Monday, February 26, 2007

Acquired Taste of Vista

Definition: acquired taste

Something one learns to like rather than appreciates immediately.

This weekend I finally got some time to make the step and upgrade to Vista. There's been a lot of talk about what it does better and what it does not. Nevertheless I am getting the impression that the media and some colleagues are concentrating a bit too much on the negatives. Well there are issues primarily with drivers and unsupported hardware, but for fairly new machines the new operating system actually brings a wealth of benefits. One to mention ... the new driver model utilizes far better the new multimedia hardware and multi core systems.

The first step was to run the compatibility assessment. The Vista Upgrade Advisor checks the hardware and points out issues that prevent the installation from completing. In my case I had to uninstall only an older version of Norton Antivirus. Other than that I've got couple of warnings about unsupported software, but most of them turns out work fine. So once this was done I moved forward with the upgrade.

In stark contrast to previous versions of Windows, which were some sort of marketing slideshow, the Vista upgrade has a very clean interface and I like that. Set the type of upgrade and the time zone and leave the PC for an hour or two to do its job. That's exactly what I did. Left the PC and got back to my game with my son. Sometime later I was greeted by the new face of Windows.

The "Aero" interface, the eye candy everybody is talking about, strikes immediately with its rich visual effects and smoother look. Definitely more than eye candy. Each window runs in its own memory segment and the overlapping screen refreshes of the past are gone. I realize not all flavors of Vista are shipped with Aero, but maybe not all users will appreciate the dynamic visual effects any way. In only a few clicks I started noticing UI improvements, which I know will make my workday easier. The Welcome Center gives some good overview of new and old features and its interface is organized in different levels of dept. This makes learning gradual and paced to your needs. The sidebar nicely fits the widescreen of most new laptops and makes use of the width of the screen. A rich library of gadgets already exists and there are numerous samples on how to create one for developers of all skill levels.

Needless to say security has many improvements, soo many that your head spins. The most interesting for me are Windows Defender and User Account Control (UAC). Windows defender will stop or disable suspicious programs that are trying to run at startup and classify the software, so that you can decide what to allow running and what not. Finally something that tells the user in a simple way what programs run at start up on your PC and applying an algorithm to determine if this is appropriate.

UAC is by far the most controversial measure of all. It is really reassuring that something in your PC is watching for actions that require access to core system resources. For most users this should be a rare occurrence and probably a good thing. But the way I see it, most important of all is that UAC will not allow machines installed with default settings sitting somewhere on the Net to be hijacked. This only will drastically improve the security of Internet as a whole.

Nevertheless for developers UAC is a bit of a pain. True, we have to live with it to make sure our apps run properly for the target audience, but MAN that's a lot of additional clicks and keystrokes. My wrists and hands are already giving me signals of pain when I overdo it and UAC is not going to make it easy for them either. An advertisement of a major competitor characterized UAC as a secret agent that puts to question each and every action th PC makes and with all honesty they hit the nail on the head. After several decades of AI actively being part of science and computing it seems very drastic that Microsoft decided that only humans can determine whether one action is dangerous for your PC or not. This is a pretty strong message and it might work, but would it?

My guess is that we are going to see the evolution of UAC very soon. People just don't like the hassle. They would much rather purchase software that claims to do the job of UAC than "carefully read each message" and click OK. Many will simply disable UAC. In other words if Microsoft doesn't come up with a solution that at least allows the user to save her answers on per program level (i.e. educate UAC), the industry will catch up fast and let the people enjoy their AERO interface. Altogether UAC is a huge leap in the right direction and there is no turning back.

Other major improvements come in the area of backup and recovery. I installed Vista and immediately created a full PC backup to an USB drive. Amazingly the format of the image is VHD. Great, now you can actually crank up an old backup in a VM and retrieve files. It would be best if you can right click on the VHD file and mount the virtual drive to the host PC. In addition the recovery console in Vista actually can help you (how many times did you use the one in XP anyway) and you can fully restore from a backup. I didn't try this yet, but the prospect of finally having reliable full backup embedded in the OS is great.

Other features that momentarily caught my attention are the Start menu, the Services tab in Task Manager, the navigation in Explorer and Add/remove programs shortcut in My Computer, which by the way is called Computer.

The start menu is not cascaded anymore and using the search it is incredibly easy to find not only documents but execute programs as well. The services tab in Task Manager needless to say is very convenient for developers and the likes to easily access the service list and start/stop them or jump to the underplaying process. I loved the add/remove shortcut on the toolbar of Computer that opens the applet with one click. No more drilling in control panel.

The cherry on top of my cake is one little gadget I really will use a lot for documentation and blogging - the "Snipping Tool". Finally it is easy to take snapshots from any part of the screen (not only program windows using the ancient PrtScr). There are probably tons of low cost tools out there that do the same, but having this tool within the OS is very helpful.

Now don't ask me why I started writing about taste and wound up ranting about Vista. One thing we humans take always with resistance is change. The bigger the change the bigger the resistance. The stronger the taste the more time you need to enjoy and appreciate it. Vista concentrates the collective wisdom of thousands of people about the way personal computing should work in the future. It is possible that not every decision they made was right on target, but even if they got closer than their previous attempt (and believe me they did) that's called progress.

Install Vista, give it some time to acquire the taste of it, and focus on the future...

Dovizhdane!

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