Living with Windows Vista: Week one report card

It's been one week that I've not used Windows XP on my main computer and actually living with Windows Vista so here is my progress report.  As some of my readers know, I've was having stability problems with my main computer as well as a number of other annoying bugs in Vista that kept me from jumping to Windows Vista.
Written by George Ou, Contributor

It's been one week that I've not used Windows XP on my main computer and actually living with Windows Vista so here is my progress report.  As some of my readers know, I've was having stability problems with my main computer as well as a number of other annoying bugs in Vista that kept me from jumping to Windows Vista.  Since I already swapped everything out (short of the Motherboard and CPU) which didn't stabilize Windows Vista, I upgraded my Motherboard and CPU.  Note that two of my other systems did run stable with Vista but they weren't my main system and I didn't want to waste a license on those old test machines with inferior hardware.

In my main computer I was running an old Intel P4 3.0 GHz CPU that I got in a deal that included a free motherboard and I had wanted to upgrade to an Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 with a 965 chipset.  I also built another Intel E6400 with an Intel 945 chipset workstation for TechRepublic testing though this review will primarily focus on my own PC.  Here is the breakdown of the two systems:

Upgraded personal workstationNewly built test workstation
MSI P965 Platinum motherboard*ABIT IL9 Pro (945 chipset)
Intel C2D E6400 2.13 @ 2.67 GHz*Intel C2D E6400 at stock 2.13 GHz
Cooler Master HyperTX cooler*Stock Intel retail CPU fan
Seagate 500 GB SATA II HDDSeagate 400 GB SATA II HDD
Maxtor 400 GB SATA II HDD 
ATI X850 PCI-E video cardNVIDIA GeForce PCI-E 6600
2 GB DDR2-800 RAM*2 GB DDR2-800 RAM
Onboard Realtek gigabit and 5.1 audioOnboard Realtek gigabit and 5.1 audio
Seasonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSUSeasonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU
Vista Ultimate x86 32-bit editionVista Ultimate x64 64-bit edition

*Upgraded components on my main personal computer

Drivers for the MSI system loaded flawlessly under Vista x86 edition without the need to download any additional drivers.  Gigabit LAN and 5.1 audio with all six speakers worked well.  MSI listed a bunch of drivers on their website for Vista x86 and x64 but I didn't use any of them.  Drivers for the ABIT IL9 based system with Vista x64 seemingly loaded fine but there was no sound output.  Jumbo frame support for both systems were missing with the default WHQL drivers dated June 2006 though I was able to average out at ~450 mbps transferring a 5 GB DVD backup from hard disk to hard disk from PC to PC while cranking both CPU cores to ~23%.  I found the latest Realtek drivers from Realtek's website which addressed the Jumbo frame issue and the sound issue on the ABIT system with Vista x64.

Vista didn't like the CPU overclocked beyond 2.67 GHz (25% boost) with a minor core voltage boost and didn't like the memory operating at 667 MHz (533 MHz is normal) unless it had a minor bump in voltage.  It seems Vista is very sensitive to any kind of hardware instability and it's forcing me to run a more reasonable overclock setting which is fine by me since I really don't want to live with silent data corruption anyways.  I did not test what would happen if I tried an aggressive voltage setting since I wasn't in it for extreme 50% boost overclocking and just wanted something reasonable with a mild voltage boost.  Previous experience had told me that Vista is very sensitive to memory issues and it's a good idea to test your RAM for errors and return it for any defects you find that normally might not affect Windows XP.

Hardware note: The fact that I had Intel SpeedStep power-saver mode enabled also limited my ability to clock higher but I wanted to conserve some energy.  My main system idles at 108 watts at stock CPU settings and at 116 watts with the overclocked settings and topped out around 170 watts when I was gaming.  The ABIT 945 chipset system with the smaller video card clocked in at 73 watts idle.  Both systems support S3 sleep state though the ABIT-based system refused to properly wake up from an S3 suspend state.  The MSI-based system worked fine at stock clock speeds but was unreliable at my 25% overclock setting so I gave up on the idea of using S3 sleep and I just shut the system down at night.  For those who would continue to argue the myth that a 330 watt PSU is too small, here are the actual facts with the measured numbers.  I've got enough room on my high-end system to go to a top-of-the-line graphics card and I'll still be running less than 270 watts peak.  You don't need a half ton or even quarter ton power supply and they're simply a method of separating you from your money.  The PSU thing has gotten so out of hand that someone is offering a 2000 watt power supply.

