Category Archives: vista

I’m looking for comments on Windows 7 beta vs XP or Vista

Tried Windows 7 beta 1? I’m looking for comments to quote in an article. I’m interested to know what you think of it so fare in comparison to either XP, or Vista, or both; and whether you expect to upgrade as soon as you can, or will put off the upgrade, or not bother with it at all. With reasons of course.

By all means comment anyway, but in order to be quoted I’d need (along with your presumed consent if you comment here or by email):

1. You have actually tried the Windows 7 beta

2. You do not work in PR or for Microsoft or for a PC vendor (or have other obvious reason for non-objectivity)

3. You give your full real name, company and job

Comment here or by email to tim(at)

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The computer desktop is a faulty abstraction

In Windows 7, Microsoft has made further efforts to make the desktop more usable. There is a "peek" feature that makes all running applications temporarily transparent when you hover over the Show Desktop button. If you click the button the apps all minimize, so you can interact with the desktop, and if you click again they come back. Nice feature; but it cannot disguise the desktop’s inherent problems. Or should I say problem. The issue is that the desktop cannot easily be both the place where you launch applications, and the place where they run, simply because the running application makes the desktop partly or wholly inaccessible.

The Show Desktop button (sans Peek) is in XP and Vista too, and there is also the handy Desktop toolbar which makes desktop shortcuts into a Taskbar menu. All worthy efforts, which are workarounds for  the fact that having shortcuts and gadgets behind your running applications is a silly idea. The desktop is generally useful only once per session – when you start up your PC.

In this respect, the computer desktop differs from real desktops. Cue jokes about desks so cluttered that you cannot see the surface. Fair enough, but on my real desktop I have a telephone, I have drawers, I have an in-tray and out-tray, I have pen and paper, and all of these things remain accessible even though I’m typing. The on-screen desktop is a faulty abstraction.

The inadequacy of the desktop is the reason that the notification area (incorrectly known as the system tray) get so abused by app developers – it’s the only place you can put something that you want always available and visible. In Windows 7 the taskbar is taking on more characteristics of the notification area, with icons that you can overlay with activity indicators like the IE8 download progress bar.

It’s true that if you don’t run applications full-screen, then you can move them around to get desktop stuff into view. I find this rarely works well, because I have more than one application visible, and behind one application is another one.

Why then do OS designers persist with the desktop idea? It’s possibly because it makes users feel more comfortable. I suspect it is a Skeuomorph (thanks to Phil Thane for the word) – “a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that was necessary in the original”. An example is that early electric kettles retained a squat shape with a large base, even though the logical shape for an electric kettle is a slim jug, enabling small quantities of water to cover the element. The reason for the squat shape was to spread the heat when boiling water on a stove. It took years before “jug” kettles caught on.

It is better to call the computer desktop a workspace, and to forget the idea of putting shortcuts and gadgets onto it. Which reminds me: why does Windows still not surface multiple desktops (or workspaces) as is common on Linux, and also implemented in Mac OS X Leopard as Spaces?  Windows does have multiple desktops – you see one every time UAC kicks in with its permission dialog on Vista, or when using the Switch User feature – but they are not otheriwse available.

I’m also realising that sidebar gadgets were a missed opportunity in Vista. Microsoft made two big mistakes with the sidebar. The first was to have it stay in the background by default. Right-click the sidebar and check “Sidebar is always on top of other windows”. Then it makes sense; it behaves like the taskbar and stays visible. Not so good for users with small screens; but they could uncheck the box. I know; you don’t like losing the screen space. But what if the gadgets there were actually useful?

The other mistake was to release the sidebar with zero compelling gadgets. Users took a look, decided it was useless, and ignored or disabled it. That’s a shame, since it is a more suitable space for a lot of the stuff that ends up in the notification area. If Microsoft had put a few essentials there, like the recycle bin, volume control, and wi-fi signal strength meter; and if the Office team had installed stuff like quick access to Outlook inbox, calendar and alerts, then users would get the idea: this stays visible for a good reason.

