Top 10 Windows Vista Hits & Misses

A countdown of where Microsoft has scored and stumbled with Vista: Our opinionated writer says yes to the Aero interface and Sidebar Gadgets, no to beefed-up graphics hardware requirements and

July 17, 2006

27 Min Read
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It seems that no one can be ambivalent about Windows Vista. Either you love it and you're a Microsoft suck-up, or you find it wanting in comparison to Apple's OS X and you're a Bill Gates basher. Me, I can see both sides of the argument.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI

4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 117)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs

8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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Philosophically, Vista is dead on. It combines the best historical features of Windows with elegant usability concepts drawn from the Macintosh world.

My test drive of the new Beta 2 release of Windows Vista turned up two big surprises. First, it was fairly shocking to realize that this beta is indeed a beta. Although the consumer version of the operating system is due to ship in January 2007, there are still lots of glitches that need to be fixed.

My second surprise was the realization that Vista is first and foremost shaping up to be a consumer OS. It's got a glitzy look and feel that will go over better in Best Buy than in the boardroom.

For businesses, the big question will be whether the improved security provided by Vista will be worth the expense of the beefier PC hardware required to run it properly. I'm betting that many workplaces will probably migrate from Windows XP to Vista later rather than sooner. In contrast, connected consumers might queue up to purchase the new OS in droves reminiscent of the "midnight madness" retail frenzy with which Microsoft launched its Xbox 360 last year.

My detailed dive into Vista Beta 2 put some meat on those initial-observation bones. Here then, in no particular order, are my top 10 Windows Vista raves and rants.

1) Hit: Vista's Sidebar & Gadgets

Though they seem to be ripped off from Apple's Dashboard and widgets used in OS X, that doesn't make Vista's Sidebar and Gadgets any less appealing.

Gadgets are little applets that more or less permanently reside on the right side of your desktop. The ho-hum ones post the time and track the temperature. But there are others that'll make you forget you ever considered solitaire a viable way to while away the workday. I'm talking about Video Poker and Sudoku. If ever there was an app that begged for a boss screen, Gadgets is it.

Microsoft has been criticized for the paucity of Gadgets currently available -- Vista only has 10. (Many more third-party Gadgets are offered for use with Windows Live, an online MSN successor for which you can customize your own home page. Those Gadgets won't work with Vista, nor will Vista Gadgets run on XP.) However, with developers being encouraged to build more Vista Gadgets, there are sure to be many more on the way soon.

On the downside, Gadgets may offer an alternate route for spyware to enter the desktop via third-party offerings that illicitly do more than they promise. And some legitimate apps, such as the intrusive RealPlayer, might be tempted to enlist gadgetry to give nuisances like its pop-up message center a permanent home on Vista's desktop.

2) Miss: Installation

Windows users are a tough crowd, so a tough install is no big surprise. But that's exactly what I found after I loaded up my Vista DVD. (Having hard media, I thankfully didn't have to grapple with download issues.)

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation

3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 117)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs

8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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The first roadblock was a stutter-start install, which would mysteriously quit, only to proceed once I rebooted my PC. That's apparently one among a litany of installation issues other beta testers have encountered, according to message traffic on Microsoft's Vista newsgroups.

My biggest gripe came after I'd successfully navigated the installation process, only to have Vista lock up, claiming that my activation period had expired and that I'd better enter my genuine product identification (PID) number, or else go purchase another copy. (Where, I wondered? It's a beta.)

Unfortunately, Vista rejected my PID number. I contacted Microsoft's PR department, which had provided me with the DVD, and received an e-mail response from a nice lady who told me the company couldn't help because it didn't provide technical support for betas.

I finally resolved the problem by using Vista's telephone activation feature. (Why do you have to activate a beta that'll stop working on June 1, 2007, anyway?) I later found out that the PID problem is common enough that a Netherlands-based Microsoft developer has come up with a workaround.

