I guess this is as good a time as any to voice some gripes I have with Microsoft’s latest and greatest desktop Operating System. Granted, it’s pretty common (even expected) for Microsoft’s newest OS to take some heat. So before I delve into my grips with Vista, in the spirit of tradition, let me first chronicle some complaints with prior Windows releases.
Way back when DOS users were introduced to Windows, there was a good bit of backlash. And, I for one, initially resisted moving to Windows. DOS worked and made sense, so why change a good thing, eh? The first few versions of Windows piggy backed on top of DOS, which affected performance and reliability (and to me, degraded my user experience).
When Windows NT 3.1 came out, detractors immediately bemoaned the expensive hardware it required: the quantity of RAM, the faster CPU and hard drive. With the release of NT 4.0, people complained they were just being sold a revamped UI (which was not completely true). I still remember when Windows NT 4 would get corrupted and you’d need to re-apply Windows Service Packs to try and fix it.
I had good friends certain that Windows 95 “was a fad”, and they were sticking with Windows 3.11 (and DOS) until Windows 98 came out. Then Windows 98 came out and people complained it was less stable, slower and required more RAM than did Windows 95. A year later Microsoft shored things up with Windows 98 Second Edition, but there were still detractors. When Windows ME came out, people complained very loudly (but I think ME complaints were often justified, as I consider it the worst Windows OS ever).
When XP shipped, people complained because it looked like eye candy that required more hardware… and it didn’t appear to bring much worthwhile to the table. But over time people did warm to XP, especially years after XP SP2 was released (i.e. today).
I think adoption of an OS is best described as maturation. Just as XP matured with new service packs, people warmed to XP’s nuances and capabilities. People learned how to use it, and how not to use it. This maturation is a two way street where all parties have adapted.
Over time Microsoft saw how people (and software) worked on XP, and the Windows development team was able to fix more bugs, polish errata and improve the end user experience. In effect, this maturation was a feedback cycle where Windows XP, Windows XP users, and the Windows XP development team gradually became sync’d together. Until this happened, users were working against the OS, because the OS was working against the users. And Microsoft was stuck in the middle (or, depending on your vantage, the users were stuck in the middle).
Enter Vista. Five long years after XP shipped, Microsoft finally delivered their latest and greatest desktop OS: Windows Vista. As with virtually all previous Microsoft operations systems, detractors immediately surfaced. Since I’ve been through a bunch of previous Microsoft OS launches, I have gotten pretty good about sitting on the fence and not immediately complaining. In part, I don’t want to complain about something that is not real, but I also want to personally evaluate something (and build my own experience). Now, that I’ve had a year to play with Vista, I do have some gripes. These are my personal views, so please digest with a bit of salt.
Performing my typical workflow (i.e. using my typical software) Vista provides noticeably lower performance than does XP. My issue is not that Vista just requires faster hardware (because most every new Microsoft OS has required faster hardware). My issue is that Vista requires faster hardware than is reasonably available. Then, pile on top of that: Computer makers are selling bunches of Vista on machines with mid and low-end hardware. Hey! That’s a great way to build a dissatisfied user base!
Case in point: RAM. Vista is doing some sophisticated things with caching data in RAM. This really is an interesting idea, where the OS puts all available RAM to good use. But… to take advantage of this, you really need between 2 GB and 4 GB of RAM. Sure the minimum system requirement for Vista is 512 or 1 GB (depending your own Vista Roulette) but my personal take: that’s nuts! Even 1GB is nuts-o! You surely don’t want to go lower than 2GB because performance will likely suffer. But you cannot go higher than 4 GB, because that’s as much as 32-bit hardware supports (without AWE, which is best suited for servers and specialized platforms such as SQL Server). So, a range of 2GB or 4GB is an awfully small window of configurability. And, since it’s best to go with 4GB, your configuration is pretty much predetermine: You can either have 4 GB of RAM or 4 GB of RAM. This is a lot like what Henry Ford originally offered for auto color choices: Black or Black (58th best quote every: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”). Maybe this issue of RAM will be a major driver of Windows 64-bit adoption.
