Aug 2007

Windows Vista

So Windows Vista, eh? What’s that all about?

My computer died a few weeks ago and between being skint and being busy so as to be a bit less skint, I’ve only recently gotten round to buying and setting up a new one. For the past ten years or thereabouts, I’ve tended to buy my computer in kit form. And my PC evolved steadily rather than ever getting replaced wholesale. So I’d buy a new motherboard and processor when the old ones died or could no longer handle the increasing demands of modern software (Adobe, I’m looking at you here). Over the years I’ve seen hard-drives go from being measured in MB to being measured in the hundreds of GBs. CPUs have struggled from 286 to 386 to 486 and then — the big leap — to pentium and beyond. My new one is a Core 2 Quad. It’s approximately 68.4 gazillion times faster than the fastest chip available just fifteen seconds ago. In about 3 and a half minutes it’ll be superseded. It will be largely obsolete by the end of the week.

I’m enjoying being cutting edge while it lasts.

Anyways, I decided this time to go with a pre-built system. I can no longer be arsed with the faffing about when the bloody thing breaks down. I’ve got a three year warranty, so if something goes wrong, I just have to phone them and they’ll have it collected and repaired at no cost or hassle to me.

It arrived with Windows Vista preinstalled and I figured I’d give it a whirl, secure in the knowledge that I can always reinstall my old copy of XP. And the verdict after a couple of weeks use…? It’s a bit shit actually.

Don’t get me wrong. It has many many redeeming features and some bits and pieces that make it worth sticking with. In fact I shan’t be returning to XP. I’ve gotten used to the enhanced file system with its breadcrumb navigation and ubiquitous search, both of which I’d seriously miss if I went back to XP. The new Taskbar and Start Menu really work well, and the User Access Control isn’t nearly as annoying as I’d been led to believe. I’ve not even bothered turning it off (which is perfectly possible) as it isn’t all that intrusive once you’ve done your initial set-up and software install. The Last.fm plugin for Media Player requires authentication each and every time I start up the program. But I can live with that.

The ‘aero’ display is pretty, and the live thumbnails of minimised windows in the taskbar is a useful feature. The sidebar is lovely but has a serious lack of plugins and widgets. You’d think Microsoft would have concentrated on having a wide selection of excellent little applications to plug into the sidebar. Instead there’s absolutely sod-all. Even the ability to “minimise” Media Player onto the Sidebar doesn’t exist. I’m using it as a repository for RSS feeds, but in truth I’m turning it off more and more often because I already have netvibes.com for that. An opportunity wasted.

The Windows Update process (with which I’ve had difficulties in the past) is streamlined and far less intrusive. In fact Vista does a pretty good job of tucking most of the actual workings of the Operating System further out of sight than ever before. As a bit of a tinkerer, and someone who knows their way around Windows better than most, I can find this a bit patronising or frustrating at times. But there’s no question that it’s a good thing in general. And all the options and controls are still there, you just have to dig a bit farther than before.

All of which makes a nice selection of interface enhancements and a worthy overhaul of the file system (it’s not the all new WinFS of legend, but as far as the actual user experience goes, it may as well be). But at what cost?

Well, aside from the financial one (it’ll always be a lot cheaper with a new PC; hence my decision to avail of that discount and get it now) the big cost is stability. Vista has been out for quite a while now, but there are still issues with some of the drivers. Despite having the latest Creative Soundcard, the latest version of Windows and the latest Creative drivers, it still seems to be a flip of a coin as to whether I’ll have sound on any given start-up. Or else I’ll have sound, but the Windows Sound Console will tell me that I have 5.1 Speakers (true) while the Creative Sound Console will insist I have 2.1 stereo speakers. And any changes to the settings can result in the system crashing, or more often, two of my five speakers stop working altogether.

Vista also seems to crash occasionally when it goes into power-save mode (if I wander away for my PC for more than 10 minutes), which is a right pain in the arse. XP never did that.

Worst of all though, are the plain old “random crashes”. They’d almost become a thing of the past with XP SP2. In fact, I remember very few random crashes once I’d upgraded from Windows 98 to Windows 2000. But here they are again with Vista. I might have Photoshop or Dreamweaver open and I’ll fire up a browser. 49 times out of 50… no problem. But every now and then the PC will throw a complete fit and lock up on me. In just two weeks of Vista use I’ve probably lost an hour’s work due to the OS dying while I had files open. That’s a waaaay higher rate than with XP.

Overall though, Vista has sucked me in. The file system alone is worth the cost of entry. And XP would seem very limiting in that sense were I to return to it. Aside from that though…? It’s all a bit underwhelming. A bit, “is that it?” So if you’re thinking about upgrading, can I suggest you hold off until Microsoft release a Service Pack? You’ll like the enhancements, but it’s probably worth waiting until the OS is more stable before you get them.

Posted in: Opinion