Living With Vista: First 30 Days

Bryce Parkhurst
Photograph: John Abbott
Last February, Bryce Parkhurst brought home a new Toshiba Satellite notebook with Vista Home Basic installed. The 33-year-old Easton, Pennsylvania, circuit designer bought the PC to enjoy music, but it soon hit sour notes. Everything seemed to run a little slower under the new operating system. His Alesis Photon X25 MIDI controller hardware no longer worked. When he tried to run his favorite DJ software, it didn't work properly; when he tried to quit the program, Vista rebooted him into Safe Mode. Any system change instigated a seemingly endless series of "Accept or Cancel" messages from Vista's User Account Control feature.

After five days, Parkhurst had had enough. He removed Vista and installed Windows XP. Since then, his new notebook has been trouble-free.

Bernard Mongeon
Photograph: Dan Callis
In contrast, Bernard Mongeon is quite pleased with Vista Ultimate, despite problems getting it to work with the scanner and security software on his three-year-old desktop. The 54-year-old weather forecaster in Kingston, Nova Scotia, accepts such glitches as a normal part of moving to a new operating system.

Mandar Jadhav, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, is somewhere in between. He loves the slick 3D look of Vista Premium, but is pained by the software and hardware incompatibilities he encountered when he upgraded his nearly new Dell laptop.

These three users neatly capture the disparate views of Vista during its first 30 days in the field. In PC World's online survey of nearly 1000 early Vista adopters, slightly more than a third said they were very satisfied with the new OS. Another third reported being satisfied overall, but not exactly wowed; nearly one in four were unimpressed.

And regardless of their overall verdict, a majority--some 61 percent--reported at least one hiccup getting Vista to work with their existing hardware or software. After more than five years in the making, Vista offers much promise but still has many problems to resolve.

Full Survey Results

PC World heard from approximately 1000 Windows Vista early adopters about their experiences with the new operating system. We've put the full results of our survey into a PDF file, viewable with Adobe Reader.

Looks Count

The one thing almost everyone agrees on: Vista looks great. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said the new interface is an improvement. The translucent Aero environment available in the Premium and Ultimate versions may be one of the few features that live up to Microsoft's "The 'Wow' starts now" marketing campaign.

"The Aero interface is excellent," says Brandon Morgan, a 24-year-old graduate student in Columbia, Missouri, who had no problems running Vista Home Premium, which came preinstalled on his new Dell laptop. "The first time I saw Vista I thought of the Mac OS, but it seems to be more sophisticated."

But not everyone could enjoy Vista's good looks. One out of seven Vista users in our survey had trouble obtaining video drivers capable of handling Aero and DirectX 10 (DX10), which allows for faster, more realistic gaming. (At press time, no DX10-capable games had been announced.)

"My nVidia GeForce 8800GTX [video card] drops the Aero interface constantly when using the [beta] drivers," complains Sergio Yanez, a 33-year-old banker in Jersey City, New Jersey. He says the problem usually showed up when he was using a DivX conversion program.

In fact, graphics card problems topped the list of hardware issues with Vista, followed by sound card troubles and Webcam glitches.

While nVidia released certified Vista drivers for its GeForce 6 and 7 series cards on January 30, it didn't distribute final drivers for its high-end GeForce 8800 until three weeks later. Driver delays and glitches inspired disgruntled nVidia fans to set up a protest Web site, (ATI also needed an extra three weeks to provide drivers for several of its Radeon cards.)

The reason? Building drivers for Vista is far more complex than for XP, says Dwight Diercks, vice president of software engineering for nVidia. "Vista requires an entirely new driver model for graphics," says Diercks. "It changes how basic display is handled, and it removes older driver portions of the code that have been there since NT 4.0 days."

Painful Access

One almost universally reviled Vista feature is its User Account Controls. In XP, it was much easier for users to install software and make other system changes; under Vista's default settings, you must verify every system change. That makes it harder for rogue software to install itself but puts an additional burden on users. Many, like Eirik Lundmark, simply turned off UAC (the only thing you can do; it's not a configurable option) and are taking their chances.

"I'm an experienced user, but UAC wouldn't allow me to create a new folder in Program Files," says Lundmark, a 22-year-old student living in Norway. So he shut it off, though he's uncertain where that leaves his security.

Ironically, Vista's added security measures also makes it harder for some legitimate software--particularly security software--to work correctly. Half of the survey respondents had trouble getting applications to work with Vista; virus scanners, firewalls, and media players presented the most problems.

For example, after he upgraded to Vista, John Ohannessian, a 59-year-old computer consultant in Louisville, Colorado, couldn't reinstall his old copy of ZoneAlarm Security Suite because it wasn't compatible with the new OS. He blames software firms for not having products ready when Vista shipped.

