Via my job I am a MSDN subscriber which means I have access to all the programs Microsoft creates for development purposes. Over the Christmas holiday I have been playing with and using the new version of Windows called Vista. As a certified geek I always enjoy playing around with operating systems to see what they can do. So I thought I would give a quick review of Vista. I will try to keep my review pretty much acronym free – something difficult for both a geek and ex-military.
Vista has been in development for five years and I will review what actually made it into the final product and not gripe about all the things that got cut along the way.
Installation: I first installed it on a year and a half old machine with an AMD Athalon 64 3200+ processor and 1 gig of memory. The installation was flawless and the easiest install of windows I have ever experienced. Doing software development I have reinstalled windows hundreds of times and without a doubt this was the best experience of installation I’ve had. The install in no longer a combination of DOS and Windows but a straight graphical interface from the start. The options for setting up your harddrive and partitions for the new install makes it easy to install without having to look for those options which were previously not as easily seen. After selecting the destination and entering the key I simply left. My wife and I actually went out looking at Christmas decorations on houses and when I came home I was quite surprised to find that not only was the installation completed, but Vista was ready to use with no further reboots.
Software Installation. I run a fairly heavy load of software that I use. Besides Microsoft Office, and the Visual Studio development platform I have a large amount of utilities mainly freeware and open source that I use. One major difference in Vista over XP is that there is much more security and protection when it comes to installing programs. This protection is there to block the installation of trojans and other malicious programs. One important change is that you can now run as a user with lower rights than an Administrator and when Administrator access is required for a program you have to enter the Administrator password. This is similar to Mac OSX and Linux and is a much needed improvement. Unfortunately thought when you create a new user it automatically defaults to Administrator and most people will probably do this. Regardless even if you run as an Administrator Vista prompts you about the installation to make sure the program being installed is with your authorization.
The large majority of programs installed with no problem. Some programs thought that were installing drivers to the Windows system had problems accessing this area since it is much more protected now. Though in every case Vista detected this and had me reinstall under different settings it automatically generated and also in every case this was successful.
I am not much of a gamer anymore, but the games I did install did work including some EA Sports ones that often have installation problems.
Look and Feel. The new interface called Aero Glass is quite beautiful and for once Microsoft paid some attention to detail when it comes to user interfaces. Others have joked that the interface for the windows in XP were designed from somebody who worked at Fisher Price and I totally agree. The title bars were huge and clunky and took up twice as much valuable video real estate as they needed to. This time around the experience of working in the interface is actually visually enjoyable.
The interface does not approach the beauty and simplicity of Mac OSX, but it is still a giant leap forward for users of Windows. I won’t get much into the Microsoft/Apple wars, besides Amiga rules! I pretty much build my own systems and when I upgrade it is pretty much at the motherboard level. In years past Apple was never an option for me since I develop software for the Windows platform, though now you can dual boot Apple systems based on Intel chips or run programs such as Parallels to run Windows programs. The premium of Apple hardware would be much more expensive for me though. Maybe one day I will enjoy both words with a Linux partition to fulfill my geekiness.
The windows and the desktop are now all rendered using the same basic technology of video games and it is quite eye-pleasing. The way windows appear look pretty cool and even dialog boxes look nice. The biggest thing I noticed is that the system reacts just as fast as when I was running XP. There was a lot of anticipation that the new Aero Glass interface with transparent windows would slog down older systems. This might have been true with some beta copies of Vista with debugging code enabled but the final version responds quite nicely. I multi-task quite a number of programs when working and have been quite pleased with the performance.
The Start menu has also been much improved. I have been using versions of windows since Windows 2.0 and have watched mostly the steady progress of the OS (pox on Windows Millennium though). I really hated the Start menu in Windows 95 where you did wrist aerobics to get to menu items and subsequent versions were only moderately better. The Start menu has been rethought to such a point that I actually use it now instead of relying on just third party application launchers. You can now close, log off, restart windows without going through an additional dialogue box. When you go to All Programs they are displayed in a list box with a scroll bar which makes navigation much easier. There is also a search box displayed to make it easier to find/narrow down menu items.
I also found that the way programs were grouped and the use of the control panel was much easier. They really put some thought into how everything should be organized and I easily found what I was looking for without forcing the interface to act like in previous versions. I was also able to get my home network up and running in record time. In XP it was sometimes a pain to get my machine working with my laptop and vice versa, but under Vista it was much easier to do.
Alt-tabbing to switch between programs is also much better. You now get visual representation of each windows instead of just a name. And if your running video it is even displayed. You can also switch to just the desktop causing all windows to be minimized and you can just select a window via cursor keys or the mouse. There is also Flip 3D that visually shows all of the programs running showing the windows at an angle letting use use the mouse scroll wheel to select. In addition when you mouse over applications in the task bar a thumbnail of the application and its contents is displayed.
