Farewell to Windows Vista

Windows Vista is approaching its “end of life” date and support is due to expire on Tuesday 11th April 2017. I think it’s fair to say this operating system divides opinion.

Introduction

I love Windows Vista. I think it’s great. But you do need some serious horsepower behind it, and my laptop doesn’t have it.

That quote from me, in a blog post I published in 2007, accurately summarises my teenaged experience with Windows Vista. More surprising perhaps are the first four words, given how much of a panning Vista has had over the years, and how often I hold it up as one of Microsoft’s greatest mistakes!

In the interest of fairness, these are the useful Windows Vista features that we all still benefit from today:

  • Files and folders grouped by use (eg Documents, Music, Pictures, etc)
  • Window snapping and Aero
  • Internet Explorer & Windows Media Player were finally updated for the first time in years
  • Parental controls, speech recognition, file indexing/searching and shadow copying for backup purposes were included by default and actually usable by non-technical users
  • Bitlocker encryption
  • Restricted application permissions (you had to manually grant them) and users not being Administrators by default improved security dramatically
  • ReadyBoost enabled users to improve performance by using a USB memory stick as an extra disk cache
  • Using multiple & external monitors became a lot less of a hassle
  • DirectX 10 and GPU-accelerated applications

Unfortunately, most users did not experience all of this new functionality until Windows 7 was released.

Where did it all go wrong?

In my opinion, Vista was not marketed particularly well. The new features were exciting, but Vista was a resource hog compared to XP.

  • To be labelled with “Vista Ready”, a laptop needed 512MB RAM, 64MB graphics memory and 800MHz (later revised to 1GHz) clock speed.
  • To be labelled with “Premium Ready”, a laptop needed 1GB RAM, 128MB graphics memory and at least 1GHz (later revised to 1.5GHz).

But, as I noted in a blog post at the time:

I agree, it can run Vista; That much is true. Now try to run Microsoft Office 2007.

Microsoft even found themselves on the wrong end of a class action lawsuit because these specs were far too optimistic, and their claim Vista could run on “any machine on the market today” was just flat-out wrong.

One of the main culprits behind Vista’s performance problems was Superfetch, which was originally designed to surface the things you were most likely to need in memory, and then cache everything else. Unfortunately, that led to it maxing out the available RAM, and slowing the entire system to a crawl every time you moved from one app to another.

Another probably that drew users’ ire was the UAC (User Account Control) prompt popping up far too often. This could be caused by people running badly-coded XP applications that needed strange levels of access to the system, but the problem was compounded by UAC not remembering processes that you had previously authorised, meaning users were prompted every single time admin access was needed. UAC would also take over the entire screen and crash underpowered systems every time it popped up, and that led many users to disable UAC entirely, or just grant access to any program that requested it, rendering that entire security mechanism pointless!

The final nail in the coffin was the ridiculous pricing structure for the operating system. There were six variations to choose between, each with varying levels of functionality, and in the UK we were paying roughly double what US customers were paying for the same download. And even then, there was no guarantee that Vista would still be able to run your existing applications!

There were also nasty rumours that Vista would probably downgrade the quality of any videos you wanted to watch, because most peoples’ existing hardware did not support the new heavy-handed DRM and copy protection technologies that Microsoft introduced to appease rights holders.

Vista, I thank you!

However, there is a silver lining. I squarely attribute my initial interest in Linux distributions to Windows Vista disappointing me on modern (as of 2007) hardware.

I had just surprised my parents with excellent exam results, and they bought me a Toshiba Satellite L20 laptop as a reward. It was supposedly “Vista Ready” and had exactly the minimum required specifications. While I was very grateful, unfortunately it did not run well with Windows Vista at all. As I noted in a blog post at the time:

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 app or get a ‘Microsoft Word 2007 is not responding’ error message.

The only way to make the machine useful, and preserve my sanity, was to downgrade it to Windows XP, because I did not have the necessary funds or expertise to upgrade the hardware.

I did eventually upgrade the RAM, but by then the damage was already done. The teenaged version of me had been given a shiny new laptop for the first time, and the fact it could not run the latest Windows was a real problem, particularly given that I was about to start training as a programmer.

A couple of years before this happened, I had occasionally Linux from a live CD on my parent’s desktop out of curiosity. The distribution was usually Mandriva, and often ran from a magazine cover disc that had previously been stuck to the front of “Personal Computer World”.

Ubuntu 7.04 “Feisty Fawn” was the first Linux distribution that I took seriously, and I dual-booted it with Windows XP.

Ubuntu 7.10 “Gutsy Gibbon” was released a year later, and it was the first distribution that I ran in a solo-boot configuration. I had noticed that I was running Ubuntu most of the time anyway, and could do Windows-specific college work in the school computer labs, so I made the most of my hard drive space.

Because I was a console gamer, Ubuntu enabled me to do everything I wanted to on a home machine. Instead of having to manually download, install and update a lot of third party drivers from Toshiba’s website to make Windows work, I just needed to copy and paste some lines into an alsa configuration file each major upgrade for my sound card to work.

So I guess, in a way, I should be grateful for Vista’s unreasonable hardware requirements, because they are what led to me becoming the programmer I am today, and also resulted in the creation of all those articles I wrote for “Linux Format” magazine.

The moral of the story? When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade!