Windows 7 Can Learn From Vista

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer isn't so sure about how folks are going to respond to Windows

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7. As Mary-Jo Foley says in a ZDNet blog post, Ballmer told Bloomberg that "The test feedback (on Windows 7) has been good, but the test feedback on Vista was good. I am optimistic, but the proof will be in the pudding."

Mary-Jo goes on to muse:

...I'm left wondering about Vista, as many are/were about the current financial crisis: Why didn't anyone inform us sooner of the impending meltdown? Weren't there warning signs? Where was everybody?

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Artwork: Chip Taylor
Most of Mary-Jo's post involves Windows Vista beta testers' reaction to the OS, but it got me wondering: How about the reviews that came out when Windows Vista was released? Negative reaction to Vista among consumers and businesses ended up preventing it from ever truly superseding Windows XP in the way it was supposed to do-but were the reviews among the first signs that something was amiss?

To find out, I dug up evaluations of Vista from late 2006 and early 2007 as they appeared in nine major publications, written by a bunch of distinguished Windows-watchers: BusinessWeek (Steve Wildstrom), CNET (Robert Vamosi), Forbes (Stephen Manes), The New York Times (David Pogue), PC Magazine (John Clyman), Paul Thurrott's Windows Supersite, PC World (Preston Gralla and Richard Baguley), USA Today (Ed Baig), The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg), and ZDNet (Ed Bott). I reread them all, and in a moment I'll summarize here what they said about Vista's visuals, its performance and stability, its compatibility with existing products, and User Account Control security-as well as their overall take on the OS.

First, though, a mini-FAQ on what I found:

How favorable were the reviews? I'd say the majority were guardedly positive, saying that Vista looked good overall but wasn't a killer product that demanded instant installation on every PC on the planet. ZDNet's Ed Bott (who didn't publish a comprehensive review), PC World's Preston Gralla, and Paul Thurrott were enthusiastic overall; BusinessWeek's Steve Wildstrom, CNET's Robert Vamosi, and PC Magazine's John Clyman all accentuated more negatives than most. Only Forbes' Manes was extremely negative, period. (His piece, the last he's written for Forbes to date, is the only software review I've ever read which discusses ripping anyone's liver out.)

Did any of the reviews predict widespread dislike of and/or disinterest in Vista, or guess that it would never become the dominant version of the OS? No, and that's OK: The point of a product review isn't to predict how the marketplace will react. Some of the reviews did make the understandable but incorrect assumption that Vista would become pervasive (Mossberg: "Gradually, all Windows computers will be Vista computers"), and I suspect that even the reviewers that were lukewarm-to-negative would be startled by the widespread rejection of the OS that came to happen.

Did the reviews identify performance and compatibility as problem points? Some said that Vista would require a beefy PC and might be slower than XP (others, however, explicitly contended it would run well on modest machines). Some mentioned compatibility snafus with applications and drivers-BusinessWeek's Wildstrom warned readers to be cautious based on the woes he'd encountered-but with the possible exception of Manes, nobody said that Vista would continue to be rocky from a compatibility standpoint for months after its release.

What did reviewers say about UAC, which ended up being the poster boy for everything that Vistaphobes disliked about the OS? Some of them actively praised it as an effective security measure, including Baig, Mossberg, and Pogue. Others call it potentially annoying but worth the pain. Only Manes and Gralla seemed to regard it as a significant, permanent annoyance.

What was the bottom-line buying advice? Most writers said to think carefully before upgrading an existing PC to Vista, but that it would be a welcome improvement over XP when acquired on a new machine. Ed Bott recommended that medium- and larger-sized businesses wait for Service Pack 1 but said consumers and small companies didn't need to hesitate; Manes said nobody should upgrade existing PCs, period, and that it was best to avoid the OS on new machines until Service Pack 1.

