Will Windows Vista be worth the wait?

Will Windows Vista be worth the wait?

Summary: It's been a long and winding road, but Windows Vista is finally released to manufacturing. You'll no doubt be overwhelmed with coverage of the minutiae of Windows Vista in the next few days and weeks, but focusing on the road behind or on pixel-by-pixel inspections is a waste of time. After nearly a year of working with Windows Vista day in and day out in production environments, I've come up with three questions that every Windows user needs to ask about Windows Vista.

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TOPICS: Windows
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Update: The official press release, in Q&A format, is here. The informal release (with video clip) is on the Windows Vista Team Blog. According to the Q&A, general availability will be January 30, 2007. (I believe this means I win the pool.)

It's been a long and winding road, but Windows Vista is finally released to manufacturing. That means the final stage of the waiting game has begun. According to Microsoft, Volume Licensing customers will receive media containing Business and Enterprise editions of Windows Vista by the end of this month, with Ultimate edition available via download. Giant PC makers will get those bits as well, and retail customers will be able to buy Windows Vista on new PCs or in retail boxes by the end of January. (Those rumors that Vista will be publicly unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January? No way, say my sources.)

I've been working with an escrow build of the final release code since last Friday. What's new and what's changed in the gold RTM bits? The last little pieces of UI bling - some fancy icons, new wallpapers, and the long-awaited Robert Fripp-created sounds - are included, and the feature set is locked down. For a full walkthrough, see the detailed image gallery I've put together:

A first look at Windows Vista (finally!)

You'll no doubt be overwhelmed with coverage of the minutiae of Windows Vista in the next few days and weeks, but focusing on the road behind or on pixel-by-pixel inspections is a waste of time. After nearly a year of working with Windows Vista day in and day out in production environments, I've come up with three questions that every Windows user needs to ask about Windows Vista.

Does it work?

On shiny clean desktop hardware, with new Vista drivers, this version of Windows works exceptionally well. I've installed the RTM bits on a new dual-core desktop from Dell; a two-year-old Pentium 4 system, also from Dell; a custom-built system with an Intel motherboard and a Pentium D processor; and even a much-upgraded 2002-vintage Pentium 4 system. In all four cases, setup was flawless. The new image-based setup scheme doesn't quite hit the 15-minute benchmark that Windows boss Jim Allchin promised at the beginning of the year, but on a fast system a clean setup typically completes in 20-30 minutes, mostly unattended.

Upgrading over an existing installation is a little more problematic, especially on notebooks and offbeat hardware. My upgrade experience with a top-of-the-line Acer Tablet PC has been problematic for months, and the final build fails with a Blue Screen of Death, thanks to a conflict with the onboard Realtek sound circuitry. A clean setup works better, but is still far from perfect. Similarly, trying to set up Windows Vista on a Shuttle small-form-factor PC - as a clean setup or an upgrade - fails every time. (Microsoft says they're unable to reproduce the problem on a similar system.)

Over the past six months, I've kept track of countless bugs in Vista. Most are fixed, and I have yet to bump into a so-called showstopper. That doesn't mean this RTM build of Vista is perfect; far from it. There are still plenty of small glitches. If you move the data folders out of the user profile and onto a separate partition, for instance, the search index doesn't get updated, and some programs (including Windows Live Messenger) still look for data in the old locations.

Microsoft argues that some setup problems will disappear early next year as hardware manufacturers finally get around to releasing Vista-compatible drivers. For now, anyone considering a Vista upgrade needs to pay special attention to driver availability.

What's in it for me?

The image gallery I've put together hits the highlights of Windows Vista, and anyone who dismisses Vista as a minor update is missing the point. Much of the underlying architecture of Windows Vista has been completely reworked, which has the potential to make it more reliable and more secure than XP. Whether Windows Vista can live up to that potential, only time will tell. Yes, a few highly touted Vista features are also available for Windows XP, including Windows Defender and Windows Media Player 11. But the laundry list of new Vista-only features is impressive.

