As the developer in charge of Stardock's Vista labs, I'm one of the few who gets to "play" with the new builds right away. Up until now this has meant several hours of reinstalling software over the top of a fresh install. This time I tried an upgrade from 5472 to 5536, and as it's the way many of you will be introduced to Vista I thought I'd share the results with you. I also wanted to see whether or not I agreed with blogger Robert McLaws, one of those who has been playing around with the interim builds and who has been predicting great improvements ( http://www.longhornblogs.com/robert/archive/2006/08/24/Windows_Vista_Pre_RC1_Is_Available_Now.aspx ). Is he right? Read on for my take . . .
Impressions of 5536...
The setup has started to include the "info cards" - in this case, little messages promising that you, too, can be a great director, famous (PowerPoint) presenter, or maybe even pilot the space shuttle with Windows Vista. Again, Microsoft is trying to push the "experience" on you - and giving you something to look at while you wait for its performance ratings to complete. I'm told a clean install is not that bad, but you have to wonder how many end users are going to be doing a clean install. In truth, the upgrade didn't take more than around 45 minutes for me, though I've had others say it took them over an hour. I could see upgrading from XP taking longer, if only because most upgrade candidates will have big registries and more cruft for the installer to sort through.
So what's the score once you're upgraded? On my dual-core E1505 laptop (labeled "Windows Vista Capable" by Dell, though that's pushing it for their lower models), it takes about 30 seconds from the start of the Windows booting process, 50 to the desktop and 1:00 to the Welcome screen . . . and after that it's hard to tell because other things kick in, but you can start working straight away. It's not slow, though I suspect this relies significantly on having half a gig of memory around to throw at the boot process. My total boot load was a shade over 550Mb, which compares less-than-favourably with the 230Mb of XP on the same laptop. Admittedly, I'm not running the Tablet PC service on that (nor will regular Vista users have to), and it trimmed about 50Mb off the working set over time. Still, I wouldn't want to actually use Vista in less than 1Gb, particularly since every single open window carries the cost of the DWM's buffering.
One of the things that really does keep going is Windows Defender and the Windows Firewall. They appear to make significant disk accesses totaling (on various boots) 50-100Mb by the first five minutes just after loading up the desktop. Security! The joke that the second core was added to check up on the first one is getting a little too close to truth, though the real cost is waiting for the disk. Good thing I got a 7200 rpm disk. On the whole, though, performance is definitely far closer to that which I'd expect from an operating system that's meant to be released in, yes, two months.
There's a few nice little user interface tweaks that make things just a little bit more friendly; for example, the way the "other logoff options" button is actually large enough to hit this time around. Progress remains to be made: on my laptop's high-DPI screen (an upgrade which I readily recommend) all the column headers in were incorrectly sized, making it harder to see what was actually being displayed. If Microsoft expects its ISVs to expend the effort to solve such problems, it needs to get its own software following best practices first. And yes, Windows Media Center looked great - except I didn't have a cursor!
Some things seem set to remain obscure to most users with Vista, like how badly your disk is defragmented (requires use of a command-line tool in administrator mode), and exactly how much help that USB key is as a ReadyBoost device. Perhaps that's for the best, considering Vista's main target market, but "you don't need to know" still rankles to a techie like myself. Worse, I've heard they want to make the logon sound mandatory ( http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/2006/08/24/the-startup-sound-in-vista/ ). Guess what, Microsoft? It's our computer, and you're the guest. Learn to live with that restriction on your branding efforts, and put in a usable "off" switch, or we'll do it for you.
Drivers remain an issue, too. At least now there are drivers for most components, though some features are lacking (including Vista-compatible help for Device Manager itself). OpenGL still isn't all the way there, even though my X1400 drivers were built just 10 days ago. This is partly Microsoft's fault, because they didn't finalize a high-performance interface for OpenGL until it was almost too late to have one at all. Maybe they were concentrating too closely on DirectX 10, overlooking all the great consumer applications that make use of the competition - like, oh, Second Life, which still bombs out in this build.
That wasn't the worst flaw. On a hunch, I shut the lid. 7 seconds to sleep - not bad, though it could be better. I opened it back up, and . . . whoops. The screen powers up, but it's not showing anything, and the system is non-responsive. Scratch one for the RC - this is a laptop, it needs to be able to sleep. Others here at Stardock have had other serious problems that appear to be linked with display drivers, and it's clear we're going to continue to need to see significant improvement in this area. I'm sure the driver crews are working flat-out at NVIDIA and
Edit: As of 2 September, ATI has released drivers that fix this problem.
The company has been dragging its heels for a while, pushing little features into the product to make up for all the big names (remember WinFS?) that didn't quite make the cut. It seems they've mostly gotten past that, though you know they're going to want to spring a feature or two on us for the RC (Virtual PC Express, for a start - http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/index.php?p=2649 ). Speaking on behalf of the development community, I'm glad to be entering the finishing straight. We need a stable set of features to build our own programs on.
So are the latest builds really any better? Despite the problems, a I'd have to say a qualified yes. It's about time - there's precious little of it left to fix the very real bugs that remain, let alone the "features" being forced in by Microsoft Marketing. We're going to need a release candidate out soon in order to find all the niggling little compatibility issues. That requires Vista to be solid enough for beta testers to want to use it as their main OS, and from my experiences it's not quite there yet.
Microsoft's developers have a little over two months to deliver on what they've promised - a next-generation operating system that can provide a solid base for years to come. This build is a sign that they may finally be in gear: but I worry that it may be too little, too late. Will they rise to the challenge, and deliver something they can be proud of? For all our sakes, I hope so.