Before you go Vista: Advice from nine experts

I asked some of the best known of the Windows experts out there for one -- just one -- piece of advice they'd give to users who have decided to take the Windows Vista plunge. Here's what they said -- and showed, via some interesting screen-shot captures.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Not all experts are created equal. In the Windows world, there are a handful who really live and breathe Microsoft operating systems -- and whose opinions influence everyone from Microsoft's developers, to its customers.

I asked some of the best known of the bunch for one -- just one -- piece of advice they'd give to users who have decided to take the Windows Vista plunge. Not the fence sitters. Not Mac users. Not Linux champions. But individuals who have decided they are going to go with Vista, and probably some time soon (if they haven't already.)

Given that a number of Windows experts have been working with Vista for months, if not years, they've already found a few "gotchas" and potential pitfalls to avoid, as well as some hints that might help make the lives easier of Vista users, be they newbies or well-versed techies.

I've listed the experts' tips alphabetically by last names. And here are some nifty Vista screen shots that help illustrate their Vista tips and tricks.

ZDNet Blogger and Windows Book Author Ed Bott

Bott, who has just published his latest of a growing family of Windows books (Windows Vista Inside Out, 2007, Microsoft Press), has a tip for those planning to set up a dual-boot system with Windows XP and Windows Vista.

"If you set up a dual-boot system with XP and Vista, you'll be gotcha'ed the first time you boot up the new operating system, and again each time you switch," Bott warned.

The problem? "The two operating systems use different formats for System Restore checkpoints. When you boot one OS, it looks at the System Restore checkpoints, assumes they are corrupt, and deletes them. This is true even if you urn off System Restore protection in either OS. The check is automatic and there's no way to stop it."

.Net Developer and 64-bit Expert Ryan Hoffman

Given his role as founder of the Extended64.com site, it's not too surprising that Hoffman has been putting the 64-bit versions of Vista through their paces. And here's what he's found:

"One of the biggest Windows Vista x64 'gotchas' is its new signed driver loading policy," Hoffman explained. "Hardware drivers which are not certified by Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL) are not allowed to load into the 64-bit Windows Vista kernel.

"When installing a non WHQL driver, Windows will pop up with a warning explaining that the driver is not WHQL certified, which gives the user an option to continue anyway. Once the driver is installed, Windows tries to load the driver (which fails), and an unhelpful error message is displayed: 'Windows cannot load the device driver for this hardware. The driver may be corrupted or missing. (Code 39).'

"Instead of simply stopping the user from installing the driver in the first place, Vista's otherwise improved error messages and diagnostics fail to help the user," Hoffman said.

Read more expert comments

.Net Developer and Windows-Now Founder Robert McLaws

McLaws is an outspoken Windows tester and tinkerer, as well as the founder of the Windows-Now.com site. His piece of advice to Vista users revolves around back-up.

"One of Windows Vista’s most important advances is in the way it handles backing up your critical information. The addition of 'Previous Versions' and 'CompletePC' backups, along with improvements to 'System Restore,' means that your data will be safer than ever," McLaws said.

"But Vista’s improvements came at the expense of the backup program found in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003: NTBackup. It’s not on in Vista at all, and the new backup application doesn’t support the format… meaning that (it looked like) your old backups (would be) worthless."

However, McLaws pointed out, Microsoft just recently released a stand-alone version of NTBackup that is compatible with Windows Vista.

"Just make sure you follow the installation instructions, as there is a “gotcha’ in there that will keep it from working properly," he cautioned.

Tech Pundit Chris Pirillo

Anyone who knows uber-geek Chris Pirillo -- of Lockergnome, Gnomedex and/or "Rent My Chest" fame -- knows he cares about good design. And he cares a lot. So it's not too surprising that many of Pirillo's beefs with Vista (and Windows in general) are all about the user interface (UI).

"I think 'immaturity' is the word I'd use to best describe a lot of new and/or updated apps throughout Vista," Pirillo said.

Number One issue for Pirillo: "The Search tool is a mess. Compare Vista's client to Copernic's Desktop Search - and the difference is like night and day. In terms of UI and usability, so many third-party apps are far more elegant than Microsoft's."

Given that Microsoft is touting its new integrated desktop search as one of Vista's main selling points, Pirillo's point is especially sharp.

(Even though I told him he could only mention one "gotcha," Prillo couldn't resist throwing in another UI critique: "Windows Calendar looks like a white trash, knock-off version of iCal. 'Nuff said.")

Houston Chronicle Tech Blogger Dwight Silverman

Silverman wears a lot of hats: computing columnist, techblogger, and "Interactive Journalism" editor at the Houston Chronicle. He also is in the throes of co-authoring Microsoft Windows Vista: The Learning Series with Larry Magid (2007, Peachpit Press).

Silverman's advice to all users considering a Vista upgrade:

"Do your due diligence before installing Vista by running the free Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor (available at www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready/upgradeadvisor/default.mspx), which scans your system's hardware and software looking for issues.

"It flags you to hardware for which Vista has no built-in drivers and programs that may not work or cause conflicts. It rates problems based on severity, and you should take its recommendations to heart. If it warns you to remove or upgrade a program before you install Vista -- particularly as an in-place upgrade over Windows XP or 2000 -- then do it! It knows what it's talking about."

