This weekend I had a chance to install and review Windows Vista RC2 x64 Ultimate edition (x64 is the 64 bit extensions for 32 bit x86 computers based on modern AMD or Intel CPUs) on my main desktop computer. I had the urge to be brave and try the 64 bit edition of Vista even though driver support is probably weaker than on the 32 bit edition of Vista. There were many nice things to like about Vista RC2 and it's close enough to see the finish line, but a few minor bugs remain and a flakey sound card driver put the system in to a hard lockup.
To start the review, I'll start off by listing the hardware specifications which is a moderately fast computer with relatively inexpensive components from a year ago. The system cost me about $700 (not including monitor) a year ago and received a Vista performance index between 4.3 and 5.5 which should put to rest any doubt that Vista will very run well on a cheap modern PC since it is possible to purchase a better computer for less money today.
- Intel Pentium 4 model 630 (with EM64T)
- ECS RS400-A motherboard
- On board 10/100 LAN
- On board Realtek AC'97 sound card
- ATI X800 256-MB PCI-Express graphics
- 1 GB DDR2 400 MHz (2 x 512 MB dual channel)
- SATA 160 GB hard drive (used for the Vista test)
- Sound Blaster Live 24 5.1 audio
- Polycom C100S USB speakerphone
- Razer USB gaming mouse
- Dell 20.1" 1680x1050 LCD
The "Ultimate" edition of Vista is the superset of the premium home and enterprise business editions of Windows Vista and contains every single function in Vista. I chose this version of Vista so I could test all the major features of Windows Vista. Installation of Vista RC2 was much faster than previous Vista versions and took a total of 40 minutes to install. There were some scary moments where you got no messages on the screen and almost no activity from the computer which made me a little concerned, but it finished without a glitch and it even installed every single WDM certified driver out of the box except for the Sound Blaster Live 24 (and we'll find out why it was excluded for good reason).
Even the screen resolution was automatically configured correctly the first time the system came up. Since Microphones and speakers weren't detected on the Realtek (I didn't know the hardware could report this kind information to the system) and the Polycom USB speakerphone was the only speaker/Mic detected, sound was automatically routed to the USB speakerphone. The network was automatically detected and Vista prompted me for my physical location and I told it I was home which probably configured the firewall a little more lax than if I had told it I was in a public network. Once I was up and running, I proceeded to check out the basics like customizing the sidebar and trying the 32 and 64 bit editions of Internet Explorer 7
Note on x64 Operating Systems
X64 platforms will run both 32 and 64 bit software at full speed but x64 systems will only work with 64 bit drivers. Applications can either be 32 or 64 bit but device drivers MUST be 64 bit and they must be digitally signed by the vendor in order for them to be accepted by Vista x64.
The Calendar sidebar was nice though I wonder if it's tied to the Microsoft Outlook calendar. The notepad sidebar is definitely something I will use since I'm always looking for something to write on or type on though I'm wondering how to back up its data. The RSS feeds sidebar was also a welcome feature and it is directly integrated to IE7's RSS reader. The CPU and Memory meter sidebar looks slick but I would love to have something that shows network up/down throughput activity and hard drive I/O statistics. I/O activity is probably the most important metric because a rattling hard disk drive plays a huge role in system sluggishness. Overall the sidebar seems to be something I will start using regularly especially when I'm on a widescreen display that has 1680 pixels wide to spare.
The system was for the most part very responsive and I was hoping to make the system even more responsive by sticking in a fast 2 GB Compact Flash card. Unfortunately my USB 2.0 interface on my motherboard isn't the greatest hardware in my experience and it failed the requirements to run ReadyBoost. A lot of my older systems failed too and Microsoft might help users out by giving some hardware guidance for ReadyBoost compatible hardware. There were times further along in my testing that the hard drive was cranking like crazy and I would have loved to have a ReadyBoost working.
Internet Explorer 7 (32 or 64 bit) seemed solid and the User Interface is a welcome change. Running IE7 under reduced user privileges under Vista Protected Mode makes me feel a lot better about zero-day security flaws. IE6 has had a couple of nasty zero-day flaws in recent months with two this month and one of them won't be patched until this coming Tuesday but IE7 has been immune for the most part even without Protected Mode threat mitigation. I did have an issue with the embedded Windows Media Player when it failed to stretch the video out to the wide aspect ratios which seems like a step backwards since I never had problems with this before in Windows XP. Take this video blog for example where I embedded 16x9 wide aspect video in to the webpage, IE7 failed to properly render the video in widescreen format and insisted on putting a black bar on the left and right of the video which caused the image to compress horizontally and render incorrectly. For those who have followed my blogs, they'll know that aspect ratio hell is one of my pet peeves and they definitely need to fix this for me to put my stamp of approval on Vista. This was not a problem in IE6, IE7 beta, Firefox, or Opera on Windows XP. <next page --->
Once I got some of the basics out of the way, I wanted to get my 5.1 speakers and the Sound Blaster Live 24 working so I went to Creative Labs and downloaded the x64 Vista drivers. Since I was configured as an administrator, I was only prompted for a single click by UAC to escalate to root privileges to install the sound drivers. The installation went without a glitch and I was asked to reboot the system which I did. Once completed, I tested the 5.1 speakers using the Creative Speaker settings utility and found that the rear speakers were not functioning. When I attempted to play with the Creative sound settings some more but the system locked up completely which forced me to hard reset the system. I gave up on the 5.1 settings to avoid hard crashes but this won't be the last of them.
