It Is Like a Cow in That I Can’t Use It to Get Work Done

So, I pride myself on being able to consider lots of computing alternatives. Before I was a regular Mac user, I lived in a multi-platform world. I didn’t like Windows, but I could use it. I considered Unix and Linux home.

Lately, I’ve been bumping my head against a simple problem: To run the software I want to run at the speed I want to run it, the way I want to run it, I need a little more machine than last summer’s MacBook (the white, plastic, pre-Nvidia graphics kind).

The iMacs are at a pretty comfortable spec, but I don’t quite have the money on hand to buy one of those. So I figured “well, buy something that just pumps out the cycles.” And so I found myself standing in a Best Buy looking at a number of machines that straddle the line between what Best Buy considers an “entertainment” machine and a “gaming” machine.

Near as I can tell:

Entertainment machines have quad-core processors, 6-8 GB of DDR2 RAM, low-end accelerated video, hard drives with 512GB or more of storage, and some little extras in the way of integrated SD/CF slots, t.v. tuners, etc. They tend to ship with Vista Home something or ‘nother: Premium as often as not.

Gaming machines have similar specs, but the RAM tends to be DDR3, the video cards are more impressive, and there are some trade-offs on hard drive space. They might not have a t.v. tuner or integrated card slot.

In the end, I opted for a Gateway LX6810-01. With a Core 2 quad processor, 8GB of RAM, a string of decent reviews from around the ‘net and a lot of hard drive space, it seemed like a good bet.

I brought it home, plugged it into my stuff and turned it on. I got a prompt about configuring RAID, which puzzled me greatly since there’s only one hard drive in there and no mention was made of RAID anywhere on the box. It passed, though, and the machine settled into a state of utter stillness, showing nothing but a blinking cursor. I let it stay like that a while. In addition to my willingness to explore computing alternatives, I pride myself on my patience.

Eventually I realized it wasn’t going to do anything, so my diagnostic thinking engaged. I realized that I had casually hung a seven-port USB hub off of it, so I powered the machine down, unplugged the hub and plugged in the Gateway-issued keyboard and mouse (which are atrocious, and which use the old PS/2 connectors).

Sure enough, it must have hated something on the hub and once I got past the invitation to configure the non-existent RAID array it began to boot into Vista.

I’ll admit to a little curiosity … excitement even. Vista has been reviled in a way I’ve found hard to credit. When I’ve talked to Michael Burton about it, I’ve mostly picked up feelings of indifference. It’s an indifference I’ve come to recognize from people who are comfortable with Windows and unwilling to let anything it does upset them too badly. Macs don’t interest them; Linux doesn’t run software they need, are used to or just happen to like more than the Free Software alternatives, so they run Windows and get on with their lives. I get that. I am that way about gas stations, with the exception of a period in the ’80s when I shunned Shell for political reasons.

Anyhow … I was curious. I’ve only seen Vista in brief glimpses here and there. I wanted to try it for myself. As much as it entertains me that people have lost whole years of their lives to being angry and defiant about Vista, I couldn’t believe it was that bad.

I sat for a very long time while assorted lo-res screens paraded across my monitor telling me Windows was preparing itself for my use. My patience came in handy, and it was occasionally rewarded with the slightest flicker or jitter in the display, which told me something was happening in there.

Then Windows gave me a pretty screen and told me it was analyzing my computer’s performance. That took another very long time, but it was easier because there was a progress bar. I entertained myself with a few engagements in Star Trek: Tactical Assault on the DS.

The analysis phase ended, then it was time to answer questions, let Windows sort itself out some more, “prepare my desktop” and generally thump around. I can’t really offer any coherent narrative on that phase. I was feeling a little grumpy, because I kept thinking “Gateway built the goddamn machine and presumably has a licensing agreement with Windows to sprinkle assorted bits of promotional crap and ‘helpful’ software around in the default installation: Why couldn’t it image these machines with a Vista install that acted like it knew which hardware it was already installed on?”

