There's lots to like in the newest version of Windows. Vista's look is stunning, the OS should be more secure, and finding things is often easier. But Windows wouldn't be Windows without those aspects, big and small, that just drive you nuts with frustration. Here's our list of Vista features that just make us wonder, "What were they thinking?"
The cheapest version of Vista, Home Basic, is so crippled it can't run the Aero interface. Theoretically, that's a boon for owners of machines that aren't capable of running Aero.
But it's time for some tough love, people: If your PC can't run Aero, you have no need for Vista. Period. On machines that aren't Aero-capable, the rest of the OS will run slowly enough that you're better off sticking with XP until it's time to buy a new Vista PC. So why does Home Basic exist? So Microsoft can say that Vista costs "as little as $100."
Not fixable: Unless you consider not buying Vista Home Basic a fix.
Ahhgh! My screen blacked out!
Okay, Microsoft. We get that Vista is all about security. We get that you've sensibly limited what programs can do without explicit approval. We can even buy the idea that there's probably a good reason behind the incessant prompting from the User Access Control code built into Vista, warning about everything from installing software to changing fonts. So clearly you'd want a UAC alert to stand out a bit--to be something a user couldn't simply ignore. That's fine. But blacking out the entire screen as if the monitor were switching resolutions? That's the best you could do?
We thought you guys spent all this time designing a nifty new hardware-accelerated interface for your new OS. And you couldn't come up with something that looks even remotely 21st century for the UAC alerts? Really?
Seriously, UAC is a decent enough idea, but Vista's implementation pulls in two different directions. On one hand, the appearance of a UAC alert looks like the end of the world (or at least the end of some bit of computer hardware). On the other, the alerts' all-too-frequent appearances encourage users to give the warnings rubber-stamp approval. We're way too close to boy-who-cried-wolfsville here.
Somewhat fixable: You can turn off UAC alerts if you wish, but you give up a measure of Vista's enhanced security by doing so. Head to the User Accounts section of the Control Panel and click Turn User Account Control on or off. Uncheck the box labeled Use User Account Control (UAC) to help protect your computer, and then reboot your system. The UAC prompts will be gone.
The large-print edition
If you like your current desktop-icon layout, you won't like what you see when you upgrade to Vista. Perhaps overly enamored with Vista's new photo-realistic icons, Microsoft went all AARP-friendly on us and bumped up the default size for desktop icons. That's okay, we guess. Plenty of people want bigger icons. Problem is, Vista's upgrade installation makes this layout-destroying change without asking you. And if you want to move all your icons back to their appointed places, you'll have to find the icon-size setting in its new location.
Fixable: Right-click your desktop and choose View, Classic Icons. Then spend far too long dragging your icons back to their proper positions. When you're done, you'll notice that the shortcut arrow now covers approximately a quarter of each supposedly beautiful new icon.
Costly editions, DRM, and upgrade surprises
Apparently all those years Vista was in development were more inflationary than we thought, because in the five years since XP was released, Windows got real expensive. Sure, Home Premium isn't much more than XP Professional--but look at all the cool stuff it's missing, like Complete PC Backup, BitLocker Drive Encryption, and Shadow Copies (which automatically keeps copies of previous versions of your files). For more features, you'll need the pricier Business Edition, which still doesn't come with BitLocker and lacks Media Center. Want the whole enchilada? You'll drop megabucks for the Ultimate version ($259 for an upgrade or $399 for the full-price version).
Not fixable: Short of sailing with the software pirates, there's no way around this one.
Is this my OS or Hollywood's? (Or, why do I have to buy a new monitor again?)
This arguably isn't Microsoft's fault, but the high-definition situation on PCs in general and Vista specifically certainly qualifies as annoying. If your video card and monitor don't support HDCP (and unless you bought them recently and did your research beforehand, they don't), you'll need new models if you want to watch full-resolution Blu-ray or HD-DVD movies on your PC.
Not legally fixable: Hackers are finding ways to break through the encryption on high-def discs--but as long as the DMCA stays on the books, their argument for why these tools should be legal ("They're for making backup copies") won't hold water in court.
The downgraded upgrade disc
An OS upgrade is a nice occasion to start your computer off with a clean slate. But prepare for an annoying additional step if you plan to back up your data files, wipe out your drive, and start fresh: If you bought a Vista upgrade disc, you'll have to reinstall Windows XP on the machine first.
For XP installs, you could start a clean installation on a bare drive and simply insert the disc of a previous Windows version to verify that you qualified for an upgrade. But Microsoft dumped this capability in Vista, so a clean install from an upgrade disc will entail one more (probably 30-minute-long) step. You can still get a clean installation of Vista from an upgrade disc, but you just can't do it without installing XP first.
Kinda sorta fixable: While there is a workaround that lets you perform a clean Vista install with just an upgrade disc, it requires installing Vista twice. That might actually take longer than installing XP first.
Virtualization limits, constant nagging, and needless shuffling
Only the rich shall virtualize
Here's another bit of Microsoft licensing larceny: If you'd like to run a virtualized copy of Vista on top of this or another OS, you'd best be prepared to fork over some serious coin. The licenses for Vista Home Basic and Home Premium both contain this handy clause: "USE WITH VIRTUALIZATION TECHNOLOGIES. You may not use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system."
Want a version you can virtualize? You'll have to step up to the US$299 Business or $399 Ultimate edition.
Not legally fixable: Well, this is only a licensing provision, so nothing in the software will prevent you from running either Home version in a virtual machine. But that would be wrong.