Of course, many Vista users won't have to mess with tricky installations, since they'll be getting their OS via an OEM installation on a new machine. On the other hand, a significant upgrade base is likely, since many new PCs are now being sold as "Vista-ready." For those folks, Microsoft would do well to remember that user perceptions hinge on three things: usability, usability, and usability. Apple may occasionally give its customers a hard time, but they always seem to keep coming back for more, assuming that a "cool" experience is the default position. However, with Microsoft, users sometimes assume that bad stuff is a harbinger of additional nuisances lurking farther down the line. Redmond would do well to nip any such perceptions in the bud.

By the way, if you want to maintain your Vista flexibility, and you can't install Vista on a separate test machine (far and away the best option), it's a good idea to dual-boot Vista alongside Windows XP. If you instead install the Vista beta as an upgrade on top of XP, you may not be able to roll back the former when you're finished with it. The aforementioned Vista newsgroups remain the best place to kick around questions about technical challenges with other, often knowledgeable, users.

3) Hit: The Aero Glass Graphical User Interface

I'm embarrassed to admit I'm so shallow as to be impressed by an interface that so clearly elevates form over functionality. But the fact is, I was very impressed by Vista's funky new Aero graphical user interface (GUI).

More specifically, I'm impressed by Aero Glass. That's Vista's premium GUI option, featuring translucent elements. They're see-through, and you can change both their color and level of transparency. (Microsoft has posted a video demo of Aero.)

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation

3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 11

7)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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However, Aero Glass is available only if your PC is outfitted with a video graphics card carrying at least 128 MB of video memory. You also need to get a special Windows Display Driver Model (WWDM) driver for your video card. That won't be a problem. Early WDDM drivers are included with Vista (though the OS didn't prompt me to install them over my existing Nvidia drivers), and graphics-card makers are readying drivers of their own.

Without sufficient video memory, Vista defaults to a GUI called Vista Basic, which lacks the translucent sizzle of Aero. (Home Basic version, the cheapest of the five Vista SKUs Microsoft will offer, will feature this interface.)

However, the GUI for users who can't run the full Aero may still be something of a moving target. In early July, Microsoft unveiled an upgraded look for the Vista Basic interface. This was probably in response to the underwhelming reviews for the original version of the interface. The revised Vista Basic is intended to deliver more of an Aero-style look. (To be clear, Aero Glass will be supported in the other four Vista versions: Vista Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate.)4) Miss: Performance

At this stage, you'd expect the fit and finish of Vista to be less beta and more big-time operating system. Yes, I know it's only a beta, but it's late in the game; the release of the consumer version of Vista is less than six months away.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets

2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 11

7)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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The inferences one makes about Microsoft's development process from assessing the state of the beta are not good. My first thought was that Microsoft can't possibly address all of the issues by January.

However, it seems Microsoft is already well along that path. My beta received a steady stream of patches, automatically pushed onto my PC via Windows Update. Most of them were flagged for the OS (for example, "Update for Windows Vista Beta 2 and Windows Codename Longhorn Server Beta 2 KB920143), but many others were for the new Windows Defender security program and for the Internet Explorer 7 beta.

That's a good sign. Moreover, Microsoft is planning another interim Beta 2 release, which is intended to provide greatly improved performance.

It's also good news that Microsoft is addressing the consumer confusion likely to be caused by Vista's performance rating tool. Called Windows System Performance rating, or WinSPR, the tool gives your PC a rating from 1 to 5, depending on its assessment of the power of your hardware.

In real-world usage, the tool seemingly downrates most hardware. That's because it's heavily skewed toward the graphics hardware required to run Aero. For example, my Vista test computer was equipped with a 3.2GHz dual-core Pentium, 1 GB of RAM, a 200MB hard drive, and an Nvidia graphics card with 128 MB of video memory. It received only a 3 for its WinSPR, when clearly in the context of Windows XP it is a top-of-the-line computer.

In July, Microsoft said it will rename WinSPR the Windows Experience Index. The new index is expected to engage in a bit of grade inflation, perhaps to appease hardware vendors other than graphics card makers. The whole to-do gives added impetus to my argument that businesses are probably going to balk at buying the type of PCs required to migrate to Vista, at least until those PCs are mainstream, rather than fairly high end. It's highly unlikely that businesses will be early adopters, at least on the desktop. They are likely to use Longhorn Server, but that addresses a completely separate arm of the corporate IT infrastructure.

