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Windows Vista review

By Jem Matzan

It's been more than 6 years since the last release of Microsoft's Windows desktop operating system. In that time, the operating system market has changed dramatically. No longer are there simple, standard PCs -- we now have tablets, handhelds, set-top boxes, and network appliances. We have low-end "email and Web" desktops, high-end gaming machines, and superpowered workstations. Having tested Windows Vista Ultimate Edition -- the most aggressively-featured edition of Vista -- I have to wonder if the Microsoft software engineers have been paying attention to any of these markets, because Vista, though an improvement over XP in many ways, doesn't seem to fit into any of them. It performs poorly, has substandard software and hardware support, and is prohibitively expensive. That's not to say that there's nothing to like about Vista, but the negative outweighs the positive.

Windows overview

This section provides a brief overview of Microsoft Windows, and is intended for those who have little experience with it. If you're already familiar with Windows, you may want to skip down to the next section to see what's new in Windows Vista.

Originally designed as a graphical interface on top of Microsoft's text-based MS-DOS operating system, Windows has gradually evolved into a single, integrated operating environment. With the introduction of Windows NT in 1993, the product line split into a business-class operating system while still maintaining the home desktop operating environment under the traditional Windows banner. While the home desktop edition of Windows reached its peak with Windows 98 and declined rapidly in quality thereafter, Windows NT carried a much more respectable reputation as a business-oriented workstation and server product. It eventually split into discrete server and workstation products, of which the server edition still lives on as Windows 2003. With the release of Windows Vista, the NT Workstation codebase has found new life in a highly evolved form as both a home and business desktop operating system.

Windows is installed by default on the majority of desktop computers sold in the United States, and is the predominant desktop operating system the world over. Traditionally it has had very poor native hardware support, relying heavily on third-party manufacturers to provide drivers individually. Such drivers are frequently of questionable design quality and have been known to cause system instability, and require frequent updates without user notification. Even many of Microsoft's own hardware products do not work well with some modern versions of Windows.

Software support in Windows is hit-or-miss. Recent versions of Windows have abysmal backwards compatibility with older Windows and MS-DOS binaries. This is particularly troublesome for people who rely on programs that are expensive to upgrade or are distributed by software companies that are no longer in business. Proprietary software manufacturers such as Adobe (and indeed Microsoft itself) generally require that users buy upgrades to existing expensive proprietary Windows software packages in order to use them on new Windows releases. As far as included desktop applications are concerned, Windows has always offered feature-weak and frequently insecure programs like Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Notepad, and Paint. None of the programs included with Windows are, by any stretch of the imagination, competitive in their markets, even among free software projects.

Overall, Windows has always been a mediocre but relatively easy to use operating system. It functions more as a platform for installing third-party software than it does as an operating environment in its own right. This design flaw has fostered several terrible plagues in the Windows realm: spyware, adware, viruses, and trojan horses.

Versions, packages, and pricing

With Windows XP, Microsoft began splitting the desktop computing market into different niches: "home" and "professional." The only major differences between the two were support for domain authentication, the remote desktop feature, and multi-CPU support. Windows Vista took this rather miserable idea and expanded it to split the computing market into even more segments:

There is a licensing discount for households that have several PCs: if you buy one full version copy of Ultimate, you can upgrade two additional PCs to Home Premium for $50 each. If you were to choose this option, your total operating system costs would be $460 for three machines, which isn't too bad overall, but that's still a lot of money to pay upfront.

Windows Vista is extremely expensive for a desktop operating system, especially when you consider the fact that the "real" version of Vista -- the one that people expect to use, based on the ads that Microsoft shows -- is Ultimate Edition. The big problem with this pricing scheme from a user perspective is that you have to pay a lot more to get the same software with expanded capabilities. The traditional consumer market is used to paying more to get something of greater volume or quality of workmanship -- you get more of something physical. With Windows Vista, that illusion is totally shattered. Users get the sense that they have to pay more to unlock or enable certain features that are already there. It doesn't cost Microsoft a cent to give Home Basic users the options and features in Ultimate, but users have to pay more. The exact differences between versions are:

  • Ultimate: All of the features you've read about, outlined in the next section below.
  • Business: Ultimate minus BitLocker hard drive encryption, full system backup, premium games, Media Center, DVD Maker, and high definition (HD) support for Windows Movie Maker.
  • Home Premium: Ultimate minus BitLocker hard drive encryption, full system backup, the ability to join a domain, user group policy support, Windows Fax and Scan, shadow copy, corporate roaming, the offline files and folders feature, and Remote Desktop.
  • Home Basic: Ultimate minus BitLocker hard drive encryption, full system backup, the ability to join a domain, user group policy support, Windows Fax and Scan, shadow copy, corporate roaming, the offline files and folders feature, Remote Desktop, Windows premium games, scheduled backups, network backups, Windows Aero, Media Center, Flip 3D navigation, Windows Meeting Space, tablet PC support, SideShow, DVD Maker, and high definition (HD) support for Windows Movie Maker.