In Windows 7, gadgets persist but the sidebar does not. Possibly a wrong decision, though apparently there is a hack to restore it. It’s not too late – Microsoft, how about an option to have the old sidebar behaviour back?

I’d also like a “concentrate” button. This would hide everything except the current application. Maximized applications would respond by filling the entire screen (no taskbar or sidebar), save for an “unconcentrate” button which would appear at bottom right. This would be like hanging “Do not disturb” outside your hotel room, and would suppress all but the highest priority notifications (like “your battery has seconds to live”).

My suggestion for Windows 8 and OS 11 – ditch the desktop, make it a workspace only. Implement multiple workspaces in Windows. And stop encouraging us to clutter our screens with desktop shortcuts which, in practice, are very little use.

Performance: Windows 7 fast than Vista, Vista faster than XP

The second part of that statement interests me as much as the first. ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes ran some informal tests on XP vs Vista vs Windows 7 beta 1 (as leaked, I presume), ranking them in order for a number of tasks. The results show that in general XP is slower than either Vista or XP on an AMD Phenom system with 4GB. Even on a Pentium dual core with just 1GB, which should favour XP, Vista was neck-and-neck with XP for speed (score of 57 vs 56, where less is better). Windows 7 came top in most of the tests.

I’ve done enough of these kinds of tests myself to know some of the pitfalls. Kingsley doesn’t mention whether UAC was on or off in Vista, or whether Aero is enabled, or how many background processes were running on each machine, or how many times the tests were repeated and whether there was much variation. It would also be interesting to know timings, rather than simple ranking. Finally, Kingsley’s tests seem overly weighted towards file I/O.

I’d also be intrigued to see a comparison of Vista as on first release vs a fully patched system.

Still, this does suggest (as I’ve argued before) that Vista is better than its reputation; and it is wrong to assume that XP will generally out-perform it.

That said, let’s not forget the dire performance of those early Vista laptops with 1GB RAM, a full helping of third-party foistware, and Outlook 2007. Even today, Outlook 2007 can kill the performance of a high-end system, as this recent comment shows:

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Vista’s mysterious compatibility settings: what do they do?

I hate this Program compatibility Assistant in Vista. Why?

First, because it applies settings whether you like it or not. There’s no option to say, “I was happy with how it ran, just leave it alone”.

Second, because it does not tell you what it has done. Sure, there is a link that says, What settings are applied? So you click it.

And you get a generic help dialog with six headings. You click the most promising: What changes does it make? It says:

It depends on the problem, but any changes made are related to how Windows runs the program. No changes are made to the program itself. For example, the Program Compatibility Assistant can resolve conflicts with User Account Control, a new security feature in this version of Windows that can help make your computer safer. Or, it can run the program in a mode that simulates earlier versions of Windows. The changes that Program Compatibility Assistant makes are done automatically, so you don’t need to make them.

Vague and uninformative. And that’s it.

So how do you really discover? Well, you could read this article. Then you can fire up RegEdit and look at:

Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\AppCompatFlags\Layers

under both HKEY_CURRENT_USER and HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE. Here I found an entry for FlexBuilder.exe as follows:

OK, so Flex Builder will now have ELEVATECREATEPROCESS applied. What does that mean? Here’s the scoop:

Here the test program was trying to launch an updater which is required to run as administrator and failed. In this case, PCA will apply the ELEVATECREATEPROCESS compatibility mode, which will enable the program to successfully launch the child exe as administrator the next time. Now when the program is run the next time and while trying to launch the updater, it will not fail and will successfully run as administrator. The user will see the UAC consent UI.

More details on what happens under the covers is explained through Q/A below.

