Category Archives: vista

Windows Server 2008 is better than Vista, but why?

Mark Wilson asks:

It seems that, wherever you look, Windows Server 2008 is almost universally acclaimed. And rightly so – I believe that it is a fantastic operating system release (let’s face it, Windows Server 2003 and R2 were very good too) and is packed full of features that have the potential to add significant value to solutions.

So, tell me, why are the same journalists who think Windows Server 2008 is great, still berating Windows Vista – the client version of the same operating system codebase?

The short answer is that Server 2008 delivers new features that customers wanted, whereas Vista delivers new features that Microsoft thought its customers should want. However, it seems there may be more to it than that. Maybe Server 2008 really does perform better than Vista.

According to this post, Server 2008 performs 11-17% faster than Vista SP1, running a couple of benchmarks which test typical client applications. Christian Mohn concurs:

Windows Server 2008 performs better, even with the Aero features enabled, than Vista ever did on the same hardware. To me, this a bit strange, even if a lot of services are still disabled, as the codebase is pretty much the same as Vista.

though Mohn’s example is less scientific: he never ran Vista SP1, and also moved from 32-bit to 64-bit.

Server 2008 has a “Desktop Experience” feature, which installs things like Windows Media Player, Aero GUI effects, and other fluff that doesn’t belong on a server. My assumption had been that once you installed this, Server 2008 would perform in a similar manner to Vista. Apparently this is not the case.

It seems to me there are a few possibilities. One is that Microsoft isn’t being straight with us about this “same codebase” stuff. It would be interesting to analyze the core DLLs and work out which are the same, and which are different.

The second possibility is that there’s stuff in Vista which is not part of the core, nor part of the Desktop Experience, but which slugs performance. If so, it would be great to identify it and turn it off.

The third explanation is that the testers are wrong, and that performance is actually similar. For example, maybe Vista was running a background update or backup during tests. Background processes make it hard to conduct truly rigorous performance comparisons.

I’d like to see Mark Russinovich get his teeth into this. I’m also tempted to try the Server 2008 desktop experiment myself.

Ubuntu Hardy Heron – very cool

I had a spare desktop after upgrading my Vista box – at least, I popped my old motherboard in a spare case and added a hard drive. It seemed a good opportunity to try Ubuntu Hardy Heron. Ubuntu has a policy of  upgrading its Linux distribution every six months, in April and October, and Hardy Heron is this year’s April release. I tried a late beta, since final release is not until the end of the month. Burned a CD, stuck it in the drive, and installed it.

The install went smoothly. The main hassle with Ubuntu, and most other Linux distros, is that there are a few add-ons which you can’t easily do without, but which are excluded from the main release either for legal reasons, or because they are proprietary. For example, I tried to play a DVD, but the Totem movie player said it did not have the right GStreamer plugin. It would be nice if Ubuntu had a one-click install, something like “OK, I give in, give me libdvdcss2, give me Flash, give me Java, and I’ll take the consequences.” I fiddled around with Medibuntu, then realised you can get something close to a one-click install if you add ubuntu-restricted-extras to the repository. It didn’t actually take too long before I was up and running: DVDs played, YouTube worked, Java worked. I also added the NVIDIA proprietary driver which is needed to enable the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop. That one was easy: Ubuntu prompted me to do it.

The “what’s new” list includes Linux kernel 2.6.24, Firefox 3 (although still in beta), and better virtualization support with KVM. Gnome is updated to 2.22. Think incremental rather than dramatic changes.

Subjectively, Ubuntu performs better on the same hardware than Vista. There is just less waiting around. I had some fun connecting to my Vista desktop using the Terminal Server client. Then I pressed Windows-Tab to cycle between applications (note the cool reflections):

The key factor for Ubuntu is not features, but usability. In this respect, it seems to get better every time I look.

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JBuilder 2008 and Vista’s Program Compatibility Assistant

One of Vista’s annoyances is this dialog, which you may see shortly after installing an application:

As you can see, I got this after installing CodeGear’s new JBuilder. The reason it annoys me is that it doesn’t tell you what “compatibility settings” it has applied. In this case, even if you go to JBuilder.exe in Explorer and view its properties, you will find all the compatibility options unchecked. So what has it done?

