Windows Vista: The Future?

Written by rob on December 21, 2006 – 8:57 pm -

I acquired a retail version of Windows Vista and installed it on my main computer. I knew if I put it on a spare I wouldn’t use it nearly enough to test it out to the full extent. I’m essentially using Vista as my main OS now. I don’t even have a dual-boot setup for XP (though I’m going to set that up over the weekend… you’ll read why soon).

My first impressions were very praising. The installation is much more polished. You are in the “blue screen” (just text, no pictures) a lot less than in the XP install. It wastes no time getting you to a beautiful-looking installer. The process is exactly the same… you specify a partition on which to install, choose some language and time zone settings, and input your CD key. Nothing new, but a lot more attractive.

Once I rebooted into the system for the first time, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The first thing I do whenever I install a fresh copy of Windows is open up Device manager. I guess you could call it a habit, but it was for really good reason. In XP, I usually had about 8-10 “yellow exclamation marks”, each of which represented a device that was not recognized and needed drivers. The pleasant surprise that I referenced was the fact that there were only two such unrecognized devices in Vista: my video card, and an “unknown device” (this device is unknown to me even now, and was unknown to XP as well. I honestly have no clue what it is… I assume it is some built-in component to my motherboard that I don’t know about). In reality, then, there was only one driver I had to install. Opening up Internet Explorer 7, I quickly headed over to “getfirefox.com” and downloaded Firefox 2.0. Then I used Firefox to download the ATI Vista Beta drivers. It felt great to get on the Internet without any configuration. In XP and all previous Windows OSes, I had to put in my motherboard CD and install ethernet network drivers. Once that was done, I restarted and enabled Aeroglass.

The first thing I wanted to learn how to do in Aeroglass was the cool 3D window changer thing. I can’t really explain it any other way, but I soon learned that the keyboard shortcut was Windows+Tab (as opposed to the Alt+Tab most gamers are aware of in XP and other Windows OSes). What it does is show you all your open Windows, but all of them are slanted and stacked one behind each other. If you keep the Windows key suppressed and then press tab again, it switches to the next window. You can use this method to change to whichever Window you wish. This really helps when you have over a dozen windows open and want to, for example, change your song in iTunes without dealing with the crowded taskbar or finding the buried window under everything else. Beyond this 3D effect, Aeroglass has a couple more. Any time a window or dialog box comes up or is closed, it basically fades into nothing. Closing a window isn’t particularly cool, but the effect looks really neat when opening a window. The best thing is Firefox, because as soon as it fades in, it loads the homepage. It’s hard to describe, but it makes you feel like the Internet just pops onto your monitor. The transparency of some windows and the title bar is minimal… you definitely notice it, but it doesn’t really faze me either way.

Going back to the Device Manager I mentioned before, or rather any Control Panel. Vista has the two Control Panel display modes like XP does… the “modern” and “classic” views. I continue to use classic. However, it is notable that a lot of settings are in different areas, even famous and commonly used ones. For example, Add & Remove Programs has been renamed to “Programs and Features”. Also, Display changed to “Personalize”. The names are probably better, but it takes some getting used to, since you get lost when a commonly used feature is moved. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t learn fast, you might have quite a learning curve ahead of you for Vista.

One thing you will notice immediately with Vista as you begin to use it, aside from the obvious visual changes, is the constant pop-up messages asking for your permission to do things. Windows Vista has employed a new technology called User Account Protection (UAP). Basically, every time you do something “outside your sandbox (home folder)”, Vista asks you about it. For example, renaming a file in Program Files would require you to say “Continue” at a prompt. Beyond this, when you run a program that requires administrative powers over your computer, you must press “Allow” to let it do its thing. This may sound like a waste of time and a general annoyance. For day-to-day use, it probably is. However, assume that you got a virus in an e-mail. Using an unknown exploit in Outlook, the virus runs without you knowing. BUT, before it can run, Windows would pop up one of these messages. If you get in the habit of reading the name of the program that wants to run, and NOT pressing Allow when it is an unknown program, then the virus would be useless and unable to do anything. That means that even when your Anti-virus program fails to find a virus, Windows would still let you know that some program is trying to do something. This makes it theoretically impossible for spyware and viruses to exist in Vista. Surely some hackers will find ways around this, but this UAP business seems to be a good step forward. I just fear that most home users will get annoyed by it and subsequently press Allow to anything. (One other thing to note is that most legacy [Windows XP and older] applications require Administrative privileges to run. Not a big deal for a home user, but a serious inconvenience for multi-user network environments where Admin privileges aren’t given out like candy.)

