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Vista: My thoughts

Every now and again Microsoft feels the need to bestow a new, unstable operating system on us all. This hasn't always been a bad thing. The transition from Windows 3.0 to Windows 95 and Windows 98 to XP really were good (Windows 95 brought greater capabilities to the user) and everyone balked at how hard it would be to upgrade to XP, but it's since become the longest running and most stable OS that's ever come out of Redmond.

However, it wasn't always champagne and strawberries for Bill Gates - Windows 1.0 and 2.0 were continuously dogged by limits because of Apple's repetitive lawsuits, and the stream of OS's between Windows 98 and XP weren't particularly successful. Windows NT and 2000 were too far ahead of their time with the new HAL (which we now take for granted in Windows 98SE and above) which meant that the majority of apps had to be coded specifically for the platform. Windows ME, on the other hand was simply terrible, as it now recognised more errors and fired off more blue than William Shakespeare. However, we are now discussing the big question of the moment - should we move to Vista just yet, or is it just another Windows ME - avoid at all costs and get the second edition of an older version of Windows (XP Pro SP3 anybody?!).

The Hardware Requirements

Windows 98 could run reliably on as little as 8MB RAM and a 33MHz Pentium MMX processor - but this configuration was considered Windows 95 standard at the time. Windows XP can (and will) run on as little as 128MB RAM (a big jump from Windows 98, but the standard in 2002 was 128-256MB for a standard consumer PC), and a Pentium II processor (you could get it to run on less if you use 'XP for legacy PCs', which will run on 16MB RAM and a 55MHz Pentium Processor). For constructive use, you would probably want 256MB RAM and a 500MHz processor - which was hardly bank-breaking at the time.

Vista, on the other hand is very, very different. According to Microsoft, the minimum spec for Vista Home Basic is 512MB RAM and a 1GHz processor, while home premium should be able to run on a 1GB RAM and 1.5GHz system with at least 128MB graphics memory. I can assure you now that this is very optimistic indeed. I can tell you from my own experience and in repairing other PCs that this hardware specification simply isn't enough - it's barely even warrantable. Manufacturers can get away with selling you a PC with 512MB RAM (64MB of this can be 'borrowed' for graphics, and approximately 32-64MB used by Vista (this later grows to as much as 128MB with maintenence tasks), so you wind up with very little RAM for apps indeed), a 1GHz Celeron/Athlon processor (which struggles with the way Vista works) and bundles graphics and sound into the motherboard - this they claim is perfectly capable of running Vista Home Basic. I agree, it can run Vista; That much is true. Now try to run Microsoft Office 2007.

As and when it does load up, you will (if you try anything ambitious like centering text or making text bold - stuff you can do in Wordstar...) hang the application or get a 'Microsoft Word 2007 is not responding' error message. The only solution is to upgrade the hardware or install XP (I chose the latter, as I'm a student with limited funds and a restrictive warranty). Home Premium demands a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM and 128MB graphics memory. I can assure you that, once again, Vista will gobble this up in an instant - you can at least get Office 2007 to work (just...) in this version, but any kind of photo editting, using media (such as sound or video) or any kind of 3D gaming will screw up and/or hang your system.

Now, I'm not suggesting anyone is doing this deliberately to fool consumers out of cash. It makes sense that these are BARE MINIMUM specs which people should observe - but when resellers talk passionately about what Vista can do, and that any machine with a 'Vista-ready' and 'Premium-ready' sticker is capable of doing all the things XP does and better - just because it's Vista and (amazingly, I quote this from a reputable system manufacturer) will "get the most out of your hardware" (which is a downright lie), then we start to see that Vista is simply being mis-sold. Vista needs at least double the minimum specs to get anything useful done - and if you're a serious gamer or do a lot of professional graphics work, then you will not only need Vista Ultimate, but the latest and greatest machines. Vista simply needs more hardware than we can provide it with at the present time - which is a little strange considering the subject of the following section...

Against the Trend

This is a little odd. Hardware has been, at least since 2003, ahead of software. We have (if you continue to use XP) much more powerful hardware than we really need - which has led to stunning performance and some really complex apps. Gone are (or were...) the days of DOS and Windows 95 where you struggled to get the hardware to cope with the software - it even seems archaic and old-fashioned to people that this should be the case. Vista, on the other hand, takes a very different view. It needs more hardware than the mainstream public has. Microsoft knew this, and were enthusiastically championing the idea of Vista boosting business and that workers would see Vista at work and want it at home (this shows very wishful thinking, with the idea that if they say it enough times, it might be true). What they fail to grasp is the reality of the situation.

For one thing, businesses are in it for the profit. Their view is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and there are some businesses out there still running Windows 95. In fact it's been estimated that over half of internet users across the world are still using Windows 98. Business never champions technology, consumers do (there are all kinds of issues involving Vista's likely success and the effects of the credit crunch, but that is the subject of another article!). The key point is that, in general, the only reason many businesses use XP is on the basis that their employees are used to Windows XP as opposed to Windows 98 or 2000 at home, and were asking their employers for it. Not the other way round! Essentially, Vista goes against the trend of hardware v. software - which makes what are presently perfectly usable mid-range systems seem very, very low range - which isn't going to convince the consumer markets for a good, long while. A new OS has to take advantage of existing systems and make them BETTER (i.e. give people a compelling reason to go out and buy Vista over XP, Mac, or even Linux)- not slow it down. A retail copy of Vista is generally more expensive than an Asus Eee PC - I will also cover that issue in a future article - along with the Asus Eee PC itself...!

But is it all doom and gloom?

Absolutely not. Vista really is a good operating system if you have the horsepower to run it. The Aero Glass interface allows Windows to finally embrace the graphics card - modern graphics cards are often more powerful than the CPU, and the idea of utilising the 'GPU' is definitely the way of the future (as is the webtop, which Windows champions as ever with in-built RSS support, the sidebar and a much improved 'use a web page as your background' too)l. Vista, if given the horsepower, can improve general performance two-fold, can inform you of under-performing parts and actually make you PROUD to be a Windows user (which is something that arguably no version of Windows since Windows 95 has ever really achieved). The catch is that boot-up times are very slow, though this is mostly attributed to Vista's "superfetch" feature, which you can disable if you have a mind to.

Interestingly, Vista is designed to use EFI instead of the BIOS - which is a shame, as I've yet to meet anyone (even online) who is using a system with EFI - though they are out there (somewhere...).

In General Conclusion

Vista is (in theory) a great Operating system and I will not deny it that at all. But with hardware not yet being completely up to the task of running Vista, people being mis-sold the Vista concept and the advanced technology it uses that we don't, I think that Vista will be a hard sell (which is why Microsoft extended official support of XP by several years - but didn't see fit to continue making copies, which is odd...).

In my opinion, I think Vista is ahead of it's time (much like Windows NT). I think it is excellent and it contains all kinds of technology that will come into general adoption at some point in the future. However I don't think it will enjoy the same life-span or usage as Windows XP as it simply doesn't have enough going for it at present. I would reserve 'XP Status' for the next version of Windows, whenever that may be...