## Sunday, July 22, 2007

### Windows Vista: some actual experience

One of the reasons why I didn't have much time during the week was that I bought a new PC with Windows Vista Home Premium (CZ) and had to copy my data and software on it. With a 2 GB flash card, the transfer of 20 GB takes some time because the old XP laptop offers USB 1.0 only. The (crossed) ethernet cable in principle worked - they recognized the name of the partner - but I wasn't able to make the two computers fully collaborate and share general data through the cable.

If you care about the hardware, my old laptop is Hewlett-Packard Pavilion ze4125 while the new desktop PC is Packard-Bell iMedia, a no-name brand that looks similar to Hewlett-Packard which might be a deliberate trick by the French comrades who produce the boxes. Analogously, iMedia might have been chosen to induce a confusion with Apple. ;-)

The PC has 1024 MB, 3.3 GHz Intel Celeron, ST 160 GB disk, Optiarc DVD-RW, and an ATI video card that steals 256 MB RAM. The minimalistic Made-in-China English-Czech keyboard has one incredibly annoying subtlety: the right portion of the left shift key is stolen and transformed into another copy of the backslash-vertical-line key that exists elsewhere on the keyboard anyway. Because the left shift key has been pretty important for me - most capital letters are typed with the key pressed - destroying the most important sensitive spot of this key is a kind of problem! :-) The general secretary of the Chinese communist party should execute the person who has designed such a keyboard even though I guess she wasn't Chinese. ;-)

At any rate, now I can tell you much more about Vista than in the past when I dared to speak after 20 minutes of playing with it in Microcenter. My new comments finally include some negative words which were absent in my primordial, naive testimonies. ;-)

Speed and design

Vista is fast but I guess that booting could be faster with XP using the same new hardware. The transitions are smooth and most things look visually attractive. Waiting has been eliminated from many clicks that used to be time-consuming in XP but that could be largely due to the faster hardware, too.

Note that the Home Premium edition is not the minimal version of Windows Vista Home. Vista Home Premium is more successful than Vista Home Basic. I am almost sure that it is because of Windows Aero, the theme including semi-transparent borders of the windows: it is incorporated in all editions except for Home Basic. You can actually see a fuzzy, dim picture of the window behind it. Your humble correspondent usually doesn't care about such superficial details but if you see him care, it is likely that many others will care, too - even if they won't admit it. ;-)

Windows Aero is cool but you must carefully choose your favorite color and the degree of transparency.

The start button only includes a windows logo: the word "start" was a clear waste of space, at least after one minute when you learn what the start button is. When you click at it, things look much like in XP except for a few things. The most important one is a small window in the bottom that allows you to make a fast search for anything on your computer. The search looks at all filenames and the content of all files with text. As far as I am concerned, this improved and integrated MSN Desktop Search supersedes Google Desktop Search and in this case, I don't plan to install Google's competition although Google should probably be praised for their priority.

It seems that hibernation has been abolished - or, if you use the official terminology, it's been unified with the stand-by mode. I don't yet know whether the computer's power consumption is negligible in the stand-by mode. If it is, hibernation might indeed be useless, at least for desktop PCs.

What I find illogical is that there are no icons in the right column of the start menu (documents, computer, pictures, music, videos). As far as I can say, in all similar standard situations, it is easier to navigate through icons. The icon of the selected folder nevertheless appears on the top of the start menu, instead of the user's icon. Games have been included as a pretty standard category besides pictures, music, video, and (text) documents - and there is a dozen or so of simple Microsoft games included.

Windows explorer

The windows explorer has been significantly updated. In Windows XP, sorting and grouping according to various criteria was modestly presented as a new idiosyncratic subtlety that had to be hidden somewhere in complicated menus. That's no longer the case. Microsoft has recognized that these are standard tools that are used all the time. By one click, you can re-order and re-group the files in the directory according to dozens of different criteria that you can pre-configure if you wish and that depend on the content of the folder. By one click (a different one), you may also switch from the list to tiles (my favorite choice) and to small icons, medium icons, and large icons (or thumbnails). That's clearly a good thing.

In XP, you had a left column with context-dependent tasks (such as "make a new folder"). I have never used these buttons much but I liked them aesthetically. In Vista, a list of relevant folders is positioned in the left column but can be removed which is my favorite choice. You may also add a right column with previews.

There are two visual aspects of the content of the explorer's windows that I view as setbacks in comparison with XP. One of them is the uniformity of the color. In XP, the tasks in the left column used to have a different background color (blue). Such a combination of different colors (of both text and the background) resembles the template of this blog and in my opinion, it is not only visually appealing but it also helps you to quickly realize the decomposition of the page to different fields.

In fact, I would find it natural if different kinds of folders were associated with different background colors etc. For example, music folders could have different background and text colors than document folders, external disks, or pictures. That would make the orientation more convenient. Right now, even the difference between the active and other windows is too subtle. If you open too many windows of the explorer, you create a kind of chaos and neither the task switch button involving thumbnails (alt-tab) nor its brand new three-dimensional card version (windows-tab) helps you to get out of this chaos too efficiently if too many windows are too similar. Also, I would like a Norton-commander-like double-windows to make copying and moving more transparent.