Of course I clicked “What settings are applied”. Here’s what it says:

As you can see, this still does not tell you what settings are applied. By the way, Group Policy enables you to disable the Program Compatibility Assistant completely, but does not show the settings for individual applications.

I ran the registry editor, and found this entry:

It looks like the Persisted key tells Vista which applications have already had settings applied, while the Layers key tells Vista what settings to apply. ELEVATECREATEPROCESS lets the application create child processes which require admin rights, though they still raise a UAC prompt.

I also found this Microsoft article which does a good job of explaining how the Compatibility Assistant works. It appears that JBuilder 2008 tries to run something which requires administrator permissions, but does not use the  correct Vista technique for doing so. I soon found out what it is:

It’s running regedit, and exporting some keys that appear to relate to Mozilla’s Gecko Runtime project, for embedding a browser in an application. Unfortunately it does this (twice) every time it runs, which is unlikely to be necessary. You would have thought there would be a better way to use these registry entries, than exporting a temporary file.

Conclusions? None really; I just wanted to know what this annoying wizard does. A couple of observations though. First, it’s careless of CodeGear to let JBuilder 2008 out like this. It just looks bad, to have your app identified as an old one that needs compatibility help.

Second, if you read Microsoft’s article you’ll notice that among other things Vista “instruments” the CreateProcess API call in order to make this work. There must be a performance impact. I guess Microsoft will say it is a small one; but I guess it also makes its little contribution to Vista’s overall performance issues.

Windows 7 rumoured to have new UI framework with Ribbon and Jewel

Not sure what to make of this. A number of sites are reporting on a Microsoft job posting which includes the following text:

Come lead the effort to update the Windows 7 platform with the latest advancements in User Interface design. Bring the Ribbon, Jewel, and other new UI concepts to the Windows platform … Our mission is to enable the next generation of user interface development on the Windows platform. We will be determining the new Windows user interface guidelines and building a platform that supports it. We’ll eliminate much of the drudgery of Win32 UI development and enable rich, graphical, animated user interface by using markup based UI and a small, high performance, native code runtime … The UI Platform Team is looking for a senior technical leader to help drive the design and implementation of the new UI framework.

The posting appears to have been pulled, which means I can’t verify that it ever existed. Still, it’s thought-provoking. The “Jewel”, by the way, is the big button at top left of Office 2007 apps – the one you have to click when in search of the File menu.

I get on OK with the ribbon in Office 2007, but it has annoyances. For example, in Excel, why is Insert Cells and Rows on the Home ribbon but not on the Insert ribbon? I tolerate it because of the Quick Access Toolbar which lets me group the commands I often use but can’t find easily.

Even so, there’s no harm in making the ribbon a first-class citizen in Windows. But what about this new “markup based UI” and “small, high performance, native code runtime”? It is hard to believe that Microsoft would abandon WPF, which is already a markup-based UI. Might this be a new WPF runtime that does not require .NET? This may seem plausible if you recall that early versions of Longhorn attempted to use .NET for the core Windows UI, a mistaken decision that was a factor in the infamous reset, and thus indirectly caused Vista to be delivered both late and unready.

It still makes little sense. Microsoft already has a small, high-performance, alternative WPF runtime: Silverlight. Why build another one? Further, Windows needs simplification, not new frameworks. It also seems late in the day to be contemplating the “design and implementation” of a new UI framework. Perhaps it is just an early April Fool; or maybe plans are further along than the posting implies.

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Microsoft’s Vista Capable campaign: where it all went wrong

A series of remarkable internal emails have been made public as a result of the class action lawsuit against Microsoft for its “Vista capable” marketing campaign in the second half of 2006. In essence, the claim is that many of these PCs were not really Vista-compatible, because they could only run Vista Basic, and not Vista’s distinctive Aero graphics.

This is not just about eye candy. See Microsoft’s Greg Schechter’s explanation of Vista’s Desktop Window Manager, part of Aero:

The primary takeaway for desktop composition:  the way an application gets pixels on the screen has fundamentally changed.

It’s fair to say that missing out on Aero means missing out on a core feature of Vista.

Todd Bishop’s Microsoft blog has more details on the case, including a large PDF document showing internal correspondence from Microsoft and its partners, giving insight into how the Vista Capable campaign evolved.

