I’ve recently made the switch on all my home computers to Vista. That’s right, Vista. Most PC enthusiasts would poo-poo my choice and favor the well-known XP over its recent replacement. But I’m going to give my impressions on the switch I’ve made, and why I think it’s been for the better. I do, however, want to point out how it is NOT necessarily for the better of everyone buying a new computer.
Here’s a list of the systems on which I’ve installed Vista:
MAINFRAME (main computer, used for gaming and other more useful tasks)
2.9GHz Dual-Core AMD Opteron processor (overclocked from 2.4 GHz stock)
4GB DDR400 RAM
2x250GB SATAII hard drives (one system drive, one music storage)
MSI nVidia Geforce 8800 GT OC Edition graphics card
MEDIA-PC (in our living room, used for playing DVD’s and recorded TV shows)
2.4 GHz Single-Core AMD Athlon processor
2GB DDR400 RAM
1x80GB SATAII hard drive
ASUS nVidia Geforce 8600 GT SilentPipe graphics card
Both systems have been running Vista for the past month, and I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised. I don’t mean to let Microsoft off the hook too easily – there are many aspects of Vista that could have been executed much better, and frankly Vista still remains inferior to OS X imho – but Vista is thankfully usable and a more fluid user experience than XP.
Why has Vista surprised me? Well, almost exactly a year ago, I decided to “take the plunge” and switch to Vista. Let’s just say that I was so disappointed that I switched back to XP and never even considered Vista again until recently. Why the recent change? Well, Microsoft has been making incremental progress fixing bugs, adding better driver support, and ensuring software compatibility (my three biggest qualms). But the event that finally convinced me to give Vista a second shot was the release of Service Pack one.
There’s a general rule of thumb about Windows releases: it doesn’t match the performance or reliability of it’s previous generation until after a 2nd (or at least 1st) service pack has been released. Time will tell if Vista’s SP1 will suffice to make it just as reliable as XP SP2, but for now SP1 for Vista seems to have fixed a lot of the problems I initially had with Vista of a year ago.
The two aspects of Vista that demand significantly more than XP are memory (i.e. the amount of RAM the operating system can utilize/need) and graphics (mostly for Vista’s Aero interface). Vista by itself used a heck of a lot of RAM even while idle: 512MB has been my experience. But what Vista-haters will often mistakenly complain about is actually a feature of Vista: the ability to cache frequently-used programs in main memory. I have 4GB of RAM in my main system (using Vista 64-bit edition to recognize more than 3GB), and usually have between 50-200MB of RAM “free.”
WHAT?!?!?! Vista is using almost 4GB of memory while idle!?!?!? Vista must be a memory hog!!!! Well, to put it simply, NO. Vista, unlike XP, actually tries to anticipate memory usage by caching frequently-accessed programs and services. It does improve system performance be decreasing load times for programs, and makes one’s extravagant amount of RAM seem at least somewhat justified. 😛
Graphics in Vista are another source of heavy demand. Here there is less of an excuse for Microsoft. Vista’s Aero UI is graphically intense, no bones about it. However, given my unfortunate interest in video games (at least in terms of how my time could be spent doing much more productive things), the graphics cards I usually have in the PC’s I use are sufficient (if not overkill) for Vista Aero’s requirements. That said, Aero demands a lot more processing power for the same level of graphical “prettiness” that Mac OS X provides with its OpenGL-based graphics engine.
My Media-PC, though has experienced the pains of Vista Aero. Currently, I have Vista Ultimate installed on this computer to run Vista’s Media Center (the successor to the popular XP Media Center Edition). The graphics card that was in this computer was a nVidia Geforce 6200 LE, a limitation caused by the fact that our TV did not have an S-Video input that would have allowed for a better signal and a better graphics card (all my other graphics cards have S-Video output capability).
Vista’s “Experience” rating was limited by the pathetic score of the 6200 LE: 2.1. Vista was usable, and the UI was only subject to minor lags and stuttering graphics performance. But when using the Media Center program (which was to be the central purpose of this computer), the “experience” was unacceptably slow and choppy. So I recently upgraded to an 8600 GT (with a fanless cooling pipe that would cut down on noise). Aside from the component video output issue (I’ll save that for another article), performance was much, much smoother.
Ok, so that’s my experience with Vista so far. Given my hardware and usage, I’ve been very pleased. But let’s look at Vista as a mainstream OS, and why keeping XP around as an alternative for the near future is a very good idea that would greatly benefit consumers.
First, let’s get one thing straight; my computer hardware purchasing habits are hardly representative of mainstream consumer buying preferences. I buy parts that I know will provide adequate performance for the task(s) at hand. Mainstream buyers often look for certain features (often extraneous features like “shininess”) and often look for the best “deal” – by which I mean cheapest option.
That last clause is important; consumers of computers (outside of heavy gamers or enthusiasts) will look for the overall cheapest option, not the “best bang for your buck” for which budget enthusiasts such as myself tend to look. And given the tendency for OEM manufacturers (like Dell, HP, and IBM) to grab as much of the low-end PC market as possible, the situation is ripe for disaster.
The PC hardware vendors that sell new PC’s to consumers have few choices when providing consumers with an operating system to go with their new computer. There’s Windows XP (a fast-disappearing option), Windows Vista, and then some very niche options like Linux. (Despite the progress and gains in market share that Linux has made with the general public, it’s still a very unlikely candidate for a majority of users). So, what do most users end up getting on their new computer?
Vista. Yep, budget machines with low-end hardware running the most hardware-intensive OS ever. Think that makes a lot of sense to you? Yeah, me neither. Compound this problem with the tendency for OEM manufacturers like Dell and others to load their systems with “bloatware” (i.e. free software or trial versions that are often unnecessary and are system resource hogs) to increase their profit margins on selling new computers (they get paid by these software companies to pre-load their software without the consumer’s consent).
A clean install of Vista on many of these computers would solve half the problem. And selling computers with hardware adequate to running Vista would solve the other half. But those problems still exist, and will likely continue to hurt Vista sales for awhile. Why? Because system performance on many low to mid-range PC’s is simply abysmal. User Access Control’s (UAC) load time delays and frequent (and often unnecessary) prompts don’t help. So the Vista setup screen “Getting it done just got more fun” is in reality often the exact opposite.
Time (and good ol’ Moore’s Law) will bring even budget PC’s up to a hardware performance level where Vista runs as smoothly as it should (even despite the likely continuance of bloatware). But unfortunately for Vista (to the glee of Apple and Linux enthusiasts), the newest member of the Windows family will acquire a negative (and somewhat undeserved) stigma against it.
So while mainstream Vista use will suffer for the near future, at least my own Vista experience has been positive thus far. . .