Disclaimer: This article was originally written in 2014, and reflected my accumulated experience up until that point; while most of the technical points are probably still valid, their relevance in this day and age is obviously very low.
Why am I writing this article? Well, I guess it is because in the past few years I’ve witnessed quite a few heated debates about the various operating systems released by Microsoft since XP, and many casual conversations on this topic. Some of these I participated in. In most cases I saw a lot of ignorance, and people speaking with the conviction of experts, while in reality they had very limited experience, if at all. Usually, people former their opinion based on things they read or heard, and rarely changed it afterwards. The most common opinion, of course, is how bad Vista is, and how great Win7 is, and it is most often coming from people who never really used Vista, and only started using Win7 because their friends told them it was great. Since my experience with all three operating systems is quite extensive, and my experiences were quite different, I thought it would not be bad to put it in writing for someone looking into a piece of Windows history at some indefinite future point.
What do I mean by “unbiased report”? I suppose that it means that I will try to stay as neutral as possible, and only write the things I witnessed, as opposed to what I was led to believe. Being a personal report, it will just describe the things I actually experienced, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what was meaningful to me. I do not attempt to make an in-depth survey or a technical description of each OS and their differences.
Isn’t it old news? Who cares? Yes, I guess, it is old news. But so what? If I don’t write it up now, it will become even older. Whether someone cares or not is not very interesting to me at this point. Look at the other entries in this “blog”, and consider whether it’s likely someone cares about any of them either. 😉
What about Windows 8? It’s out there, and also gets a lot of mixed opinions. I have not yet used it enough to form a solid opinion. I expect I will at some point, and then the relevant comparison can be made. But so far – let me just discuss the three versions of Windows I’ve been using most extensively over the past decade.
Windows XP and me
I’ve been using Windows XP since it came pre-installed on my Compaq Evo N610c laptop, back in late 2002. Between 2002 and 2008 I’ve owned and handled multiple systems, laptops and desktops, and XP has been the OS of choice on them all. Windows 98 was way too old, not very stable (even with Second Edition), and support of any kind of new hardware was severely crippled, if at all existent. Having briefly tried Windows 2000, I was not impressed by the limited bleak user interface, compared to XP, and I experienced some stability issues and video game support issues on a contemporary Pentium 4 desktop, so I’ve decided to move on.
XP, on the other hand, has been quite satisfactory, with SP2 greatly improving stability and security. Although not without an occasional glitch or crash, it was still far better than the Win9x core OSes.
When Vista came out in late 2006, I waited. For two reasons – First, I am not a person to rush towards something new as soon as it is out; I’d rather let the early adopters deal with the early problems, and wait for the first batch of improvements. Second, I do not generally reinstall operating systems on my working computers, and at that time I was not building / receiving any new ones.
A lot of negative comments on Vista and terrible experiences people were apparently having early on made me doubly wary. These could be organized into several main categories:
- Changes to the user interface which made certain things difficult to users who were used to the XP way of doing things
- Stability issues, mostly due to problematic drivers (the driver model was changed significantly compared to XP), but apparently also due to some quirks in the OS core
- Poor support of certain applications
- Poor performance, especially on systems with 1GB RAM of less (which were still common at the time), and lots of hard drive “crunching”
- The User Account Control annoyance
The amount of negative publicity was huge. Vista was called “half-baked”, slow, horrible, and some even equated it with Windows ME, the infamous last edition of the Win9x core. Many people refused to give up XP, and Microsoft understood that the reputation of the OS was beyond saving, and was pushing as fast as possible for a new version that will make everyone forget the fiasco. That would eventually become Windows 7, but it would still take over 2.5 years since Vista’s release for it to hit the shelves, in late 2009.
Despite the clear failure of Vista to win the market or ever hold a significant market share, there were still people using it, which Microsoft was obliged to support. So, slowly and quietly, updates were issued, fixes were made, and the impressions of those who have not yet given up on it have become more and more positive. After Service Pack 1 was released in early 2008 most of the early problems were declared as solved, at least partially. Stability improved greatly (partly due to the third-party vendors finally getting around to properly supporting the OS), performance too (even though it was still deemed somewhat “heavier” and more resource-demanding than XP), and the general public got used to the interface changes and found ways to deal with the UAC (or disable it).
Windows Vista and me
Around late 2008 it was time for me to build a new system, which would be based on a top-of-the-line-at-the-time last generation quad-core Core 2 Extreme processor. I’ve decided that I’m ready to bite the bullet and go for Vista. With the fast CPU, plenty of RAM, I was sure that performance will be adequate. Trusting myself and my “power user” skills I was confident that whatever stability issues may still remain, I will overcome. And finally, I felt that it’s time to move ahead with the time, and learn the tricks of the new OS. So the choice was made, and Vista was installed on that custom-built desktop. And once doing something new – why not go all the way? – I asked, and so I installed the 64-bit version, even though there was no real need for it, and it was, at that point, less common than the 32-bit variant.