Hey, Harry, you were writing and editing stories about Vista back when it came out, right? What did you say? Um, thanks for reminding me. I wrote quite a bit about Vista in my Techlog blog for PC World, and was smart enough to express caution about its significance and raise questions about compatibility issues, but not savvy enough to guess it would become a legendary flop. (Here's a post from March 2006 in which I'm fairly skeptical, but say "It...seems unlikely that it'll be a Windows Me-style fiasco." Wrong!)

I was editor of PC World when it published the review discussed below. Do I wish, in retrospect, that we'd held the new OS to a higher standard, criticizing it for introducing too few new features of substance and failing to fix enough long-standing Windows annoyances? Do I think we should have reminded readers that all new OSes have bugs and compatibility problems that can be largely avoided by waiting for the first service pack? Do I believe we gave it too much credit for looking pretty? Yes, I do.

OK, enough preface. Here's what software critics said about Vista before anyone knew for sure just how Windows users would greet it.

BusinessWeek on Vista

"Vista: Upgrade-or Trade Up?" by Steve Wildstrom, January 15, 2007 (also: "Burglar Proof Windows," January 22, 2007)

How are the visuals? "All this eye candy is nice, but it's not going to make it any easier to draft a business plan or a budget."

How are performance and stability? Not addressed.

How compatible is it? "Based on the troubles I've had in tests, I'd warn against upgrading if you have old accessories, s

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uch as printers, or if you run any custom or obscure business software. If you decide to upgrade anyway, make sure your existing computer has the horsepower to do Vista justice. Any system older than six months or a year may be trouble. Functions could feel sticky or sluggish, and if the graphics on your PC aren't up to snuff, you'll lose the fancy visual effects."

How's UAC? "Vista won't install anything, from any source, without explicit permission...But some work needs to be done, especially by third-party software suppliers, to keep account control from driving you nuts. For example, every time I start up, the Logitech mouse software wants to check the Web for updates-and triggers an alert. So does a test version of Norton Antivirus. Eliminating these false alarms will encourage users to pay attention to the warnings rather than just reflexively clicking O.K."

The bottom line? " good enough that you may just want to make do, for now. Based on the troubles I've had in tests, I'd warn against upgrading if you have old accessories, such as printers, or if you run any custom or obscure business software....Any system older than six months or a year may be trouble...With a new made-for-Vista computer, at least you'll know that everything will work. And Vista is a big step forward; in time, you'll want it."

CNET on Vista

"Windows Vista Ultimate," by Robert Vamosi, January 23, 2007

How are the visuals? "Though video playback and, yes, even the tiny icons on Windows Vista are now crisp and colorful with Aero, unless you watch YouTube videos all day, you won't really need Aero, nor will you miss the tiny preview windows enabled on your desktop display."

How are performance and stability? "[E]ven Microsoft seems to admit that the best performance is only available on top-of-the-line machines manufactured within the last year or so...[A]fter testing several early builds, we found Windows Vista to be remarkably stable and robust."

How compatible is it? "[I]f you don't have the proper graphics'll simply never see the Aero graphic effects on that old Dell computer in your basement."

How's UAC? "You shouldn't encounter User Account Control (UAC) except when changing system configurations or installing new software, and even then, wouldn't you-in this age of downloadable spyware-prefer to know when an executable file is about to run? While UAC notifies you of pending system changes, it doesn't always require a password."

The bottom line? "Perhaps we're spoiled, but after more than five years of development, there's a definite ‘Is that all?' feeling about Windows Vista/ Windows Vista a bad operating system? No. It's just a disappointment for PC users who hoped that Microsoft would deliver something truly exciting to finally leapfrog ahead of Apple. They failed. But stick around; this is just Windows Vista 1.0...Windows Vista SP1 promises to fix what's known to be wrong within Windows Vista and should offer a few concrete reasons to switch."

Forbes on Vista

"Dim Vista," by Stephen Manes, February 26, 2007

How are the visuals? Not addressed.

