Vista first look: Bugs and confusion

A massively multiplayer beta test

Shiny happy icons

Dialog boxes are now cleaner, and wizards too. They look more Aqua-ish, and they function better, with far less mindless interrogation. There's no more, "Device driver installation. Click next to continue. Would you like to install this device driver? Click next to continue. Would you like to install the device driver to the directory where it belongs? Click next to continue. Windows is ready to install the device driver. Click next to continue..."

All well and good, but MS hardly deserves praise for ceasing to torment users and admins with such idiocy. It should have been fixed a decade ago.

Another small but nice touch is the fact that MS now sets a desktop icon for Control Panel. With XP, I used to find it impossible to set one manually. Perhaps Redmond thought it unwise to encourage tinkering, customising, and so on, to cut down on the support calls. At any rate, the beast seems to have got the message: Control Panel is a vital interface.

The new Vista start menu is not my cup of tea. Instead of an expanding menu, it has a scrolling menu, which makes it more difficult to find the programs you want to launch. It also requires two steps; first you must click on a button to show more programs than IE, and then you have to scroll through the list, which is too long to be taken in at a glance. Far too much space is wasted on links to documents, music, movies, games, etc. I always keep an icon for Windows Explorer on my desktop, and have no trouble finding these things whenever I please. I use the start menu to launch programs that I don't launch often enough to be worth linking on my desktop. I want the start menu to be quick; I don't want to waste time with it, being invited to do things that I can do more easily via other means.

(Mercifully, Microsoft has dropped its condescending "My" obsession, and directories are now given grownup names like Computer, Documents, Pictures, and so on. And not a moment too soon.)

If the new start menu is a disappointment, the classic Windows start menu is nicely improved. The maddening delay in opening expanding menus is gone; they now open completely, at once, as they should. It's really quite a treat, although, again, MS deserves scant praise for finally doing what it ought to have done years ago.

Next, there's the Flip-3D feature, which gives you a moving Rolodex view of your open windows. When the one you want comes into view, you stop flipping at that point and it opens for you. Unfortunately, there seems not to be a reverse feature on this little merry-go-round, so if you miss your stop, round you go again. I wonder when I might ever find it useful, as I rarely have enough windows open to make a challenge out of finding whatever I want in the taskbar. I rather think it's there merely because it's "cool". And I'll confess; I've played with it a few times. I've never used it, mind, but I have fiddled. And it is rather cool, actually. And pretty useless.

There's also welcome evidence that MS is finally becoming aware of developments outside its own little magic kingdom. It only took forever, but I note that the still largely dysfunctional Notepad at least offers the option of saving a file as UTF-8, say, and that the new screen shot tool allows you to save images as a PNG or JPEG, instead of the ridiculous BMP files that have fascinated MS for ages, for reasons impossible to fathom.

There is much to say about Internet Explorer and the new Windows Mail (a replacement for Outlook Express), which I will cover in a forthcoming review dealing with Vista security. I never dreamed I would have anything kind to say about either of those items, but for once, I will. This is not to say that Vista security is anything near what it's cracked up to be, and we will soon see why. I will also write a separate article on Vista administration, and will discuss several new features and changes to the admin interfaces and procedures then.

Retail confusion

Now for the fun part. The trouble with Vista starts before you get the software home. It's very difficult to know which edition is right for you, because there are many options, and MS has done a spectacularly bad job of communicating with the public. As I reported previously, I bought the Home Premium upgrade, which, according to the package, can be used on the following Windows OS's: "Windows 2000 Professional, Windows XP, or Windows Vista." I had Windows XP Pro, and yet was not permitted to perform an upgrade - because it would have been a downgrade: I would have lost the use of a few XP features that I never use anyway. So instead of warning me of the features I would lose and asking me if I wanted to upgrade/downgrade anyway, I was offered only the choice of doing a clean install and losing all of my data and settings, and the aforementioned XP Pro features, in one go. Brilliant.

The package is misleading: on the front it says that the upgrade is fine for XP, but that clearly wasn't the case. Ah, but there's a disclaimer: "Backup and clean install may be required. See back of box for details." And indeed there is some microscopic print at the bottom there, saying that a clean install is needed unless one is upgrading from XP SP2 Home or Media Centre Edition or Vista Home Basic. In all honesty, I never saw it. A reader brought it to my attention.

It gets even more ridiculous. There is a wonderfully-clear chart at the Vista website that shows the various upgrade options. It would have been awfully nice to find that printed on the package in place of confusing and largely illegible text.

So, once you've been screwed out of some of the features in your former OS without warning, along with all of your data and settings - because it would make too much sense for MS to let you do a "downgrade" after warning you of the features you'd lose and letting you decide how important they are to you - you can look forward to a quite disappointing Windows Experience.

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