Archive for category Windows Vista

A Comprehensive Document of What’s Really in Vista SP1

I have been testing Windows Vista SP1 for many months now, since the early beta versions of the update.  While I can’t say that it has solved all of my problems (see My Struggles with Windows Vista for details), it has made a few noticeable improvements in performance.  However, with all the media coverage I have seen thus far, people tend to focus on one or two of the hundreds of changes included in the Service Pack.  The information ranges from simple restatements of Microsoft press releases to "benchmarks" which use dubious measurement methods. 

Fortunately, Microsoft has recently published a comprehensive guide that lists all of the changes introduced by SP1.  You can download Notable changes in Windows Vista SP1 in PDF or XPS format.  The guide is long, but it provides a concise, descriptive and (presumably) complete list of what you can expect.  Certainly, there’s a lot of ambiguity based on "certain types of devices" and similar marketing-friendly terms.  (Sometimes I wish Microsoft would just identify the hardware manufacturers that don’t follow the rules for driver development.)  Overall, it’s a handy reference that I recommend.  The document also includes a whopping 35-page index of all of the hotfixes and security updates that are included with the SP1 update.

Unfortunately, even with the latest updates, I still can’t get Sleep mode to work on two of my desktop computers (one of which shipped with Windows Vista and the other which is based on a clean installation).  So far, it looks like Windows Vista SP1 will be "too little, too late" for me.  I just hope something happens to prove me wrong.

Managing Multiple Monitors on Windows Vista

Among my many gripes about Windows Vista (see My Struggles with Windows Vista), is the lack of truly useful window management shortcuts.  Multiple monitor configurations are becoming increasingly common, and the Windows desktop simply hasn’t kept pace.  Sure, if I’m willing to click on numerous UI elements, I can reliably move a maximized window from one monitor to another and resize it to my liking.  My current setup includes a widescreen 22" LCD and a 19" LCD that’s rotated for a portrait view (it’s great for editing documents and reading web pages).  Overall, the common task of managing windows on multiple monitors shouldn’t be an ordeal.

Fortunately, there are several third-party software products (some free) which help make the process easier.  I have evaluated a couple of them and thought I’d mention my findings:

  • UltraMon is a commercial product that provides features for managing multiple monitors.  It allows you to span wallpapers across multiple disparate displays.  Most importantly (for me), it allows me to create simple keyboard shortcuts for moving and resizing windows between monitors.  It’s a bit pricey for the functionality, but it really does help.  Unfortunately, I started having some display driver issues with my Nvidia GeForce 8300 GS drivers after I installed the latest beta.  Hopefully a final release version will address that.
  • DisplayFusion: DisplayFusion looks like it was originally designed for managing wallpaper settings for multiple monitors.  However, it offers a simplified configuration UI that allows you to create hotkey shortcuts for moving and resizing windows.  Currently, this is my favorite as it hasn’t broken Windows Vista and you can’t beat the price (it’s free, but donations are accepted).  This one gets my recommendation, at least for now.
  • GoScreen: GoScreen is designed for use on Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), such as tablet computers or portables that have touchscreens.  It provides features for more easily managing windows.  I haven’t yet tested the product, but it does seem to have a large number of useful features

Overall, these utilities effectively fill some gaps in Windows Vista and make me far more productive (I also couldn’t turn down the shot at alliteration in this post’s title). 

My Struggles with Windows Vista

As an author of a book on Windows Vista (see details) as well as a beta tester since the early days of the product, I have had a lot of experience with Windows Vista.  Unfortunately, much of my overall impression of Microsoft’s latest operating system is negative.  While there’s no shortage of bad press about Windows Vista, I have found that complaints tend to be illogical, irrational, and atypical.  Rather than relying on specific examples and facts about issues, writers seem to bash Microsoft and Windows Vista for the sake of doing so.  The purpose of this post is for my to (hopefully) point some constructive criticism of the OS and to detail my experiences with it.

About the Author

Let’s start this off with a little background: I generally like Microsoft and its products.  Especially when compared with other Enterprise software companies, I think Microsoft does many things well.  As an IT pro, I have based a large part of my career on their products and technology.  I periodically reevaluate that focus (generally every few years), but I have always found Microsoft’s development platform, client and server platforms, and other products to be very good.  I certainly have no more animosity towards Microsoft than to any other corporation, and I genuinely think that the company will address and resolve the below issues in the future.  OK, with that out of the way…

Testing Vista (and my patience)…

I have run Windows Vista on several computers, including my primary work machines.  Originally, I upgraded a Dell Dimension 9100 computer from Windows XP to Windows Vista.  I have since purchased a Dell Inspiron 530 desktop machine as my primary computer and a Dell Inspiron 640m notebook for traveling.  Both of these machines shipped with Windows Vista.  I am running the Windows Vista Service Pack 1 Release Candidate on both desktop computers. 

