XP 1, Vista 0

I received a free copy of Windows Vista Ultimate (Retail Version) last week and I decided to actually see what it was like. I had heard the nightmares about User Access Control (aka, UAC), heard about the slowdowns with Glass, the incompatibilities, and so on. But, until I had tried it firsthand, it was hard to know what was true and what was just the anti-Microsoft bias of people on the web. Well, after trying Vista for a few days, I have to say most of it is true.

Before I go forward, I want to make it clear that this isn’t a Mac vs Windows rant. I’ve already made my choice to use OS X as my primary operating system on all the machines that I own. I like the Mac a lot. But there are times when you have to fire up a copy of Windows. And as a software developer, those times come up a lot more than a regular user might encounter. So, my goal with looking at Vista was to see how viable of a replacement for XP it would be rather than how good does it compare with OS X.

Also, as I said above, I am not a Windows user. There are things in Windows that I will probably never know. But, having said that, I have certainly had my share of using Windows over the past 10-15 years. I’ve had machines on my desk running NT 3.51, NT 4.0, Win2k, and WinXP. I’ve avoided Win95, Win98 and WinME for the most part. I’ve done plenty of work on Windows machines in the past. I’ve just chosen to stay away from them when I can. What does this all mean? It means that I’m probably not doing everything by the book with Windows, but I feel fairly confident in my Windows skills overall. Some things are probably going to be wrong below, but don’t allow that to interfere with the main purpose of this article — which is comparing Vista and XP for those of us who periodically have to use Windows. Now on with the rest of the post.

For testing, I used a Core 2 Duo MacBook w/2GB of RAM. The machine has a 80GB hard drive, of which I gave 20GB to Vista (I tried to give 30GB, but Boot Camp failed on the resizing saying there was a file that couldn’t be moved). I used the latest version of Boot Camp (1.3) and I used the retail version of Vista Ultimate. Boot Camp only has 32-bit drivers at the moment, so I stuck with the 32-bit version of Vista. I did find mention of people using the 64-bit version of Vista on the net, but they had to search for the 64-bit drivers. Since there are a number of drivers provided with Boot Camp that were written by Apple, I would recommend just sticking with the 32-bit version for now.

Installation wise, everything went smooth. It took about an hour for a complete installation — it might’ve been a little longer or less. Compared with most Windows installations I’ve done, it went very smooth. The Boot Camp drivers also installed smoothly as well.

The first boot, however, took ages. It was about a minute and a half before the login screen was up. Once I logged in, it took about 30-45 seconds before I had a usable desktop. Usable meaning that all of the widgets were up and running on the screen and the hard drive activity had actually stopped. I tried rebooting a few times, and the times were very similar. In contrast, OS X on the same machine was about 20-30 seconds to the login screen, and another 10 seconds to usable desktop.

Wireless network setup was hands down the best I’ve ever seen in Windows. It detected my home network and allowed me to connect in about 5 seconds. Part of the speed was the window with all of the common tasks in it that Vista launched on startup.

On the other hand, when I brought the laptop to work and connected through the wired network, it was not so simple. It detected the network just fine — along with another unidentified network as well. It was this unidentified network that gave Vista all kinds of fits. After messing around with the machine for about 30 minutes, it turned out the unidentified network was the IPv6 network. Since we use OS X Server at work to run our network, Vista got confused about this other network that OS X was telling it about. I disabled the IPv6 support for the network card, restarted the card, and everything worked. But that doesn’t explain why I had to do this. This, IMO, is a big negative for Vista. Something like this shouldn’t have been a road block for Vista.

On to the interface — when XP came out, I wasn’t a fan of the big blue bubble look. It was too big for my tastes, and it was obnoxious. Thankfully, Microsoft gave us an option to use the classic look. On every XP installation that I ever used, I would change it to the classic look. Vista continues to allow the classic look, but after playing with it, I think the new look is actually pretty nice. It doesn’t seem to take up as much space as the XP look, but that could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. Obviously, the effects are pretty heavy duty, so you might still want to disable some of the effects — on an aside, I’m not convinced on the blurry glass look for the titlebars.

Another interface change is the sidebar. I am not a big fan of putting toolbars on every edge of the screen. OS X pushes my limit with the menubar at the top and the dock at the bottom. The sidebar in Vista goes over that limit. First, the widgets are huge. And, I don’t see the point in most of them — for example, why do I need a clock widget when the time is already in the taskbar? Or, the image widget that rotates through a bunch of images randomly. Luckily, you can get rid of the sidebar as well.

I won’t talk too much on UAC. It’s already been talked to death everywhere else. Even Apple made fun of it in one of their ads for the Mac. My concerns regarding it boil down to 1) it comes up way too often 2) it doesn’t really protect anything, IMO. On the Mac, when administrative privileges are needed, you get a dialog box that requires you to enter the name and password of an administrator. On Vista, you get allow or cancel. Combine that with how often the dialog comes up, and you have now trained the user to just click allow all the time. Which is just as bad as not asking at all. But, on a positive note, I do like how they dim the display and force the dialog to basically be modal. It does make it a little harder to spoof (something that I think would be really easy to do in the current scheme on OS X), but it’s certainly not an end-all solution either. Let’s hope that Microsoft and Apple both continue to learn from each other and refine the way administrative actions are confirmed.

Performance wise, Vista on the MacBook seemed much slower than XP under Parallels on the same machine and OS X. It’s pretty bad when the previous OS version runs faster under virtualization than the current one does running natively. I’m sure a lot of this will be corrected in SP 1, whenever that comes out. But for now, it’s not there.

As for compatibility, I tried a few programs I needed for work under Vista. Some of them launched just fine, but certain features didn’t work, or worked poorly (sound in one app was broken up). Obviously, developers will have to update their apps to work under Vista properly. But, this is a break from the past versions of Windows where Microsoft actively made changes to the OS to support broken apps. I don’t know if this is a new policy or just a remnant of development schedule for Vista. We’ll find out more when SP 1 comes out.

Another compatibility issue that I ran into was that I couldn’t use my KVM at work under Vista. When booting Windows, the machine would never detect the display. I normally run the MacBook with the lid closed through the KVM at work. And this works fine for OS X — as long as I have the MacBook selected on the KVM. Doing the same for Vista causes it to have a blank screen. When I opened the laptop, the screen remained black, and I couldn’t get it to recognize either screen. Even putting it to sleep didn’t help (btw, that does help under OS X in case anyone is having that problem).

In the end, it was the performance and compatibility that caused me to remove Vista off the MacBook. That and the performance of Parallels. I just could not justify rebooting into Vista every time I needed to use Windows, and the slower speed just made it worse. The KVM issue was the final nail for Vista at the moment. I really don’t want to have to rearrange my working space to accommodate Vista’s failings.

Overall, I found my Vista experience disappointing. Now granted, I didn’t give it a very long test — just a few days. But, it’s problems came out so quickly that it was just much easier to revert back to using XP. Once SP 1 comes out, I’ll probably give Vista another shot. By then, I may even have better hardware to test it on — which in the case of XP (and OS X as well) helped out a lot over the years.

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