Yes, Mom, I really do want to install this software
We often worry about Microsoft playing Big Brother, but now it's playing Big Mother, attempting to protect you from your own rash impulses to run new software. Try to download a program, and Internet Explorer will block it. ("It's for your own good. You can't be too careful, you know. Who knows where that program has been!") Unblock it, and IE will ask if you really, truly want to download the software. ("These programs can be dangerous, you know. I just don't want you to get hurt.")
Once you manage to get the program onto your machine, Windows tosses up its own roadblocks, forcing you to authorize the installer program to run, sometimes as an administrator. ("You're going to have to convince me you really know what you're doing here, young man.") Click through enough dialog boxes, and you'll eventually be running your new software, but you can almost hear Windows grumbling in the background. ("Fine! Ruin your life! But don't say I didn't warn you!")
Fixable: Turning off UAC alerts (see how above in " Ahhgh! My Screen Blacked Out! ") will silence Windows. And trading IE for Firefox is like moving away from Mom and into your cool older brother's apartment.
Who rearranged the furniture?
Here's a note for the programmers working on the next version of Windows: Moving stuff around doesn't necessarily make it better, just harder to find. Vista's chock-full of settings and tools that have been rearranged, renamed, or reorganized for no apparent reason.
Want to change your display properties? In XP you would right-click the desktop and then go down to 'Properties'. In Vista, it's 'Personalize'. Want to use 'Add or Remove Programs' to uninstall some software? Sorry. That capability is now under 'Programs and Features' in the Classic Start Menu or just plain 'Programs' in the default view.
It's not that the new names and locations are harder to use, it's that there's no particular need for the changes. And the new names tend to be vaguer than the ones they replace.
Not fixable: Continually getting lost is just one of the many prices you pay for upgrading to Vista.
Search woes, administration problems, and more
Search instantly anywhere (As long as by 'anywhere' you mean 'where Microsoft thinks you should')
We're certainly glad that Vista finally uses indexing to radically speed up searching. And we're ecstatic that we no longer have to watch that damn dog scratching himself while XP performs an interminable search of the hard drive.
But Vista's default search is instance #3456 of Microsoft trying to nudge you into using the computer the way it thinks you should, not the way you want to. By default the OS indexes only the folders found in your user-name folder (like Documents, Pictures, and Music). That's because the folks at Microsoft seem to think you should use only their generic folders for your data. If, like lots of people, you store important files outside of the user-name folder, you're back to stultifyingly slow searches.
Fixable: Go to Control Panel, System and Maintenance, Indexing Options and choose the folders that Windows should be indexing.
Who's in charge around here?
You might think you're the boss, if you're running Windows as an administrator. But when you try to run certain commands from Vista's command prompt, you'll learn that in Vista's eyes you're still a peon. Vista will say that you can't run the command because you don't have the proper administrator rights. Huh?
Fixable: Click Start, All Programs, Accessories, right-click Command Prompt, and choose Run as Administrator. Finally, you'll be master of your domain.
Vista's Sidebar, a transparent panel with widgets (Gadgets in Vista-speak), is pretty, and if you have enough screen real estate, it can be quite useful. But so far the selection of Gadgets is sparse, and some of the applications themselves are feeble. As an example, take the Feed Headlines applet that displays news from RSS feeds.
We've yet to meet a pair of people with exactly the same preferences about how they want to read blogs and news feeds. Some like to see lots of headlines from lots of blogs, others want to limit the field. Some people must have updates every few minutes, others are happy to wait. But the Feed Headlines gadget is almost completely uncustomizable. You can't resize its window, even if you pull the Gadget out to run on your desktop. You can display headlines from one feed or every feed you've subscribed to, but not a selection of your feeds. And you can't tell it how often to update the headlines. The app doesn't report how often it checks for new headlines, but our experience indicates that the answer is "not very often."
Fixable, eventually: Independent developers are already writing new Gadgets for the Sidebar, and eventually a smart coder will build a much better feed reader. But it isn't here yet.
Where, oh where are my network places?
Previous versions of Windows had the Network Places link prominently displayed in Explorer and in the Start menu. Adding locations to Network Places was a pain, but once you did, it was a handy way to get to just the network folders and drives you used most often.
Vista's equivalent, the Network link, seems to be based on the idea that more is more. On our machines it shows every PC, printer, and server on our network, from 172.18.0.137 to WXU-8250, 95 percent of which we never want to access. And Vista frequently goes out and repopulates that list when you click the link, a process that on our admittedly crowded network here at PC World takes over a minute.
Fixable: You can replicate the old Network Places. Create a folder (call it, oh, we don't know, Network Places, perhaps) and put inside it shortcuts to the network locations that you most frequently need to access. Simply drag that folder into Explorer's left panel, and it'll be available when you need it.
Vista: Game off!
Just to recap: Vista took five friggin' years to develop, and yet graphics card makers still didn't have their drivers in shape for the launch of the OS? We'd expect that the early Vista drivers wouldn't be the fastest around--ATI and nVidia have been tweaking XP drivers for years, after all--but the number of games that are flat-out unplayable is just ridiculous. And we're talking popular games here, too: Unreal Tournament 2004, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted, to name just a few.
The problem has even spawned a possible class-action lawsuit by nVidia-equipped gamers upset that the DirectX 10-ready GeForce 8 series boards they spent hundreds of dollars on won't even run older games on Vista.
Fixable, eventually: Patience is the only fix for these issues. ATI and nVidia will iron the problems out, and hopefully everyone will be playing in a DirectX 10-accelerated world soon. Until then, it's time to break out your old XP disc and start dual-booting.