Windows Vista is far from becoming old news. Pretty much everyone is hearing something (good or bad) about the OS very frequently. I have to admit that I wasn't at all excited about Vista, especially due to all the hype around it (and the talk about Aero being the only thing worth mentioning). However, after being bombarded with news about the new features and countless messages from Mac fanatics claiming that Vista was just a Mac OS X copycat, I decided to take a look at what everyone was talking about.
The Windows Vista site offers an upgrade advisor that serves to test your system to check if it will be able to run the new OS. The system specs of the computer I used for this test are: Athlon XP 2700+ / 2Gb RAM / GeforceFX 5200 AGP 8x 128mb RAM. The advisor doesn't give you any kind of "score," but on my test it showed that I was able to run an Aero-enabled Vista. The obvious next step was to actually test it on my system. One of the things you hear the most about Vista is the fact that you need a very powerful system to run it. Almost every computer manufacturer carries "Vista Capable" PCs, which helps to support this belief, and there's even one commercial in the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" campaign that makes fun of that. However, I am the kind of person that likes to base his opinions on experience rather than what others say, and I was ready to run Vista or see my computer die trying.
Vista offers a scoring system that serves to test your computer and give you ideas on the areas that you have to pay attention to improve your performance. My computer got a poor 2.6 base score, which is not very promising (not even encouraging).
The overall system performance is a little bit slow, however all the Aero features are fully functional, even the Flip3D. However, when you hit the Flip3D command there's a lag of about half a second (sometimes one second or even one and a half seconds) to perform that change. Things change when you are in the 3D view, though, since the windows flip very quickly and smoothly. There is an option to turn off the visual features to improve your performance, but that would be like buying a Ferrari to drive it at no more than 40 MPH, so I ended up turning off only a few of them (the ones I didn't care much about) and that greatly improved the system performance and overall OS speed.
I tested Vista for a while and I reached a very different conclusion than a lot of other people: it runs on my almost 4 year old computer without the need of any "major surgery." Obviously, a faster computer would make the OS run smoother and without lags on the Aero interface, but the point that I am proving is that you can run it just fine without having to go through a complete system upgrade. On the other hand, if you are buying a new PC chances are that it will already include Vista, so you won't have to worry about any of this. I should mention that the extra Gb of memory has been in there for quite some time since it helps during calculations and render times, and it's obvious that most users won't have more than 1Gb of RAM on their machines, however most users don't use applications like Maya, Mudbox or video-editing software, so the 2Gb shouldn't create a great impact.
Another question that arises is related to compatability of both programs and hardware. I am unable to test every software available for Windows XP so I just tested the ones I use the most. I tested Maya, iClone, Mudbox, Poser, a demo of Max 9, Toon Boom Storyboard and even Flash and they all worked pretty well. On the other hand, hardware was a different story. Right after install, Vista detected my nVidia video, VIA AC'97 sound, and CanoScan Lide 20 scanner, however the scanner didn't work on the "Fax and Scanner" utility, so I have to use it from within an image editing software. My Logitech QuickCam Messenger didn't want to work, though, and I had to look for drivers all over Logitech's website. Genius has also updated the Tablet drivers so I can use and configure my PenSketch in Vista. The big disappointment was my Lexmark Z55 printer since it just won't work, and Lexmark doesn't have updated drivers for it (although they claim to have those on their "to-do list"). This is really a drawback since Microsoft had supposedly released Betas and Release Candidates for months, which would have been more than enough time for the companies to ready their drivers.
There are also some small things that make Vista better than XP even if you are not a fanatic of eye-catching UIs, but rather want to work faster (some of them familiar to the MacOS X, but some not available on it yet). I am sure you know how the new Start menu works, as well as the thumbnail previews and fast switching during the Alt+Tab (which was available on Windows 98 but was removed on XP for some reason). The new Windows Explorer shows some shortcuts to your documents, images, music folders and more. The search is also integrated in the Windows Explorer, so you can search your files directly in it.
If you are on a tablet PC (or you have a tablet), navigating in Vista is as easy as moving your pen, thanks to the Pen Flicks. If you make a quick stroke up or down, you perform a similar operation as pressing the PgUp or PgDwn keys. A stroke to the right or left means "back" or "forward" (especially useful for the internet browsers and Windows Explorer). There's also an option to put commands on the diagonal movements of the pen, however those may make the overall navigation a little more difficult since you may end up copying something instead of going page-down. There is also a little panel where you can hand-write something with your tablet and it will automatically convert it to text. You can then use that text in a document, an instant messaging software, or anywhere else. Doing a little research I found a prototype Mac tablet computer that also does that (I don't remember seeing that feature built into the OS on a desktop Mac), however it's not yet for sale and I don't know when it will actually be available since Apple has its hands full with the iPhone and Leopard (which, as you may know, was delayed).