Some other features of Vista are available in the new programs included. Windows Mail is equivalent to Outlook Express, but in my opinion is more sleek and feature-filled. There is also Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts, which are nice answers to Apple’s included programs (iCal and Address Book respectively). There is a program called Windows Photo Gallery, which is a surprisingly deep photo album management application (think Picasa or iPhoto). I use Adobe Lightroom Beta, but I may soon switch to Photo Gallery after my Lightroom beta expires simply because of the easy integration with the Windows operating system. Finally (there are a lot more, but I don’t find them that earth-shattering), there is Backup and Restore. It may not sound as nice as a cool Photo Gallery program, but this is something that Windows XP and others have always lacked: a good and built-in (free) way to backup files. I had been using various Linux options to image my system in the past because I didn’t want to pay for something like Symantec Livestate (formerly Ghost), but Vista includes something equally as well. While the interface is simple, you can do full image backups or just file/folder backups, all within Windows without restarting or anything. Plus, you can setup schedules. It makes it easy to backup, which is a huge step forward as information security and integrity becomes more and more of an issue.

I have gone through the features that stick out to me as major new features and nice additions. There are hundreds more of improvements and new features, but I either have no discovered them yet or find them unworthy to mention. Either way, don’t hold what I said above as the be-all end-all list of new Vista features. That said, I have only gone over the good. As with anything, there is the other side… the bad. So, let’s dive into it, shall we?

The first real issue I noticed was game performance. Now, the only game I have tried so far is Need for Speed: Most Wanted. If you are unaware, this high-speed racing game is fairly modern in terms of graphics, and is somewhat demanding in terms of system resources. That said, my old computer (before upgrading) ran it fine without a single frame drop (granted I was on 1024×768 with medium settings). With my new computer, I was able to crank it up to High with everything but AA and AF. However, with Vista, things don’t go too well. I was running the game at 1024×768 with medium settings (like the old computer), but it has consistent framerate issues. In a super-fast-paced racing game like it is, where the background blurs due to your speed, a drop in framerate is blatantly obvious (more so than say, a strategy game like Civ 4). I even put the settings on low, but to no avail. It just seems to have a low overall framerate. This is probably due to the fact that Vista uses Direct X 10 and probably doesn’t support Direct X 9 to the fullest. It may also be the beta video card drivers that are not fully optimized for Vista. I don’t know the true reason, but the result is obvious… current, modern games may have issues on Vista. This is one reason why I am going to soon have a XP dual-boot option (gotta play that Splinter Cell Double Agent soon).

The games issue is pretty huge, but since I recently got Playstation 3, I’m not really playing PC games often enough for it to bother me yet. That leads me to the thing that really kills me, and makes a dual-boot almost a necessity. Are you ready for it? Just wait… OK, take a deep breath. Vista does NOT support iPods. That’s right. No iPod. iTunes installs and runs perfectly (I’m listening to music on it now). However, the iPod is a no go. Plugging it in charges the iPod, but the “Do not disconnect” screen never comes up, iTunes never recognizes it, Windows never recognizes it, etc. Windows does show iPod under Device Manager, but it doesn’t mount as a hard drive and is never visible under iTunes (or even Windows Media Player, which is known to recognize iPod in XP). Looking on the Apple Discussion boards, it seems to be a problem for everyone. Not very good at all 🙁 It seems unlikely that Apple will even begin to care about the issue until Vista is released to the public. That means that by the time most people get Vista, the iPod will probably be working. However, us early adopters are going to have to live without iPod syncing (which isn’t really possible). So… better get that XP Pro disc back out.

In conclusion, Vista is pretty great. It has a lot of forward-looking features such as UAP and excellent device recognizability. Aeroglass is nice eye-candy for those of you with capable 3D cards, but it’s nothing to write home about (and it will probably take awhile before the 3D window switcher becomes second-nature). As expected, there ARE a lot of changes, and a lot of things people will need to get used to. All of that said, there are certainly problems at this point. Game performance is weak as of now, and the lack of iPod support will turn a lot of music lovers off (Zune support was originally lacking as well, but Microsoft quickly solved that). By the time February rolls around and Vista hits store shelves, I expect the operating system’s drivers and software support to be a lot better. Until then, I’ll be using XP for game and iPod, and Vista for everything else.

Note: If you have Vista and are interested in dual-booting XP, see my other article about it here.


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