[Next page - Vista Search: A killer feature]

Vista Search:  A killer feature

Once the hardware issues were settled I started easing my way in to Vista and learned all the new ways of doing things.  It might be frustrating at first because the UI is so drastically changed from Windows XP but I got acclimated by the third day of living full time with Vista.  Installing Microsoft Outlook 2007 took me for a loop because it was hard to force it to except my old Outlook 2003 PST data file since it refused to let me delete the new PST it automatically created.  I got past that problem by manually deleting that PST file and when Outlook complained it couldn't find it on the next startup, I pointed it to my old file and then it took.

It was initially frustrating because I had about 1.5 GB worth of old PST files and the new Windows Search feature was hammering the hard drive non-stop trying to index all of my files.  I let the PC on and went to sleep and it probably spent two hours indexing all my email.  But once it completed it quickly became an indispensable feature of Windows Vista even though I had always refused to use something like Google desktop search on my desktop computer since I didn't want the indexing overhead.  It turns out that the indexing - at least in Vista - is only intense the first time and it seems to maintain the index on the fly as new files and emails are added.  I didn't have a problem with the old non-indexed search feature in older versions of Windows and Outlook and I was fine waiting a few seconds to a minute waiting for my search results.

It turned out that I was minimizing my usage of search because I had to decide if it was worth the 30 second wait.  Now that I have instant search which searches all of my file names, file content, and emails, I find myself using the search feature tens of times all through the day when I had hardly used search more than once a week on Windows XP.  The most useful feature is the new Start menu which lets you start typing right away as soon as you hit the start button on the screen or the Windows key on your desktop.  For example I'll just type the first four letters of a program and the program instantly pops up on the top of the start menu so that I can just hit enter to start it.  I can also type at the start menu "from:John Doe" and find every email that John Doe ever sent me within a few seconds.  Typing just a few words will also bring up all documents and emails containing that word and it all operates seamlessly.

But as soon as I started getting comfortable disaster struck.  I installed Visio and FrontPage 2003 which were part of the older Office 2003 suite and the next thing I know instant search in Outlook 2007 was broken.  I struggled for hours trying to repair the search index and I sent an email to Microsoft asking them if this was some kind of bug.  After some searching, the PR Reps for Microsoft had received an answer from Microsoft support that any Office 2003 application installed after Office 2007 will corrupt the registry setting.  The fix for it was to insert the Office 2007 DVD and use the "repair" option.  After running the repair and letting Vista re-index the email, everything was back to normal again.

Other indispensable features in Windows Vista is the new look.  No I'm not talking about 3D flip, I have never cared for that feature and I don't intend to ever use it.  I'm talking about the new ClearType optimized fonts in Vista.  I've never been a fan of ClearType in the past and I've always personally referred to it as "BlurType" in all previous versions of Windows.  In Windows XP I prefer ClearType off and the screen fonts look fine even though the jaggies are noticeable.  The text looks too blurred for me in XP if I have ClearType on.  But that seems to have changed in Vista and the screen fonts look terrible without ClearType and they look good with ClearType without the jaggies.

The new color management feature in Vista is vastly improved and it's something that the professionals will appreciate.  Microsoft had hired the person responsible for the design of color management in Apple Macintosh and these are serious under-the-hood improvements that won't get a lot of coverage.
[Next page - Bypassing the annoying Vista bugs]

Bypassing the annoying Vista bugs

When I did my first Vista RTM review and declared that I was holding off on Vista because of the stability issues and various annoying bugs, the Free Software Foundation actually linked to it in their "Bad Vista" campaign.  Well more than a month has passed and I've figured out some workarounds for the annoying software issues and I have some new hardware.

