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Microsoft didn’t pay me for this but… May 2, 2007

Posted by Tim in Science/Tech.
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I Got Vista Cheap!

MMU’s IT society pulled off a coup recently by persuading Microsoft to launch Windows Vista in MMU: RM20 for a trial version of Vista Business edition. For students in the IT faculty, you could get a product key as well for an additional RM10 – basically getting a full version of Vista for RM30! Not a bad price at all (considering that it retails for RM1130).

Of course, they were obliged to do quite a bit of marketing for MS: Spot-the-car-sticker contests, booths showing off Vista PCs, Xbox games, quizzes and all that. And they had to produce the DVDs and print the covers themselves. But hey, as long as it works, right?


Vista features

It’s been six years since the release of Windows XP, the most recent edition aimed at home users – notwithstanding the lame “Media Center Editions” MS unveiled in between. It seems to be more secure than previous versions, which is good, as well as nifty new features. The downside is that it has a better interface.

How is that a downside? Well “better interface” for MS doesn’t just mean more accessibility, or easier navigation. It’s also a synonym for stuff that bumps up the system requirements without a corresponding increase in productivity (hm, can’t think why MS would want to make its system requirements higher…)

Let’s go through the list of features in the Aero interface, from Microsoft’s page:

  1. Glass:
    Whoopee, windows and borders are transparent. Yes it makes for good eye-candy, when you’re making presentations or showing off your PC. But that’s all it is: a graphical improvement. Serious users care more about how fast the windows appear than what they look like. I also suppressed a laugh at this statement:

    the new “glass” windows convey a sense of lightweight openness that frees you to focus on your content rather than your environment.

    They are referring of course to the blockiness of Luna (the XP interface), which takes up a lot of unnecesary space and why most users (like me) just use the classic look in XP to “focus on our content”. Trumpeting the removal of fat title bars and the like as a feature is like telling us that IE7 is better because it adheres to standards more.
    Transparent windows aren’t a new thing either. There are separate programs that enable it, and it’s a feature in a number of other OSes. The only time this is more useful than having windows render faster is when you need to refer to stuff in another window – something tiling, copy/pasting, and having a bigger monitor will do.

  2. Dynamic windows: When minimized, windows animate to their place on the taskbar. Oh come on, this is a very old feature, and is usually turned off anyway.
  3. High-resolution support: Only useful for people with high-res monitors, could be useful.
  4. Live taskbar thumbnails: Not new, and only useful if you can’t remember the windows you have open.
  5. Windows Flip:A more resource-intensive version of Alt-Tab. Ho-hum, also available on XP if you get the Powertoy plugin.
  6. Windows Flip 3D: An even more resource-intensive, impractical version of Alt-Tab that rips off Mac OS X.
  7. Smoother-performing desktop: No rendering bugs and fewer crashes. MS is getting good at the “fix-it-and-promote-as-feature” thing…

Now I’m not saying that Vista is all bad, just that I’d prefer more focus on actual (new) features. Everyone has to admit that it looks a helluva lot better than XP. There are several “real” features that you have to give it credit for:

  1. Support for hybrid hard drives: Hybrid HDDs use a large amount of RAM-like memory as a cache, lessening the need for reading from disks, translating into less time spinning around, which translates into longer disk life and less energy consumption – good for notebook users. But talking about power: be warned, Vista’s Aero interface eats notebook batteries for breakfast.
  2. ReadyBoost: Lets you plug in a USB memory stick to effectively give yourself more RAM. Very nifty, especially since USB sticks are so ubiquitous now and cheap to boot.
  3. Improved Remote Assistance: I have to admit I haven’t tried this out myself yet, but if RA works better in Vista, it’ll be great. Invaluable for troubleshooting and helping the less-savvy with tasks without getting them to describe everything to you. The security vulnerabilities in XP’s version made it more often a risk than a boon.
  4. Internet Explorer 7 is no longer integrated into the OS: Yes, another “fix-and-promote” thing, but notable. OS-browser integration with old IE versions was just asking for security problems, and was irritating as well.

Office 2007

I was at first very unimpressed during the IT Society’s promo of MS Office 2007 (not included in their Vista promo). They were emphasizing features that were either redundant or in the “fix-and-promote” category. The new Ribbon interface for example does a better job at grouping tasks and making them accessible – but that’s more because how convulted the old Office interface was getting, with the gazillion toolbars to wade through. It was highly customizable though. You can in fact build a Ribbon-like interface using the old Office if you have too much time on your hands (click to view the whole thing):

office.gif

You also have interface improvements like formatting toolbars appearing over text you are editing, and a real-time font-sizing toolbar like the one in Flash. Problem is that these “improvements” are only useful for the users who don’t use computers often. Simply taking the time to memorize keyboard shortcuts works just as well – Ctrl + [ or Ctrl + ] for example does as good a job at resizing your text.

When I dug deeper though, Office 2007 does have features that will be useful for all users. The Autotext and Template selection is vastly improved, and there are global themes you can apply – useful when you want to change the look of a bunch of documents. You can compare between two versions of a document and see the changes that were made. Word also gives you the option of saving into PDF or XML format – very useful!

All Good, But…

The thing is, I can’t actually install my copy of Vista because my computer can’t run it… and no, I can’t sell it to you – we had to sign a very strict agreement.

Tomorrow: Vista fonts!

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