There is also a Vista Enterprise Edition, but the pricing is negotiable and it contains features not covered in this review.

New in Vista

It's difficult to compare Windows Vista to its Windows 2000 and Windows XP predecessors because so much has changed in the incredibly long period of time between releases. According to Microsoft, the most notable features in Vista Ultimate include:

  • Windows Aero desktop theme. This is not only a new window decoration, menu, and icon theme, but also a 3D graphical enhancement that offers translucency and fading effects for windows and dialogues.
  • Improved data backup. Windows Vista comes with a framework for backing up important documents and data, or the entire operating environment, to removable media.
  • Live search. If you lose track of your files, this will help you find them.
  • Self-healing and shadow copy. Windows Vista can detect some kinds of errors and data corruptions and either correct them or roll back a file to a previously saved version. The same applies to accidentally saved files -- you can roll them back to a previous state.
  • Windows Fax and Scan. Improved faxing and scanning tools.
  • Windows Mail replaces Outlook Express. This modern email client replaces the notoriously insecure Outlook Express.
  • Improved configuration tools. Every facet of the control panel has been enhanced. Configuration tools offer more options and make configuring things like the sound system and network connections much easier.
  • Windows Defender security suite. This collection of anti-virus, firewall, and spyware removal tools supplants the need for several expensive third-party applications.
  • Internet Explorer 7 replaces IE6. One of the worst Web browsers in modern history gets a major overhaul, including vastly improved JavaScript and W3C standards support, and dynamic security protection that helps stave off phishing schemes on the Web.
  • Parental controls and enhanced user account control. You can now set better limits on Web and media content through Vista's parental controls framework. You can also create user accounts that don't have administrator permissions, which prevents the system from being changed in harmful ways. Windows XP and 2000 had this, but it never worked as intended.
  • Windows Media Center added, Windows Media Player upgraded to version 11. There is an updated version of Windows Media Player for audio, but if you want your computer to function as a multimedia appliance (even or especially if only temporarily) or watch a DVD, you'd go through WMC.
  • Windows Photo Gallery. This program copies photos from your camera, tags them according to your preference, and shows them to you in thumbnail or slideshow views.
  • Windows Mobility Center and improved wireless networking tools. The Mobility Center makes it easier to manage laptop-oriented settings, like sound, wireless networking, power-saving functions, and screen brightness. Additionally, it's much easier to connect to wireless networks in Vista than it was in XP.

Putting it to the test

Many of my initial impressions of Windows Vista were very positive. The installation routine is now entirely graphical and quite easy to use. Once the operating system is on your hard drive, the post-install configuration steps are just as easy. The entire process took less than 30 minutes from start to finish on a Core 2 Duo E6700 machine with 1GB RAM.

The new Windows Aero theme is strikingly attractive and adds significantly to Vista's overall user experience. Actually its one among very few positive aspects of the Vista user experience. Turn off Aero and you're left with a dull, inconceivably bloated, constantly nagging PC operating system with poor hardware and software support. The sum of the meaningful positive Windows Vista features can be summed up in a quick list:

  • The Windows Aero theme
  • The dramatic improvements in ancillary programs like Internet Explorer and Windows Mail
  • The inclusion of Windows Media Center
  • The overall improvement in system stability
  • The full system backup utility

And now for the negative points, of which there are many. Let's start with the second thing you notice about Windows Vista after installing it: it requires product activation. Nobody likes doing this, and as we all know, there are low limits on how many times a product can be activated before you have to call up Microsoft and beg to continue using the operating system you purchased. The only consolation is that you probably will not have to reinstall Vista as frequently as you had to reinstall Windows XP over the years.

