A Clearer View of Vista

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 24, 2008

There are times when I feel like I'm in a tiny minority of people who don't hate Windows Vista.

Vista arrived in stores and on consumer PCs at the end of last January, after years of delay. But as Windows XP's successor nears its first birthday, few customers seem inclined to celebrate.

For other software companies, Vista would be a blockbuster. But Microsoft has a tougher standard to meet: the success of previous Windows updates. Compared with XP and Windows 95, each of which had a comparable marketing push, Vista is a disappointment.

Two and a half weeks ago at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft announced that it had sold 100 million licenses for Vista. But in 2007, more than 270 million personal computers were sold worldwide, according to Gartner, a market-research firm.

Vista has had a much slower start than its predecessors, especially considering the rising number of people using operating systems not made by Microsoft, such as Mac OS X and Linux.

Computer manufacturers have noticed that; many have found it profitable to keep selling Windows XP as an option on their PCs. They were originally supposed to dump XP by the end of January, but Microsoft had to push that deadline to June 30.

Has Vista really been that much of a flop?

I can't say so. While I don't advise upgrading a working XP system to Vista -- there's a higher chance of things going wrong -- I do think it makes sense to get Vista on a new computer. Vista is not going away, and in day-to-day use it provides some substantial upgrades over previous Windows versions.

Laptops running Vista usually go in and out of sleep mode more reliably than in XP. The Windows Sidebar, which holds such useful tools as a calculator and a notepad on the side of the screen, spares me detours to the Start menu.

Vista's larger contribution to computing sanity may be in giving users a stronger sense of place.

Getting around the desktop is easier with Favorite Links, which takes you to such frequent stops as documents, picture and music folders. Folder icons include previews of the files inside them. And file searches are quicker than with XP.

On a computer strong enough for Vista's resource-heavy Aero graphics, you get extra visual help, like previews of open windows when you flip through them with the Alt and Tab keys or mouse over their taskbar buttons.

These are all things that I miss when I run XP (which is most of the time; The Post, like many companies, takes its time upgrading).

In other respects, though, Vista represents missed opportunities.

Some can't be blamed on Microsoft. A disturbingly high number of programs took a long time to work right in Vista -- some still don't -- but compatibility complaints about that should be directed to an address outside of Redmond, Wash. After all of Vista's delays and advance publicity, no professional software developer could have been surprised by its arrival.

But other Vista vexations come from Microsoft's own choices.

A puzzling mix of different Vista editions -- from $100 Home Basic to $400 Ultimate -- serves few people other than Microsoft's sales staff.

And Vista's stringent anti-piracy system, which tries to detect when people use a copy they haven't paid for, has been a PR disaster for Microsoft, locking a small but justifiably angry minority of Vista users out of their own computers.

Vista has also failed to make a meaningful dent in the ongoing pain of Windows maintenance-- policing all the stuff that runs when the computer starts, getting rid of unwanted programs, keeping the machine from slowing down over time, and so on. Those everyday tasks are still a drag in Vista.

Then there's security. Vista includes many deep-rooted improvements to its anti-virus defenses. But its obvious change -- the User Account Control dialog that pops up if you install a program or change key system settings, is more annoying than helpful.

A UAC warning could alert you that a picture you thought you were opening is actually live code. But most of the time, these confirm-or-cancel alerts are just another bureaucratic obstacle.

The root of the problem seems to be that Vista, like every other Windows release, doesn't provide a barrier between itself and other software. You can't keep a copy of Vista clean when new programs insert bits of code into the plumbing of the system, in the form of shared libraries and Registry entries. The accumulation can still clog up the pipes over time.

Vista does more than XP to protect itself from intrusions by developers, but it doesn't go far enough. And yet Microsoft's attempts to keep tens of thousands of existing Windows titles running in Vista did not prevent widespread compatibility issues while also inflating Vista's appetite for memory.

Some level of pain can't be helped when you switch operating systems, but you should see some payoff afterward. Vista could have done a better job of holding up its end of the deal.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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