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By | Thomas C Greene 14th February 2007 14:50

Vista first look: Bugs and confusion

A massively multiplayer beta test

Review The most prominent feature of Windows Vista is its cost. So, before we get into the nuts and bolts of how it behaves, let's talk about value for money. Because at these prices, it had better be good.

The stand-alone version of Vista Ultimate retails for €600, or $780 here in Ireland. Amazon.com is selling this $780 version to Americans for $380. Or, to put it another way, Europeans are subsidising Americans by $400 on every copy they buy.

Bill Gates tried to explain this anomaly during a BBC TV interview by claiming that Microsoft "tries to keep prices largely in line country by country." Bill said that he had "not followed how the exchange rates made that drift", and added that rates "can go out of alignment as currencies go up or down".

Apparently, Bill's minders had neglected to prep him for that question, because if he understood even the basic principles behind currency exchange rates, he would have known that the "drift" would make Vista cheaper in Europe. The American $380 stand-alone Vista Ultimate package would retail here for €292 plus VAT, not €600 with VAT. So obviously, there's some monkey business going on with the price, and Bill isn't fooling anyone.

I bought the Home Premium upgrade for this series of reviews, and paid €250, or $325. Amazon sells it to Americans for $154, or €118. Still, I'm content to subsidise American consumers, who are watching their currency sink steadily to the status of third-world company scrip. I've always believed in being generous with foreign aid.

And yes, you read right; I bought it. I requested a review copy, as did my colleague Joe Fay. Meredith Budwin, from MS's PR machine Waggener Edstrom, told me that MS would do its very best to accommodate, but there were problems with limited availability, finite budgets, etc. "We may be unable to provide a review copy due to the large volumes of inquiries received," Budwin explained. This from a company that can afford to bribe bloggers with free Ferrari laptop computers, but somehow can't afford a fifty-cent plastic disk for The Register. Right.

Eye candy

If Vista's price, especially for Europeans, is its most eye-popping feature, its second most eye-popping feature is the Aqua Aero desktop interface. Windows now has translucent icons and translucent window borders. Taskbar tabs zoom, with graphical preview thumbnails showing the window's contents, just as they do in Aqua (I turned that nonsense off immediately - what a distraction).

Indeed, Aero looks nearly as good as KDE, although it demands about three times the system resources. But there's more. Window layouts have changed for the better, especially for file browsing.

Aero

The directory and file organisation, and the overall look and feel, are strangely reminiscent of...oh...what's the name of that OS I'm thinking of? But this is not to say that imitating Apple hasn't made the Windows UI a lot better. It has. Search looks like a Spotlight clone, but it's been improved from the bottom up, and it's available in any window dealing with file management or system management, and from the start menu. It's much faster now, and quite easy to configure and refine. Users benefit from improved indexing, and from more control over indexing options. And users can add metadata to files to make searching easier.

And the location bars, or address bars, have been changed, making it easy to navigate from there. You simply mouse-over to reveal a button corresponding to a previous or higher location, and click to get there. It's nice not having to use the back button repeatedly or backspace over the path; I like this feature a lot.

Microsoft's next homage to Apple is the sidebar, a collection of little utilities and other single-use apps like clocks and timers and feeders bearing news headlines, stock reports, sports scores, etc. These are called Gadgets, to distinguish them from Apple's Widgets. Thus, we can say that they're not actually identical. One of the first things I did after I installed Vista was turn off the sidebar. I found it quite distracting. However, others might like it, so I won't criticise it.

You will also find a very iCalendar-looking Calendar, and a very iPhoto-looking Photo Gallery. Neither of which is bad. The look, feel and behaviour of both is quite similar to the Mac versions, which is all the better. Photo Gallery allows for simple editing, making slideshows, and burning to DVD, and you can add metadata to make searching easier. You can even import videos into the Photo Gallery and edit them or merge them using Movie Maker, which means that all those little porn clips of yours will be far easier to assemble into something that will last for the required three minutes. Again, files can be saved locally, or burned to DVD quite easily.

