Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Answering Vista Questions

In response to my post about Vista and XP, a deluge of comments came to me asking to share my expertise. Well, not quite a deluge, just two actually, so that's not even a few.

Whatever.

You ask, I give. 'Cause thats the kind of guy I am. That and I like to stroke my ego....

Dave of The Galloping Beaver asked me via e-mail how he could get a laptop preinstalled with XP. Andre wanted to know what I did to make Vista run faster. ( As a side note, I castigate Dave in my last post for being uncivil, he calls me on it, accepts my apology and then asks my advice. Classy guy.)

Starting off with Dave's question:

I'm in need of a new laptop and everything I see is shipped with Vista. I've not heard much good about Vista and the information in your post seems to confirm everything I understand to be wrong with it. When I ask sales people if I can get a new computer loaded with XP I'm told that's not possible. Clearly Microsoft is still supporting XP. Do you know if XP is still being produced? I'd like to be able to put a new computer to work with XP as the OS.

This was my reply:

Microsoft is indeed still supporting XP, until 2012? at least. Now that doesn't mean they are happily distributing new licenses, which is the bind you are in. Technically you can buy OEM (bundled with computer) XP licenses until June 2008, but laptops are a problematic case.

Laptops are finicky beasts when it comes to OS support. Consumer based laptops, such as what you are looking for, are really tricky. To keep prices down, performance up, and consumers interested, laptop manufacturers are constantly revising the hardware in their consumer model lines. Usually a consumer laptop stays with the exact same hardware config for only about 30-60 days.

Why does this matter? Driver support. Because the hardware flips so fast the vendors only provide drivers for the current supported OS. It costs real dollars to test and support drivers for multiple OS's. And when consumer laptops are available for $500, there isn't much profit incentive to support multiple OS's. You can install XP yourself, but you may find things like the wireless card doesn't work, sound doesn't work, etc. Its a bit of a crap shoot. Even if you search online to find what other people have done, if their model is slightly different than yours, their solution might not work for you. So you can legally get Microsoft XP, but the vendor likely won't support it. (I did see a Dell consumer model last month still shipping with XP, but not all their models do. Research, research, research)

On the Corporate side, this isn't true. Corporate model laptops are still shipping with XP (something like less than 5% of corporations are adopting Vista). But the hardware is "older"; older in technical terms anyway. This allows corporations to rely on a hardware platform for a 12 month cycle. The computers tend to be more durable, and need less service calls then consumer models. However, the cost is much higher too. For us, it is worth it as we have a few hundred employees roaming the earth selling our products. If one of my users has a hardware failure in Singapore, its a major hassle. So we pay for the more expensive models to guarantee reliability.

If you really want XP on a laptop, you're gonna pay for it. When evaluating models on vendor's websites, go through the business lines to find the XP ones. But look at the list prices, they're not far off the retail price you'll be charged.

However, you'll probably find the cost isn't worth it. That's what happened to me with the laptop I bought my wife. It has Vista on it. I make it run.

I dislike Vista for many technical reasons that really don't affect the average user. You do have to be somewhat hard core to really need XP over Vista. So far the Vista installs I've seen are just as stable as XP. There are performance tweaks you can make to improve the overall performance so that the difference between XP and Vista are minimal.

You really only need XP if 1 of the following 3 fit your bill:
1) You have software or hardware that is not supported on Vista
2) You need every ounce of performance out of your PC (video rendering, high end gaming, etc.)
3) You need to connect to a corporate network/domain to access shared resources

I was going to add a 4) You absolutely hate the idea of Vista on your computer, but it's not a technical reason.

Dave highlights the problem Andre is having. Most new computers come pre-installed with Vista. What do you do?

Before I answer that question. I want to recommend something to all laptop users out there, whether you run 2000, XP or Vista. Buy one of these*. It's a Hard Drive Enclosure that will accept any laptop hard drive. Why?

*You don't have to buy that exact model, I just picked it to show what's available. I haven't tested or used that particular enclosure. It probably works fine, but don't take that link as an endorsement of that particular unit.

Well say you follow my advice below and all of a sudden your laptop stops booting. Or, 6 months from now you get a virus that completely craps out your computer. Or your laptop dies on its own. Point is, your computer stops working and you want to get the data off of it.

With a hard drive enclosure, all you have to do is remove the hard drive from your laptop (usually unscrew two screws, unplug a cable, and you're done), insert it into the enclosure and plug it into any Windows based computer with a USB port. You'll be able to browse your folders and copy off your data, internet favorites, downloaded programs, anything you want to keep. If you do not backup your computer on a regular basis, a USB hard drive enclosure will save your life.

Further, you may be able to pick up a used 20GB laptop drive from a computer store (or if you have an old laptop you no longer use, steal its drive). Insert that, and you have a 20GB storage device that fits in your shirt pocket. My enclosure plus an old drive from a dead laptop cost me $15. When a friend says, "Hey I picked up an 4GB USB stick for $75!" I get to say, "I have a 20GB USB drive I paid $15 for." Not only was mine cheaper, its bigger, harder and faster too!

Moving on, back to Andre's question. How do you make Vista faster?

Answer Google: "Windows Vista Performance Tweaks"

That was a little facecious of me. But it is part of my answer. Some people really twist Vista to get every ounce of performance out of it. Not me. So if what I suggest isn't enough, use that Google search. Just make sure you bought that hard drive enclosure first, OK?

Ironically enough, Microsoft provides its own answer to improving Vista performance.

1) Go into the Control Panel, and select System
2) Click Advanced System Settings
3) Under Performance, click Settings (the first settings, near the top)
4) Under the first tab, Visual Effects, select Adjust for Best Performance (ironic huh? Anything else means your computer is at less than peak performance.)

I had to make one modification to this. Scroll down the list underneath the performance tweaking buttons. Look for Show thumbnails instead of icons. Select it. The radio button at the top will switch from Adjust for Best Performance to Custom. That's fine. Click Apply, OK, OK. Setting that last option allows you to view images as thumbnails instead of plain icons. Thumbnails are the image in miniature, allowing you to quickly glance through and find a specific image. This is very handy if you upload pictures from a digital camera.

Next, enable the classic theme. Right click the Desktop and select Personalize.
Select Theme
Set the Theme to Windows Classic.
Click OK
This disables the fancy look of Vista. Not as pretty, but it does perform faster.

Next right click the Start Menu and select Properties
Scroll to the bottom of the list and uncheck the Personalize option.
This disables the auto-sorting of the menu, always showing all items in the same place.

Right click the Computer icon on the desktop
Select Advanced System Settings
Under System Protection uncheck any drive selected.
*Note this has potential consequences. Do research what System Restore is and decide if you need it. I've rarely used it, but I'm experienced at recovering computer systems. This is why I recommend the drive enclosure.
You will be asked if you are sure you want to disable System Restore. Click Yes or OK.

This is how my wife's laptop is configured. The interface looks like a weird hybrid of Windows 2000 and Vista. But it runs fairly well.

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