Then I thought, “You’re just being an effete Mac person. It’s less a sign of Gateway’s carelessness than it is Apple’s precious, prissy and ostentatious focus on experience that you’re bothered right now. Some operating systems just need to thrash around and interrogate their new home like an anxious pothead who cannot believe he can really eat whatever he wants at a Las Vegas buffet before they can begin their work. That’s o.k.”

So began my experience with Vista.

One thing I was very curious about was how my new computer rated on the Vista Experience Index, which is Microsoft’s attempt to quantify how poorly your computer will perform and probably why manufacturers were so happy users got it in their heads Vista sucked anyhow. According to what Vista was telling me, my new computer scored a 5.3 out of 5.9. It got the 5.3 because in one area, the RAM, the machine was considered underpowered. Not because there wasn’t enough RAM, but because it was DDR2 instead of DDR3. It scored 5.9 on everything else. There is, according to Vista, no score higher than 5.9. I like that the same way I like the tendency liars and federal officials have to use odd numbers when they’re throwing around statistics they’ve made up. It also implies that Microsoft, in recognition of God’s greatness, has allowed a single tenth of a point to remain on the table in honor of that PC somewhere in the world that could really, really WHOMP on Vista. Microsoft’s researchers have not found that machine yet, but when they do it’ll score a perfect 6. Mos def.

Fine.

Subjectively, Vista was very nimble on that machine, even with all the 3d swooping and zooming and misty window borders and assorted stuff slithering around the UI. I installed my usual suite of stuff I install on a Windows machine: Cygwin, Pidgin, the GIMP, Ruby, Firefox, Thunderbird, cygPutty, etc. etc. etc. You could even say I was starting to get into it.

Then things began to bother me:

  1. Windows makes my wrists hurt. It’s the keystrokes. Also, there may be ways to reduce mouse usage, but I don’t know what they are, so I spend a lot more time mousing.

  2. I need the Cisco VPN client for work. Cisco is refusing to provide a 64-bit Vista client. There are dark mutterings about Cisco trying to force mass hardware upgrades or something. I don’t know anything about that. I just know that you can’t use the Cisco VPN client on 64-bit Windows. There are two alternatives: You can do something insane with building vpnc under Cygwin then getting drivers from OpenVPN and then running perl scripts and assorted other lunacy, or you can pay some company in Germany $140 for a VPN client. Not surprisingly, a quick consult with BitTorrent and some file scans established that all the, uh, “evaluation copies” were infested with Trojans.

  3. Experimentation showed me that trying to power up the machine with any kind of USB hub or storage device attached to it would cause it to not boot. So much for my backup drives or my favorite keyboard (it has two USB ports).

  4. Vista periodically proclaimed that my new storage device was ready to be formatted for RAID use. There was no new storage device. I’ve looked this up: People in the know go to some panel somewhere and tell some piece of software to quit nagging them about the fucking RAID. To my way of thinking, that would be like Alison coming home one day complaining that the Overbeings had infected her eyes with nano-bots that were slowly adjusting her perception to make her amenable to The Great Sharing and me considering the problem handled by gagging her and putting her in the garage so I couldn’t hear her becoming ever more frantic about all the little machines crawling around on her face.

  5. After a few minutes of reasonable performance, the sound started to stutter and pop. The driver update to correct this problem was 170MB long. It was another “wtf is this machine doing leaving the factory like this?” moment.

  6. Vista’s Start menu is stupid and cramped.

I boxed the machine back up about 18 hours after getting it home.

Then I thought “You know, maybe it’d be an o.k. Linux box.” The point being, remember, that I’d decided raw horsepower might trump user experience on this purchase.