As for performance, I have to admit my objections are experiential rather than based on any qualitative metrics. I found it vexing that I couldn't create a new folder in the "My Documents" directory tree. I had to create it within an existing subdirectory and move it over. I was annoyed that I couldn't get Vista to restart properly -- I had to do a full shutdown, and then physically turn it on again.

File copy and delete functions were also slow -- it took more than a minute to copy 10 items totaling 41.5 MBfrom my documents folder to a flash drive. That's not outlandish; it takes the same time to do a similar copy on Windows XP. I guess that's my point: If Vista delivers anything beyond a better user interface and improved security, that thing should be improved performance. Investing in a 3.2GHz PC only to find it running marginally better than my 2004-vintage, XP-equipped 1.2-GHz Celeron box is dispiriting.

5) Hit: The Media Center-ization Of Vista

My complaints about Vista's performance are tempered by my realization that, with Vista, the PC can now actually do interesting stuff. Music and video stuff. Indeed, with Vista, Windows has essentially remade the home PC into a media center. Make that Media Center, which is the name of the software that manages music, photos, online videos, DVDs, and even high-definition television (HDTV).

As with Aero, Media Center is not included in the Home Basic version of Vista. Media Center is also not included in the two business SKUs of Vista, which makes sense, since enterprises already have too many workers listening to tunes on the job.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance

5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 117)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM

9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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Microsoft is positioning Vista Media Center as a more straightforward way to find and access digital entertainment. My experience with the beta is that, yes, media access is now more integrated -- it's via Media Center. But, no, things aren't better than when I had to wrestle separately with Windows Media Player, Intervideo WinDVD, and Nero to listen, burn my tunes, and watch my discs.

In another case of Vista beta bugaboo, when I tried to play a DVD, Media Center launched the disk, but got stuck on the title's opening menu. (I finally opened the thing directly with Windows Media Player.) Quite frankly, Media Center is clunky, probably because it's architected as a lowest-common-denominator multimedia tool -- a video viewer for Grandma, if you will.

For many consumers, though, this isn't going to matter. Media Center will catch on because it'll serve as a one-stop content shop that's up and running just as soon as your new PC is pulled out of its Best Buy box. That's something Microsoft, and, separately, hardware vendors like Hewlett-Packard, have banged their corporate heads against the wall trying to do for years without success. Even Intel, with its Digital Home initiative, has made little headway in popularizing PCs as living-room entertainment centers. By bringing the Media Center in through the computing side door, Vista should change that.

6) Hit: Windows Media Player 11

The media success of Vista won't stem entirely from the operating system -- it'll also be a function of surrounding apps and services that have sprung up amid attempts to fend off the iTunes juggernaut.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 117)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D

10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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Exhibit A in this regard is Windows Media Player 11, another Microsoft development for which clunky design is beside the point. Windows Media Player 11 isn't solely tied to Vista -- there's a version for Windows XP. However, it's included in Vista, is heavily touted in Microsoft's write-ups for the OS, and is a key component of Vista's Media Center strategy.

If Windows Media Player 11 were Microsoft's virgin foray into a music and video app, it would be perfectly adequate. However, it's the successor to WMP 10, a highly evolved player that had shed the limitations of earlier versions and is actually quite nice to use. In the interest of integration and ease-of-use -- a player for Grandma, again -- version 11 unfortunately takes a step backward.

Both my versions of WMP 11 (on Vista and on XP) appear slightly slower than WMP 10. As for externals, the new player has an uglier skin than its predecessor. In comparison to the elegant iTunes -- its real competitor, since WMP 11 is as much music store as media player -- the new release looks like it was chosen by a retro-minded aficionado of Soviet-bloc design.

