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Windows Vista Review, Part 7: Where Vista Fails

Back in April 2006, I infamously blasted Microsoft for under-delivering with the then-beta versions of Windows Vista in part 5 of my review of the Windows Vista February 2006 CTP (Community Technical Preview) build of the product. That article was the result of months--perhaps years--of frustration on my part, due to seemingly never-ending delays and dropped features. Seen with the perspective of the intervening months, it's hard now to remember how bad Vista was at the time. Since then, of course, Microsoft has pulled off what I perceive to be a miracle of sorts: Despite the debacles of 2005 and early 2006, Windows Vista has come around quite nicely, and did so quite suddenly, and the final version is polished, performance-friendly, and full-featured, even mature. It's not perfect, of course. Thus this part of the review.

But I don't want anyone to misunderstand what's happening here. This isn't a forum for me to lash out at Microsoft for major problems in Windows Vista. Frankly, I have no major issues with Windows Vista. No, this is instead a time to sit down and reflect about the things that aren't quite right with this product, and address some of the numerous inconsistencies that seem to dog all of Microsoft's products. Windows Vista is a stellar operating system, but it has problems. They're all small problems though. You won't find any endemic architectural issues to complain about, nor will you find sweeping examples of ineptitude. For most users, Windows Vista is hugely positive.

Before getting into some of the issues I have with the product, however, I'd like to look back on the issues I raised in April 2006 and see whether they've been addressed in the final Vista version. I complained that User Account Protection (UAC) was "the most annoying feature that Microsoft has ever added to any software product," and sadly, that's largely true today, with a caveat. I do feel that most people will find UAC to be hugely annoying, especially if they take the more secure route and run as a Standard User. However, I also believe that all Windows users should leave UAC enabled, in order to ensure that their system is as secure as is possible. UAC is most annoying when you first set up and configure a new Windows Vista system: That's because this beginning time period is where you install all your applications, and that's exactly when you're going to see the most UAC prompts. You may read reviews of Windows Vista that harp on this problem, but such reviews don't offer a particularly deep analysis of the reality of UAC, which is this: Over time, the number of UAC prompts you need to deal with will go down. And over time, the annoyance of UAC will evolve into acceptance as Vista users discover what Mac OS X and Linux users discovered long ago about similar security controls in those systems. UAC is annoying, yes, but it's not deadly. It may just be one of the most important features in Windows Vista.

I also complained that the new glass-like windows in Windows Vista made it difficult to tell the difference between the foremost window and windows in the background. Sadly, this is still the case today, and users who have multiple open windows will often be confused about which window has the focus. This problem is easily solved, I think, and here's one way it could work: Instead of the subtle differences between the foreground window and other windows as in today's Aero, Vista should instead dim or fade the other windows, making it far more obvious which windows are in front. Windows that are further back could be dimmed more, giving the desktop an interesting 3D perspective. Just a thought.

I complained that Vista's version of Media Center was uglier than previous versions and used what I thought was a confusing UI based on horizontal as well as vertical scrolling. Since then, Microsoft has cleaned up Media Center with cleaner-looking graphics, a less jarring blue color, and dramatically better performance. I'm still not completely sold on horizontal navigation, but it does make sense on the widescreen displays that Microsoft feels most Vista users will want, and it looks better on HDTV-level resolutions, another part of the market the company is targeting. The biggest problem with the Vista version of Media Center is that it's half done. On certain screens, like the Start Screen and the Guide, you get the new interface. But on most other screens, including all of the secondary and tertiary screens, you get the old Media Center XP interface, where playing video is relegated to a box in the corner, rather than playing through the entire background, as in the new interface. Microsoft tells me it will bring the rest of the Media Center interface up to date in a late 2007 Media Center update, but unless this update is a free download for all Vista Media Center users, that's too little too late. Put simply, Vista's Media Center is indeed the best version yet, but there's a lot of room for growth there. I think I've used the phrase "cautiously optimistic" about the future of this solution, and that description is apt.