ZoneAlarm plans to release a Vista-friendly version of its 7.0 security suite in the spring, says Laura Yecies, general manager of the company's consumer and small business division. Consumers who buy ZoneAlarm for XP today will receive free upgrades when the Vista version is available, the company says.

Yecies says late changes to key APIs (protocols used by applications to talk to the OS), the need to integrate with Windows Security Center, and the relative complexity of security software all contributed to delays.

Other security software vendors such as McAfee and Symantec also failed to make Microsoft's Vista-certified software list, which was released in February. Representatives from both companies say that their software is compatible with the 32-bit version of Vista, and that 64-bit security software will be available later this year. Security vendor Trend Micro, on the other hand, managed to produce a Vista-certified suite in time for the launch.

At press time, more than 30 days after Windows Vista shipped, Apple released a free upgrade to iTunes that should work with most 32-bit editions of Vista, but the company warned that some users may still encounter problems with data corruption.

Other users may have to pay for the privilege of running their favorite apps. For example, QuickBooks 2006 and earlier versions won't work because of changes in the way Vista handles administrative rights. Intuit spokesperson Rachel Euretig says it wasn't practical to update older products because of the large changes Microsoft has introduced. QuickBooks users with Vista machines must upgrade to QuickBooks 2007, which is fully compatible with the new OS.

Ed Bott, author of Windows Vista Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2007), says software vendors who didn't follow best programming practices with XP are paying the price with Vista--and so are consumers.

"Intuit has become the poster child for companies that have been writing software for Windows XP that violates the rules," says Bott. "Up till now they've been able to get away with it. Now their customers must either forget about upgrading to Vista or pay Intuit a significant fee, even if they didn't need or want to upgrade QuickBooks."

Where's the Wow?

In many cases, where users end up with Vista depends in large part on where they started. Survey respondents who bought Vista preinstalled on new systems were less likely to report problems than those who upgraded older machines. Obscure or less popular peripherals and apps also tend to generate more trouble than mainstream ones, says Bott.

"Vista is very usable right now by tech folks who are not afraid to implement workarounds and tweak settings to get things to work," says Mary Jo Foley, editor of the All About Microsoft blog. "It also seems usable if you get it preloaded on new machines. But as far as upgrading an older machine to Vista: I am hearing quite a few horror stories there...even among fairly technically savvy folks."

Even those who say they like Vista don't necessarily recommend you rush out and buy it. Most advise waiting for more drivers and the first service pack to arrive before considering an upgrade, or waiting until you need a new system and Vista is your only non-Mac option.

Vendors say the real benefits of Vista will start to appear after the awkward transition period has passed. That likely won't happen until SP1 is released.

"The transition to any new operating system is often bumpy at first," says nVidia's Diercks. "In a few months' time, all of this will be a distant memory, and users will enjoy exciting games and features in Vista that redefine computing and entertainment on the PC."

Users, however, aren't that impressed. "I consider Vista an evolution of Windows," says Jim Middleton, a 55-year-old IT analyst in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who says he's "somewhat satisfied" with Vista. "It takes advantage of modern hardware, supports new standards, etc... but there is nothing 'must have' in the OS. Given Microsoft had five years to work on this thing, I think they could have done a much better job."

Vista 911: Where to Go for Help

  • Check Microsoft's list of Vista-certified applications, updated regularly, at Microsoft Help and Support. Microsoft also offers a searchable database of compatible hardware(site works only with Internet Explorer 6 and above).
  • Get Vista driver downloads from nearly 30 manufacturers free from utilities vendor Radarsync.
  • For a user-generated list of Vista-compatible applications, browse over to the IEXbeta Wiki.
  • Get easy Vista usage tips from the HowToGeek blog .
  • For the inside skinny on IE 7 issues and workarounds, check in with Sandi Hardmeier, long a part of Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional program.

User Surveys

The Most Problematic Products With Vista

Overall, half of the users we surveyed had at least one program that wouldn't work under the new OS, while slightly more than a third of users surveyed reported at least one problem getting their hardware to work with Vista.

Graphics adapter (38%)Antivirus (37%)
Sound card (28%)Firewall (17%)
Webcam (17%)Media player (17%)
Wi-Fi adapter (15%)System utility (15%)
Media card reader (10%)Browser (13%)

Pretty, but Not All That Fast

Vista's Aero environment, or interface, is far and away the biggest improvement over XP, users say. But only about half of those surveyed say Vista performs noticeably faster.

FeaturePercent that rated Vista much better than XPPercent that rated Vista somewhat better than XP

Full Survey Results

PC World heard from approximately 1000 Windows Vista early adopters about their experiences with the new operating system. We've put the full results of our survey into a PDF file, viewable with Adobe Reader.

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