Vista upgrade thoughts

— 9:56 AM on February 28, 2007

I finally made the jump to Windows Vista earlier this month. To be honest, I couldn't wait to get away from Windows XP. As accustomed to it as I was, Windows XP is an operating system that's now over five years old, and it shows in more ways than one. Features like instant search, hardware compositing, and not giving users admin privileges by default have been in competing OSes for years, and I thought it was high time to leave the past behind.

The installation
I gleefully inserted my shiny Windows Vista Home Premium disc into my computer's DVD drive and rebooted. I installed the 32-bit version, because as it turns out, Microsoft requires users to register online and pay around $10 (or €10, in my case) to receive a 64-bit Vista DVD. I did order the x64 DVD, because I figure I'll probably want to make the jump eventually. For the time being, however, I expect the 32-bit version's broader software and driver compatibility to suit me better. I did a "clean" install and opted to have the installer lump my old Program Files, Documents and Settings, and Windows directories into a Windows.old directory on my main hard drive. That made copying over settings and even some programs over quite easy, and it removed the need to either format or go through a potentially headache-inducing "upgrade" installation.

After rebooting, I was greeted with the new Aero graphical interface in all its shiny, translucent glory. The OS automatically recognized my display's maximum resolution, and everything except my sound card (I'll get to that in a minute) worked straight out of the box. But after playing around with Vista's new features for a short while, I ran into a major snag.

My computer has two 320GB hard drives. I store my Windows installation, programs, and settings on the first drive, and all my work, documents, music, and other voluminous files on the second drive. Having used Windows XP Professional before my upgrade to Vista, I had unwittingly formatted my second hard drive as a "dynamic" disk. Unfortunately, Vista Home Premium seems to support only basic disks, and I was offered no option but to format the drive. A few distressed Google searches later, I found this page, which details a non-destructive conversion process that involves manually changing a byte on the drive's first sector. I'm not sure whether this is going to cause my drive to explode in a few months, but it appeared to work just fine, and I was soon reconciled with my MP3 collection.

After that, all I had to do was finish re-installing some software and load drivers for my GeForce 7900 GTO graphics card and M-Audio Revolution 5.1 sound card. Nvidia's ForceWare 100.65 graphics drivers seem to work quite well, although the dearth of control panel settings is a definite downside (there's currently no way to set overlay color settings, for instance.) Getting my sound card to work was a different matter. M-Audio hasn't released Vista drivers for this card, and the three-year-old Windows XP drivers are only semi-functional (the control panel app just doesn't work, and sound randomly distorts.) I sent M-Audio an e-mail to inquire about their plans for Vista support last week, but having yet to receive a reply, I get the feeling I'll probably have to purchase a new sound card. For the time being, I'm using my motherboard's onboard high-definition audio, which actually works quite well. Sound quality isn't great, but it's not anywhere near as bad as I expected, either.

With the installation complete, I began to explore many of Vista's new features and changes. The interface is clearly a big step up from Windows XP's "Luna", but in some ways I feel like Microsoft's UI designers still don't have great taste. Aero has just a tad too much contrast for my liking, and its bright colors and overly "shiny" look give me the impression that there's just too much information on the screen. That's one of the reasons I don't like the KDE desktop environment in Linux, and I think MacOS X, Gnome, and even the "classic" Windows interface are easier on the eyes. That said, I've grown reasonably accustomed to Aero after a week and a half of use.

Another feature I'm not a big fan of is the Windows Sidebar. The concept sounds good in theory, but I find the bundled "gadgets" pretty much useless. The clock is too big, the notepad only shows three lines of text at a time, the calendar doesn't interface with Microsoft's bundled Windows Calendar application, and the weather gadget doesn't display weather forecast when docked. It seems like Microsoft attempted to emulate MacOS X's Dashboard but completely missed the point in the process. Dashboard provides instant access to full-featured applets like a calculator, dictionary, and real weather forecast without either displaying them at all times or squeezing them into a cramped column on the side of the screen. Need to translate a word from English to French? Just hit F12 to bring up Dashboard, do your thing, and then hit F12 again to get back to work. The Windows Sidebar does let you undock applets to display more functionality, but that's just not the same thing.

There's also the control panel. With Vista, Microsoft seems to have taken Windows XP's task-based control panel and the Windows 9X "classic" control panel and frantically duct-taped the two together. The result is a usable but nonetheless ugly mish-mash of new and old design, with disjointed pieces of the same old control panel window protruding from different and seemingly scattered task links. I'd switch to the classic view, but Vista's classic control panel contains around 50 icons, and that's really just as confusing as the category view. It's a good thing Microsoft added instant search as an alternative to manually navigating through the options, but I really wish the company would just spend some time to re-think its control panel and come up with a new, simple, and coherent system that finally does away with Windows 95-era (or even older) design elements.

On the upside, I'm really digging some of Vista's other new features, especially the system-wide search. Being able to open an application by bringing up the Start menu and typing the first few letters of the app's name is wonderful, as is being able to search inside hundreds of files pretty much instantly. I also like that Vista doesn't index everything by default—only the Start menu and user directories—instead opting to let users add other locations for indexing themselves via the relevant control panel. Some other enhancements are also quite handy, like the new Task Manager that tells me what services are running, and the new Resource Monitor that lets me know exactly which applications are accessing my hard drive and Internet connection.

Aside from the aforementioned enhancements and new bundled software, most of Vista's real improvements lie behind the scenes. I think that's actually one of the reasons so many users seem to be shunning the new OS. Microsoft hasn't done a terribly good job of playing up Vista's core enhancements, and as a result, I think most users see Vista as nothing but a prettied-up Windows XP.

The Vista promotional campaign emphasizes features that aren't really all that new or exciting—Windows Media Center, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Media Player 11—while skipping over core enhancements like the revamped security model, more stable driver model, faster networking stack, SuperFetch memory caching, new audio pipeline with per-application volume control, better mobility support, hybrid hard drive support, and so on. Even the page about security features on Microsoft's Vista site makes no mention of how Vista doesn't let software run with admin privileges by default—a key improvement that finally brings Windows somewhat in line with Linux and MacOS X. I'm sure most users will make the jump eventually, but considering how fundamentally broken and outdated Windows XP is in many ways, I wish Microsoft would do a better job of inviting people to upgrade.

Despite the few snags and annoyances, it's pretty clear that Vista is a major improvement over Windows XP, be it in terms of usability, features, security, or stability. No longer will I shake my head after using a MacBook because my high-end gaming machine still runs a five-year-old operating system without many of the same features. Nor, I suspect, will I advise as many of my non-computer-savvy acquaintances to buy overpriced Apple hardware just to avoid Windows XP's quagmire of security flaws and inadequacies. Windows has finally caught up with the competition in most respects, and it's a good thing.

Only one major issue remains, and that is driver support. I'm pretty baffled by the fact that, almost three months after Vista was released to manufacturing, a good number of major companies—including Nvidia and Creative—still don't have feature-complete drivers out for the new OS. I'm not sure whether the fault lies with Microsoft or the hardware makers, but it's shoddy work either way. I don't particularly mind having to wait a few more weeks for all my hardware to be fully supported—everything works well enough already—but I doubt I'm part of the majority when I say this.

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