Shiny happy icons

Dialog boxes are now cleaner, and wizards too. They look more Aqua-ish, and they function better, with far less mindless interrogation. There's no more, "Device driver installation. Click next to continue. Would you like to install this device driver? Click next to continue. Would you like to install the device driver to the directory where it belongs? Click next to continue. Windows is ready to install the device driver. Click next to continue..."

All well and good, but MS hardly deserves praise for ceasing to torment users and admins with such idiocy. It should have been fixed a decade ago.

Another small but nice touch is the fact that MS now sets a desktop icon for Control Panel. With XP, I used to find it impossible to set one manually. Perhaps Redmond thought it unwise to encourage tinkering, customising, and so on, to cut down on the support calls. At any rate, the beast seems to have got the message: Control Panel is a vital interface.

The new Vista start menu is not my cup of tea. Instead of an expanding menu, it has a scrolling menu, which makes it more difficult to find the programs you want to launch. It also requires two steps; first you must click on a button to show more programs than IE, and then you have to scroll through the list, which is too long to be taken in at a glance. Far too much space is wasted on links to documents, music, movies, games, etc. I always keep an icon for Windows Explorer on my desktop, and have no trouble finding these things whenever I please. I use the start menu to launch programs that I don't launch often enough to be worth linking on my desktop. I want the start menu to be quick; I don't want to waste time with it, being invited to do things that I can do more easily via other means.

(Mercifully, Microsoft has dropped its condescending "My" obsession, and directories are now given grownup names like Computer, Documents, Pictures, and so on. And not a moment too soon.)

If the new start menu is a disappointment, the classic Windows start menu is nicely improved. The maddening delay in opening expanding menus is gone; they now open completely, at once, as they should. It's really quite a treat, although, again, MS deserves scant praise for finally doing what it ought to have done years ago.

Next, there's the Flip-3D feature, which gives you a moving Rolodex view of your open windows. When the one you want comes into view, you stop flipping at that point and it opens for you. Unfortunately, there seems not to be a reverse feature on this little merry-go-round, so if you miss your stop, round you go again. I wonder when I might ever find it useful, as I rarely have enough windows open to make a challenge out of finding whatever I want in the taskbar. I rather think it's there merely because it's "cool". And I'll confess; I've played with it a few times. I've never used it, mind, but I have fiddled. And it is rather cool, actually. And pretty useless.

There's also welcome evidence that MS is finally becoming aware of developments outside its own little magic kingdom. It only took forever, but I note that the still largely dysfunctional Notepad at least offers the option of saving a file as UTF-8, say, and that the new screen shot tool allows you to save images as a PNG or JPEG, instead of the ridiculous BMP files that have fascinated MS for ages, for reasons impossible to fathom.

There is much to say about Internet Explorer and the new Windows Mail (a replacement for Outlook Express), which I will cover in a forthcoming review dealing with Vista security. I never dreamed I would have anything kind to say about either of those items, but for once, I will. This is not to say that Vista security is anything near what it's cracked up to be, and we will soon see why. I will also write a separate article on Vista administration, and will discuss several new features and changes to the admin interfaces and procedures then.

Retail confusion

Now for the fun part. The trouble with Vista starts before you get the software home. It's very difficult to know which edition is right for you, because there are many options, and MS has done a spectacularly bad job of communicating with the public. As I reported previously, I bought the Home Premium upgrade, which, according to the package, can be used on the following Windows OS's: "Windows 2000 Professional, Windows XP, or Windows Vista." I had Windows XP Pro, and yet was not permitted to perform an upgrade - because it would have been a downgrade: I would have lost the use of a few XP features that I never use anyway. So instead of warning me of the features I would lose and asking me if I wanted to upgrade/downgrade anyway, I was offered only the choice of doing a clean install and losing all of my data and settings, and the aforementioned XP Pro features, in one go. Brilliant.

The package is misleading: on the front it says that the upgrade is fine for XP, but that clearly wasn't the case. Ah, but there's a disclaimer: "Backup and clean install may be required. See back of box for details." And indeed there is some microscopic print at the bottom there, saying that a clean install is needed unless one is upgrading from XP SP2 Home or Media Centre Edition or Vista Home Basic. In all honesty, I never saw it. A reader brought it to my attention.