Visually, the OS is very atractive (as you may have noticed). I am not here to defend Microsoft's originality, saying that "Gadgets and Widgets are not the same thing", however I (and many of my friends, including Mac users) admit that Vista is just "sexier" than MacOS since crystal window frames blurring your background are more eye-catching than brushed-metal solid window frames. So for a company that is based on design, I dare to say that Apple was beaten at its own game. I was inclined to think that Vista was the most eyecandy OS, but I then discovered Beryl (a desktop interface for Ubuntu-based Linux systems) which does everything that Windows Vista and MacOS X do and more.
Some people in these forums were wondering about Vista's OpenGL support. The rumor was that Vista had completely dropped OpenGL, which would make it nearly impossible for 3D application users to run their software. When I was testing Maya and Mudbox I perceived a slight decrease in viewport performance, and that made me look deeper into the subject. I read two articles at OpenGL.Org and I realized that Vista's OpenGL acceleration is not only supported on the OS (using your manufacturer's drivers, of course), but it's actually a better implementation of it. The problem with performance is not related to the OpenGL acceleration itself, but with the new Windows Display Driver Model. The issue is basically a collision between both systems, and this will cause a 10-15% reduction of the acceleration performance (among other issues, depending on the app. For example, Maya's viewports turn blank when a floating window appears on top of them).
It is expected for this issue to be solved as drivers are more compatable with the new Display Driver, but, in the meantime, the only workaround is to turn on Desktop Composition in your system performance settings (in other words, completely turn off the Aero interface). Keep in mind that this problem only arises on windowed applications, since they are the ones that combine OpenGL and the Windows Display Driver Model at the same time. To tell the truth I didn't experience problems with Poser, but Maya would not behave correctly untill I turned off the Desktop Composition.
This may sound like a let-down for some users around here that rely heavily on OpenGL acceleration, however if you have the will to do it, you can simply turn it on/off depending on what you are going to work on. On the other hand, if you are after Vista just for the new visual style, maybe you should rethink spending your money. There's actually something called "Windows Vista Transformation Pack", which is like a "Windows Vista theme" (supposedly, it even supports the Flip3D). I haven't tried it so I don't know what it will actually do for you, however, as I mentioned before, Windows Vista has some nice features for you which may make it worthwhile for you.
I am not the kind of person to say "use this piece of software!" I usually give hints so people are able to choose for themselves. Personally, I consider Vista to be a great step over XP, but all I can tell you is to try the OS for yourself and see if it fits your needs. However, before doing anything make sure you backup your Windows XP (if you have Norton Ghost, I would encourage you to create a Ghost backup of your entire OS drive). The main reason for this is the new dual boot system in Windows Vista (Boot Control Data), which makes it very difficult to remove it from your computer in a non-destructive way (this is where Norton Ghost becomes extremely useful). Personally, I had to format my drives to remove Vista since it couldn't be deleted at all, and the Boot Control Data couldn't be removed.
Leopard will be released in October, and I wouldn't be surprised if it borrowed something from Vista or Beryl. Actually, I would look forward to that since that would only benefit the end users. Windows Vienna will be released in 2 years, and obviously the Linux guys will continue developing their own tools, so I really look forward to see what's coming next. I've heard a lot about how a company copies another company, but that only results in better products, which happens in all the different areas of software development. Blender, for example, now comes with a powerful fluid simulator, and we could pretty much say that Blender "copied" Realflow. Max added bone weights painting 2 or 3 versions ago, while Maya has had that for ages. Maya, on the other hand, now has Mentalray as a native renderer, while Softimage has used it way before it became Softimage|XSI. Shake (formerly by Nothing Real and now by Apple) offered true 3D compositing, but programs such as Nuke, Fusion and Inferno offered that feature a few versions early. So, the issue for me is not who's the original creative mind and who's the copycat, but rather having a tool that works and supplies your needs. If that means borrowing features from other softwares, I don't see what the big deal is if you are doing it to supply your end users with a better tool.
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