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The Dark Side of Windows Vista RC1

In a recent showcase, I highlighted five things I really like about Windows Vista. That's a cute list, and certainly, I could easily come up with another 5, or 10, or 20. And you know, maybe I'll do just that. But first, I'd like to discuss a number of problems I have with Windows Vista. This, to be honest, is a long list. That doesn't mean that Windows Vista is a waste of time, or a product to be reviled. As a friend once noted, "it's good enough to criticize." Well, maybe. It certainly deserves to be criticized.

You see, Windows Vista isn't perfect. It's not even close to perfect. It's better than Windows XP is, of course, but it damn well should be: It benefits from five more years of experience and work. Being better is the minimum requirement. Whether Vista is enough of an improvement over XP to warrant your hard earned money is a subject I'm saving for my eventual review of the final shipping version of the product, but I'll give you a bit of preview now and say the answer may surprise you. In the meantime, let's harp a bit on the things I don't like about Vista as it now stands in RC1 form.

It's the UI, stupid. Actually, it's a stupid UI

Last year, I infamously called for the firing of the person responsible for what was then a miserable Media Center user interface. That was a bit harsh, perhaps, but you have to remember that the Media Center UI that debuted in the October 2005 CTP (see my review) was also absolutely horrible. Since then, Vista's Media Center has improved a lot. At least Microsoft listens.

This time, I'd like approach a bit of UI that will almost certainly not change by the time Vista ships. And that's too bad, because it's one of the single stupidest UI decisions I've ever seen. (As a side note, Mac guys like to point to the Start button as a stupid UI decision, because you have to go to "Start" to shutdown the PC. Whatever. This one makes the Start button look like divine inspiration by comparison.)

Here it is. In previous versions of Windows, wizards and wizard-based applications provided logical Next and Back buttons so you could easily navigate forward and backwards through the various steps presented. Here's a typical example.

Vista, too, offers a variety of wizards and wizard-based applications. And like XP, Vista's wizards offer Next and Back buttons. Here's a typical example.

What? You don't see the Back button? Oh, it's that weird blue thing in the corner. Why does Vista use a graphical browser-like button for Back and an old-fashioned text-based button for Next? I can understand why Back is on the left, and why Next is on the right, but why is Back on the top of the application while Next is on the bottom?

UI guys are going to have a field day with this one. For some reason, Microsoft's software designers have decided to use the Web browser's navigational scheme in many of Windows Vista's application (and not just wizards). But since this is Microsoft we're talking about, they did so in a completely inconsistent and even partial fashion. So now Back is graphical and on the top of the window, while Next/Forward is textual and on the bottom.


Or not. Most stupidly, there's nothing to suggest that the two buttons are related in any way. So it's not really clear that they offer similar functionality. What's really amazing is that the functionality underneath is often even more insidious than it appears at first glance. Let's use Windows DVD Maker as an example. Assume you're busy making your first DVD movie. You're in the second stage of the wizard (which is stupidly called Ready to Burn Disc even though there are at least five other things you can do in this phase). You click the Customize menu toolbar button to navigate forward to the "Customize the Disc Menu Style" phase of the wizard, adjust some properties, and go back to the previous phase to preview the changes. Deciding you want to visit "Customize the Disc Menu Style" screen again, you type ALT + RIGHT ARROW, which is of course the keyboard shortcut for "Forward," as we've all learned after several years of IE usage. Clearly, this will bring us back to the "Customize the Disc Menu Style" screen.

Nope. Instead, this keyboard shortcut is the equivalent of clicking the Burn button for some reason. Instead of changing the menu style again, you just started burning your disc. Or a coaster, since the disc you're now making isn't what you wanted.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But wait, there's more. Oh there is so much more.

Why can't we have the Up directory button in Explorer windows anymore? I get that the new breadcrumb functionality in the Address Bar is more powerful, but sometimes you just want to go up one level. (On the flipside, Microsoft did finally implement the ALT + UP ARROW shortcut I've been asking for since the Windows XP beta. Thank you for finally listening to that one.)

And speaking of Explorer, why isn't the first item in the current view always selected when I open a new folder? If you double-click on a folder in Explorer, or select a folder in the Favorites Link list or folders list, it's not clear at all where the focus is. What's selected? Why is nothing selected? The behavior is different almost every time, and it's never clear what the reason is.

How come the special shell folders are less intelligent now? In Windows XP, when you went to My Documents, for example, you'd see links to related locations like Shared Documents. In Windows Vista, there's no such intelligence. Every single folder simply presents the same exact list of Favorite Links. And here's the best part: Sometimes they're actually presented in a different order. Yeah, that's just good stuff.

And what's up with the glaringly inconsistent UI across Windows Vista and all of its applications? Some windows have menus, some don't, and some have hidden menus. Some have these new black toolbars, some don't. And so on. Why isn't there a team of people just working on consistency issues?

Why does Internet Explorer want to download stuff to a Downloads folder? What is Downloads? Where is it? How do find it? (Yes, I know it's in the home folder, but the average user won't know that.) When I download something, how come it disappears? Why doesn't the Downloads window open when the download is complete? Why isn't Downloads on the Start Menu if it's the default in IE? Was the desktop too logical and commonly-used a destination?

