Confessions of a Vista Switcher: Into BDU Purgatory

Plane CrashIf Windows were a car, an old geek joke goes, it would be stalling and breaking down regularly, leaving drivers stranded on the road as users of other operating systems continued to whizz past.

After using Windows Vista exclusively for a couple of weeks now, I find that metaphor somewhat inaccurate. First, Vista (combined with its associated PC hardware) is more a plane than a car. It’s bigger and more opaque than any computer system I’ve ever used. At the risk of bastardizing the Tao of Spider-Man, Vista’s moral message might go something like this: with great power comes great complexity.

More to the point, however, Vista’s failures are much more spectacular than a simple roadside stall.

Instead, this metaphorical aircraft literally plummets from the sky in a blazing ball of flames, crashing into a mountainside where it leaves its users broken and bleeding. At least, that’s what happened to me. But I’ll get to that a bit later.

Compared to the environment I know and love best, Mac OS, Vista is a confounding and foreign land.

Like every version of Windows before it, in Vistaland there are things called “drivers.” These pieces of software are required to make various parts of the computer work but they constantly, and inexplicably, fail and need to be fixed. The fragility of this slender thread between software and hardware is emphasized in Vista.

The driver for the wide variety of buttons on my ThinkPad, for example, needs to be reinstalled every day or so as it will just stop working for no reason whatsoever. I’ve called the manufacturer, Lenovo, about this. Their answer is pretty simple (and quite standard these days, it seems): “We don’t know. It probably has something to do with Vista.”

Then there’s the infamous UAC, or “User Account Control,” service in Vista. This is the feature that’s supposed to prevent you from hurting yourself by forcing you to carefully evaluate and approve every change you make to your system.

So far, all it’s done is annoy me by preventing the installation of software I actually need. I had to go through a backdoor into my system’s security configuration to turn off UAC so that I could install the drivers for my Lenovo webcam. That sent Vista into a frenzy of excited, whiny messages of doom and gloom. To shut the system up I turned UAC back on, but it held a grudge and continued to misbehave.

And, yeesh, rebooting. I haven’t rebooted a computer this much since last century’s Mac OS 9. Every time I sneeze with Vista it’s telling me to reboot if I want to wipe my nose.

Granted, as a Vista newbie I’m demoted from my traditionally vaulted position of geek all the way down to BDU (that’s “Brain Dead User,” for you other BDUs), so take my comments here with a grain of salt. Or not. My blissful ignorance does grant me a perspective that’s more in line with most other computing mortals.

And I really shouldn’t be so harsh. Vista is young.

When Apple released the first version of its advanced Mac OS X system in 2001, there were a lot of rough edges. I nicknamed it the green banana since it just wasn’t ripe. It would be easy to consider Vista in the same light: a potentially great new system apt to cause intestinal discomfort if consumed in too large a quantity.

With this in mind, a few days ago I decided to abandon Vista and go back to Windows XP on my laptop (as every tech writer is doing these days, it seems).

That’s when Vista started losing altitude fast. I’d made backups of all my files before I commenced a system restore back to XP. Unfortunately, my craft’s wings burst into flames during this transition and we started plummeting: some files were corrupt… or something.

In freefall, the cabin filled with smoke, I called the Lenovo help line. Again, they blamed Vista. The only option was to parachute out of this mess and at least save my own skin.

Like most PC manufacturers, Lenovo doesn’t include restore discs with their computers. Instead, they dedicate a large portion of your internal hard drive to that purpose. With the mountainside clearly in view and approaching fast, the Lenovo tech support agent told me to perform an emergency recovery from that partition.

Then, without any notice, there was a tremendous explosion. The ThinkPad had rebooted to a black screen with a few words: “Insert a bootable disk.” The emergency disc partition was corrupt, too.

“Vista probably did something to it,” the tech support agent cheerfully explained. “We’ll send you some XP recovery discs. They’ll get to you in a couple of weeks.”

While this promise was a salve to my wounds, the naturally impatient tendency of the hardcore geek welled up within me. I dropped the Vista Ultimate install disc into my laptop and started all over again.

Stand back, people. Ever your humble correspondent, I’ll let you know when this vehicle is airworthy.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 18, 2007.