Itís the age of Microsoft bashing.
The demise of the Microsoft monopoly of the operating system world is (still) being eagerly anticipated and much amusement can be had if you notice that the only somewhat successful model for competing with Microsoftís operating systems is to give yours away. Itís fascinating and disappointing all at the same time. With that knowledge in hand, Microsoft has finally delivered Vista to the market and set a price on the package which shows no fear of the competition. Iím trying to figure out why. After all, there has to be something in there to justify its steep price (at this writing, Microsoft will directly sell you Windows Vista Ultimate for $259). To find the answer, Iíll examine the product from three angles; feature set, usability and reliability/security.
During the development of Windows Vista, I did something I havenít done in many years; I didnít participate in the beta. It was a simple decision really. For many years Iíve tested every new Microsoft operating system as it was being developed (starting with Windows NT 3.51). Very early on, it became obvious that Vista was going to be a long effort for Microsoft but no one, including Microsoft, understood just how long it was really going to be. My natural impatience with this sort of thing made it easy to decide to not even look at the beta. This was going to be digital sausage and anything I might have seen two years ago would have little to do with the finished product whenever it was delivered. Since the beta began, Iíve spent a great deal of time working with Windows XP, Server 2003, OS X, at least 3 different flavors of Linux and Solaris versions 7 through 9.
No doubt, youíve seen the features list for Vista over and over in countless blogs and various marketing pages (if youíre still a little vague, take a gander at the Vista home page) http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/editions/ultimate/default.mspx?wt_svl=20418a&mg_id=20418b
The first thing that leaps in front of your eyes is the Aero graphics system. Yep, itís pretty slick. Items that have long been the forte of Appleís OS X are at least closely emulated in Aero. Unfortunately, itís the new interface which attracts my wrath the most. Donít worry, the features purloined from Apple are well done, but the changes to program selection have now taken Windows Explorer and the Start Menu to new lows in efficiency.
In the I really like this! column, is the Gadget sidebar. Notice the varying levels of opacity of the items Iíve mounted in my sidebar.
Or, you can be a little excited by the Window Switcher (known as Exposeí in OS X).
Using the Gadget called Vista Hot Corners gives another view.
Oh yeah, thatís glitzy, if not original. Letís be plain here; Microsoft has constantly been accused of borrowing from Appleís interfaces and, to be honest, Iíve always been at odds with those claims having seen the visual feature first appear in Windows many times and, at other times, failing to find any similarity at all. Vista is the first Microsoft OS Iíve ever seen which so blatantly goes after the Macís appearance. When someone does a good thing, copy it, I guess!
Hereís one they copied but copied it better than the original. The taskbar has always been a mixed blessing. It did its job by giving a central place to collapse applications until you were ready to restore them to the screen for use. As Windows became stronger, though, more and more applications were able to run at once. Over-consuming the available space was easy. To get past this, Windows XPís taskbar would stack multiple instances of the same application in a single place holder on the taskbar and inform the user of how many instances were collapsed there. Determining which instance you wanted to restore to focus, however, could be a bear if you were looking at a lot of files of similar names. Vista tries to minimize the chance of this by allowing you to see a thumbnail of each window in the stack so that you can more easily find the correct instance just by hovering over it.
Whether he wrote this himself or not, Iím going to give credit for this to Raymond Chen. Iím sure this is what he had in mind all along! (http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/)
The Feature I Never Thought Iíd Like in Windows Vista Ultimate is the built-in Media Center Edition (MCE) feature. I never wanted my computer and my TV to mix until I realized that, done well, I could record my favorite idiot box features to the computer and then send them to a DVD, ensuring that I could have my own copies of Dirty Jobs in case Discovery channel picks up the poor habit of cancelling successful TV series. Since that thought dawned on me, Iíve messed with ATIís TV wonder, MythTV, WinTV and LinuxMCE. There have been fantastic advances along this technological path and it has been fascinating and aggravating to follow along. To be fair, the Windows MCE system is the only smoothly operating one Iíve messed with and it goes a long way toward removing the warts from the underlying hardware and drivers. I finally gave up on the ATI approach and have been delighted with Hauppaugeís hardware and software solutions. They still fell short, however, in configuring themselves to manage our set-top box, though. Once I put Vista down in front of the Hauppage gear and clicked the Windows button on the remote, Vistaís MCE came to life and, within 5 minutes, had configured itself, pulled down the correct program guide from the web, correctly identified our set-top box and was working as a PVR. In the background, I was able to compile and run some rather intense Excel VBA routines with no loss of viewing quality. It was and continues to be one of the smoothest computing experiences Iíve ever had.
My enthusiasm isnít nearly so great, however, for the new Start menu. This area of the Windows interface has really taken an effective approach to launching applications and files and removed a great deal of efficiency.
When you click the Flag (formerly the Start button), youíre presented with something very similar to Windows XPís Start menu. This similarity end the moment you want to start a program. Click the flag then All Programs andÖinstead of getting the cascading groups of applications, you need to either wait or click on the group name, wait some more for the list of shortcuts to enumerate and then, finally, click the application you want. A two second application launch now takes 4-5 times as long just for basic navigation. Itís truly disappointing to make this formerly useful interface tool behave even more awkwardly than Appleís Dock and Finder approach.
But, speaking of the Finder, we havenít yet talked about Windows Explorer, have we? My fear, after seeing the Start Menu, was that Explorer had gone down the road of Microsoftís Zune and would attempt to hide the file system from me. That would have seriously tightened my jaws. I was relieved to see that the Vista crew resisted the temptation and the results bear a little examination.
At first glance, nothing seems awry. Itís apparent that something has been done to change User Profile Paths (itís trivial but it makes the use of system variables more important than ever) but itís not plain that anything else is yet changed. Hang on!