  1. What is the detection logic and how does PCA know that the program failed to launch a child exe which needs to run as administrator?The detection for this scenario is accomplished through instrumentation at the CreateProcess API to detect the cases when a child process launch fails due to the requirement to run as administrator.
  2. Why are there no options in this PCA dialog?Due to the high confidence on the issue detection in this scenario, the solution (ELEVATECREATEPROCESS compatibility mode) is automatically applied and the user is not given any options.

In my case I believe there was some problem with the Flex Builder debugger trying to launch FireFox, which was also trying to update itself.

I believe Adobe could avoid this problem by marking Flex Builder as UAC-aware. Then Windows will leave it alone.

Service triggers: an attempt to reduce bloat in Windows 7

I’ve been reading through the Windows 7 Developer Guide. I like this document; it is tilted more towards information than hype, and is readable even for non-developers. There are things mentioned which I had not spotted before.

One example is triggers in the service control manager. There was actually a PDC session which covered this, among other things, under the unexciting title Designing Efficient Background Processes (PowerPoint). If you check out the slides, you’ll see that this is actually something significant for Windows users. It is an attempt to reduce all that stuff that runs whether or not you need it, increasing boot time and slowing performance. Apparently some people are so upset with the time it takes Windows to boot that they are threatening to sue; so yes, this does matter.

Services are applications that run in the background, usually without any visible interface. They consume system resources, so it makes sense to run them only when needed. Unfortunately, many services run on a “just in case” basis. For example, if I check the services on this machine I see I have one running called Apple Mobile Device, just in case I might connect one. It is using 4MB of RAM. However, I never connect an Apple device to this machine. I’m sure it was installed by iTunes, which I rarely use, though I like to keep up-to-date with what Apple is doing. So every time I start Windows this thing also starts, running uselessly in the background.

According to Vikram Singh, who took the PDC session, adding 10 typical 3rd party services to a clean Vista install has a dramatic effect on performance:

  • Boot time: up by 87% (24.7 to 46.1 seconds)
  • CPU time when idle: up by six times (to 6.04%)
  • Disk Read Count: up by three times (from 10,192 to 31,401 in 15 seconds)

Service triggers are an attempt to address this, by making it possible to install services that start in response to specific events, instead of always running “just in case”. Four trigger types are mentioned:

  • On connection of a certain class of device
  • On connection to a Windows domain
  • On group policy refresh
  • On connection to a network (based on IP address change)

In theory then, Apple can rewrite iTunes for Windows 7, so that the Apple Mobile Device service only starts when an Apple device is connected. A good plan.

Now, I can think of three reasons why this might not happen. First, inertia. Second, compatibility. This means coding specifically for Windows 7, whereas it will be easier just to do it the old, compatible way. Third, I imagine this would mean faster boot, but slower response when connecting the device. Apple (or any third party) might think: the user will just blame Windows for slow boot, but a slow response when connecting the device will impact the perceived performance of our product. So the service will still run at start-up, just in case.

Still, I’m encouraged that Microsoft is at least thinking about the problem and providing a possible solution. We may also benefit if Microsoft tweaks some of its own Windows services to start on-demand.

Microsoft plans free anti-malware

Microsoft will be offering a free anti-malware suite codenamed “Morro”, from the second half of 2009, according to a press release:

This streamlined solution will … provide comprehensive protection from malware including viruses, spyware, rootkits and trojans. This new solution, to be offered at no charge to consumers, will be architected for a smaller footprint that will use fewer computing resources, making it ideal for low-bandwidth scenarios or less powerful PCs.

It’s a good move. Here’s why:

  • The current situation is calamitous. Even users with fully paid-up anti-virus solutions installed get infected, as I recently saw for myself. PC security is ineffective.
  • The practice of shipping PCs with pre-installed anti-virus that has a trial subscription is counter-productive. There will always be a proportion of users who take the free trial and do not renew, ending up with out-of-date security software. A free solution is better – several are available now – if only because it does not expire.
  • Microsoft wants to compete more effectively with Apple. It is addressing an extra cost faced by PC users, as well as (possibly) the poor user experience inherent in pre-installed anti-virus trialware.
  • The performance issue is also important. Anti-malware software is a significant performance drag. Microsoft is the vendor best placed to implement anti-malware that minimizes the drag on the system.


