Friday, November 23, 2007

Windows Vista - A Little Over A Year Later

Windows Vista, the latest operating system offered by Microsoft, was launched on November 8, 2006. It was met with lukewarm sales and scathing reviews telling us all just how awful it was. Many people balked at the new activation schemes but they did that with XP, too, and neither activation scheme has turned out to be so bad. The biggest problems have been with device support.

The first time I saw Vista was in early February of this year. A service provider had purchased a new laptop with Vista pre-installed. I had thought about buying Vista (just to see what it was like) and asked him about his experience. I had heard about many many driver problems and he was no exception. He told me that Symantec had only just released a version of their Antivirus software that would work on Vista (it took them over two months) and rattled off a couple of other programs in the same boat - some who had recently released Vista-compatible versions (and some of those with limited success) and some who still had them forthcoming.

The biggest surprise was when he told me about his BlackJack. You remember the BlackJack, the smartphone from Samsung sold through Cingular (now AT&T)? The BlackJack was only a month or two old at the time and ran Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile uses a program called ActiveSync to keep data synchronized between the device and the desktop. Our service provider explained that ActiveSync did not work at all with Vista and was being replaced with another program that had only just been released that week. So far, he had been unable to even get it installed and another employee had gotten it to install but had not been able to get it to function.

This immediately scared me off from Vista. I mean, if Microsoft could not even get their own software to function properly on their own operating system, what hope was there for anyone else? Yes, I understand that the operating system division and the smartphone division are separate from each other but, come on, somebody should have called a meeting.

So, I waited.

My birthday is in early May and a friend gave me Windows Vista (ultimate) as a gift. By the time I was finally ready to install it, Vista was at least 6 months old. Much of the ballyhoo had died down but there were still articles here and there about difficulties with Vista. One good thing was that someone had already figured out how to perform a clean install so I was able to start from scratch instead of upgrading my XP system. Even the thought of performing an install of a new operating system over an old operating system without "reconditioning" the hard drive has always given me the willies. It's like moving into a new house and just putting slipcovers over the existing furniture.

At any rate, installation of Vista was no more or less harrowing than installing any other operating system once I jumped through the hoops necessary for the clean install. It was after the completion of the installation that frazzled my nerves a bit.

First things first... no sound. Windows Vista does not include drivers for the Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! series. I knew this going in but getting sound support proved to be a little more difficult than I had expected. (if you're wondering why I'm clinging to this old technology, read below) I ended up having to install the drivers up to the point where they said they were incompatible, interrupt the installation process by forcibly ending the program through the task manager so the extracted drivers would not be erased, and manually install drivers from the device manager. That was one down.

Second item was my new Sony W810i cell phone. It didn't surprise me that the disc that was shipped with the phone was not compatible since the 810i was inching toward end of life. What did surprise me was that after six months, Sony had yet to publish an updated version of their software. I would have to wait a couple more months before that materialized.

What truly upset me, and still upsets me, is that my portable media player was all but orphaned. I have an RCA Lyra 2780 20GB media player. Previously, I could plug it in and it showed up like it was an external hard drive (which, essentially, it is). Under Vista, I plugged it in, Vista loaded some drivers, informed me that my device was ready to use, but it was nowhere to be found in Windows Explorer, device manager, or drive manager. Some judicious googling revealed that all I had to do was to boot my machine with the 2780 powered on and plugged in to the USB. It works but it makes it difficult to do casual updates. If I'm going to add new media or playlists, I would rather spend some quality time with the device and make it worth the reboot. To this day, that device operates the same way and there are no plans for RCA or Microsoft to release an update for this device.