To try and feel a bit more home, I went out and downloaded Skype and installed Skype. For some strange reason, Skype wiped out all of my Skype contacts and I had to manually rebuild it with what I knew off the top of my head though I've lost all the phone numbers. Even when I went back to my Windows XP configuration, the contacts were still gone. This is definitely a frustrating experience and it's the first time this happened to me. This might be some kind of Skype bug that only happens when it's running on Vista though I'll confirm that and follow up with answers.
I also noticed that Microsoft Live Messenger was not installed and require downloading so I downloaded it and installed it. Live Messenger seems to be getting a bit bloated for my taste and comes with extra MSN taskbars for the web browser though it at least gives you a chance to exclude it during install. I tried one of the video links from Live Messenger and was taken to MSN Video which required Adobe Flash player and I followed the link to download Flash 9. During the page load, the system locked up the way it did when I was messing with the Sound Blaster Live settings and forced me to do a hard power down and reboot. I went to the page again to see if it was repeatable but this time Flash 9 installed without any problems. The only problem was that it installed the Yahoo toolbar without asking me if I wanted it or giving me the chance to uncheck it so I had to go in to the control panel to remove the program. Skype also attempted to install Google taskbar by default but I was able to deselect it like the MSN toolbar from the Live Messenger install and that already drives me crazy. Then Flash comes along and installs Yahoo toolbar without even presenting the option. In any case, IE and Flash didn't crash so I'm starting to suspect it may be the same Sound Blaster driver issues again since it's unlikely that an application bug can take down the entire OS.
The last thing I wanted to try before I call it a night was to try and record and play back some HDV (High definition Digital Video) footage from my Sony HDR-HC1 video camera from Windows Movie Maker. Windows Movie Maker came with all Windows XP editions but didn't support HDV video but now it only comes with Vista Ultimate and does support HDV video. The first issue I noticed was that capturing from parts of the tape wasn't supported and you had to import from the beginning of the tape to the end or whenever you want to manually stop the recording. The second issue was the preview window was messed up such that the top of the video preview was missing and I wondered if it would affect the actual video rip but later found out it didn't. I was able to play the video just fine later on using the default Windows Media Center or Windows Media Player.
After I finished using Windows Movie Maker and loaded the video using Windows Media Center, I noticed that the hard drive was rattling like crazy and the system was getting sluggish. I checked the system task manager and saw that SVCHOST.EXE (Host Process for Windows) was the culprit cranking up the CPU and probably cranking the hard drive as well. This might have been one of those places that ReadyBoost may have helped me but I couldn't get it working on my hardware. But even without ReadyBoost, it shouldn't crank the system this badly and I'd love to know what causes SVCHOST.EXE to go crazy on the system like that.
Windows Media Center had some artifacts on the User Interface such that there were little dots over the video navigation controls. When I tried to mess with the controls, the system locked up again and I don't know if this is the application or the sound drivers acting up again. I had to hard shut and boot the system again and I didn't try to test many more features after this. After the system came back on, I verified I could play the video from Windows Media Player and the results from the captured 1080i HDV footage were pretty nice.
On the 64 bit question that many people are probably wondering about, most people will probably avoid the 64 bit edition of Vista because every device has to have new 64 bit drivers or else it won't work in Vista. Almost all of the core hardware is working fine but you might still run in to some obscure printer or scanner that might lack 64 bit drivers. While problems with 64 bit will be rare, it is frequent enough to be a problem. I doubt any of the PC makers will want to answer the extra helpdesk calls on 64 bit so they'll probably bundle the 32 bit version of Vista and only offer 64 bit as an option for high-end workstations that benefit most from 64 bit computing. I'll probably keep a dual boot 32 and 64 bit Vista environment for sometime before I make my decision.
The bottom line is that RC2 isn't ready yet but it's close. Microsoft has less than a month to hammer out the remaining issues if they want to RTM in November. I'll be looking forward to the next version of Windows when the finalized version is out.