  • Only specialist companies have the necessary expertise. I don’t believe this; Microsoft’s investment in security is genuine.
  • Single-supplier security gives malware a fixed target, easier to bypass. There’s some merit to this argument; but it is weakened by the fact that the current multi-vendor scenario is clearly failing. Further, the Mac is a fixed target that does not appear to be easy to bypass.

All of this is hot air compared to the real challenge, which is securing the operating system. Vista is progress, Windows 7 not much different according to my first impressions.

Why not just use another operating system? There’s a good case for it; ironically the theory that a large factor in Windows insecurity is its dominance can/will only be properly tested when an alternative OS is equally or more popular. If people continue switching to Macs perhaps it will happen some day. Windows is still hampered by its legacy, though my impression is that Vista’s UAC is having its intended effect: fewer applications now write to system areas in Windows, bringing us closer to the day when security can be tightened further.

What about business systems? This is one area that needs clarification. Microsoft says Morro is only for consumers. Why should businesses have to pay for a feature that consumers get for free? On the other hand, some equivalent initiative may be planned for business users.

Reasons to love Linux #1: package management

I posted recently about a difficult Ubuntu upgrade, drawing the comment “What do you prefer to do on Linux that you don’t on Windows?”

Today I patched the Debian server which runs this blog. APT upgraded the following applications:


Apache 2.2

Clam AntiVirus

Time Zone data (tzdata)

Some of these involve several packages, so 16 packages were updated.

Bear in mind that this is a running system, and that MySQL and Apache are in constant heavy use, mostly by WordPress.

I logged on to the terminal and typed a single command:

apt-get upgrade

The package manager took less than a minute to upgrade all the packages, which had already been downloaded via a scheduled job. Services were stopped and started as needed. No reboot needed. Job done.

I guess a few people trying to access this site got a slow response, but that was all.

Now, how long would it take to upgrade IIS, SQL Server and some server anti-virus package on Windows? What are the odds of getting away without a restart?

Admittedly this is not risk-free. I’ve known package management to get messed up on Linux, and it can take many hours to resolve – but this usually happens on experimental systems. Web servers that stick to the official stable distribution rarely have problems in my experience.

I realise that the comment really referred to desktop Linux, not server, and here the picture is less rosy. In fact, this post was inspired by a difficult upgrade, though in this case it was the entire distribution being updated. Even on the desktop though, the user experience for installing updates and applications is generally much better.

Let’s say I’m looking for an image editor. I click on Add/Remove and type a search:

I like the way the apps show popularity. I’d like a few more things like ratings and comments; but it’s a start. Inkscape looks interesting, so I check it, click Apply Changes, and shortly after I get this dialog:

I double-click, and there it is:

I admit, I did take a few moments to download an example SVG file from the W3C, just to make the screen grab look better. But provided you have broadband, and the app you want is in the list, it is a great experience.

Windows Vista has had a go at this. From Control Panel – Programs and Features you can get to Windows Marketplace, where you might search and find something like The Gimp (free)  or Sketsa SVG Editor (costs). I tried The Gimp, to be more like-with-like. I had to sign in with a Live ID even though it is free. I went through several web dialogs and ended up with a download prompt for a zipped setup. That was it.

In other words, I went through all these steps, but I still do not have The Gimp. OK, I know I have to extract the ZIP and run the setup; but Ubuntu’s Add/Remove spares me all that complication; it is way ahead in usability.

App Store on the iPhone also has it right. For the user, that is. I detest the lock-in and the business model; but usability generally wins. The online stores on games consoles, like XBox Live Marketplace, are good as well. I guess one day we will install or buy most applications this way.

