In-Depth

Vista Not Quite Compelling Enough -- Yet

Early users like Vista's new interface and security improvements, but most are taking a "wait and see" approach.

Vista has a lot going for it, say testers and early users, especially with its slick new Aero interface and numerous security improvements. However, most aren't planning a large-scale rollout anytime soon. "Wait and see" is the prevailing wisdom.

Besides Vista's lack of drivers, documentation and compatible software -- snags common to any new operating system rollout -- there are other reasons readers are hesitant to widely deploy Vista right now. It will require significant hardware upgrades and training (see "Still Waiting"). They like what they see so far, but they're in no hurry to make the switch.

"We're waiting to see if it's worth the money," says Scott Anderson, MCSE and messaging administrator at a 2,500-seat state agency. He's tested Vista, but found most of the agency's applications are incompatible (besides Office, naturally). "In testing it seems great, but it's certainly not worthwhile to upgrade all our hardware right now. Maybe in six months, if there are enough third-party vendor offerings that add enough value, Vista will be worth it."

Jonathan O'Brien, Systems Engineer and Owner, Active IT Design LLC

Others agree that time is on their side. "From a corporate standpoint, there is literally no compelling reason for us to upgrade to Vista right now," says Dennis Barr, manager of IT at Larkin Group Inc., an engineering firm in Kansas City, Mo. Larkin uses high-end, graphics-intensive PCs to support its CAD software, so hardware upgrades aren't an issue. Drivers are, however, since most of the company's engineers need to use large-format printers. "Those drivers will probably be the last ones upgraded," he says.

Safe and Secure
Once there are compatible drivers and software available, readers say they look forward to moving to Vista to take advantage of the many new security features. The most compelling among these are the new Group Policy features and User Account Confirmation (UAC) dialog box.

In Windows XP, every user is set up as an administrator by default. This left most users unwittingly open to hacks and spyware downloads. If they clicked the wrong button, malicious programs inherited their system admin privileges and lodged themselves deep within the operating system.

Vista permits a greater degree of granularity in terms of locking down the operating system. It lets most users run in "standard user" mode, so they can get at the features they need for everyday computing. It also designates a system administrator mode as well. When a user tries to download software or make other admin-level system changes, Vista presents a UAC dialog box. Previously, that box just asked if the user was sure they wanted to make the change. Vista prompts them to enter the admin-level password. If they don't have that password, they can't make the change.

"You have to protect users from themselves sometimes, because they don't read or think before they click," says Jonathan O'Brien, systems engineer and owner of Active IT Design LLC, a two-person consulting firm in Fort Mill, S.C. O'Brien's firm administers Windows PCs and servers for several small business clients. "The user shouldn't be doing a lot of those actions [that kick off the UAC box]," he says. "It may get annoying but I'd rather have the operating system pop up and ask for confirmation than get all those Web search spyware popups."

Others have found ways to turn off the UAC prompts, at least at their desktops. "I found the UAC confirmation boxes to be ridiculously annoying, so I disabled those on my own system," says Barr. "If I made a change that required confirming in a UAC box, it required that I make that confirmation every time I made the same change. There was no stickiness to it and I found that to be a real design problem."

While the UAC might leave a bit to be desired, other security features like the improved firewall definitely have his interest, says Barr. "The new firewall can block both incoming and outgoing traffic, so that's a big improvement," he says. "That's something security experts have been hitting XP on for quite a while, so it's good to see."

Although the new firewall has both inbound and outbound blocking capabilities, Barr cautions that outbound blocking is turned off by default. That will have to be set up separately after installation.

Still Waiting

There are still a handful of obstacles that may prevent people from rushing to roll out Vista:

• No drivers: Readers have yet to see Vista-compatible drivers hit the market. For example, Scott Anderson, MCSE and messaging administrator at a state agency, had some problems with printers. "We confirmed that the existing printer drivers just don't work with Vista correctly," he says. "The only one we got working was just the universal driver for our existing printers-the XP ones just won't work."

Similarly, Jonathan O'Brien, systems engineer and owner of Active IT Design LLC in Fort Mill, S.C., says he had trouble getting Vista-compatible drivers for his HP scanner. "I couldn't use my install CD, so I'll have to wait for drivers from HP."

O'Brien says this is probably due to vendors waiting until Microsoft makes Vista generally available. Dennis Barr, manager of IT at Larkin Group Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., says he had trouble with his sound card, a Creative Labs Soundblaster HD card. It was supported in earlier betas and then dropped. "I had to go to the Creative Labs site and download and install an XP driver and run that in compatibility mode," he says.

• No software: Most say the software they depend on is not yet Vista-compatible. For example, every application Anderson's agency uses, aside from Microsoft Office, is incompatible with Vista. O'Brien had trouble with QuickBooks 2005. "I had to jump through some hoops to get that running and now it's warning me every time I start it up that it's not compatible, but it seems to work fine," he says.

• No documentation/tools: Just as when Microsoft rolled out XP, the Vista rollout came before compatible administration tools and complete documentation. "It's very annoying," Barr says.

