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Scott's Column
Living with Windows Vista

July 1, 2006
By Scott Lewis

Last month I started telling you about Windows Vista Beta 2. It is now available as a public download, and I have been running it for over a month. I plan to go into a lot of depth on my experiences with Vista as my primary operating system. Will I keep running it, or is Windows Vista not ready for prime time yet. Let's find out.

Gaming

In last month's talk about Windows Vista I mentioned that Max Payne 1 would not run. This was the next game I was planning on playing. I decided to reload Splinter Cell (the original) and No One Lives Forever (also the first in its series). NOLF is a campy game in the Austin Powers way of making fun of British Secret Agents. If memory serves this game was being developed close to the time the first Austin Powers movie was being made, so one did not copy the other.

The graphics in NOLF is nothing to write home about. It is certainly pleasant to look at with a little bit of blood splattering, but  the characters look totally unrealistic... even in the cut scenes. However, it is very playable, and the action is fast. I initially found the mouse to be too sensitive for fast aiming to multiple targets, but it doesn't seem to bother me as I am progressing through the game. I am about 1/3 through the game, and it is not as special as I had hoped from reading old reviews (the reviews were old when I bought the game for a mere 10 bucks over a year ago). However, I have already gotten more out of it than some games I have paid full price for at launch. I did have to get online and find a walkthrough to get past two spots, but it was not a big deal. Mostly it confirmed the tough time I was having was normal. Overall it is an enjoyable first person shooter. There is nothing special in the way of technology, and no matter what you do you will progress through the story. Everything but die or kill a civilian, that is.

I do have one technical issue with the game. I have to set the graphics to the mode I want every time I start the game. It defaults to 640x480 with 16-bit color. I set it to 1152 x 864 with 32-bit color (this is the resolution I have Windows Vista set to). I also have to point it to my nVidia card as opposed to the generic video driver it selects. Fortunately this is done in a simple dialog box before the game starts, and I don't have to navigate around to set it.

I have not had time to get back into Splinter Cell. Maybe next month.

Living With Windows Vista Beta 2

Well, I have been running Windows Vista Beta 2 for over a month. I have had both good and bad experiences with it. Is it ready for prime time. Let's see what I have learned.

Vista Compatibility

Last month I mentioned that pcAnywhere and Max Payne (1) would not run on my computer. I also mentioned a minor issue with FarCry, but it is not a deal breaker. Now I have installed and tested more software. Here is a list of the major applications I have been testing:

Paint Shop Pro 8 - No issues.
Office 2000 - Minor issue with FrontPage (noted below), otherwise no problems.
AVG Antivirus - Does not work.
CA Antivirus - Works fine but occasionally the tray application fails. However, it's free for a year.
Max Payne - Does not work.
Max Payne 2 - No issues.
FarCry - I have to set the graphics in the game each time, it says restart but that is not necessary.
Halo - No issues.
Star Wars Jedy Knight Jedi Academy - No issues.
Star Wars Battlefront - No issues.
No One Lives Forever - I have to set the graphics each time I start the game. I don't remember if this happened under Win XP.
pcAnywhere 10.0 - Does not work.
Nero 6.6.1.4 - Does not work.
Kodak EasyShare - Does not work.
Tomb Raider Legend Demo - No issues.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - No issues.

Granted, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but given the short list there are a number of compatibilities issues to warrant waiting for Vista to get further along before using it full time.

Vista & Games

game_explorer.jpg (134564 bytes)

Vista has a new Games Explorer. I don't know what to call it, so Games Explorer will have to do. I like it. I can't wait until it is more complete. I have always put a folder on my desk top that would have shortcuts to games I want to play. Ideally, you will have the option to "unlist" games you never play... such as FreeCell. Notice what's missing from the list.

Notice that No On Lives Forever, Tomb Raider Legend Demo, Halo, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Star Wars Jedi Knight Jedi Academy do not show up in the Games Explorer. Oops. I can understand NOLF sine it is pretty old, and I can forgive a demo of Tomb Raider. However, Halo is a Microsoft game. There is no excuse for that. This needs work. Also I understand that the Parental Controls of Vista will allow a parent to prevent a child from playing games both by the ESRB overall rating and, more importantly, the individual items such as "Blood and Gore." I like it. I just hope it works as advertised by the time Vista ships.

