Installing Windows Updates
  • Changing settings for Windows Firewall
  • Changing UAC settings
  • Configuring Windows Update
  • Adding or removing user accounts
  • Changing a user’s account type
  • Configuring Parental Controls
  • Running Task Scheduler
  • Restoring backed-up system files
  • Viewing or changing another user’s folders and files”

There are a number of interesting reader comments with this article that are worth reading on this issue.

A number of other areas were cited are problem areas – Henning’s list is representative:

  1. “There is still serious performance issues re. file handling, anyone can try this for themselves
  2. Very poor Internet browsing performance
  3. Driver issues – yes, it has improved quite a bit during the past 7 months, but not enough
  4. Huge network configuration challenges, AND some serious compatibility issues
  5. Unworkable user experience (UAC) – causing serious loss of productivity
  6. Very high computer hardware requirements, while STILL losing performance”

Chris added this note:

“Oh yeah, do not under ANY circumstances attempt to use a Logitech webcam with Vista. Their drivers will destroy Vista if you are user switching often like my wife and I do.”

Charles’ experience:

“Vista didn’t truly shine until I got my new work laptop. Vista runs much better with a true dual-core system and a lot of memory. This system has also been pretty stable except for a few bugs here and there (conflicts with Microsoft Groove and Dreamweaver CS2).

But all in all, Vista has performed better on my work laptop than Windows XP ever did.”

Eric summed up the hardware issue:

“I must say that you need a pretty powerful computer to have the best experience possible because an ultra low-end PC will make Vista buggy and slow as hell.”

The PLUS SIDE continued on page 2…

Now having listed all of these concerns, don’t forget that about half the respondents were happy with Vista – some even ecstatic! On the positive side, users who installed Vista did find it easy and faster than XP.

Allan noted this positive aspect:

“I also have really liked the performance enhancement “Superfetch” provides. I first noticed it playing STALKER, because I started playing on XP, later I switched to Vista. After playing most every day for about a week, my load times dropped dramatically. Instead of waiting 3-4 minutes for the game to load, it went down to about 30 seconds.

Superfetch really spreads its wings with 4 GB too! Most reviews I’ve read say that 2 GB is the sweat spot, but I’ve found 4 GB is much better if you use lots of different applications all the time, because it can load so much more in advance. I’d really like to upgrade to 8 GB, but I’ve seen loads of posts describing disappointment over an 8 GB upgrade.”

Brandon’s take:

“The biggest improvement of Vista over XP though in my opinion is stability. So I’m a little confused when I see people talking about not wanting to upgrade because they’re worried about stability, or not wanting to upgraded until SP1 comes out to fix everything. Let me just say, using the Hibernation mode at night, I have had Vista running for weeks at a time without rebooting. In my experience, I have never been able to say that about XP. The only time I’ve had to reboot is for the automatic updates to install, or when some application requires it.

I have not once had Vista itself crash, or experience a “Blue Screen of Death” or Black screen or whatever; except when I was trying to do some major overclocking and the memory dumped or something. Of course I’ve had program crashes, but not nearly as often as I would in XP. Primarily just game crashes. And from what I can tell, it seems those were only due to slight overclocking as well.

I honestly think the only stability problems I’ve had are due to the processor. The awesome thing, is that when a program does freeze up, Windows itself keeps steaming ahead. You can easily get back to the desktop, or close the program without Windows itself locking up. I have not once had to do a hard shut-down of the computer.

As you can tell, I absolutely love Vista. Like I said, it takes some time to discover all the ins and outs of it. But there are just tons of little things about it that are too numerous to mention that really make it a much smoother and enjoyable experience than I’ve ever had on a computer.”

And as Ed wrote:

“While I considered XP Pro to be a solid, reliable OS, Vista Ultimate 64-bit has it beat hands down. The Vista OS has not crashed once…not once in the two weeks I had it. I am sure my hardware has a lot to do with it, but Vista is fast. REALLY fast. I am very much looking forward to tweaking this beast, but purely for the educational experience, not because I have to.

One of the advantages of Vista 64-bit is that I understand all drivers must be digitally signed by Microsoft before they will work. Hehe. No more lousy, half-baked software folks! Drivers will work on this OS. Of course the down side is if you do not have signed 64-bit drivers, you will not run in 64-bit mode. But I expect it is coming. I cannot believe I am the only person out here that appreciates this fine OS (did I just say that? Yikes! I sound like an MS homer).”