The other complaint of mine is that the fonts describing files and their groups look too thin. Boldface fonts should be used at least for the groups of files (the titles). I still find the tiles and filenames as seen in XP to be more solid and comprehensible than their Vista counterparts. And I continue to have mixed feelings about the different size of the desktop icons: of course, all these things are matters of taste that can change. Vista's desktop icons are larger and most of them are available in a sufficient resolution but you will surely encounter some low-res examples soon if you have ever played with them.

The explorer has been given integrated search windows - using the indexing system - which is clearly a thing that all good operating systems in the future will have to have.

Other viewers, calendars, and applets

There exists another application analogous to the explorer that is somewhat non-trivial. In the Czech version, it is called Windows Photo Gallery. You may either understand it as a huge upgrade of the picture viewer and slide shows from XP, or as an integrated counterpart of Google Picasa2. Picasa2 is cool but as far as I see right now, it becomes largely unnecessary with the Windows Photo Gallery. Well, there are some functions in Picasa2 that I don't see in its Microsoft counterpart but is it really a good enough reason to double the number of indexing services and databases? It might be easier for Microsoft to add the missing functions in an updated version of the Photo Gallery. Because they have been able to reproduce most of Picasa2, I am sure that they can do the rest, too. ;-)

Standard applications include Windows Defender (against spyware), Windows Media Center (a program giving you all the luxury to deal with TV and media as the Media Center Edition of XP), a new Windows Mail (superseding Outlook Express), Windows Calendar, a somewhat modernized Windows Movie Maker, and various accessories that now include a screenshot utility (one that also allows you to cut an arbitrary shape), among other things.

In the right column of the desktop, you usually see widgets - called mini-applications in the Czech edition - and you may add many new ones or remove them.

Security, memory, filters

The integrated security center monitors the health of antivirus and anti-spyware software, the built-in firewall, OS updates, internet settings, and newly introduced warnings against changes of system files (that annoy you whenever you as an administrator do something that could be harmful if you don't know what you're doing or if a nasty worm pretends that she is the boss of your PC). Vista also evaluates the capacity of your computer - taking your processor, memory, hard disk, graphics card, and other things into account.

There are many more settings that determine access rights of various users and groups of users to files and services, new compatibility settings, and other issues. Parental control can be turned on for all accounts.

ReadyBoost is a fun new technology that employs a USB flash card as new RAM. It's cool but I haven't done anything yet that would need such a memory boost. I guess that video editing could be grateful for such a help.

Compatibility

I was able to run a majority of old programs that were copied as directories only: in many cases, one can no longer download the programs and the installation disks are gone so it is an issue. The success list includes a huge portion of old games. I guess that many more games could run if they were properly installed from the scratch, including the automatically created registry entries and license codes.

I am missing drivers for an analog camcorder so far.

The old programs that were running just fine include very old MS-DOS programs except for those that switch to the fullscreen mode in MS-DOS. While Vista still includes some kind of MS-DOS, although it is no longer its core, it doesn't seem to allow this MS-DOS to switch to the fullscreen mode. I view it as a bug that should be fixed. Running old TurboPascal programs with modern fast computers has always been fun and those that were drawing things are mostly gone: the same problem decimates Derive, an MS-DOS ancestor of Mathematica, and other programs. The Commodore64 emulator works fine, including the fullscreen mode.

I recommend you to download DOSbox emulator to run MS-DOS programs of any kind, including full screen mode. You need to "mount" a disk by a command, but then everything works OK.

Independently of Vista, it is cool to run some old graphical games on newer computers. I was immensely impressed by the Mafia game. Everything is fast and smooth even with the most demanding video settings. But Vista clearly can't be credited for this development: it's all about the hardware.

Each new owner of Vista is recommended to download an antivirus program, for example from www.avira.com (free), a faster and more visual defragmenter (Auslogics produces a good free one), Vista Codecs (to deal with DivX-like video codecs that are not included among the standard ones), putty SSH, WinSCP for secure FTP, and many other things.

Jochen Brocks who used to be my roommate when XP was getting started - and we shared our passion for new Microsoft products as opposed to the "dinosaur" Linux et al. despite Jochen's leftist sentiments :-) - warned me that he had some serious crashing problems with Vista. Well, I have only experienced a few application crashes at the beginning and one blue-screen-like crash in an overloaded state - but these problems have probably gone away and didn't materialize after the first day. I guess that with the Internet and updates, most of the reasons behind any potentially wrong behavior will converge to zero quickly.

Summary

I don't think that Vista's improvements are so crucial that an upgrade from XP to Vista would be recommended for most old computers - really old computers are not powerful enough to run Vista anyway - but I am absolutely sure that despite some imperfections, Vista is the best operating system available in 2007 and sane general users without prejudices should clearly make it their operating system of choice for all new computers. There is no reason to wait. That's a rather clear conclusion for which I have to apologize to Ann & Steve Jobs: keep your good work. ;-)

And that's the memo.