by Randy Guthrie – Microsoft Academic Developer Evangelist
Windows Vista was released almost two years ago, and public acceptance has been very weak. Partially because of some disruptive advertising by Apple, and some of it because there are a lot of old computers out there that run Windows XP just fine. In fact, I run my home finance software using XP on a desktop computer I bought in 1999 (I’d use Vista but the computer is too old — more about that in a minute).
I started using a beta release of Vista as a new Microsoft employee in 2006, and by the time it RTM’d (Released to Manufacturing) I was sold. While I can’t point out any single feature that makes it overwhelmingly superior to XP, there are lots of little improvements that add up to 30-40 minutes a day of productivity, mostly because of fewer clicks to find files, programs, or just to complete tasks in general. I also love the security features such as bitlocker.
So what is the big deal about Vista and its hardware requirements? Vista was designed to render using Direct3D graphics and unless your computer can run 3-D graphics (most computers less than two years old can), you won’t get the pretty look and feel. Vista will run on most computers newer than five years old, but the graphics will automatically scale down, and it won’t look quite as pretty. Even if you have a card (or graphics chip on the mother board) that will render in 3-D, how good that card or chip is in terms of graphics memory and speed will have a measurable impact on performance.
A Tale of Two Computers
I have an 18-month old Dell Latitude 620 with a Centrino Dual core processor running 2.4 GHZ and 4GB of ram, and it runs "okay" with Vista. The weakness? The on-board graphics memory is 128MB NVidia. Vista has a utility built in called the "Windows Vista Experience" rating, and it looks at processor speed, memory, graphics capability, hard drive r/w speed, and comes up a total score. My Dell has a 3.2 rating, which is okay but nothing to shout about.
I just received an IBM Lenovo ThinkPad T61p with a true HD display. This is a pretty big piece of iron, but I bought it for video production and I wanted performance, which it really delivers. This also has a dual core processor, 4GB of memory, and a larger hard drive, but its the graphics that really rock. The Vista Experience performance for this notebook is 5.0, which is as good as any computer that I’ve every seen running Vista, notebook or desktop. And the desktop graphics rates a 5.9, which is almost unheard of. So in my book, the Lenovo is the best notebook out there for running Vista. In fact, Microsoft issued specially-configured notebook computers to many of the field team for promoting Vista, and guess what kind of notebooks they gave out? Lenovo ThinkPad T61ps. So is graphics the only part of the Vista performance story? The answer is NO.
Hardware Manufacturers are Partly to Blame
One of the big problems that Microsoft faces is that hardware manufacturers (think Dell, HP, Sony, Toshiba, etc.) face a lot of competition (that Apple does not). That is why PC-based computers can be so much cheaper than Macs. To pad their profits, these manufacturers add applications to Vista because they get paid by these other companies to include them. You’ve all seen new computers that have a bunch of shortcuts to trial versions of all kinds of software applications that you didn’t want (sometimes called "bloatware"). They include Google or Yahoo tool bars, system monitoring utilities, trial versions of anti-virus software that prompt you to pay a renewal fee once they expire, etc. All of these unwanted applications slow Vista down when starting up and shutting down.
The Lenovo T61p I received (I actually now have two) did not come with any bloatware, and they have been specially configured to only load necessary drivers on startup. So I’m having a great experience and I’m really liking the hardware. One favorite feature: the power manager can be configured so that it does not repeatedly "top off" your battery, until the battery power level drops to 85%. This can add months if not years to your laptop battery life depending on how often you run on battery power and reconnect to 110vac.
Is There Hope for My Old Desktop?
The answer is a resounding yes. A friend wanted to upgrade a four-year old desktop PC to Vista because of the security features. The first step was to run the Vista Upgrade Advisor. This is a great little utility that will analyze your computer and tell you what (if anything) you need to do to have a great Vista experience. The analysis not only includes your hardware, but also looks at the programs installed on your computer and can tell you if most of them will or will not work with Vista. In the case of my friend, his programs were fine, but the Advisor suggested more memory and a new video card. We ended up getting 2GB of memory from New Egg (about $85) and a cheap 256MB video card from Best Buy ($75). We opened the case, added the new memory and card, installed the driver software per the instructions, and BAM! the upgraded computer ROCKS! It runs a lot better than a cheap (new) Dell desktop I purchased from Wal-Mart that was supposed to be "Vista Compatible". So for less than $200, the old computer became the new computer that runs Vista. The experience rating is about 3.7 due to the old hard drive read/write speed.
Its All About the Hardware
The bottom line: Vista is a great operating system that has been poorly understood and that received a lot of undeserved bad publicity. Once you get used to the new metaphor (you navigate via the search window rather than memorizing where everything is), XP seems clunky and overly complicated to use; everything takes more clicks in XP than Vista. My advice? Run the Vista Upgrade Advisor and see what’s needed. You may be surprised to find you are ready to upgrade, and soon will be on your way to the best PC experience yet. Are you a college student taking IT classes? Did you know you can get Windows Vista Business Edition for free from from college IT departments through the MSDNAA program if you taking their classes? Your professor or department can tell you how (they have to create the download account for you). Are you in the market for a new notebook computer? Then check out IBM Lenovo line. From my experience, they deliver the best overall Vista experience (and they tend to cost less than their competitor’s too!).