Vista: The Good, The Bad, and the Buggy
Jeffrey S. Krause is an attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is a technology consultant with Krause Practice Management, LLC, in Milwaukee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Krause Practice Management website, www.krausepm.com.
After years of speculation, months of delay, and a huge amount of press, both good and bad, the Windows Vista operating system is finally here. Many of you are probably wondering what all of the fuss is about and whether you should run out and upgrade—or avoid Vista entirely. I hope you are not leaning toward the latter because Vista is here to stay and will soon become as ubiquitous as Windows XP is today. The real questions are how long you can or should wait to upgrade and which edition of Vista is right for you.
Choosing a Vista Edition
Microsoft has established a pattern of releasing multiple editions of its operating systems, and Vista takes this practice to a new level. In the United States, Vista comes in five different editions. (See the sidebar “Windows Vista Editions” on page 21 for a detailed chart of the different features.) Other editions, with trimmed-down multimedia capabilities, are available in Europe. Although the number of editions makes upgrading to Vista very confusing, it is important to understand the differences between editions. Choosing the wrong one will be costly in terms of money, productivity, or both.
For those considering Vista for their home PC, there are three choices; Home Basic, Home Premium, and Ultimate. The biggest difference between the Home Basic and Home Premium editions is that Premium includes the new Aero interface and the Windows Media Center. Aero is the new 3-D interface that you have probably seen in Vista demos, so Home Basic will appear somewhat “flat” in comparison to Home Premium. The Windows Media Center is an extensive collection of tools for viewing and editing photos, movies, and other multimedia. One limitation common to both Home editions is that they support only outgoing Remote Desktop Connections. You cannot connect to a PC running either of the Home editions. If you need this functionality for a home office PC, Vista Ultimate is probably the best solution as it provides all of the multimedia choices needed for the home along with the functions necessary to remotely access your PC.
As was the case with Windows XP, lawyers should not even consider the Home editions of Vista for any PC in their office. Neither of the Home editions includes functions I consider critical to business use, such as the ability to join a domain, synchronize offline files, or fully use remote desktop. For the law office, the correct edition choices will be Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate. Business includes all of the functions necessary for peer-to-peer and server-based networks, although it lacks a number of multimedia features. Enterprise is identical to Business except that it includes the new BitLocker technology (see below) and is only available via volume licensing.
If you want everything Vista has to offer, go with Vista Ultimate. As the name implies, Ultimate includes all of the new Vista features. Ultimate will probably be the best choice for many laptop users as well. I am not alone in that I use my laptop as a workstation while in the office and for remote access while out of the office. Although these are functions of the Business edition, I also use my laptop for presentations, photo editing, and other things found in the Home Premium edition. I need Ultimate for all of these functions.
A New Windows Experience
Much of Vista is evolutionary, building on previous Microsoft technology. However, there is definitely a part of it that feels revolutionary. Talk to a Mac user and you will quickly perceive a sense of emotional attachment. I might joke that Macs attract this sort of person, but the point I am trying to make is that many people would say that they use Windows more out of necessity than preference. I am not going to claim that Vista will change this overnight or convert Mac users to Windows users. However, Microsoft has introduced something new with Vista—a new look and feel that is intended to immerse the user in the experience.
Vista feels different. In fact, everything from the packaging to the installation routine has this new look and feel. There are new icons, wallpapers, and sounds as well as a new mouse cursor. By eliminating extraneous add-ins and convincing many third-party vendors to do the same, Microsoft has reduced the time necessary for Vista to boot. Once booted, Vista users will immediately notice the new “Aero Glass” interface. The Start Menu, Taskbar, and individual windows are professional looking and translucent. The interface almost completes the metaphor of the “windows” desktop, with windows that the user can look through to see what lies beneath. Any Mac user will tell you that Vista is not the first operating system to incorporate this type of interface, but Vista certainly provides a warmer and more welcoming experience than previous Windows editions.
Other user interface improvements include Windows Flip and Flip 3D, an enhancement to the venerable Alt + Tab functionality that renders a preview of the application rather than a simple list. Live Taskbar thumbnails provide a preview of the application when you hover over them, including any “live” content if, for example, you hover over Windows Media Player in the taskbar. Instant Search is one of the most impressive enhancements. Windows Vista includes context-sensitive search points throughout the operating system. An example of this is using the new Search box built into the Start Menu. Although you can use this to search for documents, the context-specific example would be to use this to search for applications. If, for example, I search for “calc,” I would find the Calculator application and could run it from the search result screen. I am sure that some of you are wondering why I would do this. The answer is speed: I can find and start the calculator faster that way than by looking through the menus—especially if I rarely use that application and it is not currently located in the Start Menu.
There has been a lot of talk about how demanding the hardware requirements are to run Aero. Time will tell, but this may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Clearly, older PCs and some laptops and tablets will not be able to run Aero owing to video card limitations. However, any new PCs as well as many recently purchased systems will have no trouble. If trouble does rear its head, you’ll need to upgrade the video card. Other users may choose to run Vista in the Basic User Interface—in essence, a visually updated edition of Windows XP—or simply wait for Vista until they purchase a new PC. All editions of Vista can use the Basic User Interface, but be aware that the technology behind it is the same as Windows XP, so it will not take advantage of the new stability and performance features built into Aero.
Through the years, the two areas where Windows has fallen short are security and stability. Service Pack 2 for Windows XP addressed a number of security issues by including an improved firewall, the Windows Security Center, and a number of enhancements to Internet Explorer. Vista greatly expands some security features and adds new ones. If these features work as advertised, Vista will be the most secure Windows platform ever.
