So, I’m finally ready to write a review of Windows Vista. After buying a new computer a few months ago, and playing with Vista quite a bit, I feel I can wrtie a decent overview of the pros and cons that come along with it.
I will be forthright in saying that I am not a huge fan of Microsoft. If I could get along in the business world without having to use Microsoft products, I would be perfectly happy working directly through a Linux build and working entirely with free, open-source software.
That said, I have been a Microsoft user for over 20 years. I have been using Microsoft products since the days when DOS was the main operating system for PC users. I have quite a bit of experience in Windows, and have used Windows 3.1, Windows 98 (and SE), Windows ME and Windows XP extensively. I have fooled around with Windows Server 2000 and a few other MS operating systems. With all that said, I hope you will recognize that I am being as objective as possible.
From the start, Windows Vista looks pretty. One thing that Microsoft does well when creating new milestone releases is to upgrade the look and feel of the system. Windows 3.1 was a huge step up from DOS (obviously: it had a GUI, after all). WIndows 98 was another giant leap from 3.1. Then, XP came along (after a few dud releases), and turned everything everyone knew about Windows on its head. Once again, Microsoft has made a huge improvement on the appearance, and I’m sure it has thrown a lot of people off their rockers, complaining that it’s “different”.
Personally, I like the look. Of course, that could be simply because it is basically a sleeker looking version of the more recent KDE interfaces. I really feel like Microsoft spent a lot of time studying the way KDE looks and operates, and then decided to adapt all of that for Windows.
From the spherical “start” icon all the way down to the built-in “start menu” search and the multiple choice “shutdown” menu, Vista’s look is eerily similar to KDE. Add on top of that the adjustable transparency of the titlebars, etc., and you’ve got something very similar to what KDE’s looked like since at least the early days of version 3. Granted, much of the latest version of KDE also nabbed some elements from Vista (the multi-page program menu, etc.), so it’s obviously a “mutual admiration”.
LIke I said, though, it’s pretty.
Vista has some very nice features built in, but Microsoft also removed some minor items that were really nice in older versions.
- The aforementioned “search” function built into the “start” menu
- This is a really nice feature. When you have as many programs installed as I do, you switch back and forth between Linux and Windows as much as I do and you use as many different computers as I do, you begin to lose track of what’s installed on what computers/operating systems. Being able to type in a keyword in my start menu makes it really easy to find things. This is especially helpful when you install things that don’t necessarily embed themselves in your “Programs” area.
- The “Vista Sidebar”
- This is a neat feature, too. Basically, Vista took a page out of the “Yahoo Widgets” book, and made their own widget side bar (if I’m not mistaken, I think this was actually an out-of-the-box feature in MacOS before Yahoo or MS thought of it). Currently, I have a calendar, the weather, a clock, an RSS aggregator and a little slideshow widget running on mine. These are the default widgets that came with my version of Vista. I don’t really have any use for the slideshow widget, but I do use the clock and the weather all the time. The calendar saves me the hassle of having to mouse over my taskbar clock to see what today’s date is. The RSS aggregator is extremely nice, especially because it’s integrated directly into Outlook. Any RSS feed you add to Outlook (which is a fantastic new feature in Office 2007) automatically gets added to your sidebar aggregator.
- Custom toolbars
- This is another item that’s been pulled from the Linux playbook. Basically, you can right-click on your taskbar and then choose any folder on your entire computer that you want to turn into a toolbar. This almost makes up for the lack of the next feature I’m about to mention.
- Quick Launch
- Unfortunately, one of the features Microsoft removed from Windows is the ability to “un-dock” the Quick Launch tool bar. On all of my computers, I immediately rearrange my “bars” on my desktop. I move my taskbar to the top of my screen and set it to auto-hide. My Quick Launch bar then gets set to auto-hide at the bottom of my desktop, and I set it to display large icons. Because I keep so many icons in my Quick Launch bar, I have to keep it completely separate from my taskbar. The image below shows my current setup.