  • A radically revamped Windows Explorer with integrated Desktop Search capabilities
  • A completely rewritten networking stack that supports IPv6
  • A two-way firewall that increases protection for many existing Windows services
  • New audio, display, and power management architectures
  • User Account Control, IE7 Protected Mode, and Bitlocker Drive Encryption
  • Windows Photo Gallery, with industry-standard support for saving metadata in image files
  • Excellent backup tools, including the ability to recover previous versions of a file
  • SuperFetch, ReadyBoost, and other performance-enhancing innovations
  • Tablet PC support
  • A slick and stable upgrade to Windows Media Center

Ultimately, the experience of using Windows Vista is more important than any feature on that list. I've talked to dozens of beta testers, and reactions to Vista are mixed. The majority give it a thumbs up, but a significant minority are turned off by the new UI, by the hassles of User Account Control, or by issues like licensing and cost.

Is it worth it?

That's the $399 question, isn't it? Microsoft's done a terrible job of communicating the differences between the many editions, and the eye-popping $399 retail price tag on Windows Vista Ultimate Edition has put off some enthusiasts.

The recent hassle over Vista licensing certainly didn't help Microsoft's cause, and trepidation over the successor to Windows Genuine Advantage, the Windows Software Protection Platform doesn't help either. It's possible that Microsoft has permanently alienated some of its most loyal customers.

Between now and the end of January, Microsoft and its PC-building partners will no doubt roll out irresistible upgrade offers. For Windows users, there's no hurry to make a decision.

Topic: Windows

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178 comments
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  • People want something that will just work

    I hope that Vista will meet that requirement.
    I would not recommend upgrading to Vista from XP.
    There really is just no point.
    There isn't enough of a leap in usability or features.
    Buy a new pc when you need it and it will have Vista drivers that work.
    This whole upgrading and legacy support is what kills my enthusiasm for any new os.
    zmud
    • People want something...

      zmud, I agree with you 100%. As I've stated numerous times, I am running XP Pro on my HP Pavilion & XP Media Center on my Dell E1505 that was custom configured. I don't see any reason to switch to Vista, considering the flaws, bugs &/or issues the OS still faces.

      On a different note, I have Norton Internet Security 2007 installed on both units & I have not heard anything recent as to what finally transpired with the compatibility issues between the preceding & Vista.

      I am going to stick with XP for as long as possible.
      rondev
    • What is the benefit to me?

      I have XP with a free third party firewall, anti-virus and ad/spyware removal tool.I have several hard drives, burners, printers, key drives, cameras, etc. etc. etc.

      My computer is stable and problem free. I back up whatever is important once a week or so to avoid disaster; I have not needed to re-install everything for at least 5 years. I have had some XP problems but they are few and far between.

      Microsoft's intrusive behaviour is driving me away, though.

      When I need to surf in dangerous waters, I throw Knoppix in the CD and check things out at no risk.

      If Vista has a few trinkets that are appealing I would consider doing the work of migration only if it was free or very inexpensive, and didn't have the "guilty until you prove otherwise" attitude regarding activation. $399 is almost the cost of a new desktop these days. I will wait to buy my next computer before entertaining the thought of using Vista.

      I have to say this, though. I am waiting for a version of Linux that has the ease of use that Windows or OSX does and is either compatable with the programs that run on the other two or has all the alternatives (minus file type incompatibilities). Accessing XP drives, installing new programs, chatting to people (using MSN Messenger/Yahoo type interfaces), and either running DOS/Windows/Mac programs (games, AutoCAD, Excel, etc.) or their equivalents are the issues I am waiting to be dealt with.

      I am sorry I am not a programmer and do not have the talent or knowledge needed to make a Knoppix-like program so you can choose an installation type (a hard drive, key CD or DVD)from a simple menu and it will automatically install with all the tools and programs needed.

      When the GUI is used to hide the intricate programming (unless you want to dig through it) it makes the use of complicated equipment easy for everyone.
      Information_z
    • Amen to that...

      One thing about Microsoft is that it usually takes a few months for all the problems to get worked out once a new OS released to the public. Some products they have never gotten to work satisfactorily (Win ME) or took a major revision to get right (Win 98 SE). Until we really know how well Vista is going to perform, or how backwards compatible it will be, why be Microsoft's guinea pig?
      Reindeer911
  • Suppose you were going to upgrade...

