All my geeky stuff ends up here. Mostly Unix-related

Hasta la Vista

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With all the fuss going on about Vista when it was released, I knew I had to lay my hands on a working copy sooner or later and check it out by myself. I bought a new PC at the end of 2006, it came with pre-installed Vista and I decided to leave it there and give it a try. Let me add that I run several Debian flavours at home and this is the only Windows partition that I have, so take this as an experiment to see how far Microsoft has gone today. Now I know.

First boot: the machine takes about 10-15 minutes to get up to speed, compiling tons of documentation, finishing installation of a zillion drivers and indexing the (empty) disk several times. The User Interface is beautiful as promised, but the hard disk is thrashing like crazy and it is hard to concentrate with this pop-corn machine noise buzzing around. I wait another half-hour maybe and the disk is still intensely working something with no indication whatsoever of what is going on. Jeez, this is a dual-core 2GHz machine with 1Gb RAM and a SATA disk, what in hell is it doing full-time? I have not even touched the keyboard yet! Being patient, I decided to turn to something else and leave the machine alone for the next 4 hours and come back when it is ready.

4 hours later: no luck. The disk is still a pop-corn machine and CPU is at all-times high. Time to install Firefox and google out what needs to be done before the disk is dead. I deactivate a number of “essential” services like file indexing, pre-fetching, automatic configuration for hardware I do not have, to no avail. It took me several evenings of research to finally reduce disk activity to something acceptable. This did not last long: with every new security update comes new software and system configuration and the disk is gone into pop-corn mode again. After fighting several times to try to keep the situation in hand, I finally gave up and had to accept that any of my ventures into Vista mode on this PC would seriously reduce the disk lifespan.

Pre-fetch is a particularly interesting feature. The OS knows your computer usage better than you would, so before you even touch anything it decided that you will soon need a web browser, a text editor, an image and PDF viewer, a media player, and so on. Net result: the first 5 minutes after booting, the machine is totally useless for the user. In order to make my life simpler, the OS is actually preventing me from using the machine at all. Needless to say, this is extremely frustrating and the incredibly long boot times it leads to have kept me away from using Vista altogether for extended periods of time.

Next topic: the infamous security warnings. You click on a button and another window pops up, darkening out the rest of the screen and stealing focus to ask you something utterly stupid like: “You clicked on a button, do you confirm? Confirm/Cancel”. I do not really see the point of bringing up a popup window to tell me that I just clicked on a button. Double-clicking most application icons also prompts these infamous warnings which become old after a few minutes. I found a dozen HOWTOs explaining how to deactivate them but for some reason none of them worked on my setup. I just gave up and learned to click repeatedly for every launched app.

What seems really weird is that you also get warning popups when you try to launch stuff from the configuration panel. Vista warns you that the program you are trying to launch is potentially harmful. Well… it is a configuration panel after all so yes, I may harm my current settings by trying to actually change them. Why do I need to get a reminder for every double-click? For such basic things as a configuration panel, it really makes you feel the OS is just not in charge and transfers all responsibility to the user without providing any useful information as to how I could decide that the last action I performed would be harmful or not.

What bothers me most with these popups is the utter futility of showing a message on screen asking you, the god-like user, to grant an authorization to a piece of software you have no information about, except for a name. What do you do when a popup tells you a program called “Java” needs to start? How much information do I have to really assess the potential danger for this application? As a user sitting in front of the (beautiful) screen, I have almost no information at all about what could or could not cause harm to the OS. I thought this was the OS’s job to protect itself, why does Vista outsource this to an ignorant user, not even providing any information past the program name?

Next issue I have had with Vista is the graphical engine instability. My card is a simple low-end NVIDIA series 7, the driver got updated at least once a week during all of 2007. The screen would spontaneously go blank regularly without warning, and everything would come back to “normal” once the graphical subsystem had rebooted. If you count killing all running apps as “normal” behaviour, that is. One solution was to deactivate all graphical effects to lower the load on the GPU, which was getting too hot anyway just moving simple windows around. Eye-candy has an effect on my electricity bill.

I could go on and on rambling about how poorly this OS has performed for me. I really wanted to believe in it and give it a second chance by waiting long enough for it to stabilize, but after one and a half year I just could not take it anymore.

Next experiment: wipe out Vista from disk and install XP. The difference is really stunning. Boot times go down from 5 actual minutes to 32 seconds, the windows are literally flying on screen, application startup times are almost negligible, and overall system stability just cannot be compared. On Vista I would tell the kids they could play games until the machine crashed and I was sure they never played longer than an hour. On XP I have to set an alarm clock to limit their playing time, because so far it has not crashed once during a game.

I never used Vista for anything else than games and web-browsing, but I cannot imagine spending my day at work with such a disaster. This might be the poorest attempt I have ever seen at an OS. Somehow, it makes me feel that the infamous security popups and the pre-fetch “features” are typical of a tech team gone too far in trying to offer never-seen-before features and ending up with a complete reversal of what an OS is actually about. It tells me a lot about how much contempt these guys have for their users. By sizing everything up for the most stupid computer user, you may end up with the most stupid OS behaviour there is.

I have also been running Ubuntu for 18 months on the same machine without a single glitch, but I am of course severely biased. Still, the difference in OS efficiency on the very same hardware tells a lot more than any benchmark you may read on the Net.

Written by nicolas314

Wednesday 11 June 2008 at 1:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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