As to the “look and feel”, James wrote:

“The Aero GUI is impressive and futuristic. With Aero windows are semi-transparent, the taskbar shows previews for windows, and you can get a 3D view of windows when switching tasks.”

And as Lee noted:

“I’m not sure that Vista is a better operating system than the setup I had with Windows 2000 Pro, but it is stunning visually. Of course, those stunning visual effects come at the price of increased memory requirements.”

Whether this is just eye-candy or a significant GUI improvement is something each will determine.

Paul’s summary is notable for its balanced Vista view:

“I recently built a Q6600 quad-core machine with 2 x 1 GB of DDR2-1066 memory and a passively-cooled (DX10) 8600GT. Because I had received a free copy of Vista Ultimate as part of the Windows Feedback Panel, I installed it and gave it a go. My primary uses for this machine include writing, compiling, and running C++ code for cancer simulations, writing research papers and grant proposals, and occasional gaming. Here are my general impressions:

1) Aero and Look/Feel: The look and feel is very pleasant. Aero isn’t by any means necessary, but then again, I suppose nothing above fvwm2 is really necessary in terms of gui. Overall, though, it’s quite pleasant, and the color scheme is generally classier than WinXP.

1a) Windows sidebar: The sidebar has great potential, but there aren’t a lot of great add-ons yet. However, the built-in RSS feed is kind of nice (but not very configurable), and there is a great add-on you can find that lets you view the utilization of all 4 cores (besides using taskmgr).

1b) Missing the WinXP powertoys: I miss the WinXP powertoys, particularly the right-click->open command prompt here toy. However, it turns out that it’s hidden in Vista: hold down , then right-click a folder, and the option is there. The slideshow powertoy is pretty much built-in to the image previewer. It’s too bad that these things are hidden away.

1c) Start menu: The start menu takes some getting used to, but its organization is greatly improved. In particular, no more situations where there are 3 columns of programs. (It scrolls instead.) It’s also nice that you can right-click the recent items folder to empty it.

1d) Grouping in the task bar: Not as good as WinXP. In WinXP, if you opn up many instances of mspaint, for instance, it groups them in a single tab / button on the task bar. Some programs don’t seem to fit that mold in Vista.

2) Memory: I first tried 32-bit Vista in a virtual machine in WinXP. With 512 MB of (virtual) memory, it was sluggish. With 1 GB, it worked pretty well so long as Aero was turned off (again, in the virutal machine, which emulates a very low-end graphics card). On my actual build, 2 GB is generally more than adequate. I only experience problems if I’m running WinXP, 32-bit Vista Ultimate, and Ubuntu Linux in 3 simultaneous virtual machines. On a nice, modern machine, it’s very responsive, although I find myself wondering how much more impressive my machine would be if running 64-bit WinXP Pro or just Ubuntu.

3) UAC: The user account control is irritating, but not as much so as it’s made out to be. Generally, I think it’s a good thing for the general user base that they are prompted when software or drivers are being installed. However, I find one feature to be glaringly missing: whitelisting. For example, my Gigabyte motherboard has an overclocking / fan control utility that starts with Windows. However, UAC doesn’t have a classification for it, so it prompts at every boot; there’s no way to manually whitelist it for all future boots.

4) Software compatibility (part 1): Compatibility so far has been pretty good for me. MS Office 2003, my compiler (mingw), my LaTeX distro (MikTeX), my favorite text editor (notepad++), and Matlab all work just fine. I have had some video codec issues, however. For instance, the old Indeo 3.2 codecs are no longer included in Windows by default, which can lead to issues when reading old AVI files (particularly some of those compressed with Matlab). Also, the 64-bit version of VirtualDub doesn’t seem to find all the codecs on my system, particularly xvid. There seem to be differences between 32-bit and 64-bit codecs, and not all software can use both?

5) Software compatibility (part 2): Some poorly-written software that depends too heavily upon ActiveX and other MS components no longer work. For instance, the University of Texas Health Science Center’s VPN software relies upon a horrible ActiveX plugin for Internet Explorer, and it isn’t compatible with Vista. Fortunately, MS VirtualPC 2007 (a free download) works quite well, and I can access the VPN through WinXP Pro SP2 on a virtual machine. Copying and Pasting is pretty much seamless, so no big deal. In a sense, it’s a good idea, anyway: then, only research traffic goes through the VPN, and my personal traffic goes through my regular connection.

