Since Vista went RTM, I decided that it was finally time to bite the bullet, so to speak, and install a copy of Vista on a box I use on at least a semiregular basis (since I’ll have to deal with it sooner or later, as it’s going to be in stores soon).
I went into this with a fair amount of reservations, having encountered plenty of annoyances with Vista before (things like UAC prompts as a limited user for things like event viewer or regedit, or other not-so-polished things that were really annoying in the previous releases). However, I pretty much reversed my opinion after what I encountered…
The first thing was installation. Gone completely is text mode setup (although that isn’t something that I am all that excited about – setup is setup, after all, as long is it works). It’s definitely a big visual change from the previous versions of setup, and it’s perhaps a bit less power-user-ish (no option to format drives as NTFS or things like change the Windows install directory on a clean install that I saw, although I might have missed something). Installation went fairly smoothly, although it definitely took it’s sweet time.
The first real surprise, though, was that after Vista (finally) finished installing, I did not need a single third party driver. Not one. Even my Bluetooth transceiver and my GeForce 6800 Go just worked out of the box at full functionality without my having to do anything extra.
This, in and of itself, is a pretty impressive thing. Normally, you’d virtually always have to go and install drivers for your wireless NIC, bluetooth adapter, video card (if you wanted to do 3D), and soforth, but with my Vista install, everything was golden out of the box. Obviously, your experience my vary depending on your hardware, but the idea of the whole thing working at full functionality out of the box (for a non-server Windows flavor) on a brand new (clean) install is something I haven’t had in a looong time.
Now, that isn’t to say that things were perfect. I did have to do a fair amount of tweaking settings to get things to my liking, but most of the things I had to change were truly user preference type things and not necessities like setting up drivers and the like.
Like Srv03 x64, Vista right away prompts you to enable Windows Update in autoinstall mode (and to check for updates right now. This is definitely a Good Thing from a security perspective for your average user, who is likely to not even bother with that sort of thing unless you put it right in their face the first time they log on to their new box).
For my configuration, I had the Vista box joined to a domain, and was intending to use a domain account (a limited user) as my main user account. This turned out to work fairly well; there was the usual stuff with adding the computer to the domain, but unlike in Windows XP, joining the box to the domain doesn’t turn off the user switching features (or new logon UI). Being able to run multiple sessions is a real benefit for me, since I run as a limited user; instead of doing runas, for complex tasks, I find that it is much easier to just start another session up entirely. Previously, you could only do this on server OS’s by starting, say, a TS session to localhost and logged on as admin. With Vista, you can just do that naturally with user switching, even if you’re joined to the domain.
Speaking of user switching and sound/audio, another nice change is that switching sessions doesn’t abruptly terminate A/V output during the session switch, like in XP (where you would allyhave to restart your song in WMP after coming back to your original session). The new audio architecture (you can thank Larry Osterman in part for that) is also pretty cool, that is, being able to control volume on a per-application basis even for things that don’t have their own volume sliders.
A couple of other pet peeves of mine from XP are fixed as well. For instance, you finally no longer need to have the SeSystemtimePrivilege in order to pull up a calendar by clicking on the clock in the notify icon area. Also, the “there is nothing interesting here, go away” nag notices that used to plague the root partition, Windows, and System32 directories of your Windows install after a fresh install are gone as well.
UAC turned out to be not quite as bad as I had thought it would be. I was already planning on running as a limited user, so for me, UAC is pretty much just a glorified RunAs. Looking at it in that sense, it’s somewhat better than before, in that you can start some things as yourself and only later convert them to admin if necessary (especially good for things launched by other applications instead of the shell, where you might not necessarily have a good place to insert a “runas” command or shortcut to boost the new process to admin). I did end up having to disable UAC filesystem and registry virtualization, though (which is under Security Options in Group Policy, thanks to Alex Ionescu for that tip – be warned that it looks like you need to reboot and not just use “gpudate.exe /force” to apply the policy, though). UAC virtualization ended up being the root cause of some nasty performance issues in a couple of programs that I was using, which was strange given that I had already done the work necessary to allow them write access to things that they needed to write to in order to function. On the whole, though, I think I’ll be able to live with UAC as a limited user.
UAC is a bit over the top for my tasks as administrator, since the only time I’m doing something as admin is when I know that I really want to do it as admin, which makes the UAC confirmations there rather redundant at best. However, I still prefer the “improved RunAs” aspect of it while running as a limited user, so I think I’ll keep UAC enabled for now (especially since I don’t end up having to do most daily tasks as admin, just installing things and reconfiguring system-wide things for the most part). Having lived as a limited user on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 for a long time now, this didn’t turn out to be all that much of a shocking change as it might be for someone who is used to only running as an admin.
Last but not least is DWM and the new video driver model. The box I put Vista on to play around with has a GeForce 6800, which (as I mentioned earlier) came with drivers out of the box. It just so happened that those drivers support WDDM (the new video driver model), though the card itself only implements the DX9 DDI (the first DirectX 10 video cards were just released a week or two ago; the GeForce 8 class from NVIDIA).
Vista enabled Aero Glass up-front, which is essentially the transparency and 3D window flip switching support that you may have heard about. This is somewhat cool in and of itself, but what really blew me away is how it worked when I went ahead and tossed an intensive 3D application at the WDDM drivers – World of Warcraft (naturally). WoW had a bit of weirdness running on Vista at first – it ran really, really slow in windowed mode until I, through trial and error, determined that doing ctrl-alt-del and switching to the secure desktop once after starting WoW (extremely mysteriously) cures the slowness. After working around that little bit of strangeness, I was really surprised to find out that in windowed mode, you could do 3D window flipping (or have Aero windows obscure WoW) while WoW was running and drawing at full speed, with practically no major drop in performance. Seeing that work out with a full D3D program rendering away into a window while in flip-window mode alongside the rest of my desktop applications was definitely very cool, especially when you consider that it all magically “just works” without any modifications to either DirectX programs or plain vanilla GDI programs.
All things considered, I can say that Vista is definitely was more solid than I thought it would be. There were a couple of snags along the way, but none any worse than with previous versions of Windows, and on the whole, a lot more painless in my experience (at least for my system, the hell of trying to find the NVIDIA video driver that crashed the least was gone – the one that shipped with the OS really worked, and while twice I got a “Your video card has encountered a problem and has recovered” bubble in the notification area, my system didn’t bluescreen and none of my programs crashed – a *big* improvement over what I’ve seen from NVIDIA with Windows XP and previous driver versions written against the old display driver model, to be certain). There are other less than savory aspects to consider though, such as the even more pervasive DRM tied in with the OS, although for me, that is more a philosophical problem than a practical problem as I make a point of not buying DRM-laden content. Even so, I’m definitely looking forward to it becoming generally available in the next month or two.