Vista review – Day 2 – The Bad

Vista review – Day 2 – The Bad

Continuing from last time, here’s part 2 – The Bad – of 3 on the Vista review. Tomorrow is Part 3: The Ugly.  However, I did forget one extra ‘The Good’ about Vista from last time:
System Restore Points and Automated recovery
Most of the time I’m never impressed by these tools. They only partially work on most systems and often only succeed in taking up lots of disk space, slowing down the system, and delivering random results. Going back to a restore point is often just as big a gamble of it working as is just uninstalling stuff back to that point by hand. But Vista’s restore point system works. Yes, it has in fact saved me from re-installing the OS twice now. It makes transparent restore points after every software install, and restores system files. I installed a beta graphics driver that just went all wrong for some reason. The system wouldn’t even boot up anymore (well, booted up to a black screen and I couldn’t see anything).  I tried the uninstaller in safe mode at which time I found that beta drivers uninstall features are often more buggy than the driver itself. I booted from the Vista install CD and it started an automatic error detection. It detected the error as a faulty video driver and backed up to the previous restore point made automatically before the driver was installed. Took about 30-45 minutes total – but it worked flawlessly and the system was solid as a rock afterwards. I wasn’t able to get all the burrowed tidbits of the faulty driver out in safe mode which meant I normally I would have had to re-install the OS.  But the automated recovery worked, and worked really well. The only sad part is that you need this feature at all.  If things actually worked properly – this would be unnecessary.  But this is a great feature that’s already paid for itself twice for me. OK, now for today’s review installation:

Day 2: Il Brutto (the Bad)

Driver support and Protected Content Playback
Ah, the most important topic for those of you who just got new hardware for Christmas. You’re not going to like what I have to say now that you have that new $100 sound card or possibly that new flat panel display. Driver support is WOEFUL behind – less than one month from ship and there isn’t more than one or two major vendors who have anything but beta drivers available. And nobody has full video card drivers ready. These aren’t strange, out of the ordinary hardware manufacturers either. This is ATI, nVidia, Creative Labs, Intel, etc. Vista comes with a good collection of drivers built in but most of them only control the most basic features of your hardware. To get the full functionality of your $100 sound card’s features, you need the vendor’s drivers; and those vendors, at best, have only partially functioning beta drivers out. Most of there drivers are pretty good and totally usable to get the basic hardware functionality (you get video, you get sound), but if you have anything made by any non-leading 3rd party hardware maker or want all your bells and whistles, I’m going to bet money you’re in deep trouble for now.

My advice: don’t buy any new hardware until after Vista comes out. I only invested in a few hard drives to set up a raid, a new processor, motherboard, and memory with my Intel employee discount. But don’t buy a new video card, flat-panel, sound-card or other media device until well after Vista comes out and the driver picture becomes clear. Why?  It is just not worth it to commodity parts makers to go back to spend a lot of money on software development to make Vista drivers for their old hardware that they sold for a $2 margin in the first place. Creative Labs has already stated they aren’t going to back-port many old sound card drivers.  If you have commodity 3rd party hardware it is extremely doubtful you will find Vista drivers for your hardware. The business model will probably be to just sell them new card with the new drivers. How this pans out has yet to be seen, but that will be my bet based on the fact very few companies even have the word Vista mentioned on their main pages, let alone on their driver download pages.

The other serious problem is protected content playback. These are new paths that both graphics and sound hardware along with their software stacks and drivers must support. If the hardware was designed without protected playback capabilities, you’re probably going to have to buy new hardware or go without features. Microsoft seems to be favoring functionality over strict adherence more and more as we get closer to ship (thankfully), but many companies are just about flat-out saying that they will not go back and make Vista drivers for their old hardware – often for hardware selling right now.  So don’t get all excited about all those hardware price drops you see advertised – they might be coming with planned insolence. They seem to think it’s better to dump them now for a big discount than get $0 for them in a month.

For some hardware, backwards compatibility isn’t so difficult a hurdle.  Many XP drivers install just fine on Vista.  Drivers also have a compatibility mode just like programs, so a lot of old drivers will work. I have a cheap Airlink network card that the XP drivers worked just fine (almost better in fact) on Vista. But for video and sound, your life is going to get very difficult. Just expect to have to buy new hardware if you want all the bells and whistles back. Go to most Vista forums and just look at all the fighting people are doing to just get sound cards working in stereo, let alone surround sound. The only companies that I can find that has 5.1 surround sound working on Vista is some Creative sound cards via their beta drivers and some of Intel’s motherboards made in the last 6-8 months. Both, however, indicate digital out won’t be supported anytime soon. Alas, you can also forget about EAX, sound expansion, balancing independent speakers, or any other nicer features. Nobody has anything even close to working.