• New hardware required: Most current systems will need memory and processor upgrades to run Vista well, especially the new Aero Glass interface, which requires a special graphics card.

• Training required: Though Vista is not that difficult to use, it will require some training and end-user education, especially in large organizations. That must be budgeted up front, as well. --J.C.

Another notable security feature is the integrated Windows Bitlocker Drive encryption, which enables users to encrypt their entire hard drive. "That will be big for a lot of companies that are afraid of data walking off their network," O'Brien says. "You can carry so much now on a little thumb drive that it's getting pretty dangerous."

Vista makes life especially easy for Windows administrators, say readers. For example, O'Brien says he has set up event log subscriptions for the Vista PCs he manages. "I had been monitoring all my clients' event logs on their workstations manually, but once they have Vista PCs, I can set up a subscription from my computer to 20 or 30 others, and those other computers will forward all their event logs to a special repository on my management station."

The setup lets him monitor client PCs for warnings or critical events. "You can be very granular about what you want to forward," he says. "You don't have to forward print jobs if you don't care how many times the person printed. You can just forward warnings, like hard drive errors and so on." Rather than manually sifting through all the event logs, Vista also lets him filter out only those that are most important for him to see.

Others agree that the monitoring and event logs are much improved. "The resource monitoring and event handling are all much enhanced over XP, as are the Group Policy features," Anderson says. "And that's great, especially from an administrator point of view."

Still, the lack of tools and documentation is holding some administrators back. "I'm just very annoyed with Microsoft," Barr says. "They went ahead and released the Enterprise Edition of Vista in November well ahead of the retail version, but they didn't finish the documentation for administrators."

The same situation developed during the rollout of XP as well. "When XP first came out, if you were on Windows 2000 Professional and you had admin tools running on that, they wouldn't run correctly on XP. And now, they've done the same thing with Vista Enterprise. They expect enterprise customers to move to Vista, but they don't have the tools ready and they don't have the documentation ready. It makes no sense."

Cool Interface
The first change most users will notice in Vista is the new Aero Glass interface. This redesigned interface uses high-end 3-D graphics and see-through panes to provide a state-of-the-art navigation experience.

Unfortunately, you'll have to upgrade most of your desktops to support Aero Glass. It requires a Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM) graphics card, a lot of memory (64MB minimum, 128MB recommended) and complete DirectX 9 API support. If you can't swing those upgrades, however, Vista will still run with a stripped-down Basic version of the interface.

The new interface is sleek and fun to use, say early users. "The interface is pretty slick. It's nice, and it's pretty," O'Brien says, "but I had to buy a new computer to run it. I was running a Dell that was about a year and half old, and Vista did not like my video card. Even though I had a fairly decent NVIDIA card with 128MB of RAM in it, it was crashing every few minutes. So if you want the new Aero interface, you'll probably need new hardware."

Others say they haven't found the hardware requirements that onerous. "I've been running Vista on a 1.4GHz Athlon with 1GB of RAM, which is far from the desired platform," Barr says. "I'm running the Aero interface with flip 3-D and all that stuff and it runs acceptably. It's not terribly fast, but I can use it productively. If you have something that's two or three years old, and you've expanded the RAM to at least 1GB, I think almost anything could run Vista."

The new interface is decidedly different from XP, but it shouldn't be that difficult for users to pick up. Still, it may require some training. "It will require some training dollars and some user education, which we just don't have in the budget right now," Anderson says. "It's more than a little bit of a learning curve, especially when you throw in the new version of Office all at the same time."

The biggest change most users have found is Vista's reliance on search as a navigation tool. "For years, I've worked to educate our users on proper file organization," Larkin's Barr says. "Now it seems Microsoft is saying that's no longer relevant. Search is the new paradigm for locating things in Vista."

That reliance on search is even built into the architecture, says Barr. "Even in the Start menu, search is supposed to be the mode in which you access an application. I like to organize my start menu so I know where applications are and I don't have to search for them, but Vista makes it incredibly difficult to organize the start menu."

When Barr complained about the new reliance on search and the lack of an up arrow for navigating menus, a Microsoft employee told him that once he'd used search for a few months, he'd come around. "That was tremendously condescending," he says.

Others agree the navigation is a bit funky, noting that program icons now populate the top of the start menu, with files and folders beneath. "There used to be a button you could right click and say 'Sort by name' to alphabetize everything, and now it's just like that by default," O'Brien says. "If you try and drag some folders around the start menu, they won't move, although that's not too annoying." He does like the new search, however, and uses it primarily for e-mail.

Microsoft Windows Vista

Good, Not Great
After using it for a month or so, O'Brien says Vista is good, but not great. "Nothing glaring jumps out as being either bad or a must-have," he says. Once it becomes more widely used, however, its value will grow.

"Once a lot of my clients have Vista, I'll have a lot more control and gain all these new admin features," he says. "But getting all my customers on Vista will probably take another two to four years -- probably by the time they come out with the next version of Windows."

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