    ... a computer with XP and a load of invaluable, irreplaceable (meaning not backed up, for one) data, with a number of applications whose original install CDs are missing and presumed lost.

    This would not be a rare situation for an upgrade buyer. It's also not impossible for a new computer buyer with coupon who waits for a while to cash in the coupon.

    What would be the best approach? Would a typical home user be able to follow it?

    Am I wrong to think that this situation should be of concern to Microsoft and OEMs?
    (It is to me, were I to consider an upgrade at home, though my backups are well maintained.)
    Anton Philidor
    • Actually...

      The new image-based setup process is perfect in this regard. During the course of testing I've had many failed seups, and every time, it rolled back perfectly. The Setup image doesn't touch the user's programs and data until it's fully installed and running. So if something goes wrong, it just restarts using XP, undoes the setup, and restores the original, untouched XP installation. Very fast and easy.

      Having a backup is a good idea, of course, but I don't think the nightmare scenario you're envisioning is there.
      Ed Bott
      • Good.

        That sounds like an achievement.

        Did you have any problems once it was "fully installed and running" with emulation for older programs or data import?

        I'd thought coupons were a bad idea, but this install appears safe enough that it's feasible.

        I was, by the way, trying to imagine a standard situation instead of inventing something unlikely.
        Anton Philidor
        • There's no emulation

          There's no "emulation for older programs or data import" ...

          Data files are data files, and programs either run under Vista or they don't. In general, besides the obvious categories of disk utilities and security software, I found that most software works just fine.
          Ed Bott
          • There is a compatibility mode ...

            ... for programs and I think that is what Anton is asking about. If you go into the properties of a program link you can set a program to run in various previous version compatibility modes.
            ShadeTree
          • True.... But...

            [b]... for programs and I think that is what Anton is asking about. If you go into the properties of a program link you can set a program to run in various previous version compatibility modes.[/b]

            ...in response to what Ed said, disk utilities and such may not work regardless of what you do with the program compatability settings...

            Case in point. There was a post on the Technet beta site where a guy gave up on beta testing Vista simply because his now ancient and obsolete version of Norton Systemworks (2003) wouldn't load and caused problems with Vista.

            Now, why anyone would load Systemworks is beyond me. But that's besides the point. If a program wants to do things that Vista doesn't want it to do (low level access to drives, trying to attach itself to the kernal, etc...), then it's going to be problematic.
            Wolfie2K3
          • System Works

            You said "Now why anyone would load Systemworks is beyond me." Well a home user would. He/she paid good money and they'll try to install and use.
            Just a thought.
            herb643
    • I'm not sure if there is anything

      MS or an OEM can do in that case.
      Demand the user make a backup? Sure, they will just click next and ignore it.
      MS (and OEMs) can't simply replace missing disks, unless the software was written by them and you can prove you owned it. So again, there is nothing they can do. Hoping that installed software will continue to work after the upgrade doesn't fly either, from the users viewpoint.

      If your stuck in that situation (and I think it is rarer then you think) the only thing to do is leave the system as is, and buy a new one with Vista preloaded. Run 2 machines.
      And pray the HD or motherboard or power supply never fails. And that there never is a nearby floor, fire, theft or random 'act of God'.
      mdemuth
  • wait and see

    for me...

    at work: definately not going to see this for a long long time.

    at home: don't see the benefit for upgrading. with everything I read, just seems like more hassle and harassment from the software. I'll stick with xp for another year or two, unless major changes comes to vista.

    MS keeps on saying that the rate of adoptation will be high. I think they are really lying to theirself. Everyone I talked to has the "wait and see" attitude. Some even express intentions to "skip this piece of **** like the WinME".

    anyways...
    willyu
    • like what?

      "I'll stick with xp for another year or two, unless major changes comes to vista."

      I'm curious... what major changes you are looking for?
      erniescar99
  • My personal opinion

    While Win9X->XP was a no-brainer upgrade, justifying XP->Vista is a bit more difficult. You talk about stability but XP is rock solid. You talk about functionality but XP does everything I need and the things it is missing (like desktop search) are easily available for free from MS and others.

