Windows Vista – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Well I finally got to try out Beta 2 of Vista last weekend, which I had managed to download from the Microsoft site before they closed its doors on the Beta test. I was looking forward to it because I’d heard a lot of mixed press about Vista and wanted to make up my own mind. My main system, a Toshiba Satellite A30-104 dual-boots XP Home and Ubuntu perfectly, and I regularly switch between the two, however I do tend to do most of my day to day stuff in Ubuntu, e.g email, web-browsing etc, and just run Windows XP when I need to do work on my Windows software. Visual Studio 2005 .NET Express Editions are really good, if Linux had IDE’s like these… That said I’m not a Linux zealot and believe there is a place in this world for Windows and Linux equally on the desktop as well as the server, along with Mac OS X which is a sweet gem in itself.

The system I chose as a guinea pig was my trusty Toshiba Satellite A30-104 notebook, it needed a reprep because I also wanted to do a fresh install of Ubuntu 6.06 now that my CDs arrived, so I thought why not dualboot Vista and Dapper. It’s a pretty reasonable system with average specs, i.e. no funky hardware, but above all it’s very stable and has NEVER crashed in XP or Ubuntu.

FYI. Toshiba A30-104 Specs

  • Intel Celeron 2.6 GHz
  • 768 Mb DDR333 RAM
  • 30 Gb ATA5 Harddrive
  • DVD/CDRW Combo drive
  • Intel integrated 852GM Graphics ( 32 – 64 Mb )
  • Realtek AC97 Audio
  • Realtek 8139 10/100 NIC
  • v.91 winmodem
  • Ralink RT2500 PCMCIA 54Mbps Wireless card
  • 2x USB2 ports
  • 1 x Firewire 400 port
  • External 320Gb USB Harddrive

Nothing particularily spectacular I know, I didn’t expect Vista Aero to work but thats OK because I’ve got a Dell desktop with a 128Mb nVidia to test Aero on. Being a big Linux fan, I’d run Ubuntu 5.10 ( Breezy Badger ) on this notebook which installs all the drivers out of the box, with the exception of the modem because it has a proprietry binary driver which when I manually installed it worked fine, by comparison I need to install every driver manually for Windows XP but thats OK Ubuntu came out in 2005 while XP came out in 2002 so it’s to be expected. To set up my wireless in Ubuntu I just need to enter my SSID and WEP key et voila I’m surfing the ‘net through my 4Mb cable connection. I’ve even created an unattended version of XP Home, using info from Microsofts website which can preinstall all my drivers. And this was my biggest issue with Vista. Drivers.

The Saga

The installation routine was slightly reminiscent of Linux installers. It booted up into a “live” Vista and asked for only a couple of details before proceeding. I won’t bore you with installation details as it was very simple and went smoothly. My problems began when I tried to use Vista.

After booting into Vista for the first time I have to say it looked really pretty, even it’s “Basic” theme was good looking but underneath it hid a nasty secret.

First thing I did was to open Task Manager and check the Performance tab to see how big a hit it was on the system when idle … 417Mb in use!!! That’s more than half of the available memory. When XP and Ubuntu are running they use about 120 – 140 Mb ( depending on whether AntiVirus is running ). Whew, glad I can upgrade my laptop to 2Gb of RAM, looks like I’m gonna need it. Next I found Device Manager to see the state of my hardware and what a state it was. Both the Firewire and Realtek 8139 NIC had exclamation marks and there was an “Unknown Network Controller”, my Ralink RT2500 wireless card ! Upon investigating the exclamation marks in Device Manager informed me that it was “unable to allocated enough resources to the device. Please disable some hardware …” or words to that effect. So I disabled the Parallel Port, Firewire Port, Modem Port and PCMCIA Port and rebooted. No dice. No matter what I tried I couldn’t get enough resources to enable the onboard Realtek 8139 NIC nor could I get my Ralink RT2500 to work so after wasting 3 days trying desperately to connect to my LAN and the internet I gave up. I don’t think it’s really worth the effort to continue trying to get a bog standard NIC up and running in Vista just so I could continue testing it. To me the problems with such a simple piece of kit has disheartened me. For now I’ll stick with XP and Ubuntu on my notebook. Who knows when my new DVD Writer arrives next week I may try my luck with Vista on my Dell Optiplex GX240.

In conclusion, this has been the most disappointing release from Microsoft to date. Previous companies I’ve worked for were involved with beta testing Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. In all cases their beta releases at least worked on Realtek 8139 NICs. I know this because I generally use only Realtek 8139, 3Com 3c905 or Intel 82559 NICs in my systems because they “just work”, haven’t managed to go gigabit yet. I even used an 8139 in an old PowerPC Mac running OS 8! Come on Microsoft surely you can do better than this!