Is Vista ready? Microsoft testers weigh in

Microsoft officials obviously believe Windows Vista is ready, given that it is set to release it to manufacturing within weeks. But what do some of its toughest testers think?

Microsoft officials obviously believe Windows Vista is ready, given that it is set to release it to manufacturing within weeks, if not days.  But what do some of its toughest testers think?

With millions kicking Windows Vista’s tires, just about anyone and everyone is a Vista tester these days. But there is a group – more of the crème-de-la-crème – who’ve been getting access to regular, sometimes weekly, builds and giving Microsoft constant Vista feedback throughout the development process. Many of these testers are Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), authors of Vista books and operators of blogs and Web sites that dissect (and sometimes skewer) Vista on a regular basis.

Typically, they’re not the easiest crowd to please. And while most agree that Microsoft has come an incredibly long way since Vista Beta 2 and Release Candidate (RC) 1, they also are not 100-percent convinced the Vista rollout will be a smooth one.

When asked on October 19 whether he thought Vista was ready, Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft’s platforms and services division, said he believed Microsoft is doing “just fine” in terms of finishing off the product. While it won’t be released to manufacturing (RTM) the week of October 23, Allchin said, it’s close.

Allchin noted that he and his team evaluate a variety of data to determine when an operating system is cooked.

“Instead of basing it on individual -- if somebody has the least little thing that goes wrong, 'oh, that's terrible,' or, on the other side, 'everything is perfect, I think the thing is ready,' --I can't look at it that way,” Allchin said. “ I have to be analytical and look at the data that we have. I have metrics on all of these things. I know where our stress numbers are, I know where our device coverage is. I can tell you where we will be -- where we are today in terms of driver coverage for market share of each of the driver classes, and I can tell you where we'll be at RTM, because we've got commitments from them.”

With that caveat in mind, here is where independent testers think there is still work left to be done before Vista RTMs:

Sandro Villinger, a Windows Shell MVP and webmaster of the Windows Tweaks Web site, says he is concerned about Vista’s still-present interface inconsistencies.

“I hate to say this, but every day when I work with Vista it feels like it’s a spectacular product, with new features and excellent security enhancements, but the same time it feels like a premature birth. It’s just six to ten weeks too early,“ says Villinger, author of the upcoming book Windows Vista: In Use (for Home Basic and Home Premium) (Microsoft Press, January 2007).

“Vista’s UI is not consistent. Earlier this year I noticed that but was certain that by the time Vista hit RTM (release to manufacturing), all those inconsistencies would simply be gone but they are still here (Build 5744) and they will be in RTM,” Villinger says.

“Although the user interface (UI) is pretty nice I feel it’s also sloppy and slow. And yes, my computer has a 4.2 rating and a GeForce 7800 which should be enough to run some of those effects. It’s ridiculous that even one of the fastest machines out there needs almost two seconds to open Control Panel and even one to two (seconds) to go to the Security section. I want my new machine to be effective and fast but Vista is sometimes acting like it's on Valium," Villinger adds.

Brandon LeBlanc, a Portland, Ore.-based Vista tester and contributor to a number of Windows community sites, including MSTechToday and LiveSide.Net, also has some concerns, especially in the area of compatibility between Vista and some of Microsoft’s own applications.

“I used their Live Meeting 2005 app (recently) and for some reason it grounded my laptop to a halt on Vista - stealing a ton of system memory,” says LeBlanc. “Its’ apparent that many of Microsoft's own applications are the apps with major application compatibility issues - and that to me is very frustrating.”

There are also still minor issues, like problems with Vista’s photo-import wizard, that Microsoft will hopefully fix by the time the product RTMs, LeBlanc says.

“XP shippped with issues that they fixed later on and to be honest, a photo-import tool is kind of less important than stability and performance,” he noted.

Those concerns aside, "Vista is ready to go," LeBlanc says.

"I think it's time to ship and move forward. I'm using Vista on all my PCs now and have been for over two months now. I've had nothing but minor issues - nothing ‘showstopping,’” he notes.

“Is Vista ready? In an ideal world, I'd say ‘hell no,’” says Robert McLaws, the founder of the Windows-Now (formerly Longhorn site and president of Phoenix-based Interscape Technologies. “But you have to balance what you want with what is realistic. Something with so many moving parts is going to have issues. But it needs to get out the door so people can start experiencing the benefits.

"No software is perfect, at some point you have to ship it. So it's still going to have a bunch of bugs and quirks. What I'm concerned with are the 'surprises' that Jim (Allchin) told everyone to be on the lookout for. It's cool that Microsoft still has a few tricks left, but it's an enormous risk putting code into RTM builds that the TechBeta (testers) can't beat up first," McLaws says.

“My message to people who still want to see Vista improvements is to start working on beating the hell out of Longhorn Server, because that's shipping in the second half of next year, and it shares a lot of code with Vista," McLaws adds.

Terri Stratton, an MVP for Tablet PC and owner/editor of The Tablet PC.Net and UMPC sites, still has qualms on the driver front.

“Drivers are slow in coming, but that's not unique to Vista,” she says. “Companies tend to wait until RTM to issue drivers, if they decide to make them at all. Some hardware manufacturers, especially peripheral manufacturers, often don't offer updated drivers for older equipment, hoping to boost sales of new, supported hardware. I don’t blame Microsoft for that, although many consumers will.”

Michael Reyes and Maarten Sundman, founders of the HardwareGeeks site, also cite drivers as a worry.

“The only driver problems (I’m having are) with the 64-bit version. I have had no driver problems with the 32-bit version,” Reyes says.

In addition, if “Microsoft doesn't make more gadgets available, the Sidebar may not do so well,” Sundman says. “But performance-wise, I think everything will work.”

Driver compatibility also is on the radar screen of Carlos Echenique, the site owner of the PlanetX64 and PlanetAMD64 sites.

“There are ‘this is a new OS’ symptoms,” such as immature drivers, Echenique says. “Nvidia's new drivers, for example, have dismal gaming performance and until this is remedied, the enthusiast community will not move to Vista.”

The signed-driver requirement for Vista’s x64 versions also have been “a bit of a sticking point,” Echenique says, “as it prevents x64 users from testing beta driver builds. The workaround involves pressing F8 at boot time and overriding the Driver Signing Requirement every single time you boot. But that’s very annoying for the enthusiast community.”

That said, “RC2 was an extremely solid build technically,” Echenique said, echoing the sentiments of many Vista testers. “Some minor issues cropped up like IR Device Interface being broken but other than that it worked well.”

So what about the Vista drivers? Last week, Allchin had this to say:

“We have more drivers (for Vista) by far on Windows Update today than we did in the XP arena. But what's going to happen is between now and launch there's going to be so many more added. And all the little applets that people are finding -- like ‘Oh, my fingerprint reader on my notebook didn't work,’ ‘Oh, this RAID blah, blah, blah’ -- those are all coming, because I've personally seen the data that shows it, and in some cases talked to the companies. Also the data -- so the improvements will be there.

"It's always the case where we have to get done, done, done, done before the ecosystem finishes that full rest of the way," Allchin concluded.