Operating System Advice

I got this request from a friend recently:

“Well, I'm finally going to finish building my quad core PC. It may be overkill as I don't play games, but I'm sick of having a slow computer! About the OS, it seems like I have a few options: pre-order Windows 7 upgrade, get Windows XP-64, or get Windows Vista Ultimate. I'm looking for some quick, brief advice, and I respect your time and opinion. I don't have experience with anything beyond regular XP… What are the advantages and disadvantages of Vista? Are there UI improvements that make Vista really worth the upgrade? Are there enough improvements in Windows 7 that make it worth waiting for?”

Between my home office desktop, my son's computer, my wife's computer, a laptop, and the machine I use at work, I use XP-64, XP Pro, Vista Ultimate, Vista Home Premium, and Vista Business 64, so have a lot of experience dealing with a variety of applications in a variety of environments. In addition, I'm playing around with Windows 7 in a virtual machine. Being a developer, I read a lot of technical journals, RSS feeds, and newsgroups. Knowing all this is what prompted my friend to ask for my opinion.

Here is my response.


Many people have bashed Windows Vista a lot and are sticking their noses up in the air and saying they’re either going to stay on XP or skip Vista and go to Windows 7. They forget that Windows XP had a lot of problems when it was first released and it took about a year and a half and a service pack before it was solid. Vista SP1 came out about a year after it was released and it has been solid ever since. So, Vista was reliable and usable in less time after release than XP!

Another thing people point out when they are bashing Vista is the extra horse-power it requires and the useless graphics that suck up resources. Vista is indeed significantly more resource hungry than XP. When my wife’s hard disk started having problems, I reformatted it and upgraded her to Vista. But I had to turn off all unnecessary services and extra graphics I could to get it to work marginally well on her old hardware. She still complains that it is slower than what she had before (XP) and I've noticed YouTube videos are quite choppy. I even added a some RAM and put in a beefier video card. But it really needs a faster processor and bus speed on the motherboard–basically, a new computer.

User Interface (UI) improvements is a topic of hot debate, but here’s my take. From a purely business stand-point of getting the work done, graphics just get in the way. Why not use a multi-tasking DOS screen? Why do we need all these millions of shades of colors and rounded corners and fading menus and shadows and 3D effects? It’s silly.

Is it? People are attracted to things that look good. If there are two houses or vehicles or TVs or anything that have the same quality and features, you’d buy the one that looks the nicest, right? Every cell phone that comes out tries to out-do the iPhone with slick interfaces and cute icons. Why is almost every application “skinnable”? With both Macintosh and Linux doing things to make themselves look really pretty and attractive, with sliding text, zooming icons, and sithering windows, Microsoft runs the risk of looking like yester-year unless they make some nifty improvements. Vista looks really cool and it’s fun to see things shrink and fade or slide up. Rounded corners on windows actually give a slight visual advantage when glancing at the screen to see where the edge of a window is so you can tell it apart from the window behind. People don’t usually think of those things. Since I use Vista at work and XP-64 at home, when I go home, I suddenly feel like I’m on an old system. I can’t wait for the time and a real solid reason to upgrade!

Here’s another thing: on XP, I have lots of utilities I’ve added over the years for additional functionality. Like anti-virus (Nod32), hot-key launcher (SlickRun), application and startup information and security (WinPatrol), and more. Vista has a lot more features built in. With their security increases, I no longer need a separate anti-virus or a tool to watch for changes to my host or startup applications. Windows Defender is free, plus there are a lot more security measures in Vista which make it a MUCH safer operating system than XP. While Windows Defender is also available for XP, you need more than just Defender to help protect it.

Since there will eventually be an end to the support for XP and new software is being written that will take advantage of Vista features, I would not suggest to anyone getting a new computer to get it with XP. Vista is stable enough now and Microsoft is cutting the ties for supporting old operating systems, eventually everyone will be forced to upgrade—or switch to Mac or Linux. There will come a point where even consultants and computer manufacturers with special contracts will no longer be able to install OEM versions of XP. So unless you have some special software that really requires XP, go with Vista—or Windows 7. (XP-specific applications may work better in Windows 7 with a new “XP Mode” feature that has been added as a result of many complaints to Microsoft about XP applications breaking in Vista.)

