First impressions of Vista

I installed Vista Home Premium edition on my PC. Here is my rationale for doing so and my first impressions. Disclaimer: I am generally pretty biased against Microsoft OSes (as you can probably tell from my first heading :-)).

Rationalising insane actions

Why on earth did I do that? Well, truth be told I’d be quite happy running Linux, but my wife can’t (read: won’t try :P) get used to it, and also needs MS Word for work. That left me with lots of dual booting which quickly got tiresome. I did try running WinXP in a VM from Linux, but had some problems which I can’t recall at the moment. I know that using the proprietary NVidia driver did make my Linux install a bit unstable (never had a crash with my old RedHat 5.2, or 6.x installations from years back, so one or two crashes in a fortnight was quite a shock).

I did really enjoy running in Linux and keeping a basic level of knowledge of bash scripting, basic Linux workings, doing some Java coding with Eclipse and playing around with Mono, but I also figured that I should focus on honing my .NET skills. It is my day job after all. Not that I intend to neglect the other stuff – to me it is essential to keep learning as much as possible and exposing myself to different viewpoints and technologies, so I’ll be setting up an Ubuntu 7.10 VM ASAP.

So why not stick with Windows XP, especially in light of the fairly mediocre press (understatement alert) Vista has received? (The shop owner muttered “Vista is a dog” as I brought out the plastic to pay for it, and I had similar reports from a couple of the technical staff at work too, not to mention loads of negative reviews and blog posts). Well, main reason was I had WinXP Home edition, which does not let you control NTFS permissions. I wanted to lock down my family photos like I do in Linux, so that no one can delete or edit them without the correct privileges. Last thing I want is losing 5 years worth of memories when my 4 year old gets bored with playing Dora the Explorer and decides to play Windows Explorer. Other reason is I figured I should get with the times and not use 6 year old technology :) (um, how much of Vista was rewritten again? :$) So Vista it was – and I’m actually quite impressed.


Even on my fairly basic system (AMD Athlon 64 3500+, 1GB RAM shared with on-board NVidia graphics), it runs surprising well (Aero Glass, letting Windows adjust special effects as it sees fit). It occasionally has a brief pause for thought, but in general everything comes up very snappily. Definitely does not seem any slower than XP, and in most cases seems to respond faster. I should mention that I am using the very precise, scientific, SI-recognised “seem” unit of measure, as in “it seems faster”. This was probably my biggest concern based on the hearsay.

Aero Glass

The Aero Glass theme and desktop manager offers a nice look-and-feel, a decent level of colour customisation (although as always the UI customisation options are pretty minimal), and the eyecandy animations and translucency and helpful and purdy respectively.

I have traditionally despised eyecandy, but since discovering and subsequently enjoying Compiz and Compiz Fusion (formerly Compiz, Compiz-Quinn, Beryl) for months I have revised my hatred for such resource-intensive frivolities to exclude the following circumstances:

  1. When it gives helpful feedback cues to the user (animated minimise, focus or “requires attention” cues, new window mapped etc.)
  2. When it doesn’t sap every inch of strength from my PC (off-loading windowing operations to the graphics card and taking the burden off my poor CPU)
  3. When it just looks too cool to ignore :-)

Compiz does seem more responsive and less resource intensive that Aero (returning to my scientific “seem” measure again), and also does loads more, but Aero does look great and works nicely and simply out-of-the-box. The Win+Tab to use the Flip 3D application switching is awesome (it meets all three of my criteria for sparing it from my eyecandy hatred :-) ).

Other nice stuff

Windows Explorer is much more useful now. I always ended up turning off the metadata and “common tasks” views in XP, but it is all integrated really nicely in the new Explorer. It reminds me a lot of GNOME’s Nautilus (or does Nautilus remind me of Vista’s Explorer?), but with more integrated information and nicer widgets. The location bar has a breadcrumb trail showing the folder hierarchy above the current folder which makes navigating very easy, but also automatically switches to standard input mode when you want to type in a path (which I would love to see in Nautilus). The folder treeview on the left automatically scrolls horizontally to fit in your current folder, but I am currently finding this a bit distracting. Most of these improvements flow through to the common dialogs (open, save etc.)

