A Longtime Mac User Reflects on 8 Months with Vista
- 2007.08.24 - Tip Jar
Windows Vista is a popular topic these days, though much of the discussion opines that while popular as a topic, Vista is not so popular as an operating system. There are all kinds of articles out there, from those singing its praises to others citing horrendous compatibility problems.
One thing is certain: People like to talk about it.
First off, I'll come right out and say that I've been using Vista since Beta 2 was released around January, though only for experimentation purposes prior to June, when I moved my personal ThinkPad T60 from XP Professional to Vista Business. I also use Window XP Professional on my ThinkPad X41 and all of the desktops in my office; Windows Small Business Server 2003 for my office file, print, and email (Exchange) server; and Windows 2000 on a few older laptops and one older desktop.
On the Mac side, I use OS X 10.4.10 Tiger on all of my Macs, which include a G4 AGP "Sawtooth" upgraded to 1.0 GHz, a 1.5 GHz PowerPC G4 Mac mini and my daughter's 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. As I did with Vista, I will phase in Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) slowly, probably waiting until two months after release to switch business machines to the new operating system and perhaps taking the time to phase out one of my ThinkPads in favor of a new MacBook or MacBook Pro, now that reliability appears to be back.
Patches and Bug Fixes
Back to the subject of the day, Windows Vista. Here is my take on the newest Windows operating system after eight months of use and more than a few stability and bug-fix patches.
First, lets talk about patches and fixes. The fact that Vista required many patches right off the bat does not necessarily imply that Vista is a bad or buggy system, just that, like any OS, far more hidden problems will come out of the woodwork when it hits mainstream users than can possibly be found in the lab. Apple's Jaguar, Panther, and Tiger all benefited from a few quick point increases and numerous smaller patches almost immediately after their release, just as Vista has, and I consider that more a sign of corporate responsibility than lack of prerelease research.
Even before its release there were many complaints about Vista's incompatibility with many applications. This will happen in any major operating system update, be it Windows, OS X, or the old classic Mac OS. I've had as many applications, especially utilities, break when moving from Panther to Tiger as I did when moving from XP to Vista.
Apple is going through similar issues with its move to Intel processors and also had them when moving from 680x0 to PowerPC processors - and even from G4 to G5, with Virtual PC 6 a great example of a program that worked great on my G4 but was incompatible with the G5. Vista didn't outright break any applications for me, other than disk utilities.
One issue that I had that gave me an initially sour impression of Vista was iTunes causing my PC to crash whenever I tried to play a video. I complained to Apple and to Microsoft, but the problem turned out to be from a Toshiba driver, which was still in beta. By the time of Vista's official release, new drivers were available from Toshiba, and everything works like a charm.
Lets look at a few of the positives being said about Vista, and then at a few of the complaints. The most obvious "improvement" is the visual appearance, which many in the Windows world rave about. I'm talking about the "Aero" interface with its transparent windows, live previews in the task bar, and the 3-dimensional flip viewer (Microsoft's answer to Exposé).
There is no doubt that Aero was heavily influenced by OS X, and also no doubt that it is visually impressive. Whether you find it functional or distracting, it looks very cool to hold your mouse over an item in the taskbar, such as a movie that is playing, and see a miniature appear above with the movie running inside. Very slick.
Flip 3D is also visually impressive, holding each open window diagonally and letting you flip through them and select any of them live, also with full movement of each window as thought it was open. Again, very impressive. Exposé accomplishes the same thing, only using different effects.
With a large or multiple monitors, I prefer Exposé, as it can show you a meaningful and legible representation of each of your open windows, even if you have a lot. On a smaller, lower resolution display, however, Microsoft's approach is better, as Exposé makes every window too small to monitor. Both are good, and while Microsoft clearly copied Apple (as it often does), it still added a useful utility that some will prefer and others won't.
Vista is more secure than XP. Windows fans talk about User Account Control (UAC) and how it makes Vista secure, but that's just the beginning. Vista, by default, has its ports closed and is generally very malware resistant. Mac fans point out that by only giving a dialog box instead of requiring a full password Vista isn't as secure as OS X, and they may be right. That's only part of the story, however.
UAC's dialog boxes are not easily scripted as they are not, from what I understand, mapped to actual commands, but rather are UI only and cannot be scripted. A script to select "Continue" would not work on UAC, at least according to Microsoft. The reality is that Vista is still Windows, is still the target of tons of malware, and still needs to be protected far more than OS X does. Vista includes one of the best anti-spyware packages out there, a very good firewall (on by default), and you can easily get good, fast, and free antivirus software (I like AVG) to make for a quite secure system, though one that still is vulnerable to "social engineering" based attacks.
