Vista in “actually pretty good” shocker!

So, I finally took the plunge on Monday and backed everything up so I could reformat and reinstall dual-boot again. I’ve been using Linux solely since my 2nd year of university, but was starting to miss some of the games that don’t work in Wine (or that don’t perform as well). Also from my student days, I have a valid copy and licence key for Windows Vista Business Edition. Using DirectX10 as an excuse to validate this possibly terrible decision, I decided to take the plunge…

The first experience I had with it was installation process. It’s certainly a lot better than Windows XP’s, as you’d expect given its been a number of years since then. I didn’t like that the partition editor seems to be instant-apply and has a straight ‘Delete’ button – press that and bam, you better hope you hadn’t selected the wrong partition! Certainly this didn’t feel as solid as gparted, but it was undeniably simple to use. After sorting that out and picking my language and keyboard layout, that was it, it then installed and booted into Vista unattended (no need to eject CD (and no ejecting the CD without warning), no more questions) – I don’t know how long this took, because it really didn’t matter, I went and did something else and came back when it was done.

On first log-in, you create a new user, choose a password, a little picture for your user and a wallpaper – the interface to do this is very pretty (first impressions count!) After logging in, I was displayed with some sort of first-time welcome dialogue and asked a few security questions. Nothing too much. This lead on to updating, where I had about ~150 megs of updates/drivers to download – not bad, given I got this DVD image some time last year; Gutsy certainly can’t compete with this… Vista did a great job of detecting all my hardware and after another while of leaving it to do its thing, I came back, restarted and had a nicely configured system.

This leaves software impressions; and I must say, Microsoft have done *very* well. Windows Media Player 11 is excellent and really something we need to have in Gnome (no, Nautilus/Tracker/Rhythmbox/Totem/whatever do not cover it). The media indexing is fast and robust, the integration of both audio and video functions is very nicely done and it all Just Works. Of course, I had to download ffdshow to play back some of my videos, but then I have to download gstreamer-plugins-* and w32codecs, or libxine1extracodecs, mplayer, vlc, whatever, in every Linux distro.

Also, surprisingly, IE7 isn’t bad either. Ignoring the evil of its bad rendering (which, y’know, is quite a debatable subject), the interface is nice and feels very ‘Vista’ – I don’t have huge useless toolbars taking up my browsing space and it’s very nippy (I have a gig of RAM, it’s enough that I don’t care that it may use twice the memory of Firefox – it also feels twice as fast, even compared to FF3). Windows Mail is also worth noting – The interface for settings is a bit daunting, but once setup, it works extremely fast and doesn’t seem to block on anything (take note, Evolution!) – I probably wouldn’t trust it with my work mail account, but it does very nicely with the Gmail IMAP server.

So yeah, I’m quite impressed. I wouldn’t want to do any coding in this environment I don’t think, but then I’m not a Windows coder (well, not anymore), so I’m bound to be biased. All the talk of Vista’s UAC being out of control or it being horribly slow or whatever seem to be massively exaggerated from my experience. It’s certainly a LOT faster than the Gnome desktop I removed. I think instead of just ignoring this, it’s a great opportunity to learn a lesson (by analysis of what makes it feel ‘good’, not by just flat-out imitation. KDE4).

A trend I’m seeing in Gnome is to have lots of small applications for a particular function… But you can go too far with this. If I want to listen to a song or watch a video, my first thought isn’t ‘search for video/song in nautilus/tracker/beagle’, it’s ‘open media player’. Desktop search is really not that useful (and, note, turned off by default in Vista Business edition). I’d much rather have particular applications create their own indexes, if necessary, and have far more useful and focused searching, than have an almost-useless, desktop-wide search. Rhythmbox’s behaviour in this regard is nice, although I only have the option of monitoring one music directory. Why can I not add multiple directories?

Another thing that annoys me in some Gnome applications is the amount of wasted space. By default, we have toolbars with text underneath icons (which can look very pretty, but uses an awful lot of space), but even worse, a lot of applications stack multiple toolbars when it really isn’t necessary. Rhythmbox is *easily* the worst offender here – which is funny, as it used to have a reasonable interface. Try using rhythmbox on a screen height less than 768. It’s basically unusable and even when you have a higher resolution screen, I’d much rather it display useful information than a giant toolbar, a giant slider and a giant song display.

Crowded interfaces are also a problem in Gnome and XP that have been dealt with quite handily in Vista. Taking explorer as a good example, the top tool bar has back, forwards, a breadcrumb folder list and a search bar. There is then a very distinctly separate toolbar underneath that contains context-sensitive options, and underneath that, your files. Nautilus’s toolbar in comparison is incredibly crowded and spread out across two lines, there’s no real distinction or separation of functions and it forces you to have the almost useless ‘Zoom’ option visible (seriously, how many times do you click that? Not enough for it to be on a toolbar, that’s how many times). Why is there a ‘Folder up’ button when the folder breadcrumbs provide that exact function too? Also, the search performs in-folder search, as you’d expect – Nautilus used to do this, and it was great… Then tracker (and beagle?) come along and the function then turns into an absolutely useless desktop-wide search – why would I want a search I initiate from a particular folder to return results from all over the desktop?

Context sensitivity is something that I’ve not seen done particularly well in any free desktop, although the KDE folks are managing a lot better than us on this front. Vista does this quite nicely and there are bits here and there in Gnome, but on the whole, applications seem to be very determined to always display the exact same interface. You can go too far with these things… I don’t have any specific examples in mind, but I notice Windows Explorer doing a very good job of automatically selecting particular views for different folders, and the information bar at the bottom is very handy. Rather than focusing on always providing the exact same options in the same place, I think it would be more important to provide the same *layout*. Nautilus’s icon layout is pretty bad and depends entirely on filename lengths, size of images, etc. – it can make scrolling through a list of files quite troublesome. Vista on the other hand (and Dolphin in KDE4, last I checked) pack icons in a tight grid (not in every view, but in the ones you’d expect it to) and this makes selecting files a subtly, but noticeably easier task.

Finally, there’s the speed – but I think there’s people doing great work on this, so maybe it doesn’t need to be said. But I’ll say it anyway – Vista boots and gets to the desktop *fast*. It doesn’t seem to shutdown so fast, oddly, but then, I don’t care, as long as it does (my Gnome desktop often hangs on logging out and I have to kill X before my machine shuts down). It’s probably unfair to compare, as KDE4 doesn’t really do much of anything, but one thing it does do is load *very* fast – after logging in from GDM, the KDE4 desktop is there in what must be under a second. My Gnome desktop, on the other hand, takes an age. I don’t have anything particularly taxing on my panels or desktop, and even if I did, this shouldn’t cause things to block as they do. As I said above, first impressions count – and Gnome can be as fast as you like, it’ll always feel slow if it makes you feel like you’re waiting every time you log in.

I could probably go on all day about this, but I think this’ll do for now. In summary, Windows Vista ain’t that bad. I’m not going to suddenly become a Windows user; there are a lot of features that I really appreciate in the Linux/Gnome environment that I can’t replicate under Windows, and on the whole, it’s a better fit for me. But Windows has really come along and anyone that’s comparing Gnome to Windows XP needs to think a bit more progressively – They’ve moved on since then.