How are performance and stability? "[O]n one machine-oddly, the fastest I tested-[Quick Search] was far, far slower than using Start's regular search option...The speech recognition system...did pretty well at understanding me...But my enthusiasm turned to dust when the software for correcting inevitable mistakes locked up repeatedly.."

How compatible is it? "Should you upgrade your current machine? Are you nuts? Upgrading is almost always a royal pain. Many older boxes are too wimpy for Vista, and a "Vista-ready" unit Microsoft upgraded for me could see my wireless network but not connect to it"

How's UAC? "Vista's irritating and repeated warnings about possible security breaches don't always mean what they say and are usually irrelevant. You'll take them as seriously as the boy who cried wolf, making them useless as defensive tools."

The bottom line? "Vista is at best mildly annoying and at worst makes you want to rush to Redmond, Wash. and rip somebody's liver out...My recommendation: Don't even consider updating an old machine to Vista, period. And unless you absolutely must, don't buy a new one with Vista until the inevitable Service Pack 1 (a.k.a. Festival o' Fixes) arrives to combat horrors as yet unknown."

Paul Thurrott's Windows Supersite on Vista

"Windows Vista Review," by Paul Thurrott, November 6, 2006 [continued over several months in multiple posts]

How are the visuals? "Windows Aero is gorgeous, and highly customizable with varying degrees of translucency and various color schemes. Aero is one of the nicest things about running Windows Vista."

How's UAC? "In use, UAC can be annoying, and while you can turn off this feature from within the User Accounts control panel, I advise you not to do so. UAC's predecessors on other systems prove the worth of this type of protection, and the truth is, you won't really see UAC rear its ugly head all that often once your applications are all installed and your system is fully configured. The occasional minor irritation is definitely worth the peace of mind: Thanks to UAC, spyware and other malware will have a harder time silently installing themselves on your PC."

How are performance and stability? "On reasonably modern hardware, you'll find that Windows Vista runs just fine, thank you very much, and it's likely that most people won't notice any performance differences, when compared with XP, at all. On new PCs, of course, this won't be an issue, and Windows Vista will run like the proverbial greased pig...[W]e'll need to see how Vista performs in the real world before we render a final verdict for overall reliability. But the early signs are quite positive indeed."

How compatible is it? "Overall, Windows Vista's hardware and software compatibility is excellent, but the devil is in the details: For the short term, at least, chances are good that you'll own some hardware device-a printer, scanner, or whatever-that doesn't work properly. Software compatibility is better, much better on the 32-bit Vista versions, however. My recommendation for those contemplating 64-bit is simple: Wait."

The bottom line? "In conclusion, Windows Vista is both evolutionary and revolutionary, and I know it's great because every time I have to use Windows XP, I feel constrained and miss those Vista features I'm just now starting to take for granted. It's not perfect-what software is?-but it's a compelling and fascinating product that will delight you over time as you stumble onto new features."

PC Magazine on Vista

"Windows Vista," by John Clyman, January 26, 2007

How are the visuals? "There's no question that the Vista shell is a massive change from Windows XP...Personally, I find Aero effects subtle and compelling."

How are performance and stability? "On the whole, my experience has been positive-on a screamer system. Others have had worse luck, particularly those who skimped on RAM."

How compatible is it? "Vista didn't always find drivers for all my devices during the installation process, but right after booting it connected to Windows Update to download additional drivers. Microsoft emphasizes that software and hardware compatibility work is still ongoing, though by the date of Vista's general availability, January 30, the story should be better...With the exception of security tools and low-level utilities, virtually all of the applications I've run on the shipping version of Vista work fine."

How's UAC? "Vista's User Account Control security feature-which requires even administrators to confirm attempts to "escalate" privileges to perform administrative tasks-can be intrusive at first. But in the long term, running Vista without administrator rights most of the time should reduce security risks."

