The Vista Backlash
It seems like I can't throw a rock at a tech website these days without hitting some kind of negative buzz about Vista. Complaints range from a lack of drivers to niggling compatibility issues to ho-hum impressions of the features. There are a lot of the usual outspoken Linux and Mac fans who are quick to scourn Microsoft's flagship product.
The reality is that this is pretty much expected. Microsoft, while they easily monopolize the PC market, are passionately despised by a vocal subset of tech enthusiasts. Now that I've personally had a chance to install and begin using Vista on my PC, however, I can confidently say that the negative buzz is largely reactionary, mostly coming from the same vocal minority who complain about anything and everything that Microsoft does. Vista, while not revolutionary, brings a variety of solid features to the table that make it a more user-friendly OS than Windows XP.
The Other Guys
Tech heads love to extol the virtues of Linux and Apple, but the Vole is sitting comfortably on its perch and is not batting an eyelid at this so-called "competition". Apple may have those witty commercials with the Mac and PC guys, but in real life Apple owns a paltry 4.7% of the total market share, a result of their stubborn instistence on controlling all the hardware for their OS. Despite its vocal and loyal fanbase, Apple simply does not offer enough options in either software or hardware to pull users away from the PC market. Until Steve Jobs and crew choose to license the Mac OS (unlikely, to say the least), their market share will continue to consist of Microsoft's table scraps.
Linux is no better, despite the obvious benefit of being completely free; compatibility, options and ease of use continue to be problems for Linux that prevent widespread adoption of the open-source OS outside of a very niche enthusiast community.
In a sense, Microsoft's dominance will continue by default. The overwhelming majority of Microsoft's OS sales will come not from enthusiasts upgrading their PCs by purchasing the standalone operating system, but from home users buying new PCs. Right now, Vista is barely out of the gate, and it may be a little while before there are a significant number of next-generation applications that encourage people to upgrade. In the meantime, Microsoft is hoping that the features of the OS will help push new PC sales.
I recently installed the OEM version of Vista Home Premium, and I've had the chance to get accustomed to its many new features. Are any of Vista's features "revolutionary"? No, but then again, I didn't find any of Mac OS X's features to be revolutionary either when I made the upgrade from OS 9 years ago during my Mac days. Tech enthusiasts often overlook the fact that companies like Microsoft must be keyed into the needs of the computer culture, which is resistant to real change; Windows XP is the operating system du jour, and making too many changings to a popular and functional OS would simply alienate too many users. Change, in the real world, is not always a good thing. Microsoft's job with Vista was to evolve – not radically overhaul – the basic idea of Windows, but to make it faster, more secure, more aesthetically appealling, more feature-rich, and more user-friendly.
My first impressions of Vista have been overwhelmingly positive. For starters, I used an upgrade installation using my OEM copy of Home Premium. Unlike past editions of Windows which installed files piece by piece – making upgrade installations problematic – Vista uses an image-based installation process (think Norton Ghost) that is faster and hassle-free.
So what's to like about Vista? For starters, Vista is vastly more secure than Windows XP. It's going to be much more difficult for malfeasant users to infect Vista with malware and viruses; this may, at least in the short run, come at a cost of some compatibility. However, since security has always been a central issue for Microsoft (at least from a p.r. standpoint), Vista's improved security is an important step for the company. I've always thought it was a bit disingenuous for people to boast about the security of Mac and Linux, when 95% of the market is dominated by Windows. The simple volume of users dictates that there will be many more attempts to crack the system. However, Microsoft did need to make some key changes to the OS to improve security, and Vista has a long list of security features that will easily make it the most secure operating system available.
