A Week With Vista

So I got my copy of Windows Vista the day of release. FYI, I went after work, not midnight the night before. I give it some pluses and some minuses so far.

For starters, you know how every time you buy a new piece of hardware it says “use this CD before installing hardware!”? Don’t you hate those CDs? They usually just install a bunch of crap on your computer that you don’t need. Recently I bought a wireless router which included such a CD. I never used it, and I’m using the router. After I got the wireless router I got a wireless PCI card for my desktop computer. I skipped the CD and just put the card in the box. No big deal. Except no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get Internet access. So finally I broke down and put the CD in. The wizard launches, asks me to type a few things in … and in less than five minutes I’ve got Internet.

So a big question I had was, “Will Vista allow me to skip the CD?” Hey, less extraneous software launching at boot is always a good thing. And I recall from when I got the Dell in college that XP didn’t need user input for DHCP configuration — it just worked. Well sure enough Vista didn’t need any additional drivers to get me wireless Internet access. It asked me to type in some text and I had access pretty quickly. One point for Vista.

Next thing. You can download an upgrade advisor from Microsoft, but when you run the Vista installer it makes kind of a big deal that you can use it to make sure Vista will work on your system. I ran the advisor months ago — it led me to upgrade my video card — but I figured what the hell. The advisor told me that there were no drivers for my sound card, and therefore it would not function correctly. I quickly decided that a nonfunctional sound card would not stop me from upgrading. After I got Vista installed and it booted for the first time, it told me that it had downloaded some updates. I restarted, and on the second boot I had sound. One point for Vista.

Next thing. The sidebar. It’s where Vista keeps its gadgets. By default, there’s an analog clock, an RSS reader, an image viewer, and one other thing I seem to be forgetting. A couple right clicks will bring you to a gallery on Microsoft.com where you can download new gadgets. I got a couple that measured processor usage. After a day or two I noticed that, even while completely idle, my processor was running at about 15% usage. I killed a couple gadgets, and the usage dropped. I killed all but one processor meter, and usage dropped to about 1%. I killed the sidebar entirely, and the machine does boot a little bit quicker — noticeable so. (Killing the sidebar was harder than I thought. Closing it will make it disappear, but it leaves an icon in the system tray. Just today, I right clicked that icon, got a preferences dialog, and deselected the box to start the sidebar when Windows starts.) Yeah, my processor is five-plus years old, but I think that the sidebar was too much of a resource hog to be worth it. I definitely plan on putting Vista on my MacBook in the near future. I’m interested to see the sidebar on it — partly because the MacBook is widescreen — and to see what kind of hit it puts on the Core 2 Duo. I’ll call this one half point against Vista.

Next thing. We have to go way back to start this one. Way back … to the Compaq. I got a Compaq Presario in 1998 — my Freshman year of college. It came with Windows 98 Second Edition. It was a piece from the day I got it until … well, until now. I believe it’s in my closet back in Chipmonk. I can’t think of a better place for it. Anyway, when XP came out I bought an XP Upgrade disc. In order to perform a clean install of XP on a machine, it demanded that you insert an Windows 95/98(/2000?) install disc early on in the process. I believe I used one of my Windows 95 CDs from back in the day when my dad got our IBM Aptiva — which came with Windows 3.1, but somehow got us 2 Windows 95 CDs in the mail when it came out. Where the hell was I? Upgrade. Right. The point is, with Windows XP you could do a clean install (meaning you format your c: drive before installing the OS) with a Windows XP Upgrade Disc. With Windows Vista, if you want to do a clean install, you’ll need a Full Edition Disc. For me, that meant about 80 bucks more — $260 instead of $180. Yes, you can say yikes. I recall that XP Upgrade Disc putting me back only about $100. So that’s … a point against Vista.

Here’s the big thing. Before the Xbox 360 came out — we’re talking Summer 2005 here — I knew that when Vista came out, the Xbox 360 would be waiting with features that the new OS could hook into. Specifically, a Media Center PC could do a whole lot of sharing with the Xbox 360. One feature that particularly interested me was TiVo-like functionality, from your couch, using your Xbox 360 — assuming you had Windows Vista (or XP Media Center). At the time I believed that every copy of Vista would include Media Center functionality. Turns out only Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Ultimate include it. So I went with Home Premium.

It’s funny, but it was about two days before I even tried any Media Center or media sharing stuff in Vista. I suppose I spent those first two days tweaking performance, poring over changes to the Control Panel. You know — looking under the hood. So I got off work early that Friday, read an article on Xbox.com, followed the instructions … and got an error message. “Extender not found.” See, with Windows Media Center you’ve got Media Extenders — set top boxes that give you nearly 100% of Media Center functionality on your TV. (It’s worth noting that of all the Media Extenders that are compatible with Windows XP Media Center, Xbox 360 is the only one that is compatible with Windows Vista Media Center. I’ve heard conflicting reports of updates to enable Vista compatibility.) After about two hours of that, I fell asleep for 13 hours. It was a long week.

Since then, I’ve tried going through the steps in different order, and still get the exact same error message. I’ve contacted Microsoft, and their suggestions have ranged from “update your drivers” to “disconnect your USB devices” to “uninstall your drivers.” I haven’t tried that last one. Frankly I feel like they’ll next tell me to try it while standing on my head. See, when I’m sitting at my PC, running Media Center, trying to add a Media Extender, I’ve got to hit the Next button about five times. Then a list of steps appears on the screen. “Changing settings on your computer,” “Locating Extender on the Network,” then there are something like four more steps. Well, the first checkbox appears, then it gets stuck, then it goes to a new screen that tells me, “Extender not found.”

The thing is, I have a feeling that there are about a million things that need to happen between the first checkmark and the second checkmark. So when I tell Microsoft that the second checkmark doesn’t appear, they can only narrow it down to about a million things. When the truth is, I need a more detailed error message! Tell me what’s not happening. I can stream music from my Vista box to my 360 (just like I did with Windows XP). In Vista, the 360 is visible in Network Neighborhood. The devices can see each other. What do you mean Extender Not Found? You found it! It found you! You found each other!

As you might guess, I’m frustrated. This is a point against Vista, and I believe this takes the score down to … 0.5. I also like the UI changes, so I’ll give it another half point. That brings the score to 1.0. At this point in time I should be raving about how great the Media Extender functionality is. But I’m not. I can’t get it to work. I’ve looked online but haven’t found a magic bullet. Microsoft support hasn’t helped, but I think the error is just too vague. I’m hoping for an update in the next week or so that will allow me to figure out what the hell the problem is, so I can fix it. Until then, I give Vista a very slight, very close, very cautious thumbs up.

A Week With Vista