You’re sick of Windows XP. We are too, but Vista isn’t a panacea for your PC problems. We have some compelling arguments for waiting a few months before you upgrade.
Brace yourself. The largest Microsoft marketing campaign ever is gearing up to try to convince you the time is right to switch to Vista. But for most people, there’s no reason to rush out on January 30 to buy the fledgling operating system. Even though Vista is ready for people with relatively simple machine configurations, the more components your rig has, the more likely you are to encounter trouble.
Vista isn’t perfect right now, but it will improve with time. Hardware and software vendors will introduce better drivers and compatibility patches. New applications will be written with Vista in mind. After several months, you’ll be able to get new versions of crucial software, such as antivirus apps, as well as updates to your current products. In fact, you’d probably be better served by doubling up your upgrade and moving to new hardware and the new OS at the same time.
This probably won’t be a problem for most Maximum PC readers, but many folks who don’t play games will find their machines challenged by Vista’s system requirements. That Dell laptop Aunt Edna bought for $500 last year is going to struggle with this OS. While a simple RAM upgrade will probably get the machine running, it almost certainly won’t be sufficient to enable Vista’s bells and whistles. For once, Microsoft’s published minimum requirements for a new OS are reasonably accurate. The recommended system has a 1GHz or faster CPU with 1GB of RAM and a 128MB Pixel Shader 2.0–compliant graphics card, which is a fairly realistic minimum spec to get a decent experience with Vista. At Maximum PC, we aren’t going to bother installing Vista on anything slower than 2GHz; we’d rather have a fast XP install than a slow Vista machine. In short, if your machine isn’t up to snuff, take the next couple months to get it there before installing the new OS.
Even as we speak, there are literally dozens of applications that don’t work properly with Vista. And we’re not talking about garage-developed apps but high-profile programs such as iTunes, disc-burning apps, and pretty much anything that has to do with DVD ripping or viewing. And virtually any Java-based app that bundles the Java runtime automatically kicks the desktop back to Vista’s Basic mode, obviating the performance benefits you get from running Aero.
Vista is the most expensive consumer operating system we’ve ever seen. Let’s take a look at the pricing. Home Basic, which doesn’t include the fancy Aero Glass interface, costs a whopping $200 for a full version. Home Premium costs $40 more, and Ultimate costs an astounding $400. Why spend that much today on a less-polished product when you can wait a few months and have a much better experience for the same money? The good news is that Ultimate has a bunch of features that the majority of power users won’t need; the Premium version should include everything most people will require for home use—at least if you don’t run Group Policies on your home domain. Naturally, in Home Basic and Home Premium there are plenty of ads for Windows Anytime Upgrade, which will let you upgrade your “inferior” version of Windows to the obscenely overpriced (and unnecessary) Ultimate version.
During development, Microsoft removed a couple of crucial gaming-audio related features from Vista, including DirectSound 3D (hundreds of games use DS3D to deliver positional 5.1 audio) and support for hardware accelerated 3D sound. This isn’t a problem for new games going forward, as most developers have embraced the alternative OpenAL technology, which will continue to work in Vista. It is, however, a problem for legacy DS3D games, such as Call of Duty 2 and Max Payne. When you run a DirectSound 3D game on Vista, it won’t give you the option to enable 3D sound or features that require hardware acceleration, such as EAX. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Creative will release its Alchemy application, a workaround to a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Alchemy is basically a wrapper program—it intercepts DirectSound 3D functions and converts them to OpenAL functions using a custom DLL. Alchemy works OK, but we’d much rather have a less-kludgy solution from Microsoft. Hopefully, they’ll hear our cries and include hardware support with Vista’s first service pack.
The BIOS on the laptop you bought in March doesn’t work with Vista. Nor does your high-end USB microphone. And you can kiss that joystick-port-based Thrustmaster flight stick goodbye, too. With any new operating system, it’s safe to assume there are going to be some compatibility problems. However, we experienced more issues with our hardware just plain not working during the Vista run-up than we did with any Microsoft OS since Windows 2000. The lesson here? Make sure your hardware is actually compatible with Vista before you purchase it. You can check by using the Vista Upgrade Advisor.
We’ve already talked about the excision of 3D sound from the operating system, but there’s a larger problem. It turns out that many online games that use PunkBuster to limit cheating require Administrator access in order to work properly. The problem is that neither the game, PunkBuster, nor Vista actually tells you that. You just get kicked from the server every time you try to join a game. The solution is relatively simple: All you have to do is set the offending game to always run as an Administrator in its Properties window, but the entire process needs to be more user-friendly. Please get to work on this, Microsoft.
On the DRM front, we’re pretty much convinced that Microsoft hasn’t actually integrated anything more insidious than Windows Media Player 11 into Vista, at least not for current standard-definition content. (Blu-ray and HD-DVD content are protected in a similar manner as on XP and will require a full HDCP path for high-def playback.) But the fundamental underpinnings to completely lock down the video-rendering pipeline to prevent ripping of next-gen content are present in the OS. That’s not the least of it. Because of content-protection concerns, Vista won’t support CableCard for the vast majority of users. CableCard, in theory, allows users to access high-def content from their cable or satellite providers, without being tied to the device supplied by the TV provider. The thought was that CableCard would let you view HDTV on your PC without resorting to an over-the air signal. Unfortunately, for CableCard’s protected video path to work, your machine must be certified, and only large OEM manufacturers like Dell and HP will be eligible for certification.Pretty awesome, right? The fundamental problem is that for certain key low-level operations, such as video rendering, Vista has been designed to give third parties—the content providers—veto rights over crucial aspects of your system. Do you trust a company like Sony, which infected millions of PCs with a malicious rootkit, with low-level access to your rig?
The big vendors like ATI and Nvidia should have drivers ready for Vista’s launch (although there weren’t any GeForce 8800 drivers at the corporate launch on November 30), but expect really big problems to arise with all that other hardware attached to your system. It’s going to be tough to find drivers for older hardware, and we’ve even encountered problems getting drivers for brand-new gear. Sure, your mouse and keyboard will work, but will you have access to the cool sensitivity-changing and macro software that works with it? Even if your hardware is supported, are the drivers fully baked? If the Vista launch follows the timeline of past Windows launches, drivers will be scarce for the first few months while vendors slowly certify their products to run on the new OS.
User Account Control is part of Microsoft’s fix to prevent malware applications from taking advantage of Administrator privileges on infected PCs to install more malware. Every time an installer runs on your Vista PC, a prompt will ask for your permission to install the software in question. That’s a great idea, but we think the implementation is pretty poor. The problem is the frequency of prompts. They come up so often that people will quickly learn to auto-click them, thus risking malware infections. Even worse, instead of forcing you to take any action that would require thought, the prompts don’t even ask you to reenter your password (by default); all you have to do is click a button and the app will install itself. UAC is the PC equivalent of taking your shoes off in the airport security line. It makes you feel as though something’s being done to protect you, but ultimately it doesn’t do much to improve security. This isn’t likely to change, but it should.
You should be asking yourself if you need Vista today. The only people who should answer yes are the folks who already have a DirectX 10 videocard and are anxiously awaiting their Crysis preorders. For everyone else, it certainly won’t hurt to wait for the bugs to be worked out, the drivers to be released, and your machine to be in optimum condition to handle the new OS. Indeed, it can only help.