Vista and the Star Menu

The Start Menu has been revamped. I like most of it. I never did like the ever expanding list of shortcuts in the Windows 2000 and XP Start Menus. Now it expands within the space on the left.

games_on_start.jpg (51533 bytes)

However, all is not good. Since I don't like how out of hand the Start Menu gets from install applications, I tend to further organize it. To do this I I usually right click on the Start Button and select Explorer All Users. This brings up Explorer looking at the folder that makes up the shortcuts that are display when you click on Start, All Programs. I usually create a folder called Applications and one called Utilities. The I move things around until I like it. Well, I did that with Vista and it clearly has problems showing what I did. Look closely at the screen capture above. I put all my installed games in the Games folder under Programs in the Start Menu. Yet some of the games do not show up in the Start Menu. One or two showed up in their original locations, but most of the ones you don't see in the above screen capture are missing complete from the Start Menu. Below is what the Games folder should be showing.

actual_games_installed.jpg (48418 bytes)

I can't explain this, but to say that Vista needs a little work in this department. As I said, I like the improvements to the Start Menu, but I would do one thing different. When you click on a folder, such as Games, I would rather not have the list expand, but the Games folder should "take over" this main window. The back link at the bottom would get you up one level. This may be an option hidden somewhere, so we will have to see.

Vista & FrontPage

For those of you that get my newsletter you were given a brief mention that I had an issue with FrontPage running under Windows Vista. Here it is. When I published the changes to my web site from FrontPage to my Windows 2000 Server I was asked for my password for every single item uploaded. Every page, every graphic, everything. It was so annoying that I cancelled the update, fired up my laptop and published my web site from the laptop (running Windows XP).

I do not know why Vista and FrontPage are doing this. I don't know if this would be an issue with FrontPage 2003. I am running FrontPage 2000. I won't bother installing the Office 2007 Beta since it does not include a version of FrontPage.

For now I will edit my web site from both machines, but I will only publish from my Windows XP laptop.

Vista & Explorer

I have noticed inconsistencies with the way Explorer works. Sometimes my scroll wheel will not scroll the folders section of Explorer (lower left), sometimes it will. I do not like the way the Folder section "auto" scrolls from left to right. You can adjust the width of this, but Explorer does not remember it the way you size the panes. It always starts with a fairly small folder view, and scrolls it as it sees fit. Also, the tiny arrows next to folder names disappear when you are not mouse "near" them and they are too small to click quickly. The plus signs from Windows 2000 & XP are better. Also, I have finally gotten used to Windows XP expanding folders automatically when you click on them. Windows Vista does not. It makes it a little difficult when moving back and forth between different machines, which I do a lot. Some of this seems like a change for the sake of making a change, and not improving the user experience. We else would they go backward on the self expanding folders.

Downloading and Install Visual Studio Express Edition Components

I decided to try and install the Visual Studio components as a hobbyist programmer. In other words I downloaded and installed the Express Editions, which are free. I do not know for sure how free they are. It seems like they will be completely free, which is exactly what Microsoft should do. However, some of the web sites indicate "Trial Version." So maybe it times out eventually.

When I installed Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition it asked me to register the product within 30 days or it would stop working. Registering is an easy way to get the software for free. I do not have a problem with registering for something for free. In fact, registering gets you some extras, such as a small library of icons, images and a downloadable book in PDF format. Well worth giving up my e-mail address for.

As for the installation itself. I initially downloaded Visual Web Developer, Visual Basic and SQL Server (all Express Editions). However, the SQL Server page told me I must install the .Net Framework 2.0 before installing SQL Server. I downloaded the 2.0 Framework, but when I went to install it I was informed it was already installed. No big deal, and I kind of suspected that since this is the latest version of Windows.