Now for the bad points most often discussed. At the top of the list must be application incompatibility. This is nothing new - definitely not exclusive to Vista or to the Windows platform - and will be an issue on any major OS update. Remember the move from OS 9 to OS X? Did all of you applications work? Many did with Classic, but some were broken. How about Panther to Tiger? I had to buy a new copy of DiskWarrior (my 4th time).
Vista is the same. It took a while for iTunes to become fully compatible, but the workarounds were fine in the beginning (except on Toshiba laptops with software RAID). Some applications (mostly disk utilities) were broken, but as with the Mac or previous updates to Windows, most applications still work. I have some very old software that runs just fine on Vista, older than anything that will still run on the Intel version of Tiger, for example. AppleWorks 6, FileMaker Pro 3, and Age of Empires (from way back in 1997) all work just as well on Windows Vista as they did on Windows 95.
For stubborn applications, there is emulation of older Windows versions. Even device drivers from older versions of Windows can often be "forced" in Vista, which allowed me to use my old HP portable printer during the five months it took for HP to release a Vista driver.
The next most common complaint is that the hardware requirements are too high. This is clearly not true. Yes, Aero needs some hefty video hardware, but so do Apple's Quartz Extreme, Core Image, and Core Video. Aero's requirements are a bit higher, but not much.
Take the Mac mini as an example. The last G4 Mini's 64 MB Radeon 9550 did not support Core Image, but that same GPU in a PC does support Aero, though not fully. The Intel mini's integrated Intel GMA 950 video fully supports Core Image, and it also fully supports Aero. I should know: My daughter's GMA 950 equipped MacBook is running both Tiger and Vista, and both systems give excellent graphics performance even with all of the eye candy.
Aero is only one part of the hardware requirement issue, as many people complain that Vista is slow on older hardware. The truth is, Vista is slow on even the newest hardware for the first few hours it is used. This is because Vista indexes the contents of your hard drive for faster searching and access. Once this is finished, Vista speeds up nicely.
XP had the same issue, as did Windows 2000 and NT, only on the older systems it was turned off by default and had to be enabled. OS X, by the way, is sluggish as well when first installed as it - you guessed it - indexes your drive. How else would Spotlight be so fast.
Vista on Laptops
I have three computers currently running Vista; all are laptops. First is a very powerful Lenovo ThinkPad T60 with a 2 GHz Core 2 Duo, 128 MB ATI X1400 graphics, and a moderately hefty 2 GB of RAM. Now that indexing is (long ago) finished, Vista Business simply flies even with full Aero UI and all of the malware protection active. This is clearly the fastest computer I have and even plays high-end games like Doom 3 and Neverwinter Nights 2 beautifully with all of the eye candy on. I've also tried XP on this machine, and Vista has no speed penalty.
Next is my 2-year-old ThinkPad X41, a 2.7 lb. ultraportable with a tiny (and slow) 1.8" hard drive (think iPod). This machine also runs Vista business, though with Aero off to speed things up a little. This machine is also very fast in everything except disk access, which is the case no matter what operating system is installed.
Finally, I have a 6-year-old ThinkPad T22 running Vista Home Basic. This is a 900 MHz Pentium 3 with only 512 MB of RAM, yet Vista is fast and smooth on this computer as well, with perhaps a 10% speed hit compared to XP Home. I've been running Vista since January, and while the betas crashed on occasion, I've yet to have a retail version of Vista crash other than a Toshiba laptop playing iTunes video, which is a RAID driver issue.
Even Home Basic Looks Great
Okay, complaint number 3. Unless you buy the expensive versions, you get a crippled and ugly OS. Again, not really true. I don't want or need the media center, so I didn't pay for Ultimate or Home Premium. I do want offline server access, remote desktop, and domain access, so I use the business version (was a free upgrade from XP for my T60, a paid upgrade for the X41). For the old T22, which is used mostly at home and doesn't need to connect to the domain, Home Basic was perfect (came free for a desktop PC that still runs XP).
The non-Aero interface of the Home Basic version (or higher versions with unsupported video) is just as pretty as the full Aero version, only without the translucent windows, without the live previews, and without Flip 3D (Alt-Tab still works great). It's kind of like moving a widget to the dashboard on a non-Core Image Mac. It works, but you don't get the cool ripple effect. The basic icons all look the same, as do the colors and the rest of the UI elements. In short, at first glance you can't even tell that Aero isn't on, and unless you are really vain when it comes to showing off fancy video effects, you lose almost nothing.