- This is a really minor feature, but I like it. If you’ve spent a lot of time rearranging your files in Windows XP, you’ve probably noticed that any new file or folder you create in Explorer, or any items you paste into a new location always get added to the bottom of the file listing. This always annoyed me. Vista automatically moves the file immediately to the correct place as soon as you create it. In fact, when you create a new folder, it initially moves it to the “N” section (alphabetically) of your file list (since the initial name is “New Folder”), and then moves it again when you give the folder a name.
- Intuitive Icons and File Details
- Vista uses intuitive file/folder icons and file details much more effectively than XP ever did. Vista is set, by default, to use different icons for folders depending on what’s inside of the folder. In addition, it shows you a neat little cascade of thumbnails of the files inside. The image below shows what my “pictures” folder looks like in Vista.
- Windows Media Center
- I realize this was introduced in XP, but it’s been improved upon for Vista. Having not used it too much in XP, I cannot comment too much on the improvements, but I can say that Media Center is a really nice program if you don’t plan on doing anything but working with media files. Of course, if you like to listen to music while working on other things on your computer, Media Center is completely useless. However, it’s great to watch movies through Media Center or use it as a jukebox when hanging out with friends.
- Vista Security Center
- This is a good thing and a bad thing wrapped up together. It’s nice to have this little feature built in when you have multiple users on your computer. This security center should help stem the tide of spyware/adware that gets installed on your computer unknowingly when people visit bad Web sites. After all, if they try to visit a Web site, and a big warning comes up telling them that Windows needs permission to continue, then that may set off a light bulb in the user’s head letting them know that they probably shouldn’t continue.
- However, if the user is inconsiderate, as opposed to simply ignorant, they’ll probably just click “Continue” anyway.
- For those of us that actually know what we’re doing, it’s a real pain in the butt. The biggest pain associated with the security center is the fact that it’s so redundant. Whenever I try to perform an “administrative” action, such as installing a program, creating a file or folder inside my protected directories, etc., Vista will tell me that it needs my permission to continue (which invariably resets my display driver, and can sometimes take a good second or two to come up on the screen, which scared the heck out of me the first few times it did so). Then, after I click “Continue”, about 95% of the time, a second message will appear asking me for permission to continue. That’s rather unnecessary, in my humble opinion. Asking me once is appropriate. Asking me twice is getting ridiculous.
- This is one area where I wish Microsoft had studied the Linux play book a little more carefully. If I want to perform administrative actions in Linux, I can do so a number of ways. I can choose to do each action separately, in which case I will be prompted for the admin password each time. However, I can also choose to perform a whole batch of tasks as an admin user or even “temporarily” become an admin user (for instance, by opening the file manager in super user mode) to perform a number of tasks. This makes sense. The redundant “Continue or Allow” messages in Vista do not.
- When dealing with the Vista Security Center, I generally just think of the Mac commercial and sit back and laugh. “Mac has issued a greeting. Continue or allow?”
Bugs and Other Issues
A few bugs and issues have cropped up while I’ve been using Vista, and most of them are quite annoying. Of course, having only used Vista on my personal home computer, which is an HP Pavilion that came with Vista (and everything else) pre-installed, I can’t say with 100% certainty that Vista is completely to blame for all of these issues, so I mention them with that caveat.
- Display Driver
- My display driver occasionally fails and has to reset itself. This issue always pops up if I decide to try to use Media Center in the background (if I minimize Media Center, my display driver will fail and reset itself every 5 to 10 seconds). This also occurs intermittently while doing other things, like playing “Hearts”.
- Audio Driver
- My computer came with one of those “Realtek High Definition Audio” drivers. The driver actually works very nicely, and provides great sound from my speakers. However, the downside is that it fails rather often, as well. The worst part is, whenever it fails, I have to reinstall it. I have confirmed that it quits working every time Windows performs an update. I’m not sure if it happens as a result of anything else. The problem seems to be that Windows automatically re-enables the default Windows audio driver, and there is no obvious way to disable it effectively. In order to start using the Realtek driver again (which is the only driver that actually puts out any sound), I have to reinstall the driver.