When I installed VB it asked me what other optional components I wanted to install. The choices were the MSDN Library Documentation and SQL Server 2005 Express Edition. I checked both and let it go. Now, keep in mind that the initial download was very small (2.82 MB) and just has pointers in it to download all the necessary stuff that gets installed. Everything went well until the very end. When the installation finished it said that the version of SQL Server had a known compatibility with this version of Windows. Being how this is all Microsoft's software it was kind enough to provide a link that told me about Service Pack 1 for SQL Server... even the Express Edition. However, there was no download for just the service pack. The download pointed me at the same SQL Server download file I already downloaded at the start of this exercise. So I cancelled the download and installed SQL Server by itself from the original download. And that is the moral of this story. If you install the Express Editions of Visual Studio take them one at a time... except for the documentation. You want that any way you can get it.

Vista & Gadgets (Sidebar)

My original reason for installing the Visual Studio Express components was to help me create Gadgets for the Vista Sidebar utility. Gadgets are small little utilities (for lack of a better word) that run as part of the Sidebar. The Sidebar is an application that runs on the side of your screen (hence the name) and holds the gadgets. The gadgets can be many things. A calculator, RSS Reader, Picture viewer, etc. I do not know the limitations to gadgets yet, but it is heavily based on HTML and XML, so it is really just a fancy way of displaying web content as a small desktop item. A calculator looks more like a small application than a web component, and this is where I don't understand the limitations of the Sidebar. I am sure more and more documentation and examples will be forthcoming from Microsoft as they get closer to the release of Vista, and they update Visual Studio to specifically create gadgets.

I have been toying with build a Weather gadget. I have seen a couple of them, and the best comes from Blackice. You can get his latest "production" version here. However, I wanted something a little different. The original Weather Report from Blackice showed a picture based on the current weather conditions with the temperature and conditions displayed in text. The gadget was in a black rectangle that could be docked to the sidebar or left floating on the desktop. All well and good. The way the Sidebar works allows you to have multiple instances of a gadget running at the same time. I currently have it running on my desktop for San Antonio and New York. I like to know when it is really cold in New York so I can bust my best friend's chops while driving my convertible.

Clearly I am not alone in wanting more from Blackice's Weather Report gadget. When I stumble on his blog I saw his preliminary version 2. It looks about the same but adds forecast information as an option. When undocked it shows a three day forecast along with the current conditions. Very nice. He is planning on adding more information, such as wind speed and chance of precipitation when you mouse over the gadget. Some of which is information he provided to me in an small e-mail exchange.

I like Blackice's Weather gadgets, but I wanted something specific to my own needs... and style. So I am looking into creating my own weather "check" gadget.

What I want is an image of the current weather condition with the current temperature. That is the same. What's different is that I want to put the high and low temperature for the day along with the chance of precipitation. That's it... for the main display. The chance of precipitation is key for me in driving my convertible and knowing if I am going to be able to lower the top on my way to or from work. I also want my information to be displayed on top of the image. An overlay if you will. I want the image to use a transparent background. This should look really cool. When my gadget it docked I will only display the main information, however, when my gadget is on the desktop I want it to have a "mini" display up and to the right showing the same information for tomorrow. I expect it to be about 2/3 the size of the main display.

Now... I have also thought about allowing two locations for one instance of the gadget. If I do this it will be in effect when the gadget is on the desktop. In other words... San Antonio in the foreground and New York in the background.

Since I am very far from getting anything to work yet I do not know which direction will be the most important, tomorrow's weather or an alternate location for the extra information. I may make it an option of the gadget if I ever develop it that far. I am going to use the Weather Channel for my data. I downloaded their documentation and it seems like I can get all the information I need. However, they require that you put their logo on your site (or whatever) to use their data. I don't know if I want to put their logo on a floating gadget. Blackice is in the process of switching from using MSN to using the Weather Channel. MSN gets its data from the Weather Channel. If Blackice's gadget becomes popular enough he may have to add a Weather Channel logo to it. I hopefully won't have that problem because I think mine will be too single minded for me to release to the general public. We'll see. First I need to get it working.