I had to go out and pick up a $29 Creative Audigy 24 card just to get any sound out of my system.  I did find it’s 5.1 surround sound support is very nice for movies and works in Half-life 2 (I do like Vista’s new surround speaker control/testing control panel unit).  The beta driver for the Intel motherboard audio card initially spit out crackly, screechy noises that coincide with when music or system sounds. They just a week or so ago released new drivers that do give 5.1, but it’s still very beta feeling with no independent speaker controls or sound expansion/digital out support. Vista’s built-in driver for that card only gives you stereo out. The card is some strange re-brand by some company in Korea and I found myself comparing chipset numbers on their overseas website to the numbers on the motherboard chip to figure out what was onboard. Then I ran driver installs in compatibility mode after downloading the latest XP drivers from Korean ftp servers with the hope they might work. Who the heck wants that hassle (especially since it didn’t work anyway)? On the bright side, Intel’s website seems to have new Vista drivers for it’s motherboard components coming out every week and everything but my integrated sound has a Vista driver. Long story short: Video and Sound are going to be very problematic on Vista for the near term and you absolutely should wait before buying new hardware for those components.
As for video, another sore point is that I can’t use the HDMI plugs on my ATI x1900GT video card – too bad my video card only has HDMI outputs. I plug into a really nice older Trinitron 22″ CRT (it has VGA inputs only) via a HDMI to VGA cable. Near as I can tell, the HDMI plug tells the driver to signal the monitor to return protected playback support, and obviously doesn’t get it from this pre-HDMI monitor. The result? After the Vista loader bar appears during bootup – you get a blank screen. The OS runs fine and you can reboot by remember the right key combinations; but no video. Instead, I have to use the 5 cent HDMI to SVGA plug adapter so it doesn’t try to key off the protected content signal line and the first boot or two after installing the video driver I need to turn the monitor off while it booted. Why? I’m guessing that since my monitor doesn’t support digital protected playback signaling, I need the video card to switch to ‘analog output’ mode. In order to switch to analog mode it needs the monitor off so it isn’t signaling the card it’s got HDMI plugged in (since I don’t have a separate VGA out). So, I can use the 5 cent adapter and turn off my monitor on the first few boots until it remembers to boot in analog mode or buy a new monitor.

I don’t blame Microsoft per-se.  DRM got pushed on them too; but this just sucks. I feel very bad for anyone getting a cheap flat-panel with only HDMI inputs this Christmas – I’m guessing they are flipping a coin if you’re going to have to get a different flatpanel since a lot of cheap panels probably don’t signal protected playback correctly or Vista doesn’t have a protected playback feed for it. In analog mode, I can play back my DVD’s just fine – but when HD-DVD playback comes, it might get interesting (yet again).

All my networking devices ran with their XP drivers flawlessly. The Intel RAID controller software/drivers for Vista are *very* good. The SATA driver informed me of non-data corrupting SMART errors being generated by one of the SATA drives in my RAID.  I didn’t notice any wired behavior at all.  It told me which drive (serial number) was throwing the errors and it’s severity. SMART reporting is a newer feature of SATA drives. I pulled the drive to find it twice as hot as the other drives, sent it in for repair (thank you 5 year Seagate warranty). When the replacement arrived, I plugged it in. After I added the drive back to the logical raid set, the easy to use volume manager automatically started rebuilding the volume redundancy (I am running RAID 5).  Meanwhile – the system was completely usable! I was watching a movie at the same time, and 2 and a half hours later it was done without a single hiccup, reboot, or visible performance degradation. Wow. Flawless operation. I give super-high marks for Intel’s raid controllers and the drivers that come with them – and that’s not just because I work for them.

Device software – get ready to buy new versions
Wonder why right now you can actually pick up McAfee, most virus scanners, and Zonelabs excellent firewalls for free after rebates right now?  Because they are dumping them.  Unfortunately all the firewalls, and (outside of AVG) all virus scanners don’t even INSTALL on Vista.  Personally, I hate the performance hits and instability of integrated virus scanners, but they are a necessary evil.   For laptops where you don’t want to drag around a hardware firewall, Zonelabs makes a great software firewall which works great in free wi-fi computing environments like coffee houses.

Most likely you’ve read the fights and threatened lawsuits McAfee is having with Microsoft.  Personally, I don’t buy McAfee’s argument they have any ‘right’ to source and integration with Microsoft’s kernel.  I’m sorry, but you don’t and you’re starting to sound like the kid on the playground demanding ‘a right’ to be picked first for the team when he isn’t better than anyone else. Anybody remember when virus scanners were just that – scanning programs you ran when you wanted?  Now they try to be the operating system and (as Jessie Ventura would say) burrow in like an Alabama tick.  I’ve personally had to reinstall the OS on a number of my friends’ machines because Norton AVG or the like has completely foo-bared a machine to where even safe mode won’t work.  But I also do not buy Microsoft’s argument that their scanner and firewall is any more effective than a screen door.  In the spirit of that analogy, it might be good at keeping flies out – but is useless against things as subtle as a sand or a less subtle brick.  For now, only AVG works but it does work well.

Also chocked up on your upgrade list will be Nero. You need at least Nero 7 for Vista.  Nero 6 does not work. Slysoft’s suite (AnyDVD, CloneDVD, etc) seem to work great as well.  But in the end, add another $25-100 for the upgrades to Nero and a virus scanner to the price of updating to Vista.  Peergaurdian and other lower-level device helper apps don’t seem to work either.

While I’m at it, here is a quick/top of my head list of which programs work/don’t work under vista:
MS Office 2005 suite, Firefox, WinAmp, Winzip, WinRAR, Realplayer, Rhapsody, iTunes, Quicktime, VLC player, WinDVD 7, Python SDK, MSDev Studio 2005, Java VM, foxIT (PDF reader), FileZilla, Media Player Classic + k-lite codec pack, Google Earth, Tera Term, Quake 3, Steam/Half-life 2/Counter-Strike Source (online is perfect), Password Depot, Photoshop 5.0 and CS2, (lots more, will add later)

Partially works:
Shockwave/Flash – don’t work in Firefox, do work in IE

Doesn’t work (even in compatibility mode)
Nero 6
Quake 4
ZoneAlarm (lots of errors/instability during reboots + doesn’t work)
McAfee (won’t boot after install)
Kaperski antivirus

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