Most of my existing systems did work on Vista but my main system running a somewhat obscure ATI RADEON XPRESS 200 motherboard happened to be the one that didn't work.  What I can conclude from this is that most old hardware will probably work but there are some that don't.  If you're reading this wondering if you should upgrade your system to Vista, my best recommendation is to check with the Motherboard vendor and see if they offer drivers for your system.  I personally had pretty good luck with all the Intel chipset based motherboards and Via chipset AMD-based motherboards though I had not tested any SIS based systems (not saying SIS wouldn't work with Vista).  I'll also reiterate the need to test your RAM for errorssince Vista will not tolerate RAM errors nor should you want bad RAM in your system even if XP seems to be OK with it.  I had RAM from Kingston for a little more than a year and I found errors in it.  I submitted on online request and Kingston shipped me a two-day advanced-replacement along with a return number that allowed me to return my defective memory by dropping it off at FedEx.  The entire quick exchange cost me nothing so I was fairly happy about Kingston's service.

To get past the interlacing problems with Vista's built-in DVD playback, I installed an OEM copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD 5.0 that came with a DVD burner I purchased.  Microsoft has refused to confirm or deny this issue but I've had others confirm the issue though it isn't always consistent.  But with Cyberlink Eagle Vision enabled in PowerDVD the playback was flawless and crystal clear.  There was a scary message when I installed PowerDVD 5.0 that the application wasn't compatible with Vista but I ignored the warning.  If I didn't know any better it was almost as if ISVs (independent software vendors) are eager to get their users to upgrade to the latest edition of their software and scary messages aren't off limits.  Nero 6.6 CD/DVD burning ROM had the same scary warning message of incompatibility but I installed it anyways and it's working fine.  Once installed, the only issue I had was that PowerDVD 5 would temporarily disable Vista Aero Glass during actual video playback which if I think about it isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Aero Glass forces video to play map on to a 3D surface that can be moved and 3D flipped at any time while the video is playing and that has to incur some hardware overhead.

The ATI X850 video card (actually an X800 unlocked to an X850) didn't have any problems playing high definition or 1080i HDV footage I captured from my Sony HDV camera.  My older Pentium 2.4 with an NVIDIA GeForce 6200 that sits in my living room can't handle it with Vista but my current system can.  So this should give you an idea of what you need if you want to play high definition content.  Vista Media Center wouldn't play back ripped DVD movies but it turns out there are plenty of hacks for this.  I've heard of registry hacks and one of my readers on TechRepublic offered up this hackVista Codec Package also allows DVD, XVID, and DIVX playback from Media Center.  Since Microsoft can't offer these features out of the box without incurring the wrath of the movie industry and I can get around the issues fairly easily, I'll give this issue a pass.

My issue with the "open with" prompt seems to be unique to that particular system I was testing.  No one else was able to replicate that issue and I'm not able to replicate on this new hardware and new install of Vista.  Therefore I'll have to give that issue a pass.

The power saving user interface in Vista was confusing at first but I've gotten use to it.  As I mentioned earlier in this blog, S3 deep sleep state does work on the MSI 965-based motherboard when operating at official clock speeds and unreliably at overclocked settings.  That isn't a Vista issue nor is it technically a hardware issue since I'm running the hardware beyond the normal stress level.  I've decided that the mild overclocking was important to me than S3 sleep and I simply turn off my computer when I'm not using it.  Boot times aren't too bad and the system comes up within 45 seconds which includes 10 second BIOS post times.  When S3 is working normally with the stock clock speeds, it takes 4 seconds to get to suspend mode and 2 seconds to fully wake the system up and it runs on 5 watts in S3 deep sleep state.  The ABIT IL9 Pro 945-based system uses 3 watts in S3 deep sleep but it can't wake up at all even when this motherboard doesn't allow for overclocking so I can't currently recommend that motherboard at all unless ABIT fixes this issue with a BIOS update.  This is not an OS issue since the system wouldn't even post during the wake up and you can tell by the fact that the fan never slows down.

