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Monday, June 18, 2007

VISTA: If It's This Painful for an Expert

Those Apple ads with the Windows dweeb and the hip Mac geek may be entertaining but they're grossly misleading. As a relatively knowledgeable engineer responsible for software development in my day gig, I can tell you Apple is being quite charitable about the Vista experience. The actual experience? FAR WORSE. Here's one geek's journey through computing hell and back.

Every Bad Journey Begins with That First Bad Step

The journey began because of another maddening aspect of consumer electronics today -- Moore's Law obsolescence and chincy manufacturing. I had a three year old Compaq computer I used as a LINUX box for both work and home "experiments." About a week ago, the box began randomly locking up -- a classic sign of a memory problem considering no new software had been added in months. Sure enough, I ran the extended memory tests included in the startup BIOS which confirmed memory problems.

No bigee. I'll just open that puppy up, get the EXACT part number off the memory DIMM to order a replacement. Hmmmm. Lots of power cables and disk drive cables all cramped around the DIMM slot. Lemme just disconnect the CPU fan to move that cable out of the way and that DIMM will come right out. The fan just clicks on the CPU then uses levers to firmly press it against the chip for good heat transfer. Just lift those levers up... CRACK. One of the clips attached to the mother board that gives the fan something to pull against breaks. Now the fan only has one side of its attachment mechanism.

No problem. CPU fans are a $30 item. Just google the Cooler Master brand, check their website for the part number and order a replacement.

Only Cooler Master doesn't make that exact fan anymore. Three years is so three years ago in the fast changing high-tech world of FANS. Now a decision has to be made.

A) Spending hours on the Internet trying to find another fan that can work with the special Intel 478 socket style used on the motherboard, spend $30 on that plus $60-70 on the memory DIMM and drop $90 plus several hours on a three year old machine

OR….

B) Start over with a new machine that only costs $500? Surely picking up a new machine at the local big box and spending an hour moving the hard drive would be quicker than ordering the parts on line, waiting a few days for the parts, then trying to get the work done in an evening after work later in the week.

I went with a new computer. A short amount of searching turned up a relatively speedy Compaq with a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of memory, a 160 GB hard drive, a combined CD-RW/DVD+RW drive and none of the extra video hardware that would be needed for a box used primarily for web development. I go to my nearby big box retailer and score one for $475. (The unit it replaced cost about $700 for a 2.66GHz processor three years ago.)

Vista or Precipice?

OK, now with the new system home, another choice has to be made. The unit came with Vista Home Basic "installed". Again, my main goal is to use the box for LINUX so I won't run Windows on it on a regular basis however….

…My work DOES involve testing web applications from a variety of browsers and operating systems so it wouldn't hurt to have some flavor of Vista box at least available, right?

I make the fateful decision to complete the installation of Vista and register it.

Now for a few sidebar comments before diving into the real story…

* Vista comes "pre-loaded" on virtually every PC sold to consumers in big box stores
* "pre-loaded" does not mean ready to run
* "pre-loaded" does not mean you get a copy of CD or DVD media as re-install disks
* it is now normal for consumers to have to burn their own backup media
* systems come with software that allows backup media to be burned exactly ONCE

Knowing that many consumers have had interesting (in the Chinese sense of being cursed to live an interesting life…) experiences upgrading old PCs to Vista, I thought it would be useful to take notes during a "clean" Vista install on a new out-of-the-box PC.

If you're still reading at this point, it's important to note the experience below is from the perspective of someone who

1) UNDERSTANDS everything the system is doing during the process,
2) UNDERSTANDS why it thinks it needs to do it and
3) UNDERSTANDS what to look out for

In other words, I have very low expectations and a great deal of familiarity with the problem. This is NOT the situation for the average consumer. I simply cannot imagine how frustrating the experience would be for an average customer without someone to guide them through it. On a BRAND NEW PC out of the box!

Here's my tale of woe…

4:20pm -- power the unit on for the first time - accept the License and begin installing Vista
4:25pm to 4:29pm -- "checking system performance"
4:29pm -- the login page is shown for the first time - I build a single user named "admin"
4:33pm -- various Compaq/HP ads and support information displayed
4:35pm -- finished registering the computer with HP
4:36pm -- the system begins "personalizing" itself (I haven't given it any preferences)
4:37pm -- the very first message shown by the system after reaching the Start menu and desktop for the first time is: "Check Your System Security -- there are multiple security problems with your computer"

That's the first outright howler of the experience. I have done nothing TO the computer other than unpack it and plug it in and have done nothing productive WITH the computer and the very first notification from the computer to me is a complaint that the system has major security problems. Ya think?