One thing I really like about Vista and Windows 7 over XP is launching applications. In XP, you either have to have an icon either on the desktop or buried in a submenu under Start > Programs. (Of course, you can also double-click a file with a registered extension to load it into the associated application or enter the full path to it in the Run or Command window.) But in Vista and Windows 7, you can hit the Windows key on the keyboard and type in the first few letters of the program. I have always been a keyboard fan and like to keep the Windows desktop clean. Because of the new structure of the Start menu and with application searching, I don’t have one single icon on my desktop! Everything is quickly and easily launched from the start menu.

For example, if I want to start notepad, all I have to do is hit the Windows key and type “note”. It quickly searches through my applications in the Start Menu and, in literally a half second, displays Windows Notepad. If there is another application installed that has the letters “note” in it (such as XML Notepad 2007), I simply arrow to the correct one and hit Enter to start it. This is MUCH better than clicking through bunches of submenus looking for the program, or running a hot-key program in the background and trying to remember all the hotkeys you have setup.

Not everything about Vista or Windows 7 is rosy. While I like the overall look and feel and my opinion is that the interface has improved, there is one area that I strongly dislike: Windows Explorer. In XP, it was predictable and worked very well. Now it displays files the way it thinks you will want to see them best and navigation is more complicated for the keyboard user. I tried for a long time to work with it and learn how many tabs it takes to switch windows, and so forth. But I finally got so frustrated that I bought a utility called XYplorer which is the most awesome file explorer tool you can imagine. It gives me the look and feel (almost) of XP’s explorer, plus a whole lot of features that were almost there in XP, but taken to the extreme in this product. If you choose to go with Vista or Windows 7 and do not like the things they’ve changed in explorer or get frustrated that it thinks your file list is a bunch of pictures (and therefore switches the view to thumbnails without asking), then get XYplorer.

So my take on XP vs. Vista? It’s time to move on from XP. What about Vista vs. Windows 7?

From my admittedly limited exposure to Windows 7, it appears VERY similar to Vista. There are a few security things that have been optimized and fewer nag screens (more intelligently shown or hidden) which should squelch the negativity surrounding the improved security of Vista which led people to turn off security completely! Several of the built-in utilities, like Notepad and Calculator, have been (finally) upgraded with additional features. The hardware requirements are exactly the same. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a marketing attempt by Microsoft to paint a better picture of Vista and to convince the public they can actually release a version of Windows that is stable from the first day. Some of the graphics are slightly different, but there’s no (noticeable) increase in resource usage. In my opinion (not seeing the source code differences), they could’ve released Windows 7 as a service pack for Vista, but the public still has a bad taste in their mouths about Vista—and besides, there’s a terrific revenue benefit for selling an upgrade as opposed giving away a service pack!

Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 comes in several different flavors. The flavors of Vista are kind-a weird—there’s a home line with more multimedia tools and a business line with features not in the home line. The only way to get all the features of both is to get the top of the line, Vista Ultimate (the most expensive, of course). This was another point of complaints and so in Windows 7, while there are still has a lot of different flavors, each level up includes all the features of the previous level, so you just need to decide what features you need and how high your budget is.

So should you upgrade to Windows 7 when it's available? Yes! I strongly believe it will be much more reliable and compatible out of the gate than Vista was because Microsoft knows it HAS to prove itself with a reliable and compatible operating system that doesn't seriously annoy people. Plus, it's mostly a fix for Vista. I know that’s what I’ll be putting on my main workstation at home when I’m finally ready to upgrade from XP. Then, when I go to work, my Vista machine will start to look outdated!

For more information, TechRepublic has lots of articles about Vista and Windows 7 and lots of opinions and feedback comments to read through for additional tips and tricks.

My overall advice? Change happens. Keep up!

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