    XP is a really great OS with really terrible default settings. For businesses, I'm not sure Vista is worth it if you have good group policies in place. For home users who know how to spend 2 minutes to secure an XP install, the improved default settings simply aren't enough to justify the price since you aren't using the default settings anyway. For home users who don't know how to secure their XP installs, I would say Vista is probably worth it, if only for the better defaults. I do have to wonder though how many of those users will blindly click on the "Yes, I want this software I've just downloaded to run with Administrator privileges even though you've now warned me 3 times that this will probably end up destroying my computer" button and still get hit with malware. For those people, it is probably better to switch to an OS with insignificant marketshare and hope and pray that very few of your peers do the same. Of course, you lose the ability to run 99% of software you see in the stores but other than games, most Windows home software has pretty good equivalents for Linux and OSX.
    NonZealot
  • So long as the HTML control is in charge...

    So long as the HTML control is in charge of determining if an object is trusted or not, Microsoft has done nothing to fix the biggest and most important problem with Windows in the past decade... and for almost that entire decade: the desktop/explorer integration that ushered in the massive flood of viruses and other malware in Windows around the turn of the century was introduced in 1997.
    Resuna
    • Have you actually looked at Vista?

      Or its architecture? You've probably made about the weakest possible anti-IE7 argument.
      Ed Bott
  • What's in it for the average Joe?

    The thing that I find most interesting about Vista is the fact that the average citizen (non-techie) has probably never heard of Vista. I have had two people within the last couple of weeks tell me that they are looking to buy a new PC before the holidays. When I asked if they were considering waiting for Vista, neither knew what it was. After I told them it was the new OS from MS, one said he'd feel safer sticking with XP. He uses it at work and on his old PC. Works fine, rather keep the devil he knows. The other person asked me if it was worth the wait, why should they wait. Honestly, I couldn't tell her.

    I just bought a new PC myself and got a coupon for a free upgrade. I have no idea when or if I'll use it. I am more concerned about all the new DRM and lock-down stuff that's probably hiding under the rug. Maybe it won't be so bad, maybe it won't affect me at all. But I don't see any features that I need enough to chance it.

    It's been so long since XP came out that I'm struggling to remember what the buzz was like then. Maybe it was the same.
    adam_odonnell9
    • What's in it

      I have used the RC's of Vista. The main problem I have with it is that the software vendors are light years behind. When I tried to install my working-fine-onXPPro, only one program would work: Microsoft Messenger. Unless you want to invest a bundle in S/W I would stay the heck away from it until the programs catch up. With that said, while I was using Vista I kept asking myself why I was doing this. Vista, to me, is eye-candy, nothing more. I am not going to even look to upgrade for at least a year, probably more, because MS will be supporting XP Pro well into the future. Doug
      drhesq
      • HUH?

        [b]I have used the RC's of Vista. The main problem I have with it is that the software vendors are light years behind. When I tried to install my working-fine-onXPPro, only one program would work: Microsoft Messenger. Unless you want to invest a bundle in S/W I would stay the heck away from it until the programs catch up. With that said, while I was using Vista I kept asking myself why I was doing this. Vista, to me, is eye-candy, nothing more. I am not going to even look to upgrade for at least a year, probably more, because MS will be supporting XP Pro well into the future. Doug[/b]

        Odd... I tested a fairly wide variety of apps with RC1 and MOST everything worked fine. In fact, the only one app that didn't work with Vista was PowerDVD 6 - which, while it did install itself properly, failed when it was launched with a message box that popped up and said there were some known issues with this program. Everything else I threw at it worked fine.

        As far as Vista being only eyecandy goes... For the most part, from a non-technical, end user perspective, that's about right. Most of the changes are seamlessly built in under the hood. There are a lot of things that you'd never notice - which is a good thing. The increased security around IE7 - the sandbox around it - is unnoticable from the end user point of view but it does stop a lot of malicious junque from infesting your computer.
        Wolfie2K3