The search feature in the Start Menu is great (although I have been using Launchy for so long which is much better again IMHO). The “All Programs” link now works in a more “folder browser” way which I am having a bit of trouble adjusting to, as I can no longer quickly run the mouse over a hierarchy to find my application, but to be honest I think I will probably stick to using search or Launchy (the former option is probably what they intended).

The file structure in Vista is simplified. For example, by default you now have C:\Users instead of C:\Documents and Settings, and you can actually navigate the folder without being bombarded with loads of superfluous directories. One good example given in Derek’s post is that music is stored in C:\Users\MyUsername\Music rather than C:\Documents and Settings\MyUsername\My Documents\My Music. I like that (very Unix-ey :-) ).

The UAC is really helpful. I haven’t found it intrusive at all, and really appreciate it after enjoying Ubuntu’s similar gksudo for so long.

I also noticed that Vista went into hibernation after being idle for ages. This is not much of a feature on its own, but the nice surprise was that it actually came back to life when I pushed the power button! It fired up very quickly and resumed my previous session nicely. Previous efforts to use stand by/hibernation with Windows 2000 and XP on my laptop were generally greeted by an error screen (after a long wait) saying it could not resume, and then a reboot.

Finally, Windows Update is really nicely integrated into Vista. You get a very nice few of the updates available (including device driver updates and optional updates), as well as a log of what updates you have installed or are pending installation.

It’s not all beer and Skittles…

My main complaint with Vista so far is that it occasionally comes tantalisingly close to having a great feature, only to trip at the final hurdle. One example is storing user data. You can move all 11 or so known folders (or junctions or whatever they are) like Documents, Music, Pictures etc. for each user to a second hard drive by right-clicking, going to properties and changing the location (similar to moving My Documents in XP). Unfortunately it seems nearly impossible to do this for the whole Users directory without going to an unattended deployment. <rant> How hard would it be to just move the functionality up one notch and be able to mount the folder where ever you want it? It is crazy that I can’t easily drop my home directory on a second drive or partition. I’ve been doing it on Linux for more than a decade! </rant>

Little things like that, which should be easy but aren’t, really tend to tarnish my opinions of many MS offerings (had very similar experiences through 3 generations of SharePoint too). As an aside, it is also one of the reasons I love Linux – you very rarely get stuck with something like this that you can’t change, and if something really annoys you, you generally have the option of firing up emacs or similar and fixing it yourself (unless emacs itself annoys you, in which case you are stuffed, or worse – stuck with VI! I kid! I kid! :-P ).

The apparently pervasive DRM embedded in Vista is something I object to in principle, but in reality won’t really affect me as I don’t use my PC to play DVDs or anything (so I don’t have to worry about my PC not approving of my choice of hardware and downgrading video output or such nonsense).

As a minor hiccup, after installation and the first load of patches from Windows Update my machine froze during the obligatory system restart. Not the best start to the build, but haven’t had any problems since (it was related to a driver update – maybe the same gremlin that occasionally attacked my Linux box).

The sidebar and gadgets lasted about 15 seconds before being turned off. Took a while to load and didn’t really do much for me. Who sits at their PC watching photos scroll past on their sidebar anyway? Isn’t that what screen savers are for? :-) I am sure there is a legitimate use for this stuff, but I’ll keep my RAM and CPU for things like loading apps thanks.


I am pleasantly surprised by my experience with Vista so far. While I can understand a number of the criticisms leveled at it (such as, it took 6 years and this is it?), it seems Vista itself is a nice OS when evaluated on merit rather than on the amount of innovation or similar it brings to desktop computing. I am definitely not going to miss Windows XP. True, I still need to install Office and Orcas on it, and actually use it for a bit :-), but I am honestly surprised by how much I don’t immediately hate it ;-)