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Why I downgraded from Vista to XP

More like an upgrade?

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Freeform Dynamics

I blogged a while back on how a Vista upgrade effectively rendered my old desktop machine useless for business purposes (see Retiring Leonardo from last year). I got a lot of feedback at that time as many people out there were obviously trying to get a handle on the viability of upgrading older kit.

While this debate continues, the related question has now arisen of whether even some PCs pre-installed with Vista are capable of running it adequately. Based on my own experience, this is a very pertinent question to ask if you are considering buying anything with less than a 1.8 Ghz Core2 Duo processor with 2Gb of memory - the current minimum spec I work on for serious business use. Yet there are lots of Vista machines out there on the market that are significantly less powerful than this.

Without getting into the rights or wrongs of this state of affairs, if you are unlucky enough to be struggling with Vista on a lower spec machine, you may be interested in a recent experience I had which was a bit of a wakeup call – not just in terms of the physical performance side of things, but also on the broader question of the value of Vista from an end user perspective in a business environment.

A few months ago, I needed to replace my notebook. As a notebook to me is companion to my desktop rather than my main machine, I wasn’t looking for anything very powerful – size, weight and battery life were much more important considerations. So, after a happy couple of hours cruising up and down all of the hi-tech shops in London’s Tottenham Court Road trying all the latest kit, I opted for a Sony TZ Series – about 1.2 kilos in weight, fantastic screen, reduced size but really nice keyboard, embedded cellular modem, and lots of other good stuff.

The machine came with Windows Vista Business Edition pre-installed and when I was playing with it in the shop, it was pretty responsive – the 1.2Gz Core2 Duo processor seemed to be up to the job. When I got the machine back to the ranch and loaded everything onto it, though, I have to admit to being a little disappointed with speed. Nevertheless, it was good enough, so I just got on with using it.

Over the course of the next four months, however, the performance gradually degraded and the user experience became awful. It eventually got to the stage where it was talking 12 minutes to boot and about 6-7 minutes to shut down, with very sluggish performance in between and frequent hangs requiring a forced shutdown (which in itself was probably making matters worse).

When researching the problem on the Web, it was clear that I was not the only one to be experiencing issues with Vista on the TZ Series, and the more I read, the more the answer to my problems became obvious – ‘downgrade’ the machine to Windows XP. A few forum entries mentioned a kit on the Sony website designed to allow you to do this, with all of the relevant drivers and utilities, and a set of instructions to guide you through the process. I duly downloaded this, followed the instructions, and it just worked. The longest part was installing and patching XP itself (which you have to buy separately, by the way – your Vista licence doesn’t cover it*).

The end result is fantastic. The word ‘downgrade’ seems totally inappropriate – in fact, it feels like the machine has gone through a significant upgrade. It now boots in well under two minutes (with all the same applications loaded as before), is highly resilient (has gone through a lot of sleep/wake cycles without crashing once) and, interestingly, many of the Sony utilities work much more naturally (I suspect they were designed for XP in the first place then ported to Vista).

The one thing I was a bit worried about was going back to XP from a usability and functionality perspective having got so used to Vista, but I was surprised to find that the experience was actually quite a positive one. Everything seemed more crisp, immediate and uncluttered and so far, the only thing I have missed is the enhanced application switching mechanism in Vista, i.e. the Alt-Tab and Windows-Tab functionality. That’s a minor sacrifice for the other benefits, though, and it only took me an hour or two to get used to the old mechanism again.

The switch back to XP was such a breath of fresh air that I have also ‘downgraded’ the desktop machine I am using at the moment. On a reasonable spec PC you don’t see the same increase in actual performance, but the XP interface still feels a lot cleaner and snappier (at least to me). Having both machines running the same OS obviously has its advantages too.

Now before everyone goes rushing out to downgrade their Vista machines based on this little story, it would be irresponsible of me not to point out that during my research, I read accounts from many happy Vista users, lots of which seemed to be getting on fine with the TZ and similarly spec’d machines. I would suspect the number and range of applications you work with has a bearing on this - remember I said that the TZ felt fine when I was just playing with OS with no applications installed before buying it. It could also, of course, be that people just accept the out-of-the-box experience as normal and don’t really question whether they are getting the best performance from their hardware. All I can say is that the downgrade was definitely the right thing for me, and is something to consider if you find yourself in a similar situation.

In the meantime, we continue to experiment with various desktop options here at Freeform Dynamics, and those looking at alternatives may be interested a post from my colleague Jon Collins entitled Why I’ve replaced Vista with Linux.

Finally, as I type this, I have a brand new MacBook sitting next to me here on my desk, and over the coming few weeks I am going to be looking at the practicalities of using the Mac in a Windows-dominated mainstream business environment, so watch this space for experiences with that.

Dale Vile is an analyst at research firm Freeform Dynamics. See here for his original blog post

* The right to downgrade Vista depends which edition you have. Vista Ultimate and Business may be downgraded within the terms of the Microsoft EULA at no additional cost, but this right does not apply to other editions of the software.

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