Hallelujah! Production Vista System Finally Behaves Like One

All I can say when it comes to finally getting my production Vista desktop working as I think it should be is “It”s about (expletive deleted) time!” After building this system over the summer and dealing with the usual shakedown issues involved in getting all the software and settings installed, I found myself fighting a series of mysterious and frustrating hardware problems that lasted from the end of August through the first week of November, 2008.

At that point, I finally broke down and replaced the two 2 GB DDR3-1066 memory modules I had obtained from SuperTalent with an identical pair the company sent me to swap out the old ones. On November 8, when I replaced those memory modules, my Reliabilty Index stood at a ghastly 2.76. Today, it stands at an entirely acceptable (and in this case cheer-worthy) 9.27–somewhat better than the loaner HP HDX18-1011 at 8.28 that I”ve just finished whipping into usable shape, and slighly lower than my rock-solid Dell D620 Latitude at 9.67 that”s been humming along with nary a problem since I installed Vista Business on that machine on June 26, 2008.

Here”s a screen cap of Reliability Monitor for the period from November 30 through December 29, that shows slow and steady improvement, with a couple of beta test glitches I ran into while writing help files for one of my customers.

If you experience multiple crashes on any given day, values can drop much more precipitously from one day to the next than they can ever climb. Check out this particularly gruesome day (10/24/2008) when my production machine dropped from 7.17 to 3.29 (3.88 stability points) in a single go. Culprits included numerous sidebar entries, printer problems, the PC Tools monitoring service, and a couple of OS crashes all in one day.

It”s no exaggeration to say that the events of this particular day led me to take the plunge and resolve to swap out the RAM at the next opportunity. The vagaries of a freelance writer”s schedule and deadlines were such in this case that I didn”t actually do it until November 7, thankfully to be rewarded with steady improvements in stability following that date.

In the wake of this uptick in reliability, I”ve learned a few things to avoid with this particular Vista installation to keep my stability index up. Here”s a list of tricks I”m now using to keep my primary production machine stable, reliable, and ready to work when I need it:

  • Move test software installations to other machines. I”ve got my Dell production notebook that I take on the road, and this machine that I work with in the office. I no longer install programs on these machines just because they look interesting or because I need to write about the software. Everything except updates to production programs gets installed on a test desktop or notebook first, and only gets on this machine if it proves itself useful and stable.
  • Keep things clean and tidy: I”ve now got nightly backups, daily disk defrags and file cleanups, plus weekly registry purges automated and humming along. I also make a weekly image backup to an external eSATA drive every Friday night, to give me a place to start if I need to perform a bare metal rebuild upon which to plop my nightly Internet backups.
  • Stay patched and up-to-date. One of my favorite new programs right now is the Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI). It”s helped me keep with critical MS security updates, plus updates to Firefox and various Adobe products in much more timely fashion since I installed it in late October. As in-and-out-of-cycle updates from Microsoft reported on this site also emphasize, it”s also warned me quickly when critical new updates are available.
  • Add new security software only after testing. As I look back over my reliability index values from August 7 (the day I rebuilt the OS on this machine) through the present (end of December 2008), I see that changes to security software–including antivirus, antispyware, firewall, and heuristics based system checkers–caused more instability than anything else, excepting my hardware problems with a bad memory module. I”d urge users to be very careful about when and how they introduce new security software on production machines. I”m now inclined to try such things out in a Virtual Machine that emulates the final target environment for a while, just to make sure they won”t bring problems in their wake.

At any rate, I”m very pleased to finally have my production Vista desktop operating where I think it should be for me to treat it like a system I can depend on. It”s been a long row to hoe, for sure, and I hope to keep applying the lesson”s I”ve learned on future Windows systems for some time to come.

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