Let’s also consider hard drives. Vista seems to push hard drives a lot harder than XP. I recently purchased a brand spanking new 17 inch Sony VIAO with dual-core Intel Core 2 processor and 2GB of RAM. And performance was just terrible. I thought: “How could this be? This is a pretty powerful machine, and Microsoft and Sony have had a year to address performance and usability!” But, my purchase offered anything but performance and usability. I tried Office 2007 and performance was bad. Booting was really slow, shutting down was also slow. Running various applications were slow. I tried running development tools (Visual Studio 2005) and performance was just the absolute pits: compiling my medium sized project (250k lines of native C++) took six times as long as it did on my 4 year old Windows XP desktop. After a lot of sleuthing, I determined the root cause: a slow hard drive. And the version of Vista that came with this laptop, Vista Home Premium, prohibits disk write caching (a clever mechanism to make a hard drive faster than it really is).
I can only surmise that important Microsoft executives decided the Home variants of Vista needed to provide lower performance, which unfortunately resulted in my poor user experience. So, I was hit with a double whammy: Vista is too slow for my hard drive, and Microsoft executives decided my new computer’s hard drive needs to suffer a performance penalty since I chose the wrong Vista variant during my shopping Vista Roulette.
A few months back, I went on a business trip to Microsoft’s campus to do some P&S (Performance & Scalability) work with the SQL Server team. In addition to getting to work with the zen-like SQL Server team, an additional perk was a visit to the Microsoft Campus store, where I quickly picked up a copy of Microsoft Vista Ultimate Edition. Now, flash back to the present. To enable disk write caching on my VAIO, I’ll just upgrade my Vista Home Premium to Vista Ultimate, then performance will be… well, better! But it turns out that Microsoft prohibits this upgrade path (Upgrading Home Premium to Ultimate is blocked by Microsoft – I again blame the executives). The thing that really bugged me is this should be technically possible. Microsoft blocked the upgrade when I entered my retail purchased Ultimate key, and Microsoft blocked my upgrade when I ran the Vista Ultimate upgrade wizard. The only thing I can surmise is Microsoft figured there was some financial benefit to blocking the Home to Ultimate upgrade path.
So, I did a complete re-install of Vista Ultimate, downloaded drivers from Sony, and reinstalled my applications. With write caching enabled, performance did improve. But not by very much. And, building software with my Vista laptop is still much slower than my XP desktop. Even the most basic actions such as copying, renaming, and deleting a single file is noticeably faster on my 4 year old XP desktop. This was slightly upsetting considering Vista aggressively caches data in RAM, so hard drive performance is theoretically not as important. So, I now realize my Vista laptop needs a much faster hard drive. I should probably upgrade the RAM to 4GB as well. Hmm… Maybe purchasing mid-level hardware was a bad idea with Vista. 12/27/2007 Update: Computer makers appear to agree that Vista Notebooks need 4 GB of RAM.
I’ve also installed Vista on my 4 year old desktop in a dual boot configuration, where I can boot into either XP Professional or Vista Ultimate. Due to my performance and usability bias, I more often use XP. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I find performance a critical piece of usability. If an application, or OS, offers significantly sub-par performance, I’ll quickly ditch it (when possible). A bunch of new bells, whistles, and improved security just don’t (currently) warrant my use of Vista. I am not an eye candy consumer. I’m not particularly enamored with Vista’s DRM. In fact I am much more concerned with substance, such as: functionality, simplicity and performance. I know incredibly talented Microsofties. And, I know many people have pored years of their lives into developing Vista. I also know it is in Microsoft’s best interest to deliver software solutions that meet (or, ideally exceed) consumer expectations. As of today, Vista does not meet my needs. But maybe after some performance and usability maturation of Vista, and performance improvement in hardware, we’ll see Vista as the Microsoft OS for today. Until then, I think to some degree, Vista will be the Operating System of the Future.
I would like to close by saying there really are a lot of major improvement that are promising in Vista. For a quick overview, please check this out (Wiki):
An articles that initiated this post: Top ten terrible tech products (cnet.co.uk)
Another article that initiated this post: The Vista Death Watch (Dvorak)
An example of what I consider “executives not getting it”: Ballmer blames pirates for slow Vista adoption (arnnet)
Also interesting: The history of Windows NT (Wiki)