Here is screen capture of Blackice's Weather Report against the first draft of my own. Notice that I have two instances of Blackice's gadget, one for San Antonio and one for New York. The New York one is in "mini mode." Also, the reason why my weather gadget shows different conditions than Blackice's is because I hard coded the values. At this stage it is not functional. But if I could not get the look I was after there would be little point in moving forward.

Vista & Microsoft Mail

Formerly Outlook Express, Microsoft Mail looks a lot like OE. Oh sure, it is prettier, but how much of that is due to Vista itself, and the need to change the look no matter what. Most everything works like it does in Outlook Express. I have been letting Microsoft Mail's handling my junk mail. There is a Junk Mail folder, and I let it do its own thing for Spam Filtering. It seems to be working. As far as I can tell it works very close to what I had done in the past with OE. So far I can't complain about Microsoft Mail.

Vista & pcAnywhere

pcanywhere.jpg (38239 bytes)

I wanted to quickly mention that although pcAnywhere does not work, it tells me that up front. Plus pcAnywhere is up to at least version 12, so I can hardly expect it to work. I don't plan on buying a newer version of pcAnywhere so I may have to use something else to remotely control my server. I can't use Terminal Services because ti does not give you access to the sound card and I can't use the server to pipe music to my stereo that is on the closet with the server and wired to speakers on my back porch. This can wait since I won't be upgrading my laptop to Vista ever. It is too slow to run it.

Vista & File Sharing

Sharing files is more complicated in Vista. I know I am going to get flak for this, but it is especially hard when you don't use passwords. Since I have a firewall, and I setup my network to require User IDs, I have been lax about requiring passwords. It can be a pain if people keep changing them (I don't use a domain, and passwords have to be manually kept in sync). So I manually create user IDs on my server for those that need access to the files there. You would have to hack through my firewall to get access to mess with something with an ID I have. Granted, once you do hack in guessing IDs is probably easier than guessing passwords. It is not very secure, but it works for me. Windows Vista will let you share files, however, it requires that anyone accessing those files has an ID on the system and that ID has a password. It took me a while to figure this out as it looks to the client like there is nothing shared on the Vista workstation. Now I have a password on my ID that is used on my three computers. Others can get access to the files on the server (Windows 2000) with just an ID... but that ID's password must match when it has one. About half the IDs around here have a password. All the IDs that are important have a password. You cannot log onto the server itself without an ID that uses a password... and that is an ID that only I know the password to.

Vista & File Copying

Vista file copies provide very little information. Particularly, there is no file information. Here, take a look at the default file copy progress dialog:

vista_copy_short.jpg (25394 bytes)

Notice that there are no files named. What file is it on? Well, we need to click that More info arrow, right. Let's see what we get when we ask for more information:

vista_copy_long.jpg (27822 bytes)

Well, I still don't know what file is being copied. I don't like the missing information that has been around since the beginning of Windows. Also, it is extra annoying when I got a blue screen error (called a Stop Error) when copying files from a CD. It happened twice. Needless to say (but I will anyway) I did not try a third time to copy the CD contents. I don't think anything was wrong with the CD. I copied the files from it to my laptop the night before. But I wanted the files on the server and the laptop is straddled with an 11 mbps 802.11b wireless card, which is quite slow when copying hundreds of MBs across the network. My desktop has a faster CD/DVD drive (Plextor) and has a wired 100 mbps connection to the server.

Vista & Nero

Vista & Nero Burning ROM does not work. I don't know why yet, it starts and immediately stops. I tried to copy a CD and it just would not work. I will try to look into this some more. I even upgraded Nero to the latest version, 6.6.1.4, but it did not help. I will have to test burning CDs later with just Vista.

Vista & Kodak Easyshare

I went to hook up my Kodak DC280 digital camera and Windows told me the make a model and that it had to install software for it. It then offered for me to provide the CD that came with it. Know this was too old a camera for the disc to do any good so I told Vista to go look for a driver. It did not find any and left me in the dark.