One of the classic weaknesses of File Manager (set the way back machine, Sherman!) and Explorer was the inability to tailor the file sorting methods usefully. Vistaís Explorer flies in the face of the current trend of abstracting the file system from the user and remains a damned site easier to work with than the Finder. But the ability to set a logical sort order and filter based on more than one element is new and welcome.
Notice how I can easily set the filter to limit the view to files starting with A-H?
Additionally, many binary file types can have tag data assigned to their properties. Tags are now displayed within the Explorer shell without having to manually check the properties of the file directly.
Sorting through a folder full of meaningless file names can now become a memory.
The reason I treat Security and Reliability together is because, well, the tools we all suffer with in order to improve our system security actually have a negative impact on reliability. Specifically, Anti-Virus tools are always in a close race with the viruses they fix for being obnoxious resource hogs which contribute heavily to the frequency of crashes. And before I get a wad of email from the Symantec and McAfee crews, you canít kid me or convince me, kids. Iíve sat on the phone with your engineers and some of my co-workers have done the same while your engineers admitted, sheepishly, that the latest version of the product is just as crappy as the last versionÖdespite last yearís promise that the tool fixes all the issues in that older version.
At home, Iíll admit that I turn off all the Anti-Virus tools running on my system. Iím not suggesting any of the rest of you do this. Iím taking a risk and making a bet on the strength of my home networkís perimeter defenses. At work, I donít dare do that. We have road-warriors who arrive on the network. Itís not their jobs to be informed, safe-computing experts so I donít blame them for the fact that their systems often expose parts of the company to some unsavory stuff once in awhile. I just go ahead and turn on all the anti-crud tools there and put up with the attendant 400% loss in I/O efficiency until the scanners tell our crews which road-warrior to go disinfect.
This has been a big issue for Windows and it has been difficult to get Microsoft to take it seriously (I once asked Jim Allchin in a public venue when they were going to take the entire body of code for Windows and recompile with strict buffer checking enforced. The answer was fascinating, educational and, ultimately, not very usefulÖunless Vista is the answer he really wanted to give me). So rather that attempt to claim Iím a security master with all the answers, I intend to watch the exploit list for Windows Vista. Patch count doesnít concern me as Microsoft has done an excellent job, in my opinion, of providing timely patches, accurately assessing risk and quality checking the patch code they release. Iím well pleased with their low failure rate on those patches and the free delivery tools theyíve made available for smoothly applying those patches.
So my assessment of Vista security is going to center on reliability with consideration to denial of service and system crashes. I also need to make sure that I can provision for increased loads. Itís this need that has really been the biggest thorn to system administrators because Windows simply didnít provide tools and metrics by which you could reliably do capacity planning. The long view Iím forming from Vistaís reliability and security will help shape my expectations of Longhorn.
Quite honestly, this is the area in which Iím most excited about this OS. The first time I got to see SAR data on a Solaris system and then got to watch TOP at work, I was jealous and wished I could produce that kind of clear output in Windows. Windows has always used a precise thing called a quanta to provide a benchmark on system performance. Unfortunately, this precise thing is an abstraction which provides little by which to build faith that you were really seeing a CPUís actual rate of consumption or that you really were hitting the disk subsystems at 30 MB/second. Not so in Vista. Yes, weíre still dealing with abstractions but weíre doing it much more accurately due to some significant changes within the kernel of the OS. Seeing this data is fairly easy (saving it is still a challenge). To get a look, open the Task Manager in the usual way. Click the Performance tab and note the button labeled Performance Monitor. Click it.
Up pops a tool never before seen on a Windows system.
Letís look at the ultimate imponderable, Disk I/O. To set this up, Iíve arranged a file copy operation to take measurements against.
Notice that not only do we see a total consumption at the beginning of this copy of 20950 KB/sec, we also see which process is moving which files and at what rate? You have no idea how many times I need to see this data on a daily basis when Iím evaluating an application performance issue. No, thatís not just a server thing. Thatís a desktop thing, too, and itís the sort of data I use when evaluating the performance impact of various anti-virus tools.
But you donít have to use the Performance Monitor for this task exclusively. In the case of file copying, Explorer itself delivers this performance data, too, and, for once, the data appears to be very accurate. Check out the changed copy progress dialog.
From the ease of use standpoint, one more change has been made which makes utter sense. See if this seems more reasonable than any other conflict dialog youíve ever received from Explorer.
Throw all caution to the wind and check that Do this for all current items check box. All nagging for that issue will end and the job will completeÖquietly. Nice!
So, Is It Worth the Money?
Good question! I think, were I wanting to create a work machine with standard abilities to interact on a corporate network and yet retain home entertainment features, yes, this one is worth buying. There are backward compatibility issues but, surprisingly, they are few compared to all that the general bluster would lead you to believe. Iím thrilled with the underlying changes and the improvements to system measurement. Should it have taken three extra years to deliver this? Probably not. Will this keep me from switching full time to the Mac or some other platform. Yes, Iíd imagine so and for a long time to come, no matter which metric I use to justify that position. By cost, there is not another out-of-the-box system which compares (Iím evaluating on a Dell D620 Core Duo, 2 Gigs of Ram, 100 Gig hard disk at $1200). If the cost doesnít include the cost of an operating system, the price Iíll pay is in time and, when Iím done, I still wonít have this useful a system.
My only real gripe with Vista is that Start Button monstrosity which reduces my willingness to pay the retail price of Vista, but the rest of the system more than makes up for that loss in efficiency.
If youíre in the market for an upgrade of your computer or just its operating system, take a close look at Vista Ultimate. Thereís a lot there for the money.