Windows 7 media: AAC yes, FLAC no

Microsoft’s Larry Osterman is here at PDC 2008 and I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions about media in Windows 7. Windows Media Player is getting built-in support for AAC (as used in iTunes – but not when DRM-protected) and H.264 – but not ALAC (Apple lossless) or FLAC (open-source lossless). What about DRM in Windows 7, any change to the Protected Media Path? No, he told me; adding how frustrated he was by the common supposition that DRM somehow slows everything down in Vista. His line is that Microsoft supports DRM content, but does not in any way impose it.

Windows 7 unveiled; hands on report

Here at PDC in Los Angeles, Microsoft’s Chief Architect Ray Ozzie and Windows VP Steven Sinofsky are introducing Windows 7.  A couple of days ago, journalists were loaned Windows 7 laptops to try and I’ve been using this over the last day or so. Generally it’s been a pleasure; performance is great and it works well, aside from Internet Explorer 8 going into an occasional sulk.

A question though: does it merit a new major version number, or is this really a big Vista service pack? It’s a bit of both. Under the hood Windows 7 reports itself as version 6.1 (Vista is 6), and that’s about right.

I see Windows 7 as a reaction to Vista’s problems. Vista was too different from XP; Windows 7 makes small, generally pleasant but evolutionary changes. Vista was too incompatible; Windows 7 uses the same core architecture and pretty much everything that worked on Vista will also work here. Vista was too demanding on hardware; Windows 7 is said to perform better on the same hardware, and while I haven’t had a chance to make the comparison, I can well believe it. Vista won a reputation for prompting the user too much with User Access Control security dialogs and others; Windows 7 is designed to be “quieter” and UAC has been tamed.

The build I have been trying is not feature-complete, and I am sure it will look, cosmetically, more different from Vista in its final release. Nevertheless, the points above are stated goals. The business world will greet Windows 7 with relief, and consumers will, I suspect, enjoy this release – but don’t expect anything revolutionary.

My reflection: if Vista had not been disrupted by the false WPF-based trail shown at PDC 2003 but later abandoned, and also disrupted by Microsoft’s security push which saw the Windows team focusing for a period on XP SP2 rather than Vista, then Vista itself might have most of what is now coming in Windows 7.

That said, if you are a Windows user you are going to like this release.

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HP laptop go-slow caused by power supply

Wasted some time recently looking at an HP Compaq NX7300 laptop, with Vista, that was running very slow.

No, not just normal Vista sluggishness. Really slow, as in you click the Start menu, wait a bit, and eventually it opens.

Temporarily disabled everything we could think of using msconfig (System Configuration Tool), still slow.

Checked the event log for disk errors, nothing wrong.

All very tedious as any actions took much longer than usual.

Found someone with the same problem on HP’s support forum here – but as so often with the Web, no solution is reported – though the guy does say, “can I assume that the cooling / cpu / power is defective”?

Called HP, and the guy diagnosed a faulty hard drive, though I was sceptical since his argument was that the self-test completed more quickly than expected, though it did not report any errors.

While scratching my head over this, I recalled that this laptop has what HP calls a “Smart AC Adapter”, which has an annoying proprietary connector featuring an additional central pin. According to this thread it actually supplies two separate power lines. The discussion includes this remark:

I tried to substitute the original HP AC adapter, with a general purpose AC adapter, applying a resistor divider between input cylinder- central pin-output cylinder, in order to get the second voltage.  But the laptop did not function normally: it was very slow

and someone adds

The slow function of the system with the alternative power source may be due to the system’s picking up a low voltage on the ‘monitoring’ pin.  This would indicate a low battery or weak charger and the system responded by cutting back on CPU/mainboard frequency to conserve power.

Could this be a clue? We started the laptop on battery power; suddenly it worked fine again. Plugged in the power cable, it slowed down. Removed the power cable, it speeded up again. Bingo.

New power supply is on order. It occurs to me that this could still be a problem with some internal connection, but I’ll be surprised if the new mains adapter does not fix it. Just occasionally the reason for a slow computer is nothing to do with Windows.

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