Windows Vista 'a Compelling Reason' to Buy a New PC
As many of you already know, in the past few weeks I've been using a new Acer notebook with Windows Vista, Microsoft's latest attempt at making Windows like a Mac - er, improving Windows XP.
Windows Before Vista
I'll start out by saying that I was never a fan of Windows 95/98/Me. They crashed constantly, and despite having more features than Mac OS 8/9, the awful reliability and awkwardness of their interfaces never attracted me. Windows 2000, on the other hand, was actually a decent operating system. It was as stable as OS X, had all of the features of Windows Me, and was generally pretty compatible with most hardware of seven years ago.
So when XP came out, promising to be "Windows 2000 for the masses", I was hopeful Microsoft could do something good for once. However, this appeared not to be the case. XP was just as susceptible to spyware and viruses as previous Windows versions, had even more security problems than Windows 2000, had the annoying activation scheme, and on top of all that, an interface that looked like it would be better suited for a kid's computer than a productivity tool.
Once Apple got OS X 10.2 "Jaguar" out the door in 2002, it was clear which was the better operating system. Not only that, but Apple was staying on top of OS X development, not letting it go like Microsoft proceeded to do with Windows XP. OS X 10.3 "Panther" was an even better operating system and is probably still my favorite of the OS X variants. It's rock solid, still fairly modern, and fast. (The only benefit of 10.4 "Tiger" that's really worthwhile - other than compatibility with Intel Mac drive partitions - is the Dashboard.)
Vista - Wow?
Microsoft has decided to "Let the wow start now" with Windows Vista. After you upgrade your RAM, video card, and hard drive, you can enjoy benefits like Windows Defender bugging you that you need to update your spyware definitions. Well, okay, after that was taken care of (they make it difficult to turn off), Vista generally runs fine. In fact, if you buy a machine with Vista preloaded, you'll find that it's fast, all of the hardware works properly, and you might be able to get some work done.
But this should be a given for a new computer. Of course it's going to work, it's new!
But what does Windows Vista offer that XP didn't? What does it offer that OS X doesn't?
Firstly, there's the new interface. Its "shiny" as one of my friends pointed out. It is, thankfully, less distracting than XP's "Luna" or "Royale" theme and can be set in any color you want. I chose gray - maybe I still can't get over the fact I'm not running OS X. It's also translucent, and closing windows has a very pleasant "fade out" effect. The close box is also larger than the minimize and maximize box, something that I find welcome, though not absolutely necessary (I have no trouble finding the right button to close a window in OS X).
One annoying bit is that if you don't have the "right" video card, Vista goes into basic mode, which consists of a hideously ugly light blue scheme that you can't modify. You also don't get the Windows key-tab task switching ability or live previews of windows when placing your mouse over their tab in the taskbar.
The other new item in Vista is the very Mac-like sidebar in the open/save dialogue boxes. This, along with XP and 2000's ability to sort images by thumbnails instead of just the text that you see in OS X, is very welcome. I find Vista much easier for dealing with opening and saving documents than OS X and marginally easier than XP/2000. I hope this is something that Apple will address in the future - the column view OS X offers isn't quite enough anymore.
Unfortunately though, the Vista interface still feels "contrived" and "pasted over", just like the XP interface did. Not all applications completely conform to it, and some older ones need the system to run in "basic" mode. I know, Microsoft's just trying to make it as compatible as possible, but it doesn't feel elegant like OS X does.
The Start menu looks just like the one in XP, with the exception that the "more programs" option doesn't open a whole screen-full of menus, but instead lists them where your recently used apps are located. That makes things faster, I'd say.
There's also a search box - similar to Apple's Spotlight - located at the bottom of the start menu. I'm not really sure how I feel about that. I found that no matter what I was looking for, it would never find it. Apple's version, even though it can never find anything for me either, at least organizes things a bit more clearly so I can separate what I'm looking for by pictures, documents, etc.
The big new feature in Vista is the sidebar. It's basically like the dashboard meets Google desktop, and it takes up a portion of the right side of the screen. It has objects called "gadgets" (instead of widgets), and I find it preferable to Apple's. Not only does it use less RAM, it's also always there - if I want to see an analogue version of the time (which I prefer) or the current weather, I can just hit the Windows sidebar button in the system tray. Or - more frequently, since I usually work without windows maximized - I can just look over to the right side of the screen.
If nothing else, it's an excellent way to take advantage of the wide screen on all these trendy new laptops. There are some negatives, however. You can only view one page of gadgets at a time, and rearranging them from page to page seems to be impossible.
Vista and the Low End PC
How does Vista run on older hardware? I decided to upgrade my desktop PC to Vista due to the fact that I felt it would minimize compatibility issues if I had the same operating system on both computers. Installing Vista went very smoothly; all of my hardware worked with no effort on my part, except my video card. Unfortunately, my 2-1/2 year old PC had the video card just below the first supported ATI Radeon model. $60 (Canadian) later I had a supported video card, and the system is running fine.
It's not as fast as the new Acer notebook, understandably, but it isn't too slow either. Even with just 512 MB of RAM, it's capable and has no trouble with any of Vista's functions. This is a good thing, since it seems many people have PCs purchased within the last three years that they are considering upgrading to Vista.
That said, OS X 10.4 will work fine on just about any Mac from the past seven years. I can't imagine how slow Vista would be on our old Sony Vaio from 2002 with its 1 GHz processor and 16 MB video card, but OS X 10.4 runs great on my sister's old 450 MHz iMac DV+.
Then again, maybe I should be doing the comparison with 10.5 Leopard, but it hasn't been scheduled for release yet.
The real reason people have a computer is to be productive, and that's what matters in the end more than pretty interfaces and complicated features. I've typed this article (and a paper just before it) in Word 2007 on my Acer, and, provided that the computer doesn't fall and break in the time before I get to send them in, I think I will have succeeded in the productivity department. But there's productivity, and then there's above and beyond productivity where it actually becomes fun.
Take studying for an exam, for example. iPhoto lets you create slideshows with text included so that you can memorize what a certain type of pre-human skull looks like, for instance. A half hour of playing around with Windows Photo Gallery, and all I could do was tag the photos and put a label next to them. After a student in the class said "oh, here's my computer, use the remote to click through the slideshow." A multitude of transitions and some catchy music later, I was left wondering whether I had bought the "right computer".
In the meantime, I installed Adobe Lightroom and can create slideshows just as nice as those in iPhoto. Too bad Microsoft couldn't include something reasonably capable like Apple did.
However, Microsoft did an excellent job with Windows Media Center. It's elegant, it's easy to use, and it automatically finds your media for you. After playing around with it for a bit, it feels as if Microsoft's learning from Apple - in some things at least.
Vista also comes with a nice "backup and restore center", which allows you to make regular backups of your machine - and lets you go back to a previous state of your system if you're experiencing trouble. The "reliability and performance monitor" also allows you to see the history of what was done to your computer - software installs, system failures, etc. - and determines how well your computer has been performing. I like seeing what's been installed when (it may end the ever-pressing problem of the computer failing after friends come over and play with it), and it's too bad the Mac doesn't have a way of managing this.
That said, I have had to use the system restore function in Windows XP, but I never had a need for any such function in OS X. Hopefully it will go unneeded in Vista, but at least it's there if I need it.
As someone who has had a lot of experience with both the Mac and all versions of Windows since 3.0, I have to say that Vista offers a compelling reason to buy a new PC. Of course you could just buy a Mac and have the elegant user interface, stable and proven operating system, and still have the ability to install and use Vista.
That, I think, makes an even more compelling argument - if you can afford the price of an Intel Mac and the Vista operating system.
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