4:40pm -- the Symantec software bundled with the system launches and begins its initialization
4:41pm -- I consent to the 60 day free license for Symantec updates, at which point the Symantec software demonstrates a rather annoying bug --- any action you take in completing a registration form with about 10 fields immediately takes you to the Next button rather than sequentially tabbing through the fields as you attempt to complete them -- you have to manually click the cursor BACK into each field to complete the form -- did Vista change the way dialog boxes work?


5:07pm -- Symantec (or is it Norton? Symantec, can you just pick ONE brand and eliminate the other?) begins downloading patches to its LiveUpdate software
5:09pm -- Norton (or is it Symantec?) thinks it has finished downloading its updates and requests another restart for the changes to take effect.

This is a good point to talk about a "unique" aspect of Windows computers. They're never terribly fast at booting but curiously, they're also not very fast at shutting down either. One thing that becomes painfully apparent to any longtime Windows users is that your machine typically never gets any faster than it was the first time you booted it. The more stuff you install and the more things that go into the registry, the sloooooowwwweeeeerrrr things get, even if you later uninstall many programs.

At this point for this new machine, a reboot of the system takes 40 seconds to shutdown and 57 seconds to reach the login prompt again. Stated another way, a brand new machine running nothing but the core operating system takes 40 seconds to STOP WHAT IT'S DOING!

Anyway, back to the story…


5:12pm -- Norton determines it needs to run LiveUpdate again (didn't I just do this?)

At this point with this prompt displayed, I am introduced to another "feature" of Vista -- the security manager so wickedly lampooned in the Apple ads. In an attempt to keep ne'er-do-wells out of the crown jewels, Vista can detect any attempt to modify files outside a user's Documents folder or change system / registry settings. When such attempts are detected, a warning is displayed prompting the user to confirm they actually invoked the change being made.

Great idea. Well, good idea. Well…. It's an idea…

The problem is Vista doesn't always seem to put the Security Manager alert in front of other windows. It was at this point I realized that the first Symantec attempt at updating its software actually FAILED because the Security Manager prompt was completely obscured on the screen behind the Symantec screen. I never approved the installation, so it failed.

5:14pm -- Norton encounters an error applying its updates and displays the message "LU6014: The current user doesn't have sufficient privileges to install this update. To install this update, log in as an administrative user then run LiveUpdate again." Hmmmm, I'm logged in as the only user defined on the system and SURELY the first user in should be defined as the Administrator role?
5:15pm -- Norton tells me "We recommend you restart your computer for the changes to take effect." I didn't actually complete the installation of anything but maybe to ensure it starts with a clean slate, I'll reboot. I got nothing but time.
5:17pm -- System reboots and Norton dutifully suggests I run LiveUpdate. AGAIN. For the third time.

Eventually, Norton finishes getting its basic software updated and the first round of virus definition file updates loaded. OK, now before tackling the task of putting the hard drive of the previous system's LINUX installation in the new box, I decide it would be wise to make those recovery discs in case I smoke the machine putting LINUX back on it.

No prob. Every vendor ships a program with new PCs that will burn exactly copy of the original factory image after your first license acceptance and first round of configuration.

5:25pm -- I run the program and a screen appears summarizing my choices:

* find THIRTEEN recordable blank CDs for the backup
* find TWO recordable blank DVD drives for the backup

Well, I certainly don't want to sit like a monkey swapping 13 CDs into the tray and I have some blank DVD discs from my digital video recorder. OK, I'll get two of those and give it a whirl.

I put the first DVD blank on the tray, close the door and the system tells me I have the wrong kind of disc. OK, I'll buy that. My DVR uses a special "DVD-RAM" disc that has gained virtually no foothold in the fractured DVD media market. No biggie. I'll hop in the car, drive to a nearby Target, and pick up a box of the "right" media.

Now for another educational technology aside…

Did you know there are SIX different DVD media types? Without the use of Google, can you NAME all of them? If you can NAME all of them, can you explain what the differences are between them?