How come Windows Vista has this great search feature but most of the bundled applications still use an old fashioned Find dialog that often gets in the way of what you're trying to find? Open up Notepad or Wordpad and try to find some text. Why isn't there a Search box right up there in the top right corner of the window? Duh.

How come x64 is so horrible? Does Microsoft want Apple to make it look silly again? Those foolish enough to install an x64 version of Windows Vista will become pretty surly when they realize none of their applications will work, none of their existing drivers mean diddly-squat anymore, and, most humorously, that x64 PC you bought probably doesn't support more than 4 GB of RAM anyway. OK, that last one isn't Microsoft's fault, but seriously. It's all part of the malaise that is the x64 "ecosystem."

A few applications that need to be brought out back and shot

What about Vista's bundled applications? Fear not, there's plenty to complain about there as well.

Windows Sidebar

I guess I can handle the notion that Vista's Sidebar is nothing like the wonderful front-end for system notifications we were promised back in 2003. I can even handle that it's a half-hearted rip-off of Apple's Dashboard (which was itself a ruthless rip-off of Konfabulator, but whatever.) What I can't handle is that this bloated, semi-useless strip of screen real estate-stealing UI is enabled by default on Vista, that it takes forever to load, causing your effective boot time to almost double, and that it takes multiple steps to actually kill it.

Here's what I mean. You install Vista for the first time and wait, painfully, for Sidebar to load. You have to wait, because, humorously, you can't turn it off until it loads all the way. Then, you have to perform several distinct actions to actually kill this thing:

1. Right-click the Sidebar and choose Properties.
2. Uncheck "Start Sidebar when Windows starts."
3. Close the Properties dialog.
4. Right-click the Sidebar and choose Close Sidebar. The Sidebar disappears and a new Sidebar tray icon appears.
5. Right-click the new Sidebar tray icon and choose "Exit."
6. In the dialog that appears, choose "Exit Sidebar."

Seriously. There were lawsuits brought against America Online recently because the company made it too difficult to leave the service. This makes AOL look oddly accommodating by comparison.

User Account Control

And take User Account Control (UAC), please. No seriously, please take it. And kill it. And stomp on its dead body. And then hang it on a flag pole as a warning to others. Yes, UAC is dramatically less annoying than it was in Beta 2. And yes, Microsoft has addressed the very egregious problems and bugs I found in this software earlier this year. And you know what? UAC is still annoying. It's still really annoying. It still pops up way too much, especially when you're using a so-called administrator account. And for once, I actually have a solution. It goes like this.

Instead of pretending that people are using the system with administrator privileges, just call the current default account type pseudo-admin, since that's what it really is. And then create a real administrator account type in which there are no UAC pop-ups at all, ever. Don't make it the default, but require users to manually create such an account after first boot, and only after a series of annoying warnings. Then, if the user has sufficiently proven that they're not interested in UAC and its annoying behavior, let the user fly free. Let them be stupid. Let them get on with life, please. UAC is the wrong solution for a very real problem. But the truth is, real power users are just going to turn it off anyway. All that work has been for nothing, sorry. It's just going to upset normal people. Every. Single. Day. 

Windows Photo Import

Let's talk photo import. It's broken in Windows Vista, horribly broken. Here's why. In Windows XP, you could preview the pictures on the attached camera and select exactly which photos to download. That way, if you had several events captured on the memory card, you could download them separately be stepping through the wizard once for each event. In Vista, you can't choose. You get all these great file naming and tagging options, but you have to download the entire contents of the camera in one giant whack. That, friends, is just stupid. It's less useful than photo import in XP.

Windows Mail

Microsoft should be ashamed of themselves for this one. It can't do Web mail? The last time I checked, Windows Vista wasn't free, so the only way to get this application was to pay for it. How about adding back some basic features that even Outlook Express has? Even calling this thing Windows Mail is an insult. The Windows name should only be added to first rate products. Ditto for Windows DVD Maker, which is also a sad little 1.0 product that just manages to make Apple's iLife suite and the Macs it runs on look all the more attractive.

Anti-virus and Anti-spam

Windows Vista's antivirus and anti-spam features are particularly embarrassing because of Microsoft's stated focus on security in Windows Vista. Oh, and because there aren't any. To get this kind of protection, you'll need to pay Microsoft $50 a year for Windows Live OneCare which, while admittedly an excellent product, should also just come free with the OS that caused the problems in the first place. Obviously.

Final thoughts

I could go on and, heck, maybe I will in the future. The point here isn't to rant, or to prove that Windows Vista is worthless, but rather to highlight some issues that I have with this release in the hope that some of them can be fixed or at least addressed. Overall, Windows Vista is a stunning bit of work. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and Microsoft has never been very good at consistency and that final bit of polish that separates something competent from something wonderful. Windows Vista RC1 is a competent upgrade to Windows XP. Let's see if we can do better than that.

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