I went to the Kodak web site and it first showed me a web page that told me I was running a beta browser and I might want to download another browser. I went ahead anyway. I went to download the drivers for the camera. They did not list Windows Vista as a platform, so I downloaded the Windows XP version of the software.

When I installed it I chose the option to install the Kodak Easyshare software. I have heard good thing about it and it seemed a good chance to check it out. After a long install (long because I had pictures I wanted to get on my computer) it asked me to reboot. When I did that it came back and tried to run the Easyshare software and it said that I was not an administrator (more later) and then the install was bad and needed to be repaired. I told it to do the repair and it seemed to me (but I can't be sure) that is was redoing the install all over.

When it came back from another reboot it did the same. I uninstalled the software and installed just the software to connect the camera (no Easyshare program). It installed fine. However, when I connected my camera it acted as if nothing was installed. Vista wanted to install drivers for the camera. This time I dug out the CD that came with the camera and Vista churned on it for a couple of minutes and then said the driver failed... probably because it was for an older version of Windows. That was at least reasonable.

Now... I do not have a problem with Kodak... yet. Vista is still in beta, but they should have at least something available now that Vista is a public released beta. Kodak has some time before I put the blame on them. I do, however, blame Microsoft. When I could not get my camera to work with Vista I plugged it into my Windows XP laptop (which it has never been attached to). Windows XP promptly told me it found new hardware and then proceeded to set it up. Within a minute or so it told me my new hardware was ready to use. Sure enough I launched Explorer and my camera was listed like a drive on my computer. I highlighted a bunch of pictures and copied them to my network.

If Windows XP can work with my camera without any other software, why can't Windows Vista? Granted the camera is about 6 or 7 years old and worked with Windows 2000 and XP. At least this is better than just Windows 95 or 98.

This is an item that may have me switching back to Windows XP.

Vista & Pictures

The Picture Viewer in Windows Vista is pretty nice. I would prefer the zoom tool was a bit better. You never know what level of zoom you are at. Having even steps, or a display of the zoom level would be nice. Otherwise it is great for viewing folders of pictures and doing supper quick rotations, light cropping and deleting of bad shots. I find that I use it a lot before e-mail pictures. I like it... when I don't need Paint Shop Pro.

Vista & Multi-tasking

I don't know if it is me, but I find multi-tasking (running more than one application) very frustrating in Windows Vista. At work (and less so at home) I have a lot of programs open at any given time. I have had trouble with Vista dealing with more than one serious program at a time. If I am doing a heavy file copy in the background I don't want to surf the web with Internet Explorer for fear one will not respond. I am sure most of this is due to being beta code. I would think that performance optimization was not much of a factor in the beta, and there must be a lot of extra code to look for bad things that could happen now, but probably won't happen later. I expect Vista performance to improve over the next few months. However, I would still double Microsoft's recommendations for a computer (particularly for memory) if you are going to install it yourself. You may be better off only getting it when it comes with a new computer.

Vista For You

I don't know exactly when, but sometime around the second week of June Microsoft put Windows Vista into the Windows Vista Customer Preview Program. This means you can download it and install it on a machine of your own. Have fun.

Conclusion

That's it for this month. I hope our trip down Vista lane was not too boring. I really wanted to touch on some of the things people will deal with when using it everyday. Remember, an operating system's primary function is to run your applications. Vista is doing that well enough, though it does need some improvements in compatibility. Explorer's quirks are probably the most frustrating. I love the eye candy, even though it makes the computer generally sluggish. I may try turning off the glitz and see how much faster it feels. We'll see.

If you have the ability to run Vista in a dual boot mode I would try it. At this point I would not use it full time on your only machine. Although I have been trying to do that I did have had to switch back to Windows XP once since making the switch and I may switch back to XP permanently. Also I have a laptop I can rely on if Vista gets to be a pain. I am looking forward to "Release Candidate 1." I don't know when that will be, so don't ask me. However, if you download Windows Vista Beta 2 they will provide you will a free download to Release Candidate 1 when it is available. That may be reason enough to download Vista now... because they are going to cap the number of downloads.

Until next time.

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