Written by Jason Chen
Of all the ware Microsoft churns out from its sweatshop of “lightning bolt, lightning bolt” nerds, Windows is the one most inexorably tied to the public image of the company. As Bill Gates leaves the building, we look back on the last baby birthed—if not fully gestated—under his watch, the swan song operating system that he himself has issues with. Although we agree that Vista could have used a bit more time shoved back into the silicon womb for some feature buffing and bug fixing, it’s not nearly as bad as most people are making it out to be. That’s right, I’m actually happy with Windows Vista, which I use about one-third of the time I spend at a computer.
This may be counterintuitive, seeing as our guy who defended Windows doesn’t even like Vista, but I’ve used Mac OS X and Vista side by side and simultaneously for over a year (and before that, Mac and XP) thanks to the dual-computer-controlling app Synergy. Here’s why Vista’s not that bad:
1. It’s more secure than Windows XP. After being implicitly responsible for botnets and security breaches through the incredible popularity of their Windows XP, Microsoft went back and made sure Vista is more secure than its predecessor. And it is. According to security firm PC Tools, Vista had 639 unique threats over a six-month period, whereas XP had 1021. This came from much internal restructuring under the hood, but there’s a chance that it might be due to Vista being a smaller target than XP for malware as well.
2. It’s the best looking Windows yet. Despite any complaints users may have about Aero hogging up too many CPU cycles or requiring a video card from this millennium to use, it’s still the best looking Windows yet. I mean really, do you remember what XP looked like out of the box? With that gigantic balloon of a task bar and the green Start button. Vista’s glass definitely trumps that. And then there’s the underlying graphical framework changes which allow new features like live thumbnails. All these visual effects may require more power, but you can’t deny that it’s pleasing to look at.
If you want to disable Aero for certain applications for performance or compatibility reasons, see here.
3. Games work just about as well as under XP. There’s a slight performance degradation under Vista when compared to Windows XP using the exact same hardware. Is it noticeable? Probably, but it’s somewhere around the level of 10%. There’s also the consideration of DirectX 10 and the visual improvements you’ll get in the future when more developers really take advantage of it. With a slightly better video card, you won’t even really notice that you’re going at 90FPS versus 100FPS.
4. Vista Media Center is a fantastic DVR. Microsoft integrates their fantastic Windows Media Center Edition into Home Premium and Ultimate, and it’s pretty much the best DVR you can get outside of getting a TiVo. Combine it with various Media Center Extenders, of which there are lots (such as the Xbox 360), you can get HDTV streamed to anywhere in your house from one computer in your office. Our only complaint is still that Cable Labs doesn’t allow you to stick a CableCARD tuner onto just any appropriately spec’d Vista PC—you actually have to buy a machine pre-made for CableCARD.
5. The sleep mode works. Sleep mode in Windows XP was essentially a shortcut for locking up your computer and forcing you to reboot. It actually does what it’s supposed to in Vista.
6. Built-in search is better and more useful. Vista’s searching feature relies on cataloging your hard drive, then searching the resulting database to quickly (and easily) find your files. By default it’s just limited to a couple user folders, but if you expand it to your entire hard drive, you’ll be able to find anything fast, much like the way Spotlight works on a Mac. The downside is that during the first day or two, everything slows down while Vista indexes your computer. Best to leave it on overnight or over a weekend while you’re away.
7. User Account Control is useful for some people. I have to admit that I’ve turned this off but UAC—the thing that pops up and asks you for your password whenever you do something on the system level—is useful in theory for many people, especially those who share a family computer. Hide the administrator password from your parents/grandparents/kids so they won’t be able to install any weird apps they’re not supposed to. In practice, it’s a bit annoying in that it pops up for mundane things that shouldn’t really need system-level clearance. It’s a step in the right direction; however, if you want to disable UAC for certain programs, see here.
8. Drivers support isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. Although “Man gets Windows Vista to work with printer” may be an actual non-Onion headline, the root cause of his original woes was that the man installed a Windows XP printer driver instead of the correct Vista one. But there is a smaller percentage of users who—no matter how old or new their peripheral is—can’t get it to work with Windows Vista. The blame for this lies on peripheral manufacturers who either can’t or won’t update their drivers to support the new OS. There’s not much you or Microsoft can do here, but it’s rarer than you’d think from reading the internet.
9. It’s not any buggier than Windows XP. This is a bit of a corollary to #1, but out of the many, many Vista users we’ve seen, they almost all agree that the only times Vista has crashed or blue-screened on them was when they were doing something they usually don’t do. The OS by itself rarely crashes in everyday use, and compared to even OS X Leopard, it’s pretty damn sturdy. In a year’s worth of daily use, we think the OS has probably only crashed once, if that.
10. Vista is not slow if you have enough RAM. One of the main complaints that users have is that Vista is slow, but they either upgraded Vista from an old machine or they purchased a “Vista Ready” system with only 512MB to 1GB worth of RAM. You can run Vista with 1GB of RAM, but like OS X, you really want to have at least 2GB. Modern operating systems get fatter because they DO more stuff for you under the hood, such as optimizing your memory for the applications you run often so they load faster.
We’re not saying that Vista doesn’t have its faults or that Windows 7 won’t be better, we’re saying that Vista is just not as bad as people are making it out to be. If you’re on XP and you’re afraid to upgrade, don’t be. It’s no worse than Windows XP if you pay attention to the stuff I mentioned above. As long as you’ve got a reasonably decent machine—and if you’re reading Giz it’s likely that you do—you’re pretty safe in upgrading.
That said, we do have some major complaints:
1. Things aren’t where they used to be. Holy shit. This one is the worst. Various settings are hidden under levels of menus, and for some inexplicable reason, Add/Remove Programs is no longer Add/Remove programs. What’s the point of this? So people can use the hundreds of wizards more?
3. Wireless networking is a pain. Windows has never been great at presenting wireless networking with an intuitive UI, and Vista might be even worse than XP in this department. Stuff’s buried behind various weirdly-named menus, which you have to (at least the first few times) guess at to see.
4. Lots of balloon notifications pop up on the taskbar. Here’s how to shut them off.
5. Folder view in Windows Explorer doesn’t remember your settings. Here’s another huge pain users have run into when browsing a folder and all of a sudden having Explorer think that these are photos because there’s just one photo in the directory. Here’s how to turn that off.
Bonus Vista Tip: How to recover files from Vista’s built-in shadow copy here.