MVP and Windows Book Author Steve Sinchak

When Steve Sinchak talks, techies listen. And with good reason. Author and Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Sinchak really knows in the ins and outs of Windows. He's got a new book coming out in May, Hacking Windows Vista (2007, John Wiley & Sons) to add to his shelf of Windows tomes he's written.

Sinchak's Vista advice comes from personal experience:

"A few weeks ago after my hard drive was getting low on space I ran disk cleanup to try to delete some unneeded files. Since I needed a lot of space fast I also checked the option to clear my hibernation file. It turns out that was a big mistake," he explained on his Windows Tweaks blog.

"After clearing my hibernation file, my laptop's ability to hibernate was destroyed. It was so badly damaged that I could not get to the control panel hibernation settings to turn it back on. Thanks Disk Cleanup! "The fix is actually very easy to do.. Since the control panel settings were gone, I simply used the the command prompt to turn it back on. If you have a similar problem, run the follow command at an administrative level command prompt to turn hibernation back on: Powercfg /hibernate on. After a reboot the ability to hibernate is restored."

Microsoft is acknowledging the bug and has a Knowledge Base article available on it, Sinchak noted. 

SuperSite for Windows Editor and Book Author Paul Thurrott

Thurrott, the News Editor for Windows IT Pro Magazine, is well-known for his comprehensive Windows reviews on the SuperSite for Windows. Thurrott also has a new Vista book, co-authored with Brian Livingston, Windows Vista Secrets (2007, John Wiley & Sons).

Thurrott's advice for soon-to-be Vista users is to start out with a dual boot in order to make existing apps and hardware work before going whole-hog with Vista.

"Once you know everything is going to work properly, you can go back and upgrade XP to Vista or wipe out the existing system and perform a clean install. Just be sure not to activate Vista on this temporary install just in case," Thurrott explained.

Dual booting isn't a feature new to Vista, but there is a new piece of Vista functionality that makes dual-booting even better, Thurrott said.

"To see it in action, you need to install Vista by booting PC with the Vista Setup DVD (and not do so by starting Vista Setup from within XP).

"Here's how it works. If you start Vista Setup from within Windows XP, Vista will be installed to whatever partition you choose during the setup process. Let's say this is the D: drive. So when all is said and done, XP will be on C: and Vista will be on D:. These drive letters will remain constant whether you're using XP or Vista.

"If you trigger Setup by booting from the Vista DVD, however, and choose exactly the same partition during Setup as noted in the above example, you'll see a different drive letter layout depending on which OS you're using. In XP, as before, XP will be on C: and Vista will be on D:. But when you're running Vista, Vista will appear to be on C: and XP will be on D:. So whichever OS you're in will always appear to be on the C: drive."

Why is this important? "Many applications are poorly written and automatically try to write data to hard coded locations under the C: drive. So if both your OSes appear to be on the C: drive, these applications should always work better. And if you're particular, as I am, it makes more sense for the operating system to be installed on the "first" drive. Even if it's been physically installed to a second drive or partition," Thurrott said.

MVP and Windows Book Author Sandro Villinger

Like many of the Windows experts on my short list, Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Villinger has co-authored a Vista book, Windows Vista -- An Overview (with Christine Koch, 2006, Microsoft Press).

In his hands-on time with Vista, Villinger so far has discovered only a couple of "gotchas," he said. But one of these is hot -- literally: Battery-power problems. (Yes, they are still with us.)

"Last summer I acquired this nice Media Center laptop from Acer (the Acer Aspire 9504) with a bright 17” monitor, 2 Ghz Intel Centrino, 2 GB of RAM and a fast hard disk (fast for a laptop, that is). I am using it as a sweet test machine for Windows Vista which runs pretty smooth but one thing that I really hate about the new Microsoft OS is that it definitely does not try much to save battery power when compared to Windows XP," Villinger blogged over on his Windows-Tweaks site.

"Even if I’m on the airplane and disable EVERY piece of battery draining hardware (Bluetooth, WLAN, LAN, USB, Firewire) and crank down the brightness to the absolute minimum the laptop battery runs dry after 1 1/2 to 2 hours and that is barely enough for watching a movie on DVD. With Windows XP the laptop lives at least 2 1/2 hours and sometimes even three (if I just watch a movie and don’t do anything else)."

MVP and CEO of Stardock Brad Wardell

Wardell is the CEO of Stardock Corp., a software developer well-known to Windows users who've dabbled with WindowBlinds, ObjectDock and other utilities (not to mention the Galactic Civilizations II game, also a Stardock product). Wardell also is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and runs the Wincustomize.com site. Wardell also helped with the development of content for the DreamScene Vista Ultimate Extra.)

Drivers -- specifically video drivers -- are likely to be the bane of Vista users' lives, at least in the short term, Wardell said.

"When you install Windows Vista, you absolutely, positively must make sure you have the latest drivers. At launch, the nVidia drivers are definitely weaker than the ATI drivers.

"If you are planning to play any computer games, you will need to visit the ATI or nVidia sites in particular to see if there have been updates. Expect to see a lot of rapid-fire updates to the video drivers as problems are encountered and solved."

Don't forget to check out this slideshow with Vista screenshots illustrating the tips and tricks from Wardell and the other Vista experts.

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