The first tweaks I applied were:
- Disabling the search-related indexing features. I don’t rely on Windows’ built-in search capabilities, and therefore saw no reason to expose my hard drive to extra thrashing
- Disabling the UAC completely. Yes, this may shock some, to completely do away with the single most touted Vista’s security advantage over XP. But – I trust myself enough, and I don’t like the intrusions, so it had to go.
- Setting the classic start menu and classic desktop theme (I eventually went over to Aero, when I realized that I actually like the looks of it, but I still prefer the classic start menu layout)
There may have been a few others, but these were the main ones.
Generally, my experience has been very positive. The system felt snappy, and I encountered no compatibility issues whatsoever with existing 32-bit software. 16-bit software, by design, cannot run on a 64-bit machine, but since I never had such software to begin with – it did not bother me. One can always install a virtual Windows machine to run 16-bit Windows software and use DOSBox to run 16-bit DOS applications.
I also liked that Vista seemed to be better than XP in searching and automatically locating drivers. And of course, being a much newer OS, it already had more drivers slipped into the original installation.
There was one thing, however, that plagued the OS in the first couple of months – random, unexplained complete freezes during idle times or specific network traffic. It took a while to figure out, and in the end it turned out to be a buggy Ralink wireless network card driver, poorly responding to 64-bit systems with 4GB+ of RAM. Ralink did not respond fast enough to the user complaints, so I had to replace the wireless card to a TP-Link / Atheros-based one and the problem went away completely. Ralink did eventually released an updated version that fixed the issue, but it was too late for me and many others.
True to the principle of not reinstalling/replacing a working OS build, I’ve been using Windows Vista on my main desktop for almost 6 years now (now with Service Pack 2). There are probably very few people in the world with such a long run with one Microsoft’s most infamous operating systems. My desktop has been rock solid; the only crashes I remember after the wireless driver problem was solved were due to my aging motherboard sometimes, out of the blue, losing its SATA controller (which so far has always come back after 1-2 power cycles). I don’t think any of my computers have ever been as stable (*knock-on-wood*), especially considering that this is a primary machine, with long uptime, and a whole lot of software installed and used regularly.
Reflection – Vista vs XP
Once I got used to the interface changes, I definitely think that in most areas, where Vista differs from XP, it’s for the better. The only difference may be the Network and Sharing center which seems to me a bit more convoluted than the old Network Connections window in XP. On the other hand, setting up wireless networks seems a bit easier, and connectivity is a bit faster when coming out of standby.
Here are a few other things that were added in Vista that I personally like, and that positively impact my productivity:
- The preview Windows when Alt-Tabbing or Windows-Tabbing with Aero.
- The Hybrid Sleep feature, which is very useful on a desktop if you want to wake up fast from sleep, but still have the system state saved on your hard drive, in case of a power failure.
- I use shortcut keys a lot for launching applications on my desktop. XP sometimes (in fact, very often) gets stuck in a state where it takes it about 15-20 seconds to respond to the shortcut key, and during that time the GUI becomes mostly unresponsive. It’s happening to me on all XP systems, quite sporadically, and despite searching for solutions, I found none that actually worked. For some reason it almost never happens with Vista.
- Most importantly, I get fewer crashes / bluescreens (read, none that I recall, which means at most once in a blue moon), and less frequently have to reboot because something got screwed with the system state and apps do not work properly. This happens sometimes, but far less frequently than on Windows XP, which I still run on a few older machines (all with Service Pack 3).
Windows 7 and me
Vista was so unloved that people could not wait to get there hands on Windows 7. Many were running it already in RTM stage, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. To their credit, Microsoft learned from the many things they did wrong with the Vista development/launch process, and improved almost everything for Windows 7. The adoption rate for the new OS was unprecedented.
But as I said, I am not an early adopter, by choice. And I don’t upgrade working builds unless I have a very good reason. So my main rig stayed with Vista, but I got a lot of Win7-experience through my work-issued laptop, and installed it on a desktop PC assembled for my parents (which has been their primary machine since then – for about 4 years now). I now also have a couple of laptops – a Thinkpad X220 and an older Thinkpad X32, both lightly used, with Windows 7 installations on them.
All in all, I like Windows 7 just fine. I probably like it more than the other two versions discussed here. But, surprisingly or not, not for the reasons that people often cite, when they explain how great Win7 is compared to Vista.
It is not actually noticeably faster, by which I mean, that it probably is faster (certain speed optimizations were made, both in the kernel and the user interface), but not on the scale that would be felt on any reasonably modern machine. In particular, it does not really boot faster. With any Windows OS (at least prior to Win8), the boot time is very short on a fresh install, but gets longer as one installs more and more hardware, drivers and software. Windows 7 is no exception. Then again, modern PCs do not require frequent reboots, so it does not really matter in my opinion.