So why do I like WMP 11? Because it's tightly integrated with URGE, a new online music store Microsoft has launched in partnership with MTV. URGE is the first Windows-based alternative to iTunes that has a real chance of success. Interestingly, URGE is a subscription service where you pay about $15 a month for all you can listen to (though not own). That model has some unexploited upside, compared to Apple's 99-cents-per-song fixed pricing.

Right now, it's expected that customers will download songs onto their PCs and burn them to CDs or load them onto MP3 players from Samsung, Creative, and others. Soon, Microsoft might add its own player into the mix.

7) Miss: Search & User Security Dialogs

Here's a case where Microsoft tried to do the right thing, but came up short. The Windows Explorer file-directory tool has been outfitted with a new search function. No longer does Explorer morph its left side into a "What do you want to search for?" pane with that annoying little dog at the bottom. Now, the bar for searching through your files is located at the top of Explorer, and its appearance owes more than a little to OS X.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation

3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 11

7)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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No matter, the concept is good. Unfortunately, the performance of search in Vista Beta 2 is not. A search for a file name or contents doesn't return any results until it's completed. In contrast, search in Windows XP populates the right pane with results on the fly. Perhaps Vista's wait-til-it's-soup approach is why the search bar has a green "time lapse" indicator, which moves ever rightward as the search nears completion. It's good-looking, but I'd rather see the interim results.

Given that Microsoft has made major fixes since the release of Beta 2 -- most notably the upgrade to the Vista Basic user interface -- it's possible that they'll take another look at search. (The performance of search might also be addressed in the upcoming interim Beta 2 update.) A best-of-both-worlds approach would be the way to go: keep the "progress" bar and post search results as they occur.

One issue that Microsoft is promising to address immediately is its obtrusive User Account Controls, which are intended to prevent spyware and virus-laden programs from installing themselves on your PC. The controls are dialog boxes -- "Windows needs your permission to continue" -- that are supposed to pop up whenever an unknown executable threatens to launch.

In practice, they pop up so frequently they're the computer equivalent of the airline ticket agent asking you if anyone has handled your luggage. As a result, the controls in their current form will quickly become ignored. They'll be more useful once Microsoft revamps them, but even then they'll be less the backbone than the public face of security in Vista.

Vista's invisible but important security enhancements include a much stronger Internet firewall and administrators' ability to restrict access to removable storage devices like USB flash drives. There's also BitLocker, which enables users to encrypt their entire hard drive. Such security features are more meaningful for businesses considering using Vista than all the GUI eye candy I've written about so glowingly in this review.

8) Hit: Digital Rights Management

One thing both Media Center and Windows Media Player 11 do very well is to enforce digital rights management (DRM). That's something not immediately apparent when you start using Vista, but it quickly comes to the fore when you try to play, or burn to CD, something you haven't paid for.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 117)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs

8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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When I tested URGE, my initial fears about the potential intrusiveness of the DRM used by the service weren't realized. You can play what you paid for; you can't touch stuff you haven't. And believe me, I tried -- in the interest of my Vista tests, of course.

Most important, the DRM was cleanly enforced, without a lot of annoying warnings to the user. Issues of compatibility may still arise on the client side. Unlike Apple, Microsoft has to support a wide variety of MP3 players. However, Microsoft has clearly attempted to implement copyright control in a way that doesn't interfere with the user experience. While it may be controversial to say so, I can't fault them for that.

A separate concern about DRM has arisen over how Vista will play next-generation DVDs. When playing back these new high-definition DVDs, Vista will apply something called Output Content Protection Management along with a new DRM scheme called High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP). In simplest terms, these will check whether the PC is hooked up to a proper high-definition monitor. That's mainly to prevent a user from streaming the video to a recorder or other digital copying device.

The rub is that, if you still have an old-style monitor, you'll lose some of the high-definition sparkle of the new DVDs. In such situations, they'll play back at standard resolution. However, if Microsoft has implemented HDCP with as much care as the media player technology, there shouldn't be a problem.

It's still to early to tell how all this will play out. That's because the new high-def DVDs that were expected to be ready when Vista hit have been slow to arrive. There are two competing formats: Blu-ray from Sony and HD DVD from Toshiba. (The first computers of any stripe to use the DVDs won't be Vista machines, but Blu-ray-equipped Playstation 3s, due in November.)

