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Software, Technology

Vista first impressions

December 10th, 2007 by Jeff | 7 Core Dumps

I had my first brush with Microsoft Windows Vista this weekend. Like most hard-core geeks who are skeptical of just about anything Microsoft, I’ve read all the hype and negative press and have thus avoided it like the plague. I recently bought a new tablet PC (which just arrived today, woohoo!) and made sure to “downgrade” it to Windows XP. But this weekend as I was performing a Good Samaritan deed I was inadvertently forced to directly interact with Microsoft’s latest and “greatest” OS. And while there’s probably nothing new in this post to anyone who’s used Vista already, I’m sad to report most of what I’d heard and feared are true.

First, a little background. This past week, my sister-in-law’s notebook died. Exactly what happened is still uncertain; we know for certain that the video subsystem is on the fritz, which likely means that something is up with the motherboard (since the video is on-board). The LCD occasionally looks like a black light lava lamp, if that makes any sense, although I was surprised to have it actually work off and on with any given reboot. Windows XP crashes on boot on the NVIDIA video driver, which might (or might not) be consistent with a video hardware problem. Throw into the mix the fact that the system spontaneously reboots or locks up after a indeterminable period of time, sometimes as long as several hours or as short as ten minutes. I pulled out ever trick and tool in my geek arsenal and haven’t been able to completely diagnose the problem, let alone fix it. So now the task has become one of data recovery, and with a creative combination of a Knoppix “live” CD, a USB flash drive, and a USB external hard drive this has gone off without much of a hitch.

Now we introduce the new machine. Like its predecessor, it’s an HP Pavilion “media center” notebook. I put “media center” in quotes because while the old machine actually ran Windows XP Media Center Edition, the new machine runs Vista Home Premium. Other than the OS, it’s obvious both machines are built for one thing: to be a portable home theater system. Both have massive widescreen LCDs, dual huge hard drives, several gigs of RAM, and the latest processors for their time. Needless to say, both machines are meant to be powerful multimedia workhorses and they have the muscle to prove it. Thus, there’s no reason to expect the new machine to be sluggish or slow.

And yet, it occasionally was. HP, like many manufacturers, loads its new machines with tons of useless garbage software. That said, I was surprised to see how little junk was really pre-installed on this thing. So the only thing I can think of that was really bogging it down was Vista itself. I can’t be 100% certain of this as I didn’t take the time to really investigate (most of my time was spent extracting data from the old machine), but there were plenty of times Vista seemed to drag and stutter, sometimes becoming unresponsive for a few seconds.

The culprit, I expect, is the new “Aero” interface. Sure, it looks pretty. I’ll give it that. Compared to XP’s default Crayola-inspired interface (which is one of the first settings I turn off on a new XP machine), it looks slick and modern. But it also seems bulky and bloated. The moment I turned it off and went back to the Windows 95-ish “classic” interface the machine become much more responsive and easier to use. While it was cute watching windows “pop” into existence (something that will probably smell suspiciously like copyright infringement to any Mac OS X user) and the translucent window borders are a nice aesthetic trick, the performance cost is pretty high and not really worth it.

Then there’s the security model. I’d like to applaud Microsoft for finally taking security seriously and making a concerted effort to be responsible with its market dominance by forcing users to be more secure. But boy howdy, is it a bear to work with. Apple has been running attack ads against Vista in their “PC vs. Mac” campaign where the nerdy PC character has to ask permission from a Secret Service inspired man-in-black for every single thing he does. I thought that was funny at the time, but I didn’t really realize how true it was. Having now been trained and used to doing things as an administrator in XP, it’s a real shock to be stopped at every other mouse click with a warning that what I’m about to do has serious security implications. It’s not just a pop-up box, either; the entire screen flashes, dimming everything else and forcing to acknowledge the pop-up before you can continue. Yes, I’m aware of the serious security implications; I’m stepping outside the box and doing advanced things outside what a normal user is likely to do. (For example, moving the contents of the old machine’s “Application Data” and “Local Settings” folders, normally hidden, to their new home.) But do you have to warn me every single blasted time? Really. What’s worse is that this extends beyond some of the obscure, funky guru work I’m currently doing. Simple configuration changes are challenged with the same severity as drastic, devastating, and potentially damaging attacks. Where 95/98 was blatantly promiscuous (or more properly naive) and XP (post SP2) was cautious, Vista is downright paranoid. I half expect it to call in the FBI and the National Guard every time I change my wireless SSID.

Maybe there’s someone out there who can help. If you have experience with Vista and you know how to turn these security pop-up off, just for my login, at least until I’m done doing arcane geek magic to finish restoring this machine, please let me know. I think I’d be done in a fraction of the time if I didn’t have to babysit these prompts all the time. Even if it’s a setting that lets me check a box that says “don’t show this again” so I only get it once per action will be a big help.

After all that complaining, let me mention one thing I did like about Vista: parental controls. As a parent who is faced with a future where my young son will be a few clicks away from all the porn and identity theft of the Internet, I’ve been looking hard at third-party (as well as home grown) filtering and monitoring solutions. Vista apparently has this built in. Unfortunately, I have no idea how effective it is. My guess is that workarounds to bypass it are now just a Google search away. But still, just like XP’s firewall is more of an afterthought than a real security measure, it’s got to be better than nothing, and it will probably be easier to train my non-tech-savvy sister-in-law in how to use it than to explain about proxies and packet filtering. Depending on how long this machine is in my possession, I might try to experiment and see just how effective these parental controls really are.

Again, nothing necessarily new here that you probably haven’t seen everywhere else, but I thought I’d share my experiences to anyone interested in listening. I’m leaning more and more toward ditching Microsoft completely and going with a completely FLOSS setup, and Vista is helping push me in that direction. Then again, I had huge reservations about XP when it came out, too, so who knows what the future will bring?

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