DVD ----- a standard "manufactured" pre-recorded DVD use for a movie, etc.
DVD-R -- a write-once recordable DVD
DVD+R -- a write-once recordable DVD made to avoid patents of the designers of the DVD-R format
DVD-RW -- the original format for a write-multiple times recordable DVD
DVD+RW -- an enhanced scheme for write-mulitple times recordable DVDs supporting faster write speeds
DVD-RAM -- a many-writeable format that doesn't require finalization but cannot be read by most players that require finalization

And of course this list doesn't include a newer type of DVD-like media called Blu-Ray that uses a laser operating at a different optical wavelength to cram up to 25GB on a disc (or 50GB on a dual-layer Blu-Ray disc).

While not having all the specifics committed to memory, I am at least aware that the differences exist and that there are many incompatibilities between them.

At 5:40pm, I head to the store and look at the shelves of blank discs at Target, my only problem is I initially cannot remember if my DVD drive in the new PC was labeled "DVD-RW" or "DVD+RW". I flip a mental coin, grab a box of the DVD+RW discs, checkout and head home.

After getting home, I run the recovery disc creation program, take the first DVD "plus" RW disc out of the package, drop it in the tray, close the tray wait for the system to begin writing…

...WHAT? "Please insert a blank DVD disc."

I just did. I push the door close again. The screen again displays an alert. "This is an erasable DVD. Please insert a blank DVD."

Now the blood pressure is off the charts. You don't care enough about me as a customer to give me the backup media for the operating system I was forced to buy with the machine, you don't care enough to simplify the new user experience by giving me appropriate blanks WITH the machine, but you DO care if I use erasable media?

Now at 6:05pm I have to make ANOTHER trek to the store to buy...

...exactly what kind of DVD disc? If you're picky enough to block me from using a DVD+RW disc, you're likely to also have a preference about DVD-R versus DVD+R. Of course, the program doesn't TELL you anything on screen about which type it will require or if it has a preference or requirement. I'm left with no choice but to buy a 5-pack of BOTH types to avoid another trip to the store later.

After returning from the store, I start with the DVD+R discs and the system seems to accept them. Fifteen minutes into burning the first DVD, a pop-up alert appears from nowhere helpfully informing me "the igfx video driver stopped responding and was successfully restarted." Well thank you Microsoft, maybe you can tell how things are on the pipeline between the CPU and the L2 cache. That would be really useful now too…

It takes nearly FORTY MINUTES to "prepare files", "record" and "verify" the two recovery discs. Finally, I'm prompted to insert one recordable CD to create a hardware diagnostic disk. That only takes about two minutes to complete.

The Final Analysis

So here's the experience in a nutshell:

* a new $475 computer with Windows Vista Home basic "pre-loaded"
* two hours of time answering mindless prompts to finish the operating system installation
* two extra trips to the neighborhood big box purveyor of all things electronic
* eighteen extra blank DVD discs I may not need for quite some time in three different formats
* a brand new 3.2GHz machine that is not meaningfully faster at any task than a 2001 vintage 1.8GHz machine running Windows XP Professional:

XP on 1.8GHz: boot=90sec, sleep=4sec, awake=8sec, turn off=41sec
Vista on 3.2GHz: boot=76sec, sleep=8sec, awake=8sec, turn off=29sec

* an operating system so bloated that hard drive performance defeats any processor speed improvement - as long as consumer PCs keep shipping with 7200 RPM drives, effective speeds won't get any better (laptops are worse - they often use 5400RPM drives to reduce battery drain)
* an operating system that "looks" fresh but really doesn't improve ANY common task you need to perform
* a total of THREE HOURS spent on a new machine just for the operating system

Keep in mind that this experience was a relatively "simple" challenge. I'm not a hardcore gamer demanding the ultimate in video performance or a media nut trying to use the PC as a digital video recorder with Windows Media Center and a lot of extra tuner hardware with its own problems with software drivers, etc. And this was a new computer, not an upgrade of an older machine that might encounter many more conflicts with drivers or outright incompatibilities. The time involved would have been much greater if I actually had to migrate any applications or documents to the new machine. Since this will just be a "test" machine, none of my old applications had to be migrated and re-customized and configured.

God help the average consumer who tries this with a new machine on their own.

God help all the IT tech support employees in corporate America stuck deploying Vista to the multitudes of victims (I mean "users") who get no say in moving to Vista.

God really help all of you out there who are the "tech support" for your family and friends. You might want to buy a speakerphone. You've got HOURS ahead of you talking your "users" through the process. Then again, maybe you should change telephone numbers.