The bottom line? "Vista is good-in some respects very good-but not spectacular. Call it a nice-to-have product rather than a must-have. If you're buying a new consumer PC this spring, it probably makes sense to get Vista...If you've already got a PC running Windows XP smoothly, it's harder to see a reason to upgrade right away."

PC World on Vista

"Everything You Need to Know About Windows Vista," by Preston Gralla, November 22, 2006 and "Exclusive: First Vista PC Tests," by Richard Baguley, January 25, 2007

How are the visuals? "Some may say this is mere eye candy that won't affect your real productivity. Maybe so. But it makes life at the keyboard fun again. And for my money, that's right up there with productivity."

How are performance and stability? "[W]ith the beta drivers in our tests, games ran significantly slower under Vista than under Windows XP. In earlier testing of the

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Dell XPS 710 running XP, this system ran at 143 frames per second in the game Far Cry at 1024 by 768 resolution. An identical system using the same settings with Vista managed a frame rate of just 108 fps-some 24 percent slower."

How compatible is it? "The lack of Vista drivers for some peripherals could be a major issue for many users."

How's UAC? "Because of UAC, using Vista can at times become a herky-jerky kind of experience, with so many annoying pop-ups coming at you that you want to scream ‘Stop!'...Of course, if you do turn off UAC, then you have no one but yourself to blame if a piece of malware does get in and take over your system."

The bottom line? "All in all, Windows Vista is a great leap forward for the operating system, with a much-improved, far more useful (and pleasurable) interface; faster, better search; beefed-up security that's a big improvement over Windows XP with SP2; and far, far better networking. There are some clunkers in there, though, such as the annoying UAC feature...But the pluses make you forget the minuses."

The New York Times on Vista

"Vista Wins on Looks. As for Lacks..," by David Pogue, December 14, 2006

How are the visuals? "Windows Vista is beautiful. Microsoft has never taken elegance so seriously before. Discreet eye candy is partly responsible. Windows and menus cast subtle shadows. A new typeface gives the whole affair a fresh, modern feeling. Subtle animations liven up the proceedings."

How are performance and stability? Not addressed.

How compatible is it? "Moving to Vista means hunting for updated drivers for your printer, audio card and so on, not to mention troubleshooting incompatible programs."

How's UAC? "This will strike most people as an unnecessary nuisance, and you can turn it off. But it's actually one of Vista's most important new protection features; when the day comes that a virus is making changes to your PC, and not you, you'll know about it."

The bottom line? "[It]t doesn't matter what you (or tech reviewers) think of Windows Vista; sooner or later, it's what most people will have on their PCs. In that light, it's fortunate that Vista is better looking, better designed and better insulated against the annoyances of the Internet. At the very least, it's well equipped to pull the world's PCs along for the next five years - or whenever the next version of Windows drops down the chimney."

USA Today on Vista

"The Long and Winding Road," by Ed Baig, January 25, 2007

How are the visuals? "The Aero interface is handsome. Users will appreciate translucent edges, live thumbnail images that appear over taskbar items you mouse over, and a 3D effect that lets you use the mouse scroll wheel to flip through a stack of open windows."

How are performance and stability? "[A]t times, the computer has been running noticeably slower. The system crashed at least once."

How compatible is it? "Post-op, most of my programs seem to be behaving. Same goes for the printer. I successfully installed the Vista-ready 2007 version of Norton Internet Security, too....I did encounter a few compatibility snags. A downloadable update to Quicken didn't load properly on first attempt. When I ran the Opera Web browser, the ‘color scheme' was temporarily downgraded to Vista Basic, something repeated when I launched the InterVideo WinDVD program."

How's UAC? "Vista promises to be more secure. Time will tell. At the very least, Windows frequently asks you for permission before allowing potentially risky changes to be made."

The bottom line? "In most respects, Vista is a better Windows. But you'll need patience, money and a powerful system to upgrade. The overhaul isn't so dramatic that you couldn't hum along with XP awhile longer."