The next thing you'll notice about Windows Vista is that it performs poorly. The first machine I tested Vista on had an Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 processor -- extremely fast as of this writing, and the top-tier desktop Intel CPU six months earlier -- with 1GB of DDR2-800 RAM in two sticks, a 10kRPM SATA hard drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 7300 PCI Express video card. This machine is lightning fast when running GNU/Linux, any of the BSDs, and Windows 2000 and XP. Put Vista on it, though, and the same programs you used every day in XP will take their sweet old time to complete a task. I had to knock the screen resolution and detail level down significantly in World of Warcraft and Unreal Tournament 2004 just to make them playable on Vista. The new Microsoft Office 2007 brings its own bloated slowness with it, so if you combine the two, on a fast machine you can end up waiting 10-15 seconds for a program like Outlook to start and load its settings.

Before you're through marvelling at the distinct lack of performance and overall sluggishness of Windows Vista, you will be assailed with the first of billions of "Windows needs your permission to continue" popup messages. Every time you do something different with a program, click on something in the control panel, perform a system backup, do virtually anything at all that involves an Internet connection, install software, or change anything, you are shown a nag dialogue that warns you that you're about to do something significant. While the constant warning messages may give the appearance of improved security, all it does in practice is absolve Microsoft of some of the responsibility of creating a secure operating system (pushing the burden of security onto the end user) while encouraging users to ignore security warnings. When you see these annoying little popups so frequently, it doesn't take long to learn to click the correct button and ignore what they're trying to tell you. How will you know when genuinely important security messages come up when you have to swat away dozens of false alarms every day?

Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate
Windows Vista Ultimate: not-so ultimate, really

The applications included in Windows Vista Ultimate are a dramatic improvement over previous releases, but still don't compete in terms of features and security with most free and proprietary software packages. Given the choice, I'll still use Thunderbird over Windows Mail, and Opera over Internet Explorer. IE7 may be leagues ahead of its predecessor, but the redesigned interface is unintuitive, over-simplistic, and difficult to get used to.

SideShow is a neat feature, but I couldn't find a good use for it. SideShow adds an area to the right side of your desktop where you add "gadgets" -- desktop applets -- that do interesting things. There are more than 600 gadgets available for download as of this writing, so there is no shortage of options. On first use, you'll probably end up spending at least an hour customizing SideShow with all kinds of cool gadgets. Later, you'll find that you never use SideShow because it's always covered by whatever programs you're working with. In order to see it, you have to minimize or reduce the window size of all of your currently-running applications. Supposedly you can connect to your PC while it is powered off and get information from SideShow delivered to a Windows Mobile device, but the only PocketPC I have isn't compatible with this feature, so I wasn't able to test it.

The biggest hurdle for me was usability. Windows Vista rearranges your Windows XP and 2000 workflow to the point that you can find yourself totally confused as to what certain buttons and menu functions do, and where to go to get to familiar utilities like the Add/Remove Programs section of the Control Panel. It's what Web designers sometimes refer to as "mystery meat navigation" -- the interface is not at all intuitive and you have to sort of guess and click to figure things out. The default shutdown operation is not to shut down the computer, but to put it into suspend mode. This can cause a few interesting problems if you lose power or unplug the machine after it's been suspended.

I couldn't run some programs -- most notably World of Warcraft -- without setting them to run as the Administrator user, because they required write access to their own directories in C:\Program Files. This can't possibly be secure.

The problems I had with Vista kept showing themselves over a period of weeks. The most astonishing problem I had was trying to connect a Microsoft Habu gaming mouse -- Windows Vista only had basic USB mouse functionality for it, and I couldn't get it to track at an acceptable resolution. Ironically, GNU/Linux and FreeBSD have better support for Microsoft's own hardware products than its latest Windows operating system does. Forget about using much of your old Windows 98, 2000, or XP software, too -- Vista has problems with backward binary compatibility. While writing this review, my father called to ask me how he could replace Vista on his new computer with XP. He'd bought (against my advice) a recent release of Adobe Creative Suite a few months ago, and some of the programs in it -- the ones he needs for his business -- don't work at all in Vista. Adobe, in typical Adobe/Macromedia "screw the customer" fashion, refused to allow him a free upgrade to a Vista-compatible edition. No matter who is to blame, the state of desktop computing is undeniably harmed with the introduction of Windows Vista.