The final frustration has been with video card support. As mentioned before, I built my computer with the idea that it should be able to play Doom 3 and play it fairly well. I overbought on processor speed and RAM, based on the specs for the game, and I already had a more than adequate video card. Even when I ran the Vista upgrade advisor, I was informed that the ATI Radeon 9600 would perform quite well. Unfortunately, I discovered that Doom 3 had become unplayable due to atrociously low frame rates, even at the lowest resolution of 640x480 with textures, shading and anti-aliasing all set to their lowest settings or turned off entirely. Prior to installing Vista, more than six months after its initial release, I downloaded the latest driver from ATI and installed it as soon as I was presented with the Vista GUI. The driver was no more than two weeks old and operated fine, until I installed Doom 3. Since I had waited a month or two to install Doom 3, I downloaded the latest driver once again and noticed that I had skipped two or three releases. It still didn't help. I uninstalled Doom 3 and went on my merry, game-free way.

Fast forward to last week. I downloaded the now newest driver from ATI and, wanting to avoid disappointment as long as possible, I installed Half Life 2. HL2 has similar video requirements to Doom 3. HL2 appears to be running fine. The frame rate at 1024 x 768 is nice and smooth. There are pops and pauses in the audio but there isn't much I can do about that without buying new hardware. Now as soon as I unpack my D3 discs, I'll give that a shot, too... after I check for a new driver release.

All-in-all, Vista has not been a bad experience. It has some cool features that are noticeable, like side bar gadgets, some improvements that are not so noticeable, like more robust security and better update management, and some damn fine updates to existing features, like Windows Photo Gallery. Despite this, I still hear people crying "Vista sucks!" over a year later. We haven't heard this type of outcry since Windows ME but that truly did suck. It was riddled with bugs, it was extremely crash-happy, it had serious compatibility issues, and Microsoft orphaned it almost immediately. I think in Redmond's eyes, ME is their Ewok Christmas Special*. At the end of the day, Vista is neither fantastically good nor tragically terrible. Sure, there are some speed bumps but I think people were expecting something as revolutionary as Windows XP was, especially since it was over five years in development and project leaders decided at one time to completely scrap the existing code and start over. Truth be told, XP wasn't all that revolutionary. Anyone who has used Windows NT or Windows 2000 recognized much of the interface and many of the "new" features underneath a shiny new veneer. The difference there was that much of NT and 2000 had actually been greatly improved upon.

So, what we really have here is an operating system attempting, by popular demand, to maximize backwards compatibility and maintain support for literally thousands of legacy and contemporary peripherals. That's just not an easy task. Some devices, like my portable media player, are going to get left behind and users should be glad if they get any usability out of them. Where Microsoft and product manufacturers are falling short is in support of newer devices. It appears to me that MS crammed as much driver support as they could into Vista and delivered the driver SDK to manufacturers late in the game as somewhat of an afterthought and the manufacturers are still scrambling to catch up. Either that or the API and security models really do make it that hard to create a viable driver.

From the user side, there are no radical changes that make Vista a must-have upgrade and driver and compatibility issues make Vista more of a hindrance than a help. Plus, the mixture of available versions can be confusing to the consumer or seen as a way for Microsoft to squeeze every dime from us that they can. When you add to it people's natural resistance to change and their vocal nature about change, you have a bunch of reviewers shouting, "Vista Sucks!" and many of their followers being dragged kicking and screaming into the new OS with a preconceived resentment toward it.

Bottom line, I'm keeping Vista. Not because it offers me anything earth-shattering over XP but mostly because it doesn't present anything so sickeningly awful to make it worth the effort to reformat my hard drive and reconfigure all of my programs and devices.

I retain my SoundBlaster Live! card because it is one of the last sound cards produced with a gaming port. I have a joystick that I really, really like and no manufacturer has produced one quite like it in a USB format. FWIW, I haven't tested the joystick under Vista because I never unpacked it while we were in Boise. If I can't get the game port enabled and get the joystick functioning, I may just have to bite the bullet and upgrade both devices.

* The Ewok Christmas Special was a television movie that George Lucas was contractually obligated to produce that was so terrible he is rumored to have expressed an interest in performing a house-to-house search to seize and destroy any copies that may have been recorded of its one and only airing.

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