Hasta la Vista, baby!

After a hard drive failure the week after Thanksgiving, I installed Windows Vista Ultimate RTM on my computer.  Last Wednesday, I reformatted the drive and returned to Windows XP.  I feel like four months for Vista was a fair shake, but I found it interfering more and more with work that I need to do.  I’d like to share my thoughts about Vista, my reasons for returning to XP, and some things that I will miss from Vista.

First, problems with Vista:

  • Program incompatibilities.  When I installed Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005, both warn me that there are known compatibility issues.  Developers are usually the first to evangelize new OSs–why provide them with an OS that doesn’t suit their development environment?  Instead, it raises questions like:
    • “Will applications that I compile under Vista be compatible with client systems?”
    • “Will my applications have problems because they were compiled under Vista?”
    • “Will my applications be compatible with Vista?”
  • Speed.  My computer is a hyperthreaded 3.0 GHz Pentium 4, 1 GB RAM, 128 MB nVidia graphics card running dual DVI displays, and 250 GB hard drive–not the absolute latest and greatest, but no slouch either.  The “Welcome” screen on login would display for nearly 2 minutes.  Logging out or shutting down took at least 30 seconds.  Hitting Win + L to lock the computer gives a message that Windows is locking my computer, waits, and then locks the computer.  What’s it doing behind the scenes that it takes 20 seconds to lock the computer?  I didn’t notice any speed difference on applications when they were doing their own thing, but interactions with the OS were painful.
  • Spurious, odd, untraceable errors.  I “randomly” but regularly got the error message “Windows could not connect to the System Event Notification Service service [sic].  This problem prevents limited users from logging on to the system.  As an administrative user, you can review the System Event Log for details about why this service didn’t respond.”  I tried several of the fixes in this MSDN thread, but just when I thought it was fixed it would reoccur.  I’m sure that errors like this will be found and fixed by MS, but with any new OS it takes time to build up the body of knowledge to successfully deal with odd problems.
  • User Account Control.  Could Apple have made a better commercial than the one with the sunglass-wearing, suited guy asking PC if he wanted to Accept or Reject everything that Mac said to him?  (Not that I care for the ad campaign; aside from the caricature portrayal, PC is cast as the underdog and gets the best lines while Mac is your neighbors’ annonying kid who graduated from college but came back to live with Mom & Dad and spends all night publishing his latest iMixes rather than getting a real job.  George Ou from ZDNet also has an interesting post about UAC vs. Mac OS X privilege escalation; I love his point that if you can’t figure out how to turn it off you don’t need to be doing so.)  I quickly turned UAC off–but that’s not the way to deal with security issues.  A simple checkbox for “Allow this in the future” would have made all the difference–I was developing a TCP/IP based listener service at the time I first installed Vista and got tired of authorizing it for each compile and run.
  • File dialog boxes and Explorer folder windows.  This, for me, was the “killer feature” (and I don’t mean that in any good sense) for Vista.  Opening a shortcut to Documents was guaranteed to take 45 seconds.  File dialog boxes and folder browser dialogs were similarly slow.  The last straw for me was when it took longer to open the File Save dialog box than to download a 6 MB file!
  • Flashing.  Sometimes you had to wait when the whole desktop repainted itself multiple times.  I especially noticed this opening email in Outlook Web Access.
  • Wordiness of dialogs.  After 4 months of Vista, I still had to read the “Copy and Replace/Copy and Don’t Replace/Cancel” dialog to make sure that I was picking the one that was “Yes” in XP.  The checkbox for “Do this for all conflicts” was easy to miss, and less clear than “Yes to All.”
  • Dumb changes that don’t solve problems.  Logging off in XP was simple: Click Start, then Log Off.  (Of course, it’s also dumb to click Start to turn your computer off, but that’s a problem with language rather than operability.)  In Vista, you have to find the dumb little arrow and click it.  They got rid of as many menus as possible (which is why I found Office 2007 intolerable).  They made the “This device may be safely removed” notification a dialog box that needs a click to dismiss instead of a balloon notification.  Dumb things like that…

Vista had several features that made me want to like it:

  • The clean, stylish look.  Apple has understood for years that a pleasant interface makes for user happiness.  MS is just now catching on to that.  Vista (and especially Aero) was a good first cut at that, and I expect this only to improve.
  • Stacking.  This is a neat feature and great way to deal with your documents.  I could stack all of my MP3s together by artist so I can copy all my Poison songs in one virtual icon.  (Um… I don’t have any Poison MP3s… really…)  I used this feature frequently.
  • Install process.  The install for Vista was clean and easy to use, and also fast.  It also prompts you for information up front, so you can start it and come back later to find that it’s finished rather than waiting for one more prompt from you.
  • Navigation in the address bar of file dialogs.  It was easy to move up the directory tree (but I still missed the Folder Up button).
  • All Programs under the Start menu.  This is handled so much more cleanly than the menu expansion in XP.
  • Sidebar gadgets.  I like the nice calendar and clock (but Rainlendar and Rainmeter do the same thing, and are more customizable–or you can use Samurize and go whole hog).
  • Security.  Windows Defender for realtime antispyware, isolated mode Internet Explorer, UAC (yes, after I rag on it above, privilege escalation still beats having to log out and log back in as Administrator), outbound firewall–several significant, positive changes there.
  • Previews and thumbnails.  The preview feature is nice–the icon, taskbar mouseover preview, and Alt + Tab task switching preview look like what the file contains or application is doing at the moment.
  • Removing “My” from everything.  Now it’s Computer, Documents, Music, Pictures, etc.  I don’t need the continual reaffirmation that I own the computer and its contents–I’d rather save keystrokes (not to mention not having to deal with the spaces in command line interfaces).
  • Multimedia friendliness.  Vista is far more aware of metadata (EXIF information in images, tags in MP3 files) than XP–even able to edit tags within the Explorer interface.

So, I’m happy to see XP again on my computer.  My feelings are that I would rather use XP but administer Vista (especially for non-computer-aware friends and relatives!).  I would purchase a new Vista computer, but I would not upgrade a perfectly good XP computer to Vista.

Don’t construe this as Microsoft-bashing; in general, they have a pretty raw deal these days (or as raw a deal as any multi-billion dollar company can have).  First, Microsoft is the victim of its own success; Vista solves no real problems for me.  XP lets me do what I need to do in my computing life, and is hard to fundamentally improve.  The same can be said of Office and several other applications.  It’s hard to get users to upgrade when what they have works perfectly well for them.

Second, it’s hard to be all things to all people.  I’d like to see a “slider” for what type of user I am that corresponded to the OS interface that I dealt with.  As a power user/developer, it should hide annoying prompts and confirmations from me, but if I classify myself as “uncomfortable with computers” it should not allow other software to make serious changes to my computer without giving me the information to make an educated decision.  (The Catch-22, of course, is that if I understood the ramifications of installing an unsigned ActiveX control from crashmysystem.com I’d probably be a power user already; I’m not professing to know the remedy but pointing out the difficulty of the problem.)

You can probably make as good a case that I am not ready for Vista as that Vista is not ready for me, but when a notorious early adopter and computer junkie like me has been driven by annoyance to reformat my drive to downgrade to XP, there’s a problem…

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