It gets even more ridiculous. There is a wonderfully-clear chart at the Vista website that shows the various upgrade options. It would have been awfully nice to find that printed on the package in place of confusing and largely illegible text.

So, once you've been screwed out of some of the features in your former OS without warning, along with all of your data and settings - because it would make too much sense for MS to let you do a "downgrade" after warning you of the features you'd lose and letting you decide how important they are to you - you can look forward to a quite disappointing Windows Experience.

Return to sender

Here's how mine went. First, my computer is intolerably noisy all of a sudden. The fan on my graphics card (nVidia GeForce 7900) now runs continuously. It's supposed to come on to cool things as needed, but now it never shuts off. Probably, it's a device driver problem. Or possibly, the Aqua Aero desktop uses so much of the card's resources that the fan simply has to run continuously. In any event, I'm not listening to this bloody thing for much longer. When my Vista reviews are finished, I'm going back to a dual-boot Linux/XP system.

My wonderful audio system isn't working properly, either: that is, my Creative X-Fi card and expensive surround speaker system. And this is a real pity, because Vista is supposed to have benefited from a great deal of attention to its audio capabilities. Too bad I can't enjoy them. The centre speaker is dead, and it's the most important one. The satellites are a little, how shall I put it, echo-ey. The centre one has the clarity and the satellites add an illusion of being in a large space, and provide balance. Well, using Media Centre, I tested the speakers and each one sounded the tone indicating that they'd passed. But the centre one is still dead at all other times. Maybe it's a driver problem. Maybe not. I simply recall that my audio system worked beautifully under XP. And now, it doesn't.

There is an irritating little row of pixels in my very expensive and very pretty LCD display that blinks white to black whenever the taskbar is hidden. The blinking stops whenever the taskbar is visible. I know, probably a driver problem. But Linux and XP didn't have it.

Now for another little irritant: immortal craplets. There are two. One is the Vista Security Centre. I have disabled it. I have shut it off in Services. I have tried to shut it off in Msconfig. It won't die. Every time I boot, the craplet pops up and demands to be enabled. But if it really is disabled, then why am I seeing the bloody thing? And there's another immortal craplet: one that tells you that you've "disabled important startup programs", like the Security Centre, for example. I've tried to kill this ridiculous thing too, with no joy.

So, one craplet pops up demanding to be enabled; you exit that, and a different one pops up telling you that you really ought not to have done that. Now, my definition of malware is pretty straightforward: malware is any code that causes my computer to behave in a way I don't intend, or any code that prevents my computer from behaving in a way that I do intend. Thus the Vista Security Centre is, quite simply, malware. I won't put up with this nonsense any longer than I'll put up with a dysfunctional audio system, or a noisy fan that never shuts up for one second.

And how about a few decent utilities? Yes, thank you for the DVD burner and thank you for the screenshot tool, and for the very basic photo and movie editing kit. But how about a decent text editor, for God's sake? Would it be so difficult to give it a little of the magic that Kwrite has got? A spell checker perhaps? The ability to clean spaces? A little colour-coded action for us HTML homebrewers, so we can see simple typos, like forgetting to close a tag? Is that too much to ask?

And how about a file wipe utility? Is that too much to ask? And how about a little encryption software? For email, and for individual files. Oh, Bitlocker is fine, but there are files one doesn't want decrypted whenever the volume they're on is mounted. Is that too much to ask?

And there's more. Little things, really. Firefox is unable to make itself the default browser; my SSH client from Anonymizer won't install; my attempts to apply security patches to Word 2000 fail ("the requested operation requires elevation"); the logout screen now has so many options it needs a pull-down menu, and it defaults to "sleep" when "restart" is the action which users know is the most common, most important - indeed, most therapeutic - one they can take on a Windows box.

I won't even begin to detail the security and privacy issues in Vista, as they are meat for an entire article...which is coming soon.

So, there's our first look at Vista. It does benefit from a lot of good ideas, many of them Apple's, of course, but good nevertheless. It simply doesn't work very well, unfortunately. There are serious problems with execution; it's not polished; it's not ready. It should not be on the market, and certainly not for the outrageous prices being charged. Don't buy it, at least until after the first service pack is out. Don't pay to be a beta tester. ®

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