6) Hardware compatibility: I did see some motherboard (GA P35-DS3R)-related quirks, particularly with my Samsung IDE DVD writer. Until I tweaked my CMOS settings, Gigabyte’s RAID software made Windows think my drive was a SCSI, read-only DVD drive, rather than a writer. Another hardware oddity is that the Print Server utility that ships with the Linksys WPS54G print server doesn’t run correctly; to access the network printer, you instead need to manually add a TCP/IP port. I’m not looking forward to manually changing the port if my router’s DHCP server changes the print server’s IP address.

Overall, Vista is a pretty good piece of software with a nice look/feel, and has good functionality.

Is it worth an upgrade? I’m not really sure.

On my old WinXP box, hibernate never worked for me when I had >1 GB of memory. At least Vista handles that well. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like a large enough improvement over XP to justify spending very much on it. I’d recommend going about it the way most people probably are:

Keep using WinXP until you buy a new computer, which will probably have Vista. If you get a choice between Vista and 64-bit XP, I’m not so sure. I suppose going with XP is a safer bet in this case, although freely-available virtual machine software helps to mitigate any software compatibility-associated risks.”

Allen’s eloquent take reflects a bit on what seems to be the Jekyl and Hyde nature of Vista experiences:

I bought a new machine, a machine which would most astutely be compared
to wild horses crossed with rabid pit-bulls and fancy blue lights. And
seeing as this machine simply destroyed the recommended specs for Vista,
I thought “What the hell”.

I have so say, I like Vista, it’s shiny and
smooth like a really high end skipping stone, it flows, it’s as close to
OS as I have ever seen from Microsoft and it genuinely impressed me
right from the get go.

That said, machine A is a race car on the
freeway, a lesser machine I own “machine B”, which is more of a pick up
truck than a race car, is just being killed by Vista, absolutely killed.
Basic tasks can seem like an exercise in futility, waiting what feels
like days for simple tasks to take place! Seeing a machine crippled in
ways that I once thought was only possible with Norton Anti Virus was
upsetting. So that machine is back to XP, yet there is another catch,
Machine A is my backup machine for processing my photography, when the
Mac is busy with a heavy print job or my wife (apparently this hierarchy
was established in my absence or while I slept, unaware), I quite like
doing the work in Vista, again: it flows, it’s comfortable.

Then you try to print…

What was a wondrous experience quickly becomes a foray into the very
bowels of hell, the hell of ergonomic and systemic failure, the sort of
wretched hell reserved for the guy who invented the flying mouse and his
shameful cohorts.

Borderless printing on a new damned HP is simply non-functional and the alchemical processes and incantations required to
make such a monstrous thing as a borderless print happen are akin to the
summoning of demons. With the minions of hell that would boil from your
printer replaced by foul, ill-fit, off center and oddly angled prints
with poor colour gamut and saturation.

There are seals at Marineland
that have jumped through fewer hoops in their lives than Vista’s print
architecture can make a grown man jump through in a two hour span. This
one flaw forced me to partition machine A and install XP on part of the
hard disk. I loath XP – it’s ugly and clunky; functionally I imagine it
as being similar to operating a Wheat Thresher, it will do the job and
do it well, what with it’s thousands of gears and levers, but eventually
it will cost you limbs and precious child labourers should it ever need
cleaning; and cleaning it shall need!

If you intend to purchase Vista, be very sure that your system is of the
top tier of computing, a nerd cannot be forced to settle for this
“waiting” for things to happen, and if you are into the graphic arts…

Buy a Mac”

Ethan’s summary is somewhat typical of the positive comments:

“Yes, it was worth it. It works better/faster than XP and it is more stable.”


Chris summarized things neatly:

“Basically to me it shakes out like this:

  • If you are in the situation of purchasing an OS or new computer, there is no reason to buy XP

  • If you are already on XP and don’t need a new computer, there is no reason to buy Vista”

Based on readers’ Vista experiences, that sounds like good advice. As always, caveat emptor.

And the prize winner is… Brandon, chosen at random among those submitted. Brandon will receive Kingwin’s Z1-35EU-BK SATA HD Enclosure. Thanks to all who took the time to respond!

Email Joe

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