Biting the bullet on Windows Vista: back to XP

(Edited to bring the main point up top: I've had enough of Vista, for now, and am "downgrading" to Windows XP. Here are the reasons.)


I've been using personal computers for nearly 30 years, and writing about them for more than 25. Yes, I know that some things I wrote back at the dawn of the Reagan administration now look fairly droll. Ooooh, you type and words appear on the screen! Aaah, the power of a full 48k of RAM!


In fact, I feel pretty good about the shelf-life of what I said back before either Windows or the Macintosh existed (and when Barack Obama was in college and Rudy Giuliani was a Washington bureaucrat). I'll put it this way: I challenge anyone to sit down and write something about the tech environment of this moment (the impact of broadband, of mobile devices, of social software, whatever) that will stand up as well in 2032!


But in what I've written about technology through this time I have made two important bad calls. Until recently, only one.

That came in 1984, when the first crude, slow, toaster-looking Macintosh appeared. I tried it out and thought: for what I care about, this is no good! What I cared about was writing and storing research data. For tasks like those, the early Mac could not match what I already had: a snazzy IBM PC AT, with its blinding-fast 80286 chip. I missed, early on, what the Mac was about.


The other bad call came late last year, when I said that users should wait to buy new computers until the new version of Windows, Vista, was available -- and that "of course" they should buy Vista-equipped machines once they could. That was wrong. I apologize.


In my defense! That same column also recommended Microsoft's new Office2007, a view I stand by. It's a very good, attractive, stable, and technically sound set of programs (Word, Outlook, Excel, etc). If you don't have this already, you should get it. Also, the pre-release version of Vista I'd been using when I wrote was much less problematic than the real version has proven to be. One more defense: Sooner or later, we will all (in the PC world) be using Vista. That's how new computers will come. And, ok, I'll even say in my defense that I feel I've made a lot of good calls too.


Still, I've concluded that this initial release of Vista is not worth it. I'm digging out an install disk for Windows XP and putting that back on my machines.


What's the problem with Vista? In exact programming detail, I'm not sure. But despite a number of things it does nicely -- snazzy screen display, very rare blue-screen crashes, and some other things I'm sure I'm forgetting -- I find myself working against it more than with it. (Definition of the ideal computer program: one you never have to think about.) Of course there is its rampant gobbling of my 105-gigabyte hard disk, as complained-about here, here, here, here, and here. There is the clumsiness of the built-in indexer -- OK in theory, not that great in practice -- and of something called "user account control," which if you've tried Vista you know about and probably don't like. ComputerWorld was a little blunter about it: user account control, it said, was Vista's "most universally reviled feature."


Vista takes forever to start up or shut down and in general feels overweight and slow. I was finally pushed off the fence and toward that XP install disk by this article in TechWorld, saying that IT officials around the world were doing what they could to avoid Vista.


Microsoft can build very good software: after all Windows XP, now the standard by which Vista is found wanting, is a Microsoft mainstay, and so is the elegant new Office2007 and the particularly elegant OneNote. After the second or third "service pack," maybe Vista will shape up. But I was wrong to suggest that people use the early version. And before you get too mad at me -- hey, unlike people who start wars in which their own kids don't serve, I've paid the price for this misjudgment myself.


(And to spare myself the next zillion emails: I already have a Mac!)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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