First and foremost among the security improvements is the Address Space Layout Randomizer, or ASLR. Perhaps only computer geeks can appreciate this enhancement, but believe me, everyone will benefit from it. In a nutshell, this feature causes certain system files (.dll) to load in a random memory location (1 in 256) at system startup rather than in the same location every time. This vulnerability in previous Windows versions allowed hackers to create programs that exploited the predictability of system startup and is one of the reasons for the growth of “botnets”—worldwide networks of compromised computers that can spread to additional machines and run worms, Trojans, and other malicious code. By randomizing the address into which files load, ASLR should prevent over 99 percent of these attacks.
User Account Control limits the ability of users to install programs without authenticating themselves to the system. This feature will be an annoyance to users who are used to installing applications and routinely changing system settings. On the other hand, system administrators will appreciate the greater control they have over which applications can be installed on office systems, and spyware and other malicious code will be much harder to install because of this enhancement. Building on User Account Control, Vista Home and Ultimate editions include significant enhancements to parental controls and Internet Explorer Protected Mode, which makes it harder for attackers to install malicious code through your Internet browser.
Running any 64-bit version of Vista will provide even more security enhancements, including PatchGuard, which prevents attackers from patching the Windows kernel, or core functionality. The 64-bit version also requires that digital drivers be signed. Microsoft claims that poorly written drivers are the leading cause of blue screens and other crashes, so the requirement for signed drives is both a security and stability enhancement. (Users can override this requirement and allow unsigned drivers to run by selecting “Continue Anyway.”)
Finally, there is BitLocker Drive Encryption. This feature is only available in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Vista. In simple terms, BitLocker encrypts the entire Windows system drive, including system and boot files. If BitLocker detects that one of these files has been altered while the machine was off, it will lock the drive and require an unlock password. I realize this sounds pretty arcane, so here is a real-world example. Let’s assume that your laptop is stolen. The cost of the laptop itself may be the least of your concerns if the thief can access your documents or other sensitive data. Even if your laptop is password protected, accessing the data may be as simple as removing the hard drive and installing it as the second drive in another system. BitLocker prevents this by recognizing that the drive is no longer in its original system and making it inaccessible without the unlock password. While BitLocker sounds like a great new feature, the reality is that it will be pretty difficult for the average user to install and configure. It requires a second, manually configured partition on your hard drive and something called a Trusted Platform Module chip to work. Needless to say, this is one Vista feature with which I have not yet experimented.
Performance and Stability Enhancements
Windows Vista includes a number of enhancements that will increase both performance and stability. On the performance side, Vista includes Windows ReadyDrive support for the next generation of hybrid hard drives. These new drives are designed to recover from sleep mode faster, extend battery life, and be more reliable than their predecessors. They will most likely be available for laptops first, probably by the time you are reading this article. Another performance enhancement called ReadyBoost sounds almost too good to be true. ReadyBoost allows you to use space on a portable USB device to improve performance of your PC. In theory, this should help users who are unable to install additional RAM to their laptop. Windows SuperFetch technology allows frequently used applications to start faster and can even pre-cache applications at specific times of the day. This will make PCs more responsive and provide an overall performance boost. Finally, although the exact amount of supportable RAM depends on the edition of Vista you are using, the 64-bit versions of Vista will support very large amounts of RAM as well as the newest Core Duo and future four-core processors.
In terms of stability, my experience with Windows XP has been nothing but positive, and Vista promises to be even better. Many of the reliability features operate behind the scenes or, as is the case with Windows Update, in ways that the user will rarely notice. Others are in plain view. One of my favorites is the Reliability Monitor, which monitors system and application crashes and allows you to track reliability over time as well as the specific cause of any problems. I am actually looking forward to the first time one of my clients with Vista insists that [insert the name of your favorite love-to-hate legal software application here] is crashing at least ten times every day. With Reliability Monitor, I will actually be able to tell what is causing a crash and how often it is happening. Another extremely useful feature is Previous Versions. Built on the Shadow Copy functionality of Server 2003, Previous Versions works in the background to automatically back up files that have been modified or edited. Right-clicking and selecting Properties on a file provides a list of previous recoverable versions of the file. This feature is only available in the Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions of Vista.
As you can probably tell, I am very impressed with Windows Vista. Certainly, there are a number of things I wish were different. I understand the necessity for User Account Control and will eventually appreciate it in my role as a technology consultant, but the feature, with its constant prompts, makes installing a new Vista system remarkably annoying. Once my system is fully installed, I am sure my annoyance with this will subside. Similarly, I understand that different users require different things of an operating system—but was it really necessary to come up with five different editions to account for this? Personally, I think three would have been enough. Finally, BitLocker is even more difficult to install and configure than it is to explain.
Should you run out and upgrade to Vista today? If you are buying a new Windows PC or laptop, yes. I have never been one to steer users away from an application or operating system just because it is new, and I do not see any good reason to purchase and use an older operating system for the next few years on a new PC. Vista Business has been quite stable on my Inspi-ron E1705 since I upgraded. On the other hand, there are no features in Vista that make it an immediate “must have” if you are happy with your existing PC and its functionality. In fact, some Vista features will have a more dramatic effect on 64-bit systems and hybrid hard drives, so waiting for these systems to become more readily available will appeal to many users. The bottom line is that all Windows users will eventually be Vista users, and I do not think they will be disappointed.
CAN YOUR CURRENT COMPUTER RUN VISTA?
If you are not sure whether your current system can be upgraded to Vista, Microsoft has a tool that will help. The Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor will analyze your current hardware and software and tell you which parts of your system are completely incompatible and which parts may require patching. When I ran this on my Inspiron E1705, the Upgrade Advisor warned me that I would have to uninstall one application and update several others after the upgrade. The Upgrade Advisor makes a Vista upgrade less frustrating than past upgrades, where you had no idea what hardware or software would work in the new operating system. To download the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, search for it in Google, which will direct you to the correct page on www.microsoft.com.