To Vista or not to Vista?

Windows Vista is expected to be released by the end of the year, and it’s no surprise that there’s already strong debate over its various merits. ExtremeTech have a long article on why they think Vista is something to be excited about (if you’re the kind of person who gets excited over an operating system…ahem) while DesktopLinux take the opposite view.

The ExtremeTech article is by far the better of the two, imho. I think DesktopLinux are at best unnecessarily snarky, and make some rather strange statements. They’re also approaching Vista from the perspective of the heavy-duty-OS-guru, rather than the average user. DL firstly take issue with Vista’s extensive hardware requirements for those who want the fancy new “Aero Glass” graphics system. This interface will allow proper font-scaling on LCD monitors, localized 3D acceleration for games and apps (for example, I think it should be possible to switch between a game running in one window and a web browser in another without breaking everything), fixes to the ‘blank window’ problems when applications stop responding, as well as a snappier and faster feel. The price of this is the requirement of a DirectX9 graphics card with 128mb ram, which isn’t terribly common amongst your average computer user.

The thing is, your average computer user traditionally gets screwed when it comes to graphics cards. If you to to PC World, or Dell etc. you’ll see extremely high-spec machines at very low prices. Careful examination of the system shows that while they may have a very fast processor, a gig of ram and vast amounts of hard drive space, the graphics card will be low-end and probably incapable of running recent games in their full graphical glory. The manufacturers always seem to skimp on graphics cards, presumably to keep the prices low. I always feel sorry for kids who find that their parents’ super-duper new computer can’t play Trackmania: Sunrise very well. A DirectX9 128mb card isn’t totally top-of-the-range, but it’ll certainly force manufacturers to put something decent into their machines due to the added sales-power-oomph of the 3D-interface. This may not last too long, but it’s a good start.

DesktopLinux also complain that some of the features are already found in Linux. Maybe that’s true, but it’s Linux. I know my way around an OS and like to think I have a pretty good understanding of computers generally, and Linux annoys the hell out of me. I’m sure it is more configurable to control everything via text-based config files, but it takes ten times as long. I’m sure that having to compile drivers myself does add to system stability, but it’s non-intuitive and slow. I don’t want to find that the latest linux-app only works in the other desktop environment, or has a completely non-standard GUI, and I don’t want to have to run everything from the command-line. To be fair, I haven’t played with Linux for a year or so, and it’s possible things have progressed, but I’m happy to pay for an OS that takes care of this kind of stuff for me.

There’s also the complaint that the OS contains many applications, and that this has got Microsoft into trouble before. Ah yes, heaven forbid that MS try to include useful apps. That would be entirely unreasonable.

Vista does seem to have disadvantages. If you want to watch full-quality HD DVDs, you’ll need a new monitor (although, to be fair, this isn’t Microsoft’s decision and they’ve been forced to implement support, as have Apple and TV manufacturers). Digital Rights Management will be built into the system far more than is the case in XP, and those who’ve had problems copying DVDs they themselves filmed and created may possibly find themselves with no workarounds. Vista will also require digitally signed drivers, which seems somewhat loopy to me – can the countless small-time hardware manufacturers afford to pay for MS to digitally sign their software? Hopefully this will be an option.

It seems likely that there will be ways around all of these things – the online community is great at fixing this kind of problem. Also, Vista’s major improvements have to be offset against the disadvantages. A massively revamped kernel, vastly improved security and malware protection, logical network support, native DX10 support, reboot-less driver installs, IE7, the SuperFetch algorithms that load predict what you’ll do next1, loading data into RAM accordingly…Like the ExtremeTech article says, it’s as big a leap as Windows 3.1 to Windows 95.

Will it be any good? It’s far too soon to tell, no matter how DesktopLinux much claim they’ve ‘been running Vista…for quite some time’ – it’s simply not finished yet. Sure, Microsoft have taken forever to get Vista to market, and OS X has stolen much of their thunder in the meantime, but this’ll be the first OS designed properly for the internet generation, and the next year will undoubtedly be an interesting ride.

  1. DL say “You see, with SuperFetch you can a USB 2.0-based flash drive as a fetch buffer between your RAM and your hard disk. Let me spell that out for you. Vista will put part of your running application on a device that can be kicked off, knocked out, or that your dog can carry away as a chew toy. Do you see the problem here? Me too!” – ah yes, I shouldn’t think any of MS’s thousands of engineers have realised this problem []