A month ago, my working arsenal of machinery included two Vista laptops and one Mac iBook. Now, as explained earlier, I'm using one Mac, one ThinkPad "downgraded" to XP, and the other ThinkPad still with Vista. I've kept the Vista machine for two main reasons: it's quite a chore to get Vista off a computer and XP back on (hard-disk reformatting recommended), so I stopped after doing it once; and now I can use the machine as a test bed, to see how Vista changes and, I hope, improves as new patches and updates arrive. Also, I bought and paid for legit copies of Vista, so I might as well make some use of them.

Here is the recent good news and bad news on the Vista front.


1) Vista has a very nice feature I didn't mention among its virtues: the "ReadyBoost" cache. This allows you to use a "flash drive" or "memory stick" -- one of those little storage devices you plug into a USB port -- to speed up overall operations. Details below* for anyone who's interested: essentially, it allows the computer to read frequently-used information from the flash drive, which is very fast, rather than from the hard drive itself, which is much slower. The feature is elegantly designed, it works easily, and it's apparently fool-proof.

2) Microsoft has apparently given its blessing to an outside product that essentially disables Vista's "most universally reviled feature," in the words of ComputerWorld. This is User Account Control, an intrusive yet ineffective "security" measure comparable to the old "has this luggage been in your possession at all times?" catechism at the airport.

3) Some tech experts outside Microsoft have begun saying: Wait a minute, Vista's getting a bad rap! Many examples, but this one by Alexander Wolfe, of Information Week, gives his reasons for sticking with Vista (despite the remaining gripes he admits to here.) Also, as Ed Bott of ZDnet points out, the now-venerated WinXP was similarly griped-about in its first incarnation. As were the first releases of Win2000, and Win95, and Win3.0/3.1, and all releases of WinME.

4) Microsoft has recently posted two updates -- ones that didn't automatically appear on my machine via the WindowsUpdate service -- that are supposed to improve Vista's "performance" and "reliability." Performance in computer-land mainly means speed, and, man, can Vista use help in that department. Reliability includes fixing a number of known bugs -- to me, the worst is the computer's tendency to become unstable if asked to "hibernate" while some online activites are going on. (XP doesn't do this.) Haven't installed these yet, but I sure will. Update: Have now installed these and used for a day. If there is a speed difference, it is subtle -- but I'm keeping my hopes up. Similarly, it looks as if the long-awaited Service Pack 1 for Vista will be released early next year.

5) A reader reported a miracle cure to the hard-disk-hogging that is for me the bane of life with Vista. George Channin of San Francisco writes:

I experienced exactly the same strange Windows Vista memory issues as you wrote about, and at exactly the same time. Scores of GBs more memory 'filled' than could be accounted for by all my files; in fact the total memory used was just about double the number for which I could account.

Then quite suddenly, yesterday (August 24 here in the States), everything changed: Vista (or something) is using about 40GB less than the day before! No explanation, of course.

Maybe others will be similarly blessed?

To put this memory use in perspective: one Gmail account, which the company advertises as being so huge you'll never have to think about deleting messages, holds a little more than 2GB. I've had 2GB disappear from my hard drive, for no apparent reason, in half an hour.

Now, the less-good news:

1) The miracle that saved George Channin's machine has not yet been visited upon mine.

2) None of the defenses of Vista address what seems to me its most obvious shortcoming: its ponderousness. It is slow to start up, slow to close down, and heavy in the demands it makes of hardware (CPU speed, RAM capacity, disk space). The overall boss of Vista during its development, Jim Allchin, explained the phenomenon in this chipper way on his Vista Team blog:

When comparing the performance of Windows XP and Windows Vista on a PC with 1 GB of main memory, Windows Vista is generally comparable to Windows XP or faster. However, we also know that in some cases, on PCs with 512 MB of main memory, applications on Windows XP may seem more responsive. ["Seem"???] Why? Mostly because the features in Windows Vista use a bit [!!!] more memory to do the things that make it so cool [this is the way many developers talk] like indexing your data, keeping the fancier AERO UI running using the desktop window manager (DWM), etc.

Here is the way actual people describe the same thing. George Channin again (about the effect of hard-disk gobbling on overall speed):

Although the look and feel of Vista were immediately attractive, I soon found that performing some tasks was slower in Vista. As the months passed, I began to get warning messages that I was almost out of memory, despite that all known files (including system files) consumed 35 to 40 GB on my 80 GB hard disk. Upon checking as your blog described, I discovered that I had only about 1.2 GB free. Then an hour later, with no substantial activity on my part, I might find 'computer' saying I had 3.2 GB free. Then later 4.8, then suddenly only 144 MB. This bouncing around continued for perhaps 2-1/2 months, I suppose. During its worst times, the cursor would suddenly disappear from the screen for a second (or two, or three), then reappear. On-line audio files would get stuck into a loop and replay the same five seconds of sound over and over and over again before my system righted itself and carried on.

And reader Daniel Mejia:

I wanted to try out vista first so i got the ultimate version (I cant live without having the best versions of software) and I didn't notice but I unleashed hell.. some software could run "properly" while some couldn't.. At first it was the "new" feeling but after some time it was a horrible experience, asking me about every movement [the User Account Control], draining my old battery in 40 minutes (on xp it holds for 2 hours) and the aero wasn't that great. I had problems connecting with some wifi networks and the list goes on and on, so i downgraded after a month to xp

3) When the incompatibilities and instabilities will presumably get worked out, the resource demands seem more fundamental. Some have argued that Vista won't ever be suitable for mobile devices, like tablet computers or all but the most powerful laptops. To me the main implication is: wait. We expect that Vista will become better, and we know that RAM, CPUs, and disk drives will become cheaper and more powerful. So the longer you wait before getting a system with Vista, the better the odds that the system will be able to run it acceptably. Meanwhile I will keep waiting for the miracle, perhaps via these two new patches.


* About ReadyCache: When a system is running more applications than fit in the main RAM, it creates "virtual memory," stored on the hard disk. That's a big step forward from the earliest systems that could run only as many programs as fit in actual RAM; but reading from a disk is comparatively slow. This new Vista feature mirrors the virtual memory on the "flash drive" as well as the regular hard disk. Because it's on the flash drive, it can be retrieved much more quickly; because the same info is on the hard disk, there's no disruption if you pull out the USB flash drive/memory stick even while the system is running.

How big a flash drive do you need to notice the difference? In my experience, one with at least as much RAM as the main system memory. My computer has 2GB of RAM, and I use a 2GB USB memory stick:

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