Windows Vista and *My* Happiness

A few weeks ago I wrote about some concerns about Vista’s usability in a post titled Windows Vista and the Measurement of Happiness. I’ve now had a chance to test those concerns myself on my home machine, and what I’ve found is a mixed bag.

To give Vista a fair chance, I’ve tried to leave it as uncustomized as possible, usually the default Microsoft solution when one was available instead of installing my preferred app. On XP, it takes me 4-5 hours of tweaking and installing to get my desktop to where I want it. For Vista, I’m only go to seek out alternatives after I’ve tried the built-in solution for a while.

It’s probably best to start with Flip 3D, the feature that took the most heat in my previous post. After about ten days of heavy use, I can report that Flip 3D is essentially useless. It solves no practical problem that I’ve ever had while switching applications. I generally have applications open that display a lot of text — Firefox, Outlook, a text editor (usually JEdit), a File Browser, and some instant message windows. At a resolution of 1600×1200, a screenshot of those applications will contain very few distinguishing features. In all previous versions of Windows since ’95, the Alt-Tab dialog showed the application’s icon, which are generally quite different and simple to distinguish. In Vista, the Flip 3D, Alt-Tab and taskbar hover state all show a thumbnail of the application itself. This actually takes more mental effort on my part to distinguish the running applications, since the windows themselves contain mostly text and whitespace. I’ve tried to force myself to use Flip 3D instead of Alt-Tab, but so far I haven’t seen any advantages to this system.

The assumption is that Flip 3D is a poor-man’s Exposé. The beauty of Exposé is that it flattens the active task list so that all windows are represented onscreen at the same time, with roughly equal weight. It also provides cues through animation, showing the user where each window has been placed by sliding and shrinking them. Flip 3D doesn’t do any of these things — it’s essentially a fancy Alt-Tab. Technically, you can click on the window you want to activate, but since the skewed angle of the windows blocks full view of each application, it’s an exercise in hunt-and-click. Alt-Tab works because it’s so simple, your brain doesn’t have to switch contexts and parse the list. When moving content between applications (cut/paste, etc) I can Alt-Tab without thinking about it. Technically, Flip 3D could be used this way (although it would require an extra tap of the Tab key because the initial selection is your current window, instead of the next window), but why? At this point, it becomes eye candy and nothing more. The only good thing I can say about Flip 3D is that it’s very responsive. Aero Glass is quite snappy, with none of the processing lag I would see using XP’s GUI rendering system.

This thumbnail approach to task switching is now prevalent on the taskbar and in Vista’s Alt-Tab. Once again, the value of the thumbnail is negated when the window itself is so large that it’s mostly whitespace and text. An icon, plus a title, is really all I need.

Speaking of Aero Glass, I can happily report that the GUI looks fantastic, and it’s very slick and responsive. Watching dialogs and applications fade in and out does give me a little thrill, although once again it doesn’t seem to be backed up by and practical use. I can excuse Microsoft on this one, as it’s not touted as something revolutionary, aside from the fact that it’s nice to look at. If you only ever run the included applications, you’ll find a fairly harmonious visual experience. However, as soon as you install a third-party application, your whole desktop devolves into a dog’s breakfast of windows toolkits, button styles and gradients. As bland as the old Windows environment looked, it at least didn’t call attention to the massive disparity between application design styles. Firefox 2.0, with it’s nice grey gradient tab bar and soft beveled buttons looks strangely out of place when surrounded by a 10 pixel translucent border. In this case, again, I’ll give Microsoft a bit of a pass… for now. In a year or two, once application developers have had more time to update their applications, the desktop should look a little more uniform. Hopefully.

Microsoft’s new “realistic” style icons also look sharp and professional — at 64×64. Shrunken down to the quick-launch bar, though, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing the Explorer icon from the Switch Tasks or the Show Desktop icons. Everything just kinda looks like a blue computer with a square next to it.

The absolute best feature of Vista is the built-in search, especially it’s interaction with the new Start menu. In XP, I use Launchy and Google Desktop to accomplish something similar, but the integration is very nice. As well, they’ve tweaked the “home” directory concept into something that’s much more usable. Vista drops the “My” from “My Computer” and establishes Videos, Pictures and Downloads as top-level directories alongside Documents. The “Documents and Settings” directory gets a much-needed cleanup and is now found in “Users”. All in all, the treatment of disks and directories in Vista is very refreshing, and once I made the mental adjustment I found it complemented my natural filing system quite nicely. The revision of Windows Explorer is also fantastic, making navigation much simpler and moving common tasks into toolbar-style menus instead of the traditional “File, Edit” menu structure from Windows past (in fact, those menus can be enabled but I haven’t found a need for that yet). The UI is so good, in fact, that I wonder what crack the IE7 team was smoking when they randomly shoved buttons and toolbar menus into every corner of the screen. IE7’s UI is stunningly bad, especially compared to the rest of Vista’s built-in tools, although it looks marginally less out-of-place in Vista than it does in XP.

Compatibility-wise, Vista is quite good, with a few unpleasant surprises. Updates to the Samba filesharing system have left me without access to shared folders from my Ubuntu laptop, although I suspect there will be a fix for that on the Linux side fairly shortly (if not already). My external firewire harddrive simply didn’t work, but fortunately it also has a USB2.0 interface — although I’d much prefer to use the firewire port. Hopefully a driver will be available soon. I also have a NAS drive on my network, bridged wirelessly across my living room to feed video to my XMBC-enabled Xbox. The NAS drive supports Samba and FTP, and although I can connect to it from my Vista box, trying to open any directories crashes explorer.exe. This is very frustrating… although I can use FTP to move files around, I haven’t found any explanation for the Vista crash when using Samba. With any luck, a firmware update on the drive will fix the problem.

One final usability nightmare in Vista is User Account Control — basically, a dialog that prompts you to “accept” any change to the system’s configuration, or to files in the Program Files directory. When the dialog pops up, the entire screen is blanked and the transition is quite shocking. In practice, I would see this popup every few minutes while initially configuring the machine. I understand the security principles behind the popup, but the transition is so horrendous, and so frequent, it literally sent me scrambling for a way to turn it off. Fortunately one is included, although Microsoft is practically begging you not to do it. At least in Ubuntu, once you’ve approved an administrator-level change, you have a grace period in which to make additional changes without being prompted. Vista prompts you so frequently I would expect muscle-memory to become a major security issue in itself. If the user is trained to hit “accept” every time they see the dialog, then what is it actually preventing? Overall, Vista has been fun to play with. The built-in search, the cleanup of the user directories, Windows Explorer and Aero Glass are all nice features. Ultimately, though, Vista doesn’t let me do a single thing I couldn’t already do in XP. I suspect people who get Vista on a new machine will be quite happy with it. For me, though, it’s ignited a desire to go out a buy a Mac, just to try something truly different. It will be worth revisiting Vista again in a year, when some of the incompatibilities have been ironed out and application developers have caught up to the new visual style.