It is not more stable than Vista at all. Sure, it has been more stable at release than Vista was at the time of its launch – Microsoft has learned the right lessons from the Vista launch fiasco. But by the time Win7 hit the shelves, Vista was already a very stable environment, both in the core OS and in the drivers. As I reported above, my Vista PC is actually the most stable computer I have been using. Each and every one of my Win7 machines has had more of the occasional hiccups or crashes, or blue screens than my Vista PC. It is still more stable than XP, though, and to be fair – most of the instabilities are very minor, and not very frequent.
The single thing that is frequent is the inexplicable situation where the entire UI freezes for about 10-20 seconds, with the mouse cursor showing the “waiting” spinning wheel. This happens on all my Win7 machines now and then, I have no idea why, and how to do away with is. However, it is only mildly annoying.
The reason I like Windows 7 is that I find some of the UI improvements very intuitive and useful. It’s a bunch of little things, that in principle, are simple enough that they could be back-ported into Vista and integrate with it seamlessly. There are actually third-party tools that add some of these to Vista (and in some cases, even XP), but it is not quite as seamless. For this reason it is sometimes said that Win7 could and should really have just been a service pack for Vista. But of course, it would never worked in terms of marketing. Vista’s name was too tarnished, and Microsoft needed to create a feeling of something fresh, new and different.
Reflection – Win7 feature improvements over Vista
So what are some of these new features I like?
- New taskbar, which combines the old Taskbar and the quick launch in an intuitive way
- “Jump lists” which allow to “pin” certain documents to the start menu / task bar icons of the applications launching them
- Better built-in support of multiple monitors (and a “Screen Resolution” option in the desktop context menu, but that can be easily added to Vista)
- Improved Aero Peek functionality which allows to view multiple windows of the same application and selecting them directly from the taskbar
- Aero Snap, which allows to pin Windows to left or right half of screen
In addition to that there are a few other things where Win7 seemingly does a little better than Vista:
- Automatic search for drivers online finds correct drivers more often
- Search from the start menu works better
- The install procedure is a bit more user-friendly and includes more options
As you can see, all these things are really very minor. They are so minor that I don’t really care if I have them or not. When I am on my Vista PC I get by without them and don’t feel that my productivity is crippled. But, hey, if you can have them, without any downsides, why not?
It may come as a surprise, that in my long experience with the different versions of Windows, it was Vista, the most trash-talked Microsoft OS of the 21st century, came out on top as the most stable. Go figure, right? I also don’t find it sluggish one bit, even today, with a 6-year old installation on a 6-year old PC, which doesn’t even have an SSD. Maybe some benchmarks would show XP or Win7 being a bit faster on this same hardware, but the differences would be such that you would probably never notice them outside of said benchmarks. So why bother?
So I can say with confidence that anyone telling you how Vista (post-SP1) is a terrible, slow, buggy operating systems, prone to crashes, simply has no clue and is probably just repeating something they heard from someone else (who probably also has no clue and was repeating… well, you get the point). 🙂
Windows Vista is a very good operating system, and given the choice between it and XP, on the same hardware I would always go for Vista nowadays, unless you are talking about some very old system with hardware that does not have proper drivers for Vista.
On the other hand, Vista is better than XP in supporting new hardware, and new features, such as advanced power states (Hybrid sleep), message-signaled interrupts (which increase performance of peripherals that implement them, such as network and USB controllers) and others. It supports DirectX 10 and 11 (whereas XP is stuck at 9.0C), which increases compatibility with newer games and improves their appearance (assuming you have a modern and powerful enough video card).
The UI changes, IMO are for the better, but if you hate them, you can eliminate all of them and go back to Classic Windows look and fully (a la Win2K), which is something Windows 7 won’t let you do (classic start menu is not available without third party tools).
But would I suggest anyone install Vista over Win7 these days? No way. Win7 does everything Vista does and a bit more, a bit better. Well, there are some exceptions, but most people would not mind the things listed in that article and would not view them as actual deficiencies of Win7.
Would I suggest that people with a good, working Vista installation upgrade to Win7? Again, no. The difference is really not big enough to justify the trouble, in my opinion. Unless you decide that Internet Explorer is the browser you must use, and that version 9 is not good enough. Or you need native support for the Trim command for SSDs, and your SSD does not have software that can issue a similar command independently of the operating system.
Edit: While the above paragraph reflects my opinion at the time of the original publication, nowadays (and in fact approximately since Vista’s EOL date of 2017) I actually think that upgrading from Vista to Win7 is a good idea, mostly because of software support – many applications, both by Microsoft and by third-party vendors, have long dropped Vista support – including all mainstream web browsers, office suites and development suites. Thus, Windows Vista, by now, is almost as hopelessly outdated in terms of application compatibility as Windows XP. On the other hand, Win7, due to its popularity and also due to some internal Microsoft policies, supports many more core technologies, and software vendors are not quick to drop it, even though it’s officially EOL now as well.
If you read so far, you may wonder – is there a point to this write-up? I guess there isn’t. 🙂 I am not proposing anything revolutionary that will change the way people use computers. I just find this an interesting case study with somewhat surprising results, that shows how often things considered “common knowledge” are wildly wrong.