Friday, July 27, 2007

Vista Guinea Pig

I just bought myself a Lenovo desktop machine for my home office, and it came with Vista Business. This is the first time I've submitted myself to being a guinea pig for a new, pre-service-pack OS. Here are a few reactions, gripes and maybe even some left-handed praises.

It started out of the box okay, after answering all the usual first-time-start questions of name, timezone, etc. Early on, I started transferring files from one of my USB drive to the new disk, and I was appalled how slow it was going. Despite being a 7200 rpm disk drive, the time it took for the file transfer seemed about four times longer than it would have been on my Toshiba laptop, which is a 5400 rpm drive. Eventually I figured out that indexing was turned on for optimizing search and the disk was churning constantly. Since turning it off, file transfers copies are must more reasonable, although I have yet to try a side-by-side comparison. You can find instructions on disabling indexing on the web.

In the course of loading up my customary developer software, I had to use the Explorer a lot, set environment variables, etc. (Note that whenever I say 'Explorer' I always mean the file browsing app 'Windows Explorer', not the web browser 'Internet Explorer.') The customary alienation that one gets trying do to routine things in a new OS's GUI was running pretty high for me. Like every MS-Windows incarnation before it, if you don't want to blindly follow Microsoft's vision of where your files should be (i.e. "My Documents"), you have to work a lot harder. After a few evening's work, I know how to get around, in the course of which I learned two disappointments about Vista.

Disappointment 1: Vista is just a big shiny wrapper around MS Windows XP. Once you've dug deep enough, you find that the Explorer does little more than it did before, and all the Control Panel applets offer all the same functionality as before.

Disappointment 2: I'm guessing that the motivation for the Shiny Wrapper came out of a need to "keep up with the Jobses" :-) and give Windows a glassy, 3-d look like the Mac. But the imitation is so shallow and naive. I get the impression that it was designed by people who don't actually "get" the Mac. It's like they made decisions like "the Mac uses shiny red buttons in the lower corners, let's do that and then they'll like us too"...but the end result is an incoherent mess. With the clever GUIs that Apple makes for iPods, Macs, iPhones and the like, you immerse, understand and say Wow. The Vista folks wanted Wow, but all they're going to get is, "Sigh. Why?"

Okay, having gotten that gripe out of the way, I've noticed a few good things. I'm having no trouble loading open source and developer software on the machine. I've got Tomcat 6 with JDK 1.5 running. Ant, Vim, Cygwin, Gimp and Intellij IDEA are fine. I installed all of Office 2003 and so far Word, Excel and Outlook run correctly. But I've had some problems too. My cheap-o Visioneer scanner won't load. A favorite convenience app of mine, Shortcuts Map, will load and run, but I can't close the app without using the task manager.

My user 'home' directory are now c:\Users\greg instead of the old, space-character plagued c:\Documents and Settings\greg. As far as names go, I can see actually using that as my 'home' directory, except that it is filled with the usual junk that is unrelated to what I actually use my computer for: 'My Documents', 'My Music', etc. And not surprisingly, Microsoft still presents it in Explorer as though its a special entity, like Desktop and My Computer, and not just an ordinary folder, which it is.

Another good thing is that Explorer is now remembing recently used locations. It makes it much faster to get to your stuff that way. Nice to know that Microsoft finally found a way to do something the Mac has been doing for 20 years already.

Back to what I wrote about at the top, the indexing that slowed down the hard drive by a factor of four...I guess Microsoft, showing its usual insecurity over competitor's innovations, figured they needed to make Vista like Google, i.e. searchable. And they bet the farm on it to the point that they hoped that users wouldn't mind if the first 7 hours of their Vista experience with a disk drive constantly churning and taking away productivity. Can they really be so clueless? Indexing, whether for a 160 gigabyte drive, or a giant corporate website, should be done in the early morning hours, when noone is at work, or at least on dedicated machines. Oh, they could have included some instructions to this effect: "After you finish using your new PC for the day, we suggest that you run Index Manager (tm) and leave your machine on overnight. The next time you use your machine you will find that you can search the entire computer quickly and easily." But I don't think that fits in with Microsoft's estimation of their user base's intelligence.

The conventional wisdom I've read on the net about Vista, and which I now agree is: don't be a guinea pig, stick with XP until Vista's first service pack comes out. But if you're buying a new machine, and Vista is forced upon you, and you can afford a few days to re-tool, Vista is fine. You'll just be that much more on top of things when the first service pack comes out and you'll be wanting to switch...because presumably Vista has a bunch of features that we'll be wanting. As I discover what they are, I'll write another blog entry about it.

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