I have very few startup programs and have tested most of my issues on "clean" installations of the OS.  I have also done extensive troubleshooting to isolate the causes of driver and software compatibility issues.

Some Evidence…  Consistently Unreliable

My experiences with Windows Vista’s reliability (or lack thereof) have been extremely poor.  Two tools help highlight this fact.  The Reliability And Performance Monitor provides details related to OS crashes and other major events such as application installations, driver updates, etc.  On both of my Windows Vista desktop computers, the overall index has been extremely low (see screen shots below).  In fact, the only way I can seem to get the reliability to increase is to keep the machine powered off (a "solution" I have decided to use for one of the Vista machines).



More Evidence: Errors

I have experienced literally hundreds of errors on my Windows Vista operating systems.  Granted, some of these can be chalked up to application issues.  But, the number and frequency of issues is just unacceptable.  And, the lack of relevant or useful responses to these issues just adds insult to injury.  I mean, I get it: I need to download updated versions of drivers and applications.  Unfortunately, that simple-minded advice rarely provides any alleviation of the pain.



The List of Issues

OK, so the stage is set.  Following is list of current issues I have with Windows Vista, along with details. 

  • General Performance: Overall, Windows Vista is sluggish.  I’m currently running the OS on an Intel Core2 Duo E6550 chip (which has 4MB of L2 cache), and even routine tasks take far too long.  Examples include moving and copying files (either locally or over the network).  File enumeration, transfer time estimates, and just plain UI sluggishness are unacceptable.  Windows Vista SP1 makes some improvements here, but every time I use a Windows XP machine, I reminisce about how well things used to perform.
  • Power Management / Sleep Mode: I have been unable to use Sleep mode on my desktop Windows Vista computers for over a year.  In some cases, the systems fail to enter Sleep mode.  In other cases, they’ll enter Sleep mode and either randomly wake up or fail to return to working status.  These problems are consistent, and even after hours of troubleshooting, I have decided I have to leave my computers running all day and night for reliability.
  • Troubleshooting tools: It should be taken for granted that any complex technology will have potential glitches.  Software that is as complex as a Windows OS is certainly no exception.  The key, therefore, is to make it easy to diagnose, identify, and resolve potential problems.  Windows Vista takes a few steps forward in this area by segregating event logs based on specific OS and application areas.  Some tools like the Performance And Reliability Monitor can also be somewhat helpful.  Overall, however, troubleshooting in Windows Vista is a poor experience.  It’s really difficult to track down to the root cause of system instability.  As there are numerous driver and software incompatibilities with the OS, much more robust and in-depth troubleshooting tools are a must-have "feature".
  • Folder Views: It’s really surprising to me how a feature that is designed to assist users by detecting the types of files (music, video, pictures, etc.) seemingly always guesses incorrectly.  Regardless of Registry hacking, file system changes, and various UI features, I find myself constantly changing the default view for my data folders.  And, the process takes numerous clicks.  I either have to add the relevant columns to the display manually or change the view settings for the folder.  And, there’s a good chance that I’ll have to repeat this process the next time I use it.  This "feature" is broken, and a quick "fix" would be to remove or disable Windows Explorer’s folder view features.
  • Switching users: When working on software development and testing, I occasionally create a second user account.  That account will have its own profile which I can modify programmatically or manually to test some behavior.  The idea is to keep from modifying my "real" settings.  Apart from being extremely slow (compared to Windows XP), the chore of switching active users seems to be really buggy.  I sometimes hear sounds that seem to emanate from the other user’s profile (e.g., receiving an e-mail message in Microsoft Outlook).  And, when I log back on to an existing user profile, the video display fails to initialize.  This occurs with numerous versions of Nvidia graphics drivers.  Again, I don’t have a way to effectively troubleshoot the problem.
  • Startup Times: One of the key selling points of Windows XP was the quick startup time.  Even of relatively old hardware, I can cold boot a machine and be up and running in around a minute or so.  Windows Vista is a different story.  On my desktop computers, I often have to wait over five minutes before the system is usable.  That means that, unless the computer has already booted, I can’t even load a web page or open Microsoft Outlook.  This, clearly, is not progress.  One of the main culprits appears to be the Windows Media Player sharing functionality (I have a large collection of local music and video files that I stream to my Xbox 360).  The rest of it just seems to be an inefficient and overly-bloated OS.
  • Spontaneous Reboots:  On several occasions, I have experienced spontaneous reboots of the entire OS.  It’s almost like a power fluctuation – there’s no warning, no blue screen, and not diagnostic information.  Rebooting seems to provide some stability, but this problem can be downright infuriating.
  • General UI Issues: While I can appreciate the time and effort Microsoft put into usability studies for the Windows Vista UI, much of the new organization makes managing the OS far more difficult and clumsy.  And this is well over a year after having time to "adapt" to the new UI features.  Now I certainly recognize that I’m not part of Windows Vista’s core audience.  I am quite technical and often need to do things to the OS that the typical user won’t.  Still, the challenge of viewing IP address settings or managing Control Panel items is painful.  Combined with teh sluggishness of the OS in general, tasks that were quick and easy in Windows XP are a chose in Windows Vista.  Microsoft could (and hopefully will) do much better in the future. 