- Occasional Crashes
- My computer does crash occasionally. It’s a very strange crash. It’s not the classic “blue screen of death”. Instead, I get a strange, multi-colored, pixelated display. It looks almost the way it would look if you were to fill up your entire screen with the “map” you see while you’re de-fragging your computer. The only thing I can do at that point is to hold down the power button on my tower and turn it off.
- Networking issues
- For a while, every time I actually shut down my computer, my connection to the Internet would not work every time I turned it back on. I don’t seem to have this problem too often anymore, but I do still have occasional networking issues that keep me from being able to access the Internet. From what I can tell, it seems that Windows decides to connect me to multiple network connections simultaneously, and that the bad network (the one that can’t connect to the Internet) overrides anything on my normal network. To fix this, I have found it’s effective to disable my network adapter and then re-enable it.
- Software incompatibility
- Although the number is decreasing almost daily, there are still quite a few programs that cannot be used on Vista, or that perform inconsistently. This, of course, is an issue with any milestone release of an operating system, but it still sucks having to deal with it. The real problem occurs, of course, when some of your favorite programs are no longer supported by their creators (Pagemaker, for example, which has been phased out by Adobe to make room for InDesign – not a huge loss, though, since Adobe has essentially made InDesign a clone of Pagemaker at this point, anyway). The part that really stinks is how little support there still is for Vista in the open-source freeware market.
- In fact, I actually caused a somewhat major problem with my computer after having trouble installing some software I needed. Because I keep most of my “common” files on an ext2 partition, I needed to install and ext2 file system driver. However, Vista reported an error when I installed and tried to run extIFS. Therefore, I decided to install the less-appealing extfsd. That’s when my problems began, although it probably took me a month to figure that out. Every time I tried to access files on my ext2 partition, Vista would eventually crash and restart my computer. I was able to solve the problem, though, by removing extfsd, at which point I found out that extIFS was actually working just fine.
- I am also confused about the whole 32-bit/64-bit issue altogether. My computer is clearly running on a 64-bit dual-core processor. My version of Windows clearly says that it is the 64-bit version. 64-bit software is obviously compatible with my computer, as I installed the 64-bit version of SuSE Linux. However, every time I download the 64-bit version of any software I plan to install, it always throws up an error at me, telling me something along the lines of “This software was designed to run on a 64-bit system. It is incompatible with your system. Please download the 32-bit version”. This has happened at least 3 or 4 times while trying to install software. Most recently, I had this problem when trying to install VirtualDub.
- New File and Boot Systems
- This is a good thing and a bad thing. I’ve heard varying reports on just how “new” the file system behind Vista is, and I’m sure that the handful of changes are the reason behind a lot of the new “features” I mentioned above. Unfortunately, the new file system and the new boot system really throw a monkey-wrench into the plans of those who plan to dual-boot. After toasting my first Pavilion, and waiting for months to get it back in new condition, I eventually had to install Linux on a completely separate hard drive in order to avoid toasting another computer. In order to be safe, I actually removed my main hard drive from the computer altogether before I even began installing SuSE. Now, rather than using a bootloader like Grub, I actually choose between operating systems by choosing my boot device through my bios.
All in all, Vista is certainly not terrible. However, Vista is not the milestone that Microsoft made it out to be. With the exception of a handful of nice features and a new look, Vista really does not offer that much that XP couldn’t. There are very few items that Vista offers that couldn’t have been supplied through a system update in XP. The improvements from XP to Vista pale in comparison to the improvements between Office XP and Office 2007 (but that’s probably a review meant for another day).
I will admit that I like Vista as much as I could like an MS operating system. However, I still would prefer using SuSE with KDE if it was possible to do that realistically. All in all, though, it’s really not bad.