I still have no solution for the IE7 embedded anamorphic widescreen Windows Media Video playback issue.  Microsoft will not respond on this issue though everyone has confirmed the issue of not being able to properly stretch the video to widescreen.  A lot of people don't really care about this issue since they don't even know what I'm talking about but here is a good explanation of aspect ratio hell.  The problem with IE7 on Vista is shown in picture "F".  The fact that Flash-based video used in places like YouTube won't support widescreen doesn't make me feel any better about this issue.  On this issue Microsoft so far gets a failing grade.

I had a problem with the fact that dual audio profiles for speech and sound is no longer supported in Vista, but it turns out that most applications like MSN Live Messenger and Skype lets you tweak those settings on a per application basis anyways.  The added ability to set volume levels on a per-application basis from the main volume mixer found on the task bar in the lower right hand corner of the screen is a very welcome feature.  I'll have to admit that there is no longer a need for dual audio profiles since per-application profiles are better.  Legacy applications might have some issues with this if you want to be specific about using different input/output devices for applications that don't support their own device settings.

On another audio driver front, the Polycom communicator worked out of the box with recording and playback in Vista but the echo cancellation software and Skype navigation support won't be supported until new drivers are completed in the second half of this year.  Polycom said that Vista requires a new sound driver model and they have to rewrite the whole thing.  As much as I like the Polycom communicator, Vista has been in Beta for more than a year now and I feel that Polycom could have been more on the ball in terms of producing updated Vista drivers.
[Next page - Vista progress report summary]


Vista progress report summary

The good

  • Nice look and feel with improved icons, screen fonts, color management.
  • Vista search for programs, file content, file names, and email is now an indispensable feature making the computer far more useful because of the speedy searches.
  • The quality of the code in Vista seems to be rock solid secure as far.  Only two critical vulnerabilities to date (XML 4.0 and Vista Defender) in the entire first three months compared to maybe half a dozen per month for Windows XP and more than a dozen flaws per month in other operating systems.
  • ASLR, HEAP protection, DEP, UAC, protected mode in IE7 helps to minimize the risks of in the few remaining security flaws.
  • Downloadable Vista drivers for the Logitech QuickCam Fusion was a very welcome sight.  While the Logitech QuickCam video camera had excellent video quality, the old drivers for Windows XP were terrible.  Multiple services and user processes had to be preloaded for the thing to work and it destabilized Windows XP.  The new Vista drivers seem to work very well without any junk services and processes loaded and the system is stable.
  • New wireless security features such as centrally managed hotspot allowed list on top of the strong wireless security features in Windows XP.
  • A NAP (Network Access Protection) client is now a standard feature in Vista.
  • SSTP SSL-based remote access VPN transport will be a welcome feature in SP1 of Vista.

The bad

  • Still waiting for a few hardware vendors to get their driver act together.  This isn't Microsoft's fault, but it's a problem for Vista.  Now that all new PCs are beginning to be sold with only Vista, hardware vendors will have no choice but to support Vista and new drivers are coming onboard every week.
  • Some software like QuickBooks 2006 and before won't work.  Again this isn't Microsoft's fault but it's a problem for Vista.  Software vendors are refusing to fix these issues to force you to upgrade to their latest software.  Often times in the case of PowerDVD and Nero CD/DVD burner you just have to tell it to stop nagging you about incompatibilities and they work just fine.
  • IE7 embedded widescreen Windows Media video still not corrected.
  • Default DVD playback has interlacing issues with widescreen video (not film based) content.  Users will have to run their own DVD playback software and I used the free OEM PowerDVD software that came with my DVD burner.

The bottom line

I won't be going back to Windows XP as my primary operating system and I'm staying with Windows Vista.  The new experience is good enough and the remaining issues aren't showstoppers for me though I eagerly await their resolution.

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