Visual Tour: 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista

The same thing happened with Windows XP. When Beta 2 arrived, I found myself torn between what was new and good about the operating system, and what was new and bad.

Significant negatives back in 2001 included product activation (which doesn't affect Microsoft volume licensing customers), changes to the network-configuration user interface and the way XP interacted with other versions of Windows on small networks. Was Windows XP truly better than Windows 2000? It was a toss-up in many ways. In the end, I went with the improved app compatibility and user interface improvements of XP. But it wasn't by much.

Also see Computerworld's review of the shipping version of Vista, Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista.

Well, Microsoft just upped the ante on internal conflict with the release of Vista Beta 2. It boils down to this: The software giant is favoring security and IT controls over end-user productivity. Don't get me wrong, security and IT manageability are very good things. But some of the people actually using the Beta 2 Vista software describe their experience as akin to that of a rat caught in a maze.

Business and home users will be nonplussed by the blizzard of protect-you-from-yourself password-entry and "Continue" boxes required by the User Account Controls feature, for example. Networking functions and settings are scattered all over the place. The same is true of what Windows XP calls Display Properties. By default, the main menus (you know, File, Edit, View, etc.) are turned off on Windows Vista folders, Internet Explorer 7 and several other programs and utilities that come with Vista. Listing 20 things you won't like about Windows Vista was unfortunately all too easy. The question is: Why couldn't Microsoft see this coming?

Upside as well

Despite these seeming faux pas, Microsoft has also managed to add a good deal of benefit and improvement in Windows Vista -- enough good things that it may be even easier to collect 20 things you'll like about Windows Vista. But that's a different article (one you can read almost anywhere, including here; see Visual Tour: 20 Reasons Why Windows Vista Will Be Your Next OS ). And make no mistake, the new Windows lacks a gotta-have-it feature, unless it's the increased security that protected-mode browsing, built-in spyware protection and the new User Account Controls provide. To my way of thinking, security shouldn't be something you have to pay for. What's more, it seems like Microsoft is building some of the most ambitious security components of Windows Vista not for its customers, but for itself.

The Windows Vista Beta 2 desktop.
(Click image to see larger view)

Realistically, though, with the worldwide installed base of all versions of Windows at around 850 million, according to Gartner Dataquest, the challenge of making Windows truly secure for the first time is significant. Millions of people for years and years have been logging into Windows with carte blanche rights to change anything in the operating system that can be changed -- a large security vulnerability. Crafting the system to prevent that behavior is nontrivial. So I'm giving Microsoft a pass for having spent a lot of its development efforts on security for this release of Windows, but I'm far less forgiving about the user experience trade-offs that some of those Microsoft security efforts require.

Beyond security, Vista's single best feature is the graphics subsystem and Aero "Glass" user experience it enables (when your hardware supports it). Direct support for advanced 3-D graphics processors, vector-based graphics and fonts, DPI scaling, reflections, transparencies, 3-D movements and a whole range of visual improvements account for the most profound change to Vista. The new integrated desktop search features, the ability to save searches as dynamic collections, and some new data sorting and visualizing options (including "stacking") make up the next most significant feature set.

Another what's-new story about Vista concerns bundled applications. Vista adds several new apps, such as Windows Defender, Sidebar, Calendar, Photo Gallery, DVD Maker, Fax and Scan, and BitLocker full-volume encryption. Significantly upgraded bundled apps include Internet Explorer 7+, Windows Mail (Outlook Express), Media Player 11, Movie Maker, Speech Recognition, Windows Meeting Space (Wi-Fi-based peer presentation/file sharing), automatic hard-drive defragmentation and disk backup.

Additionally, Windows Media Center and Tablet PC Edition are available in several versions of Windows Vista -- more like a feature set than a different version of the operating system. Vista offers both 64- and 32-bit support. Microsoft has also developed a new hybrid "sleep" mode for both desktop and mobile PCs that for the first time makes rapid shutdowns and restarts very easy. While sleeping, mobile computers use very little battery charge. Even when fully powered down, Vista shutdown and start-up times are noticeably faster than those of Windows XP.

The competition

Where does Windows Vista fit among many of the PC-based operating systems of today and the last couple of decades? With Beta 2 running on multiple test units, I feel comfortable predicting that Windows Vista will not outpace Mac OS X Tiger for overall quality and usability. It's hard to beat Apple's top-notch GUI design grafted onto an implementation of Unix variant, BSD. Mac OS X has excellent reliability, security and usability. That isn't to say that its user interface wouldn't gain if Apple adopted some other best ideas of the day, but Apple has the best operating system this year, last year and next year. It'll be interesting to see what the company delivers in its 10.5 Leopard version of Mac OS X.

Meanwhile, I'm placing Windows Vista as a distant second-best to OS X. I see Linux and Windows 2000 as being roughly tied another notch or two below Vista, with XP being only a half step better than Win 2000.

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