The Wall Street Journal on Vista

"Vista: Worthy, Largely Unexciting," by Walt Mossberg, January 18, 2007

How are the visuals? "The new Aero interface is lovely, and it makes using a PC more pleasant and efficient. It apes some elements on the Macintosh but retains a distinct look and feel. Icons of folders look three dimensional, and they pop."

How are performance and stability ? "[I]n my tests, some elements of Vista could be maddeningly slow even on new, well-configured computers."

How compatible is it? "To get the full benefits of Vista, especially the new look and user interface, which is called Aero, you will need a hefty new computer, or a hefty one that you purchased fairly recently. The vast majority of existing Windows PCs won't be able to use all of Vista's features without major hardware upgrades."

How's UAC? "One visible security feature asks for your permission before you do potentially dangerous tasks, like installing new software. This is a good thing, and it's been on the Macintosh for years. But unlike the Mac version, the Vista version of this permission feature doesn't necessarily require you to type in a password, so a stranger or a child using your PC could grant permission for something you yourself might not allow."

The bottom line? "After months of testing Vista on multiple computers, new and old, I believe it is the best version of Windows that Microsoft has produced. However, while navigation has been improved, Vista isn't a breakthrough in ease of use. Overall, it works pretty much the same way as Windows XP...Gradually, all Windows computers will be Vista computers, and that's a good thing, if only for security reasons. But you may want to keep your older Windows XP box around awhile longer, until you can afford new hardware that can handle Vista."


"Windows Vista's Three Killer Features," by Ed Bott, January 30, 2007 [NOTE: As the title suggests, Ed says in the piece that it isn't a review -- in fact, he questions the very idea of writing OS reviews: "The notion that any person can give a one-size-fits-all recommendation for such a complex product is amusing, to say the least."]

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How are the visuals? "attractive..."

How's UAC? Not addressed.

How are performance and stability? "The myth is that Vista requires a hefty, expensive new PC to work properly. The reality is any edition of Windows Vista will work very well indeed on relatively inexpensive hardware."

How compatible is it? "About the only reason to deliberately avoid Vista is if you use a critical software program or a hardware device that isn't supported."

The bottom line? "Should you wait for Service Pack 1? That's the conventional wisdom, and for businesses of even modest size and complexity, it's probably good advice. But if you're looking for a PC for use at home or in a small business-especially if digital media is high on your priority list-there's little advantage to waiting. Based on my experience with Windows Vista, I think it's a very solid release."

Overall conclusions about these nine publications' evaluations of Vista? Reviewers, as a group, weren't irrationally exuberant-but with the exception of Steve Manes, they also failed to detect all the downsides that hurt the OS in the market.

I think Aero mattered less to real people than many reviewers thought it would-especially since initial driver glitches often prevented it from working well. I suspect that reviewers, like Microsoft, were overly optimistic about how many driver and app compatibility issues would get resolved at the last moment before the OS hit store shelves, and that they didn't anticipate the degree to which these issues would cause Vista to run like a sickly dog on many PCs (including new ones, and especially before SP1 arrived). Most reviewers also cut UAC more slack than a lot of real people ended up doing.

One other thing: After something like eighteen years of reviewing operating systems, I've come to the conclusion that no review written before an OS hit the streets is really complete: It's missing critical information on compatibility issues discovered by millions of real people as they install the new product. There's never been a new operating system that didn't cause significant headaches for a meaningful (if, in the best cases, small) percentage of the people who installed it, and there's never been one that wasn't significantly improved by the first major round of post-release bug fixes. Every OS review should remind readers of this.

Consumer Reports won't give any new car model an unqualified thumbs up until it has some service data. We software reviewers, too, should treat any review of a product as complex as an operating system written before its release as somewhat preliminary.

Now let's see how the critical response to Windows 7 jibes with what real people think once they get their hands on it. It's certainly been remarkably favorable overall so far, including in this review I wrote for PC World...

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