9) Hit: Flip 3D

After the Aero Glass user interface, the feature that brings the most pizzazz to Vista is Flip 3D. This feature lets you stack up your open windows in a kind of flip-picture view in the middle of the screen, and scroll through them with the mouse to go back and forth among the apps.

One caveat: The feature worked for me only when the Aero Glass GUI was turned on. I couldn't find any documentation on whether this was an idiosyncrasy of the beta or whether Flip 3D is, in fact, unavailable in the Vista Basic, Windows Standard, and Windows Classic views.

While Flip 3D is a selling point for Vista, it's not unique to the Windows world. The feature is also available in the new SUSE Linux 10 release.10) Miss: Graphics & Memory Requirements

The flip side to my positive comments about both the Aero Glass interface and Flip 3D is that users who want to do the full Vista can't skimp on hardware. To get both features, as well as decent performance, you need more RAM than you're used to, as well as a better graphics card.

Top 10 Vista Hits & Misses

1)  Hit: Sidebar & Gadgets

2)  Miss: Installation3)  Hit: The Aero Glass GUI4)  Miss: Performance5)  Hit: Media Center-ization6)  Hit: WMP 11

7)  Miss: Search, Security Dialogs8)  Hit: DRM9)  Hit: Flip 3D10)  Miss: Memory RequirementsConclusions

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On the RAM front, it no longer makes sense to ignore Microsoft's recommendations. We've all seen Windows XP machines outfitted with 64 MB of RAM and a puny, sub-500MHz processor. They still run. Sort of. Don't make that mistake with Vista.

Microsoft recommends 512 MB of memory for a "Vista capable" machine and 1 GB for a "Vista Premium" PC running Aero. I'd concur with the recommendation of 1 GB, which is what I had on my test PC running Vista. Judging by the decent (but by no means stellar performance) I saw, I'd say 2 GB is an even better bet. (Microsoft says the interim Beta 2 update now in the works should run decently on 512 MB.)

More onerous than the memory requirement is the necessity for a decent graphics card, without which Vista simply won't run Aero. Microsoft mandates a graphics card with 128 MB of video memory to run Aero. I used a GeForce 7300 card with 256 MB of video memory. I'd recommend springing for the 256 MB, since it's less than $40 more than a 128MB card.

In light of the fact that a decent graphics card costs less than $100, and 1 GB of RAM goes for about $85, the additional requirements are only a deal-breaker on low-end machines. However, they are clear examples of PC-requirement creep, an ominous trend that's forcing us to spend more money without getting additional performance in the bargain.

For consumers, the improved look and feel may be reason enough for the extra expense. However, it's not clear why businesses would need this stuff. Given that workers already spend too much time surfing the Web, it's doubtful that companies are keen on giving them even better video-viewing capabilities.


If you get the impression that Vista is very strong on its consumer presentation skills, but has made less of a business case for corporations to upgrade from Windows XP, you're correct.

The bottom line for me: Do I like Vista? Yes. Would I pay $85 for it (the street price one pays for an OEM version of XP, which you can get if you're building your own white-box system)? Yes.

Beyond that, the Vista-versus-other-OSes decision becomes more complicated. Would I pay between $199 and $299 -- numbers that have been bandied about as possible retail price-points -- for Vista? No. I'd also ask myself, why should I fall back on something that's now obsolete (Windows XP) when I can get a much cheaper OS that has similar cutting-edge features like Flip 3D -- SUSE Linux 10?

That's Microsoft's dilemma. If it wants to spur Vista adoption via upgrades on "Vista Ready" machines sold this year, as well as existing Windows XP PCs with the processing power and graphics cards to handle the OS, it has to go with popular pricing. Regardless, once it's released, Vista will become dominant on all new machines. The added buzz from upgrade activity also will put some space between Microsoft and the Linux desktops that are beginning to nip at its heels.

My advice to Microsoft: Split the difference, and sell upgrades to Vista Home Premium for $129.

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