Conclusions and developer recommendations

I took down my Mandriva workstation and replaced it with my Vista test machine and tried to work normally for a day. I found it difficult to get good desktop software applications for affordable prices, I had trouble getting my Microsoft mouse to work properly, the unintuitive and strangely rearranged interface drove me crazy, and the system's poor performance was intolerable. I have several pages of notes on Vista; this review would double in size if I were to list every issue I found with this operating system, so I'll cut it short and say that I was extremely disappointed. When you peel away the fancy graphical interface enhancements, you're left with an operating environment that performs poorly, is difficult to use, has inadequate desktop hardware and software support, and annoys its users with unending security messages.

From reading other people's reviews, and Microsoft's marketing materials, I was expecting a much more intelligently designed operating environment. Microsoft is a gigantic company that had every resource imaginable -- time, money, talent, market power -- available to it to design the world's best operating system, and Vista is nowhere near the top of that potential. To use a car analogy, Vista should have been the Acura NSX of operating systems; instead it ended up a DeLorean DMC-12 -- it looks cool and has a few interesting features, but performs poorly and is impractical in nearly any imaginable scenario. I suspect the source of Vista's design problems are at the top of the management chain -- the so-called "Chief Software Architect" seems incapable of designing technologically advanced, maximally useful software, or at very least fostering a corporate environment in which competent employees can design it for him. I'd recommend that he be replaced, but I'm pretty sure he owns a majority of the company's stock.

I definitely do not recommend upgrading to Vista from any previous edition of Windows. If you end up stuck with Vista because you've bought a new PC, there are other operating system options available to you -- most appropriately, GNU/Linux in the form of openSUSE, Mandriva, Ubuntu, Xandros, Linspire, and Freespire. Through a framework like CrossOver Linux or Cedega (or even Wine), you'll be better enabled to run your older Windows programs, and you'll have better hardware support than Windows Vista offers.

Not only is Vista uncompetitive with other current desktop operating systems, it's also a step down from its predecessors. The situation isn't hopeless -- yet. Here's what I think needs to be done to salvage Vista, and Microsoft's future as an operating system manufacturer:

  • Switch to the "operating environment" philosophy. The biggest problem with Microsoft Windows is that it serves mostly as a platform for installing third-party software. The problem is, there is so much malware and spyware being shoved in users' faces that this philosophy is doomed to fail. For Microsoft to truly end its security and malware nightmares, it has to implement a single managed framework for installing all software, much like commercial desktop GNU/Linux distributions. Not only would this provide a safe and reliable way to install/uninstall/reinstall third-party applications, but it would also virtually eliminate illegal software copying, and thus the need for annoying product activation schemes.
  • Lower prices. Windows is far too expensive compared to its competition. Considering the fact that you will almost certainly need some kind of hardware upgrade to run Windows Vista, the hidden ancillary costs make Vista a hugely expensive upgrade that offers virtually nothing in return. That needs to change, and the best way to do it is to put every version of Vista under U.S. $100 for the full version.
  • Consider hardware deployments before designing new features. Windows Vista was built with unrealistic hardware goals in mind. It was not built for today's computers, let alone yesterday's, and even tomorrow's machines will have some performance problems with Vista. Microsoft's developers need to start thinking in terms of the computers that people have today, not the ones they might have in 5 years.
  • A shorter release cycle. Microsoft's biggest software development problem is that it is trying to do too much with an aging Windows codebase that has been extended long beyond its usefulness. It needs to design an excellent, lightweight, modular operating system from the ground up -- or preferably build on something worth using, like FreeBSD or HaikuOS -- and then add a few enhancements every 6-12 months. This is the only way the company can prevent its software from becoming laughably outdated halfway through its support cycle, as was the case with Windows XP.
  • Focus on 64-bit. IA32 is a thing of the past. You can hardly find any new CPUs in today's market that don't support 64-bit functions ala AMD64 or EM64T. So why isn't more software compiled for 64-bit? That's a question that I've asked a lot of programmers over the years, and the general answer I get each time has to do with poorly written software. Windows may be 64-bit, but there are few good hardware drivers, and so much desktop software is not yet 64-bit clean, which requires a huge 32-bit compatibility layer. Someone needs to take the initiative in moving to fully 64-bit environments, and the only company in a good position to do that is Microsoft. I think the best way to do that is to refuse to make a 32-bit version of its next operating system.
Purpose Desktop operating system
Manufacturer Microsoft
Supported architectures x86, AMD64/EM64T
License Proprietary, heavily restrictive. Requires limited-use product activation.
Market Home desktop users
Price (retail) U.S. $85 to $360 depending on which edition you buy, and whether it is an upgrade or the full version.
Previous version Windows XP, Windows 2000 Professional
Product Web site Click here