Home Basic loses only the Aero interface and the media center application to the pricier Home Premium version. Put another way, the only difference in the Vista versions from the XP versions is that you can get the media center on a business system (Ultimate), something you couldn't do before. Vista Business is a direct replacement for XP Pro and both Home Basic and Home Premium are direct replacements for XP Home and XP Media Center, respectively.
The next complaint is that Vista is just too different. Yes, things were moved around and changed, sometimes not for any logical reason. Of course, most of those changes can be turned off. For instance, if you don't like the Aero theme or the Vista theme on non-Aero systems, you can just turn it off and use "Windows Classic", which looks much like Windows 95 did. I use Windows Classic on my Home Basic system because its ancient 8 MB video card balks at 32-bit color at XGA resolution, slowing the entire system down for screen draws. That was just as true in XP and even Windows 2000.
A few control panels have new names or have been merged with others, and this too can cause some confusion when you first start using Vista and when switching back and forth between new and old versions. Of course, this was also the case with many Classic Mac OS and OS X releases.
Protection Is Annoying
There are complaints about UAC making the system annoying to use. This is also very true when you first start using Vista, but it quickly subsides once all of your applications are installed and used a few times. UAC remembers your selections and stops bothering you for the things you do often.
My Vista systems almost never prompt me for anything unless its something new. My install of Vista Business is about four months old, and the only time UAC really bothers me is when using Windows Update or when trying to run something "as Administrator", which is usually for software installers.
Some system settings also bring a UAC prompt. This isn't particularly annoying and happens with about the same frequency as password prompts on OS X. Passwords are by nature more secure than a dialog box, but as previously mentioned, UAC isn't a standard dialog box that can be scripted.
A Failure in the Marketplace?
Lastly, many articles complain that users are avoiding Vista and cite Microsoft's continuing to offer XP as proof that Vista is a flop. This ignores how Microsoft did the exact same thing with each previous Windows release. This is because IT is slow to change and often requires older versions because of their own corporate or government policies. I remember buying a Toshiba laptop a number of years ago that was preinstalled with Windows 2000 and NT, with the user selecting which license he preferred on first boot, with the computer then installing that choice and not the other. Apple did the same with OS X for a few years.
Back in 1999 you could still buy PCs with Windows NT 4 instead of Windows 2000, which many articles complained was incompatible with some older applications and peripherals. In 2001 you could still buy PCs with Windows 2000 for the exact same reason that you can still buy a PC with Windows XP today. Most corporate and government IT departments won't allow a nonstandard OS image onto their networks, and creating that image (an OS, full application load, and all settings) can take a lot of time, especially when dealing with proprietary applications and stringent security systems. Such organizations will continue to purchase the older OS version until the new OS is "validated" and a stable image for their use is created and thoroughly tested.
When I left the Federal government in 2005, we were barely switching from Windows 95 to Windows 2000, while other agencies that I encountered were still using Windows 95 and NT 4.
Better than Windows XP
My conclusion is that Vista is clearly still Windows. It improves on previous versions in many ways and makes PCs more fun and more productive, for me at least. Windows users should like it after overcoming initial annoyances as Vista tunes itself to you and your data. So far I find Vista to be more stable than XP, to have far more robust and easily configured networking, and generally to just work better than any previous version.
Yes, many features it was supposed to have were dropped from the list, but this is still a significant OS upgrade.
No, it isn't the Longhorn we all wanted, but it isn't a decorated XP either. Actually, Vista is based on Windows 2003, a server-only release of Windows. Windows 2003 is more robust than XP as well and was a good foundation on which to build Vista once WinFS and other radical architecture features were cut.
It's Still Windows
Mac users will still hate it because, well, because it is Windows. This is not the revolutionary step that Windows 95 was from Windows 3.1, but more evolutionary as Windows XP was from Windows 2000. In Mac terms, it's more like moving from Panther to Tiger than from OS 9 to OS X.
I don't think any version of Windows will ever have Mac users envious, but that doesn't mean that Vista is a bad product or that often incorrect observations should be perpetuated. Microsoft has copied many UI and application elements from Apple over the years, and, yes, Apple has copied a few from Microsoft as well (Alt-Tab/Cmd-Tab is a great example). Fundamental differences remain in the way the two systems operate, how they handle files and display windows, etc.
I've said many times before that I find very little difference in usability between the two and consider most of the "I can do it easier on my system" arguments to reflect familiarity more than superiority. Mac windowing is different from Windows windowing, and there aspects of each that annoy and that delight me.
Now what I'm really waiting for is Leopard, so I can put a new Mac OS through its paces. Patience, patience.
Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.
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