The problem was that Microsoft allowed machines to carry the “Vista Capable” sticker even if they were not able to run Aero. An email from Microsoft’s Ken Goetsch:

We have removed the technical requirement that a Windows Vista Capable PC contains a Graphics Processor Unit (GPU) that supports the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM), formerly known as the Longhorn Display Driver Model.

Other correspondence in the PDF shows that many at Microsoft were uneasy with this decision; however it was apparently done to help out Intel. Here’s an internal email from John Kalkman, dated February 26 2007::

In the end, we lowered the requirement to help Intel make their quarterly earnings so they could continue to sell motherboards with 915 graphics embedded. This in turn did two things: 1. Decreased focus of OEMs planning and shipping higher-end graphics for Vista ready programs and 2. Reduced the focus by IHVs to ready great WHQL qualified graphics drivers. We can see this today with Intel’s inability to ship a compelling full featured 945 graphics driver for Windows Vista.

Later he says:

It was a mistake on our part to change the original graphics requirements. This created confusion in the industry on how important the aspect of visual computing would play as a feature set to new Windows Vista upgraders.

Now I know why I have over two hundred comments to my January 2007 post, Vista display driver takes a break. My laptop, a Toshiba Portege M400, has the 945 chipset. I bought it specifically to run Vista, towards the end of 2006; and yes, it has a “Windows Vista Capable” sticker. The early Vista graphics drivers were indeed faulty, though in my case a February 2007 update pretty much fixed the problems. I was lucky it did not have a 915 chipset.

How did all this mess come about? The heart of the problem seems to be the infamous Vista reset in 2004, when a ton of work on Longhorn was scrapped, and work resumed based on the Windows 2003 codebase. This was almost certainly a good decision (or the least-bad one possible); but the consequence was that Vista was very late. Another reason was the huge effort put into Windows XP SP2; and the reason for that was the number of desperate security problems in Windows XP.

So Vista was late, and in consequence was rushed. In addition, PC sales were sagging because XP was old and people were waiting for Vista (or switching to Macs), so Intel had overstock. All the pieces were now in place for a Vista-capable sticker whose meaning was not what most people would expect.

Embarrassing for Microsoft. It is better to be transparent even with bad news like, “Your PC will never run Vista properly”, rather than fudge the issue. The episode also illustrates one of the downsides of working with multiple hardware partners, rather than keeping both hardware and software in-house as Apple does.

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Fixing Windows Media Player after a system upgrade

A while back I upgraded my motherboard. Windows Media Player seemed fine – in fact, it works quite a bit better with the faster CPU – until today, when it started crashing shortly after starting. The faulting module was Indiv01.key.

The solution is in this thread. On Vista, what you have to do is to delete the contents of the folder C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\DRM (not the folder itself). Note that this folder is invisible by default. In Explorer – Folder Options – View, you have to check Show hidden files and folders, and uncheck Hide protected operating system files.

Observe the caveat:

Note that anything recorded on the old system that is DRM protected will not be playable after this procedure.

I recall doing something similar to get BBC iPlayer (download version) working.

This is all to do with tying DRM to hardware. You are not meant to copy a protected file to another PC and still be able to play it. There used to be a method for backing up and restoring your licenses, but it seems to have gone in Vista. From online help:

This version of the Player does not permit you to back up your media usage rights. However, depending upon where your protected files came from, you might be able to restore your rights over the Internet. For more information, see the question in this topic about how to restore your media usage rights.

This leaves a few questions for Microsoft to consider:

  • Why does a DRM problem break Windows Media Player even when playing non-DRM content?
  • Why does a DRM problem cause Windows Media Player to crash, rather than reporting a DRM problem?
  • Why does the user have to uncheck a box in Explorer options that says “Recommended” and warns you that you may make your computer inoperable, in order to fix a common problem? I mean “Hide protected operating system files”?
  • Is it acceptable to say, “you might be able to restore your rights”, when a user could in theory have thousands of pounds invested in DRM-protected content?

Fortunately I don’t have any DRM-protected content that I am aware of.

Everything is fine now.

How long should it take to set up a laptop?

So you need a new laptop. Ignoring those irritating voices that say you should go Apple, you select a value-for-money offering from one of the big names like Toshiba or HP, hit the buy button at Ebuyer or the like, and a day or so later a van is at the door and you have your shiny new laptop. You slit the tape, pull the thing out of the box, plug it in and turn it on. How long should it take before you are happily typing away in Word or enjoying a DVD?