Vista Versions and Applications One problem with the marketing of Vista is the number of different versions. Starter Edition, Home Basic Edition, Home Premium Edition, Small Business Edition, Enterprise Edition, and Kitchen Sink Edition otherwise knows as Ultimate Edition. This will probably not matter to most since if they buy a new machine with Vista on it it will probably have Home Premium edition on it. If you buy Vista it actually has all versions on it and you can upgrade to a higher version and activate it online. Regardless this is a mess to the uninitiated and you will need to look at a comparison chart to see what is better for you as to what features you require.
Several versions include Windows Media Center. Previously with Windows XP you couldn’t but this separately without buying a new system with it on with it packaged with some components. I have been running Window’s Media Center on my laptop under XP and have surprisingly found that I like it. Windows Media Center with a TV Tuner Card or USB TV Tuner lets you watch TV and it includes a Guide with Digital Video Recorder to setup recording of programs. I rarely watch live TV and I like the ability to skip commercial by fast forwarding 30 seconds at a time at the click of a key. Media Center is also used to view pictures, videos, and listen to music. The interface for the Vista version of Windows Media Center is different than the XP version. The old interface took some time to get use to and that goes for the new one also. Though the more frequently used options are more easily accessed than previously. If you want to use Media Center make sure you buy a tuner card that supports it. For whatever reason not all tuner cards currently have drivers that work with Media Center. Most tuner cards also include their own software for recording and displaying of TV, but I think Media Center does a much better job of it.
Vista now includes a sidebar to run gadgets. Gadgets are small programs that are displayed in the sidebar and not as separate windows. The program Konfabulator which is now freeware and owned by Yahoo first came up with this concepts of what they called widgets and OSX also copied the idea. I have used Konfabulator in the past and thought that I probably would not be using the Windows Sidebar. It has grown on me though. One of the default gadgets just displays the art in a directory you set. So I like having a bunch of Catholic art continuously displayed at set intervals in it. There are also hundreds of gadgets that you can download that range from useful to eye candy such as an animated Christmas tree. I run windows using two monitors and I have set the Sidebar to the 2nd monitor so that it is easily available.
New applications include Windows Calendar which is a solid Calendar and appointment program. Windows Mail is basically a slightly revised Outlook expressed and should be basically ignored. The new Internet Explorer 7 is a much improved internet browser with finally a tabbed interface. The security is much better and has many enhancements. Though I found no reason to switch to it from Mozilla Firefox 2.0. Firefox pretty much already had all the same features and I would not trade the extensions available in Firefox for IE7. Microsoft should definitely open up IE7 to the open source community so that the same capabilities that firefox has can be easily added.
The new file and directory open dialogues are much improved as far as capability goes. Though it does take some getting use to at first. I found it pretty annoying until I realized the extra features it included.
Vista will also be able to take advantage of new hybrid hard drives coming out later this year that include flash memory along with the harddrive itself. This is suppose to really help speeding up some operations. There is also a feature called ReadyBoost that allows you to use a USB memory stick for speedup of some operations, though I think the jury is still out on how much of a performance boost in some circumstances there actually is.
Security Potentially security should be much better in Vista. User Account Control lets you run at lower access levels than Administrator, but if you have the Administrator password you can still work without logging out and into a higher account. Most users will probably use the default of Administrator and will not have the fuller security they would otherwise. It is pretty easy to just click past warnings if you are not careful. Windows Defender is now provided with Vista so this will help protect against most Malware, such as viruses, worms, spyware. Vista though still does supply a anti-virus program. Some versions of Vista now include BitLocker which allows you to encrypt data including a whole volume. This is especially important for laptops to prevent your personal information from being used if your laptop is stolen. You could of course use open source software such as FreeCrypt to do the same thing, but having available in the operating system is a good thing.
The 64 bit version of Vista is even more secure since it will only allow drivers that are signed to be installed. This feature can also be enabled in the 32 bit version.
The problem is of course many drivers are not currently signed so whether you can use this feature depends on the drivers available for you hardware and software you use. Getting drivers signed with a certificate is a fairly expensive proposition so unfortunately many freeware, shareware, and open source programs that use system drivers to work won’t work in this environment.
Only time will tell how secure Vista really is, but it certainly looks like Microsoft is much more serious about security since the debacle of XP before Service Pack 2.
Wrap Up Overall Vista is a solid release that is certainly a step in the right direction. New systems will come with Vista (or with an upgrade certificate prior to the official release) and I see no real reason for people to want to go back to XP. Whether you should upgrade or not an older system depends entirely on whether you think the new features and capabilities are worthwhile. Windows as always is a memory hog and a minimum of 1 gig of memory is truly the minimum for most users and 2 gigs for those who multi-task a lot
There is some debate about some of Vista’s content protection as to whether it might seriously hamper gaming speed. Not being a major gamer myself I can’t comment on that. I found it rather stupid that running Visual Studio that it does not work with Vista correctly. How in the world can you release an new OS and not already have it working correctly with your flagship code development platform is beyond. me. Though I am running Visual Studio as an administrator with no perceivable problems.
So far running Vista as power user with heavy multi-tasking I would not want to go back to XP. They really need to consolidate the number of versions available and drop their prices on the OS. The standalone version of Vista Ultimate is quite pricey and is really ridiculous for just an OS to cost that much.