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Living with Vista

We're now a month into the world of Windows Vista. Microsoft's operating system launched back on January 31, and I have been using it, in various places, since then. I have to say, it's been an experience rather different than I had first thought it would be.

Those who follow my various rantings will know that I'm a big fan of Apple OSX, and that it is my daily operating system - I'd be lost without Expose, Spotlight and Safari's sophisticated bookmarking. But the promise of something new and shiny on the PC tempted me back into using it both on machines here in the office, and on my home rig. I even got it installed on my MacBook.

I'd like to talk about my experience running Vista. The first problem I experienced was that many of our systems here in the are set up with NVIDIA cards and SLI. My own system has a 7950GX2, and this wasn't supported by NVIDIA (I still can't quite work out if it is yet, and what I should be doing about that). This problem was easily fixed, merely by pinching an 8800 GTX off the shelf, whilst Tim was busy testing the 320MB GTS cards that have been arriving here and wasn't looking. However, I do appreciate that most people aren't able to employ this method of fixing, and so this was noted as something of a black mark.

In fact, I have been quite surprised at the amount of stuff that doesn't really work with Vista - even more so if you're talking about the 64-bit version. I did expect the vast majority of hardware to work out of the box, but it hasn't necessarily been the case. Microsoft seems really schizophrenic about driver support - some things you'd never expect to work operate perfectly, whilst other things are patchy at best.

Our office rigs are kitted out with X-Fi cards, for which Creative has a driver. But my home rig is Soundblaster Live, and there is no Vista support either given or planned. This is a bit of a downer, especially given the relative popularity of these cards. Here's another example from my home system - my generic-chipset TV card required a very elusive Windows XP MCE driver under that operating system, but worked out of the box in Vista Media Center. However, installing two of these cards for dual channel operation caused the box to fail to see any channels whatsoever. Bizarre.

So sketchy hardware compatibility has been one thing I've noticed, but I'm prepared to forgive that. Much of Vista is about moving on from legacy, and this is just one aspect. Perhaps the most lauded aspect of Vista is the new Aero Glass interface, the stunning new look that will give OSX a run for its money. To be honest, I haven't been terribly impressed. OK, so the transparency is nice, but it still doesn't really solve some of the fundamental problems of Windows, and in some places it complicates them.

Take the average Explorer window. The new breadcrumbs navigation system seems to me to be far more complicated than it actually used to be. I can't quite work out what I'm supposed to click to get to where. The context sensitive tasks down the side are also an annoyance, and I find they generally get in the way of what I'm trying to do. The new Windows Flip - where windows cycle round so you can see what's in them - was supposed to be an Expose killer, but it's really just a glorified ALT+TAB.

Not to mention the fact that half the stuff has been moved around. Why isn't Add/Remove Programs in Control Panel any more? Why move it, when everyone already knows where it is? I don't understand why Microsoft had to fiddle with things that didn't need fiddling with.

The same is true of Media Center. This is one thing I use a lot, since my home rig is connected up to my HDTV and has a digital TV card inside. MCE has lost a lot of the 'clean' feel it had in 2005, with additional user interface cues making things look a little cluttered. Things now scroll sideways, rather than vertically, making it jarring. Items have been moved around on menus. There's no point to it.

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Wil Harris


So I have some user interface gripes, it's true. But change is tough, and always possible to overcome. It's not the end of the world. I've actually become more concerned with what's going on under the hood. For starters, MCE is a heck-tonne better than it was in the last edition. It's stable, and it works, and it's less likely to drop my recording for no reason or even decide that I don't have a TV signal at all. It is far more friendly in terms of simply working that I can forgive its user interface foibles. Score one for Vista.

The rest of Vista seems a whole bunch more functional, too. The search is a whole league above XP, and now actually finds useful results in a decent amount of time, rather than just detritus. Internet Explorer 7 is about a million times better than 6, and the security features seem to be doing the trick, too. With User Account Control, I can quite happily run as a limited user, avoiding any problems with malware trying to nick my Admin credentials.

The fact that there is yet to be a critical exploit for Vista over three months since its first release (to businesses) seems to me to be a massive cause for optimism. I've taken some extra security steps - such as enabling hardware DEP - and I've installed the latest AVG free anti-virus, which works happily with Vista 32-bit. I'm quite happy, at the moment, to leave my home machine turned on and connected the vast majority of the time, safe in the knowledge that my girlfriend can use it without running the risk of accidentally trashing it.

When the first big Vista exploit hits - and it will do, at some point - I'm confident in Microsoft's ability to push me out a fix. The way Windows Updates are handled in this version of Windows is much more elegant, and makes keeping up to date a cinch. Most updates are pushed out to you without you ever having to think about it, and that includes graphics driver and other hardware updates, too. Windows is more intelligent about telling you what you need to fix, and when.

What else is good that's under the hood? Well, networking, for one. Connecting to a wireless network is much easier than in XP, and general network setup also makes a lot more sense. There's less mucking around with Workgroups and more just getting online and getting your files shared the way you want. This is going to be a big boon as more and more households start to have more than one computer in them.

Finally, of course, we come to the games. So my gaming is a bit slower on Vista, because there's no doubt that the overhead is rather larger. I've been playing a lot of Supreme Commander, and a lot of STALKER, both of which are Vista friendly. Of course, that 8800 in there doesn't hurt things, but graphics technology moves on at a remarkable pace, and that Vista overhead will be a small price to pay for the kind of experience that Games for Windows Live is going to offer - a seamless multiplayer internet experience in a vein similar to Xbox Live, which has transformed online gaming.

So overall, I'm satisfied and optimistic. Once the teething troubles of compatibility and change are over, I feel like I'm left with an operating system that is a lot more stable, a lot more secure, and has a great deal more base functionality. Not only that, but the picture for the future looks pretty good, too. I wasn't expecting this to be the case, but I'm really quite a fan - although I'm not yet quite taken enough to use it full-time on the MacBook. I still need my dose of Expose.

How have you found the move to Vista? Are you sticking with XP for now? Let me know over in the forum!