In short, the biggest things I complained about in April are still problems today, but they're not major problems. They are, in fact, emblematic of most Vista problems: Annoying, perhaps. Inconsistent, certainly. Major, not really. Let's see what else is wrong.

Inconsistent user interfaces

Windows has always been a boiling cauldron of inconsistent user interfaces, from the bizarre Command Line window in Windows XP (yes, it's fixed in Vista) to the Windows 95 icons that still pop up from time to time in today's Vista. Here are a few of the inconsistencies that drive me crazy in Windows Vista.

Controls Panels

In previous versions of Windows, every Control Panel applet was a standard Properties dialog (sometimes called a Property Sheet), ensuring that users would know what to expect. In Vista, it's like a game of roulette. Some Control Panels are Properties dialogs like before (like Color Management, Date and Time, and Folder Options), while others have graduated to a new-to-Vista shell window (such as Backup and Restore Center, Personalization, and Power Options). My guess is that a future Windows version will consolidate more and more Control Panels into the new style. But I also guess that these things will never be completely consistent.

Favorite Links

Windows Vista's new Explorer shell includes a new Favorite Links pane where you can customize a list of system shortcuts that will appear in every Explorer window, including the File Open and Save dialogs. That's neat, and I've spent a bit of time on each of my systems customizing both the contents and order of this list so it's exactly the way I want it. But explain something to me. Why does this list display properly in Explorer windows such as Computer and Network, but not in others, where the list is randomly ordered. For example, the Internet Explorer Open dialog displays this list in a crazy, nonsensical order. That's silly.

Recycle Bin

During the Windows Vista beta, the Recycle Bin used to visually "fill up" as you deleted more and more files. Now, it appears full regardless of how much has been deleted, or empty when there's nothing in there. And why doesn't Recycle Bin appear in Computer along with a useful fuel gauge-style free/total storage visual, like drives and partitions? That would be pretty useful.

Jarring UI changes

Windows Vista's new Aero user interface is absolutely beautiful, but whenever you run a legacy application that's not compatible (for whatever reason) with Aero, Vista performs the technical equivalent of a slap in the face, brutally and suddenly jerking your system out of Aero mode and into the uglier but more compatible Vista Basic graphical mode. I can't imagine why this is necessary, nor do I understand why only that application can't just run in the lower-end mode. The whole transition is poorly handled and, frankly, even a bit scary if you don't expect it to happen. And why would you? I don't recall Mac OS X's Aqua UI ever giving up the ghost and display the OS 9 UI when something goes wrong. That type of thing will happen in Vista.

Relics from previous Windows versions

If you were to buy a new 2007 Volkswagen New Beetle, you'd feel pretty ripped off if the vehicle included the seatbelt from a 1972 Beetle, or the bumper from a 1969 model. And so it is with Windows Vista: Despite the spit shine afforded by the vaunted Aero interface, if you look a little deeper, you're bound to come across various bits of UI from versions of Windows dating back as far as 1990. There's the widely reported Add Fonts dialog (navigate to C:\Windows\Fonts and choose Install New Fonts from the hidden File menu) which dates back to Windows 3 (!) and the Windows 2000-era permission dialog you'll see pop-up when you attempt to access a network share for which you don't have access. Ah, memories.

x64 is still a second-class citizen

I've already harped on this in other parts of the review, but let me restate the obvious here: Windows Vista was supposed to usher in an era of 64-bit computing, and while this could still happen, it's not going to happen in 2007. Thanks to widespread software incompatibilities that will take some time to overcome, the more secure and scalable x64 versions of Windows Vista will be useless to most users for at least the next year. I'll re-examine this constantly, but for now, x64 is a non-starter despite an admirable job by Microsoft to ensure that the x64 versions are otherwise identical to the 32-bit versions.

File type associations

Changing file type associations in Windows Vista is a joke and I'm honestly wondering whether this wasn't done on purpose to ensure that users have a more difficult time using third party applications like Apple's iTunes that are designed to replace built-in Windows applications like Windows Media Player. To see what I mean, check out the Set Associations Control Panel that appears any time an application tries to change file associates. Yikes.