Vista also makes a number of changes to the UI with its new "Aero" system. It should be noted that Aero is not available on Vista Home Basic – frankly I have no idea why Microsoft even released Home Basic, since Aero is such a key feature for Vista. It looks pretty, yes. And yes, those with older PCs may need to upgrade. But importantly, it's much more user-friendly than XP's interface. Aero uses transparent windows to make it a little easier to see what other windows you have open; it also uses the handy flip-book style of switching between applications in 3-D. But even if you're not impressed by the 3-D, alt+tab still works, with a new level of functionality. Now, the operating system shows active tabs that allow you to see what each application is doing – the task bar even gives you a handy pop-up tab that displays the current screen for each application. At the top of each page, a handy directory helps point out your exact location in the Windows directory, and there is an easy-to-use search bar in every window; this makes it easier to find files while making it much more difficult to get "lost". These are exactly the kinds of features that computer neophytes and enthusiasts alike will appreciate.
The Windows side bar is another great feature. There are tons of gadgets included, and many more available online. Everything from RSS feeds to calenders to weather to hardware-monitoring to a handy post-it sticker (how many times have you been on the phone while at your PC and fumbled around looking for something to write down a number, name, directions, or other such handy info?). "Borrowed" from Mac OS X? Yes. But how much market share does Apple have again?
Vista integrates an improved Windows Media Center right into Home Premium and Ultimate (again, Home Basic's existence comes into question), clearly in a move to integrate the home experience much in the way that Apple has done. The Windows Media interface is simple, elegant, and easy to use. Music, movies, TV, HDTV, DVR, and photos are easy to access and customize.
For gamers, the most clear reason to adopt Vista is DirectX 10. Save for the aging Doom 3 engine, Microsoft's DirectX API has completely usurped OpenGL to become the standard API for PC games. DirectX 10 is the biggest improvement in the API since its inception – a complete, ground-up redesign – and is native to Vista. While DirectX 10 graphics cards are currently limited to nVidia's expensive G80 series of cards, nVidia will soon be introducing sub-$200 DirectX 10 cards, and we can expect DirectX 10 hardware to quickly become standard in Vista-capable PCs. Additionally, Microsoft has included handy parental controls that allow parents to limit content based on its ESRB rating, a feature that many a contientous parent will appreciate.
The question is, of course, should you upgrade? There are still some issues with Vista with regards to driver availability and software compatibility. It may be wise to double-check to make sure that any applications you use on a regular basis are running well on Vista before you make the upgrade. Right now, Vista's appeal is simply that it's a much more secure, feature-rich and user-friendly OS than Windows XP. There are no applications that make Vista a must-upgrade, save perhaps for Office 2007 if you're still using Office 2003. DirectX 10 games are still in development, with the earliest games slated for release this spring. But if you want the features of Windows Media Center, the usability of Aero and Windows Side Bar, improved security, and parental controls, Vista is definitely worth a look.
What version should you buy? For home users, there are only two versions worth considering: Home Premium and Ultimate. Ultimate contains some extra security features, all of Vista Business's networking features, and a built-in image-based system restore functionality similar to Norton Ghost, but nothing critical for the home user. Home Premium has everything the home user needs and then some, and it's much cheaper than Ultimate. Home Basic is too stripped down for me to recommend, and Vista's other editions are business-based.
One final note: If you upgrade your base system platform on a regular basis (i.e., your motherboard), note that only the retail versions of Windows Vista allow the license to be uninstalled and transferred to a new machine an infinite number of times. The Upgrade Edition license is essentially tied to your current Windows license, so it's only transferable if you have the retail version of Windows XP – in which case you would need to uninstall Vista, then reinstall XP on your new machine, then reinstall the Upgrade Edition of Vista again. OEM versions of Vista are tied to one machine and cannot be transferred.
Personally, I think OEM versions are a steal and I highly recommend them if you don't plan on upgrading your motherboard on a regular basis. Two OEM editions of Vista Home Premium are cheaper than one retail copy, so if you only upgrade your base system platform once every few years or you like to keep your old PC around when you buy a new one, it's hard to beat the value. If you are considering an Upgrade Edition of Vista, keep in mind that an OEM copy will allow you to do an upgrade installation for about $40-$100 less, depending on the version of Vista you purchase. Keep in mind also that Microsoft is already looking forward to their next version of Windows. They've stated it will not be another five years before the next version is released. So depending on your needs, one or two OEM versions should be more than enough to last you until the next version of Windows is released.