Are You Vista Capable?

Following my last article on Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system and its review from the New York Times I felt that I should provide my own insight into the state of Windows Vista. I have been using Windows Vista for almost a year now. I am an IT professional and an early adopter of most technologies so I start using new operating systems a bit before the general public should consider looking at them. My main operating system is Novell’s OpenSUSE Linux 10.3 which is, in fact, newer than Windows Vista and my secondary machine is Windows XP Pro SP2.

(Warning, what is about to follow is anecdotal evidence as to the state of Vista from my own, limited first hand observations. But it could be worse, it could be second hand and out of context.)

My first attempt to work with Vista was on a dual-core AMD Turion X2 laptop. My hope was that with Vista it would finally make sense to run the operating system in 64-bit mode as Windows XP Pro 64-bit was a bit lack-luster. In Windows XP driver support had been extremely poor and I was unable to get much of anything to work. So all of my Windows XP machines ended up staying as 32-bit while my Linux machines moved back and forth. On Linux almost everything worked great as 64-bit. Only rarely would I get a driver issue or compatibility problem.

For the first week or so Windows Vista was incredibly slow. I decided that trying the 32-bit version of Vista (both had shipped with the laptop, thankfully) might be a good idea. So I performed a clean re-installation of Vista and started again.

Under Vista32 I noticed a significant increase in the overall speed and stability. The whole system seemed to hum right along now without the apparent slowness that I had had in 64-bit mode. Vista32 seems to work exceedingly well and starts and stops more reliably than my Windows XP machines have done in the past. The reliability of the shutdown process has been a major concern of mine from past Windows editions.

Because of the types of applications that I generally use on Windows (e.g. not video games, not entertainment applications, mostly serious business and management applications, only current versions, etc.) there were no compatibility issues in moving to Vista. Not a single application has failed to run and, I am told, that the only game that I actually would care about (Age of Empires 2 circa 1998) will run beautifully in Vista. I have a friend who has tested this on three separate Vista machines.

Few applications that are programmed “correctly” using Microsoft’s published standards and industry best practices have any issues moving to the Vista platform, in my experience. All of the complaints that I have heard about applications not working are either video games – which seldom follow platform guidelines, ancient legacy applications or small independent vendor applications that always fail to work between platforms because there are no updates, standards aren’t followed, etc. It happens. Every new operating system breaks a certain amount of old applications but in many cases, most cases, this is simply a separating of the wheat from the chaff. It is good to shake up the market and point out the weaklings in the herd and thin it out a bit for everyone’s long term health. Think of it as software genetics in action.

For contextual reasons I should point out that I have been using client side “firewalls” – a term that I am loathe to use but has become somewhat of the norm – for a long time, first with Symantec and more recently with Microsoft’s Live OneCare – and am quite familiar and comfortable with the concept of unblocking ports for every new application that is installed or any changes that are made. I am also used to this through the use of AppArmor on SUSE Linux and SELinux on Red Hat Linux.

Already being used to this as a matter of course makes the transition to Vista’s security system almost transparent. I have heard numerous complaints about the barrage of security notifications popping up and asking it “this software should be allowed to install” or if “such and such a port should be allowed to open” but if people were diligent about using past operating systems this would neither be new nor a surprise. This type of checking is wonderful in the computer security nightmare world in which we live. Many people want this “feature” suppressed but these are often the same people asking for continuous help to fix their virus and Trojan horse riddled computers caused, not by malicious external attacks, but by bad computer management habits and behaviours.

Even as a technology professional who is constantly installing and uninstalling applications, doing testing, making changes, fiddling with the network, etc. the number of these security alerts is not quite annoying enough to push me past the point of appreciating the protection which it provides. A normal user, who should not be installing new software or making network changes on a daily basis, should see these messages mostly only during the initial setup of the workstation and then somewhat rarely when new software or updates are applied. If this security feature is becoming annoying due to its regularity one must carefully ask oneself if there isn’t a behavioural issue that should be addressed. It is true, some users need to do “dangerous” things on a regular basis to use their computer the way that they need to use it. But these people are extremely rare and can almost always manage these issues on their own (turning off the feature, for example.)

Some people have had issues with the speed of their Vista machines. All of the complaints that I have heard to date, however, come from people who have moved from Windows XP to Windows Vista on the same hardware. This is not a move that I would suggest. Yes, Vista is slower than XP and noticably so. Just as XP was somewhat slower than Windows 2000 (although not very dramatically as 2000 was so slow. XP may not actually even be slower than 2000!) Windows 2000 was dramatically slower than Windows NT 4 and requires many times more system resources. The jump from the NT4 to the NT5 family was, by far, the biggest loss of performance that I have witnessed on these platforms. The move to Vista is minor.

The fact is that moving to newer, more feature rich, operating systems almost necessitates that the new operating systems will be slower. Each new generation is larger than the generation before. Each new version is more graphics intense (not true with Windows 2008 Core – yay!) and has power-hungry “eye candy” that demands faster processors, more memory and now graphics offload engines. Users clamour for features and then complain when those features cause their operating systems to be larger and more bloated. You can’t have both. If you want a car with one hundred cubic feet of hauling capacity the car absolutely must be larger than one hundred and four square feet in surface area. Period. It’s math. End of discussion. This isn’t Doctor Who – the inside can’t be larger than the outside. And your operating system can’t have less code than the sum of its components.

If I have one major complaint about Windows Vista it is the extreme difficulty with which one must search for standard management tools within the operating system. Under previous editions of Windows one could go to the Control Panel and find commonly used management tools in one convenient place. Now simply modifying a network setting – a fairly common task and impossible to research online when one needs it most – is nearly impossible to find even for full time Windows desktop support professionals. The interface for this portion of the system is cryptic at best and nothing is named in such a manner as to denote what task could possibly be performed with it.

Altogether I am very pleased with Vista and the progress that has been made with it and I am looking forward to seeing the improvements that are expected to come with the first Service Pack that should be released very soon. Vista is a solid product and Microsoft should be proud of the work that they have done. The security has been much improved and I hope that Vista proliferates in the wild rapidly as this is likely to have a positive effect on the virus levels that we are currently seeing.

Caveat: Moreso than previous versions of Microsoft Windows, Vista is designed to be managed by a support professional and used by a “user”. Vista is somewhat less friendly, out of necessity, and the average user would be better serviced to simply allow a knowledgeable professional handle settings and changes. Vista pushes people towards a “managed home” environment that would be more akin to a business environment.

This change, however, is not necessarily bad. As we have been seeing for many years, the security threats that exist with regular access to the Internet are simply far too complex for the average computer user to understand and with the number of computers in the hands of increasingly less sophisticated computer users the ability for viruses and other forms of malware to propagate has increased many fold. A computer user who does not properly protect his or herself from threats is not only a threat to themselves but to the entire Internet community.

In a business we do not expect non-technology professionals to regularly management their own desktops and perhaps we should not expect this of home users. Computers are far more complex than a car, for example, and only advanced hobbyist or amateur mechanics would venture to do much more than change their own oil. Why then, when a computer can be managed and maintained completely remotely, would we not use the same model for our most complex of needs?

With some basic remote support to handle the occasional software install or configuration change, automated system updates, pre-installed client side “firewall” all that is truly needed is a good anti-virus package and a normal home user could use their Windows Vista machine in a non-administrative mode for a long time with little need from the outside while enjoying an extreme level of protection. The loss of some flexibility would be minor compared to the great degree of safety and reliability that would be possible.

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