Features that shouldn't show up but do

So let me get this straight. I don't see Mobility Center on my desktop PC, but I do see features like Tablet PC and SideShow, even though my PC's hardware doesn't support that functionality? Yeah, that makes sense.

Media Center CableCard/HD restrictions

Did you get a nice, shiny new Media Center PC this Christmas? Well, congratulations. But I've got bad news for you: It's already obsolete. If you want to use CableCARD with Windows Media Center, you don't just need Windows Vista. You need a brand new PC that includes the necessary hardware out of the box. You can't upgrade from an XP MCE 2005-based Media Center, and you can't even upgrade from a Vista-class Media Center that didn't already include this functionality. Yes, that's restrictive. And yes, that's dumb.

And if you're wondering why you can't capture a full-screen screenshot in Media Center under Windows Vista, you'll enjoy the reason: Microsoft doesn't want pirates capturing full-sized HDTV images frame-by-frame. Is George Orwell in the house? We have a call for a Mr. George Orwell.

Internet Explorer

I like Internet Explorer 7 a lot (a phrase I'm still coming to grips with, believe me) but there are a few issues with this next generation browser that just don't make sense. First, the UI is scatter-brained. The Home button is over on the far right instead of next to the Address Bar where it belongs, for example, and there's no way to change it. But my favorite bit of inconsistency in IE has got to be the "Remember my password" option on the Connect dialog that appears when you use IE to connect to a secure Web site. In previous Windows versions, you could check this option to ensure that you'd never have to type the password in again. In Windows Vista, this option does nothing, so you can check it every single time you use it, but you will still have to type that darned password. Microsoft tells me this is by design, but I have one question: If I can't save the password, why is the option displayed at all?

Features I miss from the Windows shell

While I'm pretty happy with the selection of folder view styles in Windows Vista, I miss the Filmstrip view from Windows XP. I used this view style almost daily to triage screenshots that I wanted to post to this site. In Windows Vista, there's no Filmstrip view, and even Extra Large Icon view doesn't supply big enough image views. Outgoing Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin told me recently that the Vista shell's hidden Preview pane was a valid alternative to Filmstrip view, and on the face of it, that seems correct: Though the image preview is on the right and not on the top as in Filmstrip view, the Preview pane does, in fact, give you an in-place preview pane. There's just one problem: Unlike a true view style, the Preview pane is a global Explorer option that affects every single Explorer window on the system. With Filmstrip view, you were affecting only the view of the current window. So every time I use the Preview Pane (which, again, is hidden by default), I need to remember to turn it off when I'm done. Thus, the Preview pane is not a replacement for Filmstrip view at all. It's just a different feature that works somewhat similarly.

More problematic, Windows Vista's photo import functionality is completely and horribly broken, because it is horribly limited and less functional than the version Microsoft included in Windows XP. In XP, when you connected a digital camera (or inserted a memory card), you got a nice wizard that let you pick which photos to import. In Vista, you can only choose to import all of the photos at one time. This means that all of these photos will be made part of the same set and be tagged in Photo Gallery with the same metadata. So if those photos are of a bunch of events over a long period of time, you're out of luck, and you'll have to manually go in and edit meta data (and, if you're particularly anal, file names and folders) if you use Vista's broken photo importer. This is a huge problem, because it's a regression from XP's functionality and is definitely not an improvement.


As noted previously, none of these problems are major or fatal. Many are annoying. Some will certainly cause a certain segment of the computer-using public to react angrily, while others will simply wonder what all the fuss is about. Certainly, you might be able to come up with a list of other problems, or missing features, or whatever. Windows Vista is, after all, a big system. But that's part of the problem: Microsoft has never really nailed the consistency thing, and they've never been particularly good with fit and finish. Hopefully, this will improve in the future. In the meantime, Windows Vista is more consistent and elegant than any Windows version before it. But let's be honest. That's not saying much.

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