  • Windows Vista Ultimate Extras: Apart from including a full set of OS features, Microsoft promised enhancements and upgrades to users of Windows Vista Ultimate Edition.  So far, this area has been extremely lacking.  Well over a year after the OS shipped, users are limited to just a few pieces of downloadable content (see the details at the Windows Vista Ultimate Blog).  And even those aren’t very compelling.  I can survive without new and exciting features, but I think this really highlights Microsoft’s lack of commitment to its user base.
  • User Account Control (UAC): We seem to live in a society where just the mere mention of safety or security gives people carte blanche to do whatever they please.  Computer and IT professionals have a long history of doing annoying things to users in the name of "protection".  Often, these things have marginal value (think of airport security lines), but we do them anyway, since it makes us feel like we’re combating a real problem.  UAC is a great example.  By constantly nagging the user to approve certain actions, it provides questionable benefits.  The real goal, here, is to force software developers to finally follow Microsoft’s security standards.  Though many users will disable UAC, the fact that some might leave it enabled forces vendors to finally follow some best practices.  Still, it puts an unnecessary burden on users and will likely be remembered in the same way as Microsoft Office’s Office Assistant, Clippy.
  • Keyboard shortcuts: Gaining true efficiency with a desktop OS involves the use of keyboard shortcuts.  Windows XP did quite well, as far as consistency goes.  I could easily create folders, move files, switch between applications, and work with applications without much trouble.  Several of Windows Vista’s keyboard shortcuts work inconsistently.  And the slow performance of Windows Explorer often leads to "race conditions" which rename the wrong folder or delete an incorrect item.  Shortcuts should be improved upon in future versions of windows, and many more should be added.
  • Product Activation / Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA): I often have the need to install, reinstall, and move OS’s.  I have called Microsoft’s WGA hotline on numerous occasions because Internet activation would fail.  My crime?  Often the change was as simple as upgrading to a larger hard drive (yes, just that seemed to trigger it).  In other cases, I need to run Windows Vista in VM to test functionality or to take screen shots for books and articles.  Activation prevents me from easily performing those tasks, and even with an MSDN subscription, I find myself spending significant time worrying about license activations.  Also, I wish Microsoft would stop trying to claim that reducing piracy is somehow improving security or protecting users.  This is marketing at its finest – harm the user and tell that it’s for their own good.  Microsoft prevents unlicensed copies of the OS from being updated.  That causes more security problems.  And, the real goal here is to increase revenue – not to help the user.  Let’s admit that and see these "improvements" for what they are.
  • Network issues: Occasionally, my network adapter will stop receiving connections for various services.  I rely upon my Windows Vista desktop machine to serve up audio and video content to devices throughout the rest of my house.  Periodically, the audio and video sharing features will stop working and I’m sometimes unable to connect to the computer using UNC shares.  The issues are typically accompanied with little to no help about the reason.  Rebooting the Vista machine will "solve" the problem, but that’s quite painful when I have a lot of applications open.  Network functionality should be taken for granted – this is no longer a luxury.  I’ll take reliability over performance any day, but this doesn’t seem to be an option in Windows Vista.
  • Lack of compelling features: This is, perhaps, the biggest issue to me.  Perhaps most of Windows Vista’s other shortcomings could be overlooked or accepted if the OS provided significant usability, performance, and reliability.  It might be worth the pain to run new applications and use productivity-enhancing features.  Sadly, I just don’t see this in Microsoft’s latest OS.  Developers are barely starting to take advantage of features in Windows Vista, leading to little reason to upgrade.  And, we have given this quite some time.  Windows Vista was finalized over 12 months ago, and industry support is far from perfect.


Admittedly, the purpose of this post is to point out the flaws in Windows Vista.  I do feel that there are numerous excellent features in the OS (and even a few that are keeping me from considering the move back to Windows XP).  Areas such as the network stack have been enhanced significantly and I find myself using integrated search features all the time.  Environments that use Windows Vista (or later) with Windows Server 2008 will see significant benefits.  Still, this situation is far from perfect.

So, in conclusion, I think Microsoft has done a fairly poor job with the quality and features of its latest operating system release.  However, there might be a bright side to all this.  Microsoft does its best work when it needs to catch up or recover from problems, and I’m hoping that the next version of Windows will address these issues.  Those users that haven’t lost faith in the platform (yes, I’m one of them), will hopefully be rewarded.  Unfortunately, a final version of "Windows 7" is years away, and it looks like the wait is going to be a long and painful one…

Update: It seems that I’m hardly alone in my issues with Windows Vista.  Microsplot has a post that quotes numerous industry outlets on the topic.  See Anything but Speechless: 100 Things People Are Really Saying About Windows Vista for details.