What follows is my first review of Windows Vista, following my recent purchase of a new laptop. Yes, I am aware that Vista has been out for ages, I’m just slow on the uptake. But first, a few important points worth getting out of the way at the outset:
- This is a nerdy post. I’m not even going to try hiding that. Apologies to readers who are not even slightly interested in nerdy posts. I promise to write something less nerdy next time.
- I am primarily a Mac user, and I fully expect this to influence my opinions to a certain extent, despite my attempts to be unbiased.
- I am using Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 on an HP laptop with a 2GHz dual-core AMD processor and 3GB RAM.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into what, for many people, is probably old news. Vista has, after all, been around for some time now, despite its monumentally slow and cautious uptake (mainly due to the shocking support for old hardware and software). It’s worth putting it all in context though, and consider what other products Microsoft brought out before and what their competitors have been doing.
When Windows XP was released we all rejoiced. It was more stable than previous versions of Windows, it looked prettier, and boasted better performance on the same hardware. It was easier to use, more accessible to people who had never used a computer before, and was quickly adopted by home users and businesses alike. Around the same sort of time Apple released its Mac OS X, which was built on a solid Unix framework and looked pretty. It caught on quickly with existing Mac users, but didn’t catch many PC users because it was still just that little bit too alien to make the transition easy. XP was the overall winner of that initial battle, and Microsoft kept its market share with ease. Then we entered ‘The Great Silence’ in the Windows world, where we heard little more than security updates, despite Apple bringing out version after version of new Mac OSes, each one better than the last, each one slowly but surely eating away at Microsoft’s supporters. And when Vista finally did make it out into the open, it was slower than its predecessor (hence the need for more powerful hardware to run it) and didn’t deliver anywhere near the full compliment of promised features. It broke established software, caused all manner of problems, and as a result businesses and home users are still sticking with XP in defiance until someone can convince them that Vista really is worth the bother.
That brings us up to date on the history, and brings me to the operating system I am now sitting in front of. My reasons for buying Vista are covered in my previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. The title of this article pretty much sums up my first impressions – it’s shiny. From the instant you see the logon screen it’s as if it’s shouting “hey, look at me, I’m shiny too!” So much of the interface feels like it’s been copied from Apple’s groundbreaking innovations, even if it is in a trademark Microsoft way. The Vista installation still had those annoying factoids about the system, telling you what it was good for – as if we needed telling what it was we had just bought, just in case we thought it was actually a toaster.
Vista Home Premium uses the funky transparent windows theme that everything but the Home Basic version comes with. That means that the background shows through the title bar and the windows borders. The point of that is… well, actually I have yet to find a good reason for that. No doubt someone said it might be fun, and when no one said it wasn’t possible they threw it in for the sake of the WOW factor. Sure, it’s pretty, but so what? You can’t see enough to see what is actually underneath, and it does tend to muddy the display slightly with inconsistency. Interestingly they turn that transparency off when the window is maximised, because clearly then you don’t want to see what’s underneath. Again, I’m still not sure of the reasoning behind that styling feature. Window shadows I can understand, that gives you the impression of depth and brings the frontmost window up more clearly in front of the rest, and glowing close buttons makes sense too. The Start button is another oddity though – they’ve replaced the word “Start” with the Windows logo, which makes sense I suppose, and made it round, but slightly too big for the taskbar so that it shows over the top of everything else just a little bit. Sure, it’s nice to know it can do it, but again – what’s the point, exactly? Theme creators will doubtless be dancing in the ailes, but for an everyday user I’m not sure it’s a styling feature that’s really better than a normal button.
And that’s really where things come to a crux – is Vista actually better than XP, or is it just different? Sure, XP did look a little “Fisher Price” with its bright colours, but it did the job effectively. The transparent windows in Vista is eye-candy, nothing more, and to me smacks of Microsoft trying to hit back at Apple’s undeniably beautiful interface, which has always sported a subtle use of transparency and shadows. Vista takes that idea, boosts it to the max, and hopes people are impressed. Like a teenage yob seeing a Ferrari with a spoiler and then gaffer taping three on his own Micra and standing next to it as if to say “beat that”. Yes, Microsoft, very clever. Now grow up.
I can’t be completely critical, however, as there are some very good points to Vista that are worth mentioning, even if only superficial (I’ve not focussed on benchmarking or performance as I have no way of testing that scientifically). The minimise, maximise and close buttons are good – they’re clear and easy to use, arguably better than in XP, and certainly bigger and easier to get to than in Mac OS X. And the glowing of those items when you hover over them is a useful addition and a good bit of user feedback. Similarly, the new Explorer (which, curiously, no longer appears to have a name at all) is very nice to use, and in particular the unifying of the icon and the text label in one clean box is a nice visual touch that I’ve not seen anywhere else but which I can confidently say is better than the rest; subtle highlight colour, subtle border, subtle rounded corners – and all round a fantastic job. Controls for quickly and easily changing the thumbnail size is a handy addition too, although the largest setting is only really useful if you’re viewing a folder of photos, and then it’s almost not big enough. My favourite part of that whole file management interface though is the location bar, which shows you your position in the file tree and allows you to click each component to go back several levels at once, like a breadcrumbs trail found on many web sites.
So, is Vista better than XP? And, almost as important now, is it better than Mac OS X Leopard? Well, as with all technology that is widely used, that’s debatable. My own personal preference is that despite Leopard’s rather clinical feel it’s still a much more mature interface than Vista’s, which feels like it’s trying its utmost to show off to its friends. Vista is shiny. Very shiny indeed. But it still feels like Windows, and in that respect it still fails to impress me or reassure me that it knows what it’s doing, or that it’ll leave me to it if I’m confident I know what I’m doing. Maybe more time will persuade me, maybe I’m still too in love with Apple to see how great this operating system is. Time will tell. In contrast to Vista’s Window’s Sidebar which is insisting on telling me the time, in addition to the clock in the taskbar…