The answer I guess is as short a time as possible. In principle, I don’t see why it should take more than 5 or 10 minutes. The manufacturer has pre-installed the operating system and can ensure that all the right drivers are in place.

Here’s what actually happened when I did this for a friend yesterday. Toshiba Satellite Pro A200 with Vista Business. Not a bad machine, great value. We also had a key to activate Office 2007, which came pre-installed as part of Microsoft’s Office Ready scheme.

I started mid-morning. Turned on. It takes ages before it lets you in. I lost count of the reboots. There is some sort of partitioning dance, then when Vista itself starts up it goes through an optimisation process, then various Toshiba and third-party utilities install themselves, sometimes requiring a reboot. I broke for lunch.

After lunch I connected to the Internet. Vista immediately set about downloading updates. Needed reboots, naturally. Then I ran the Office Activation Wizard. Microsoft’s Office-Ready program is great marketing, but fairly annoying, because typically you don’t want to purchase all of it. In our case we had purchased Office Small Business, but not Access. In consequence, you end up with an installation that is partially a trial version, even though you have paid. I’ve heard of this scenario actually preventing a machine from passing “Genuine Office Validation” when trying to download updates from Microsoft. Not a good way to treat customers. The solution is to uninstall the bits of Office you are not actually buying.

At this point I could have declared “job done”, but I knew that it wasn’t. I applied Vista SP1, which takes ages. I applied Office 2007 SP1, which is fairly quick. I removed a few things that I knew would not be needed, like Outlook’s Business Contact Manager.

I uninstalled Toshiba’s ConfigFree utility. This is a thing that is meant to “simplify” managing wireless (and wired) networks. It hijacks Vista’s perfectly good built-in wireless configuration utility. Now, it is possible that ConfigFree genuinely offers some added value, but even if it does this kind of thing is still a nuisance. First, because people like myself know how the Windows version works, and are disinclined to learn the foibles of an unnecessary replacement. Second, because the official item will be maintained and updated through Windows update, rather than at the whim of Toshiba (or whomever).

If you are really unlucky, the supplier of your wireless card, or wireless router, or your ISP, will persuade you to install yet more network configuration software. Once two or three of these guys are fighting to manage and diagnose your wireless connection, you have little chance of connecting successfully to anything.

There there is anti-virus to think about. Personally I reckon the practice of installing trial versions of Norton’s anti-virus suite (or similar) is a disgrace. It makes for a lousy user experience because the first thing you see after enduring setup is a nag screen assuring you that your new computer is insecure. It is a disgrace because if you accept the trial but don’t pay up, you end up with an out-of-date anti-virus utility, which leaves you vulnerable. Let’s not forget that basic anti-virus software is available for free from AVG and a few others – if Toshiba really cared about the security of its customers, it would pre-install that. I have zero confidence in anti-virus software anyway, but this is not the place.

Result overall: three to four hours spent on something that should take a few minutes.

I have a good understanding of the commercial, technical and political reasons for these hassles, and I don’t regard Toshiba as the worst offender. Nevertheless, Microsoft and its partners have failed to tackle the problem effectively, and this is a factor behind Apple’s resurgence. Frankly, Ubuntu and other Linux distros are more fun to install, though with Linux you inevitably end up Googling to solve one or more strange issues so overall it is no better for the non-technical user.

Recently I’ve been working with Windows Server 2008, which is a delight by comparison. The concept is simple: pre-install the bare bones, and make all the features optional. So Microsoft can do it. Why can’t consumer Windows work the same way? Install a clean, fast, basic version of Windows, and then let the user decide what else they require?

Vista SP1 report

I’ve installed Vista SP1 on several machines. Takes ages, but otherwise it’s been without incident.

This does not dramatically improve Vista (in my experience); but then again, it wasn’t that bad before. It does seem to speed up Explorer and zip extraction. It tames UAC slightly – some operations that used to require several prompts now only require one. Otherwise, I haven’t noticed much change, though I’m aware that it includes numerous small updates.

What I do find interesting is that Server 2008, which has the same core as Vista SP1, is delightfully smooth in comparison to Vista. Just don’t ever install the Desktop Experience on 2008 – this is a separate feature that is off by default – or whatever it is that makes Vista still somewhat prone to sitting and thinking when you want to get on with your work.

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