Windows Vista: Trials, Troubles, and Triumphs?

In reading over Chris Pirillo’s daily newsletter this morning, I tripped over an interesting item entitled “Is Maximum PC right about Vista?” For those not already in the know, Maximum PC is a serious PC enthusiast publication, built around a glossy, high-concept monthly magazine and a Web site to match, with coverage of all kinds of high-end PC hardware, systems, peripherals, toys, tools, and more. I almost got lucky about four years ago when one of my publishers decided to go after some of this company’s related book business, but alas the project never came to fruition. I provide all this by way of explaining why this little blurb grabbed my eye and my undivided attention.

As I took a look at the story itself, I immediately realized that its tenor might be better described more along the lines of “Vista: It’s not as bad as you think,” rather than as yet another contestant for the “Vista sucks” Hall of Fame. The interesting aspects of this story were many, and included some unusual and brutal candor from Microsoft staff, who were apparently allowed to talk to editor-in-chief Will Smith without a PR handler present or involved in the discussion (having conducted more than a few interviews with Microsoft people myself, I can tell you this has never happened to me).

Issues with Vista stability are well-ventilated here, and I learned some of the reasons why device drivers were so shaky when Vista put in its first appearance early in 2007: as Microsoft found itself creating driver tools and APIs that kept-changing, developers had to chase moving targets as the Vista release data approached. Consequently, nobody had enough time for the kind of rigorous testing and quality control that everybody likes to attain when a new platform comes out, and chaos ensued. To my amazement, editor Smith and the unidentified Microsoft personnel all agreed that most of this has finally been addressed in SP1.

Next, Smith trots out some interesting and well-known performance comparisons between Vista and XP, where XP pretty much sweeps the entire field of entries, with only one exception. He also raises well-known issues with and objections to User Account Control (UAC), Vista Activation, too many Vista versions, software incompatibilities, and very little new functionality or genuine innovation to distinguish Vista from XP. As a high-end publication that appeals to many PC gamers, Smith also devotes quite a bit of copy to gaming characteristics, and provides a pretty nice set of overall system benchmarks that give XP a pretty profound performance edge over Vista on identical hardware.

On the final page of the interview, this point jumped out at me with great force: “18 percent of all Vista crashes reported during the months immediately following its launch were due to unstable Nvidia graphics card drivers.” I’m no stranger to this phenomenon myself, and find it absolutely fascinating and not at all coincidental that last Patch Tuesday’s items included a Vista “reliability and performance” update KB955302 that provides patched versions of the Microsoft system components Cdd.dll and Dxgkrnl.sys specifically to provide “improvements to the stability of systems on which Nvidia graphics cards are installed” (this quote is from KB955302, not the Maximum PC article). I don’t want anybody to accuse me of fomenting another stupid conspiracy theory. Hey! We already know that Vista attracts problems like a lightning rod, but that not all such strikes come from Redmond. It’s quite interesting to observe that in the 18 months since Vista went out to OEMs, graphics performance disparities between XP and Vista have all but disappeared, and that newer, more stable graphics drivers for Vista have fixed most, if not all, of the performance and stability problems to which buggy, first-generation drivers fell prey.

Smith’s conclusion to the story echoes my own sentiments pretty closely. He indicates essentially that Vista isn’t as bad as people are often inclined to think it is, and goes on to say “…from a performance, stability, and security standpoint, we’re satisfied with where Vista is today.” He even observes that  “You no longer need to sacrifice performance or stability if you want to run the latest version of Windows.” To me those words ring true, but would be a lot more comforting to read if I didn’t know from brutal, bitter personal experience how much thought, research, effort, and experimentation is needed to turn out-of-the-box Vista (even post-SP1) into a rock-solid, stable system.

Let me also reproduce his concluding paragraph to this story verbatim: it’s a hoot.

If you already have Vista, there’s no reason not to use it, but should you go out and buy Vista today? Probably not. With Windows 7’s launch scheduled for early 2010, we’re actually closer to that date than we are to Vista’s launch. If you’ve ridden out the storm on XP so far, it probably isn’t worth investing in Vista for just a year and a half of use

Talk about damning with faint praise. Though he may be satisfied with where Vista is today, it’s pretty clear to me that his take on the OS might be stated tongue-in-cheek as “Use only in case of emergency” or something similar. In my case, I keep digging into Vista for many of the same reasons I can’t leave a sore tooth alone: it’s right there, it’s nagging me, and I want to make it right (or at least, make it stop hurting). Plus: who says that when Windows 7 does make the scene, that any but the perennially curious or the foolishly incautious will be so bold as to jump on yet another new and untried platform? Most will wait until they get some assurances from the hardy pioneers that the grass really is greener on the other side of the pass, before crossing over. If memory serves, it usually takes 2-3 years for the bulk of users to transition from one version of Windows to another anyway. I’m gonna wait and see. In the meantime, I’m going to keep digging into Vista to learn what I can, and do what I must (or make it stop bothering me)!


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