So I drug it back out and popped in a (known good) Ubuntu install disc. It wouldn’t get past the splash screen or boot to the Live CD. So I put it back in the box. It will be going back tomorrow. I’m going to set aside the refund and save for a while longer until I can afford a Mac with specs about as good as that machine had. The burning question is whether to go with a high-end iMac or a low-end Mac Pro. Near as I can tell, either of the top two iMacs are pretty sweet machines in their own right. Mac Pros have the advantage of being slightly more upgradable in the medium term, which means I could make one of those last a while longer. Plus, goddamn: a Mac Pro.

One other thing I learned: I’ve never given the reviews at Best Buy much credit, but I should have this time. The “pro” reviewers glowing about this machine were doing exactly what Gateway would hope: Plugging the machine in exactly as instructed, taking a few benchmarks, regurgitating the specs and filing their copy. The people who tried to do stuff like connect USB drives to the machine before booting it had it right: It’s a rickety machine.

 
  • http://www.schreiblogade.de Patrick

    Hi Mike,

    thank you for this interesting read. I’m in similar situation as you were, my old PC won’t run Vista so I have no real-world experience what so every with this OS.

    Currently I’m using a MacBook Rev. B as my main machine and fortunately it’s still fast enough for my daily use.

    On the issue of upgrading your machine, I would go with a Mac Pro because it’s a much more flexible machine and in my opinion will last a lot longer than an iMac.

    Greetings

  • http://www.ourlittlemuffin.com Michael Burton

    You did this with your Trusty Windows Friend out of town? There was a one word, one number answer to your problems… Windows 7. Ah, it’s a thing of beauty, MPH – it can even do the up to now impossible for a Microsoft box – automatically (and correctly!) install drivers for a network printer! It’s a thing of beauty. Sure it’s still a release candidate – but it’s free! You would still be hosed on the 64-bit Cisco VPN client issue… and that RAID thing is just weird. Oh ya – and it probably wouldn’t have helped with the USB start up problems – but IT LOOKS BEAUTIFUL.

    Oh, make sure Alison is out of the garage and has all the nanobots dusted off before this weekend, she invited me over for dinner…

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  • Spanky

    screw all that.

    go to newegg.com and BYOB (build your own box)

    its not as difficult as it seems and will save you money and allow you to buy the specific hardware you need/want.

  • Voldemort

    The problem you were having is that you are running $WINDOWS_CURRENT_VERSION. If you waited a little while to use $WINDOWS_NEXT_VERSION then you would not be having all those errors.

    $WINDOWS_NEXT_VERSION also includes $NICE_FEATURE which would make the hardware run much faster.

  • Bob Robertson

    I must agree with Spanky, Build Your Own Box.

    Indeed, the expectation is that when you buy a package deal it will “just work”. It’s been my experience with the consumer brand name machines that they are, as in your own words, they’re rickety. Cheaply made, because the bottom line price is the one and only motivation.

    Going through NewEgg, TigerDirect, or even the myriad of eBay white-box custom builders may not save you that little bit of cash, and the delay of waiting for shipping can be frustrating, but I think you’ll find that the combination of commodity hardware to YOUR specifications and the ability to select the software if, and only if, you want it, to be unbeatable.

    My experience with Vista has not been good, either. I’ve helped several friends and neighbors with their computer systems, cleaning things up, finding things, debugging and such, and not one of them has “liked” Vista. They all say that using it just takes away from the applications they want to use, because Vista doesn’t just get out of the way.

    Maybe Mr. Burton above is correct, Win7 is somehow going to solve all the problems with Vista. The trouble is, I’ve heard that before. Win98 was going to solve Win95’s problems, 2K, XP, Vista, each supposedly so very much better than the prior.

    Well, seriously, I thought Win95 worked just fine. When that was no longer supported by anyone, I stopped using Windows.

  • Don

    Sorry, but W7 won’t be the answer either. I’ve been using the betas from #1 and it’s got “Vista” splashed all through it. It’s a Vista platform with “tweaking”. Should mention, it took until RC3 before it would actually fully install and function. I’ve been attempting to install the previous versions on 5 computers with different configurations, the slowest machine is a 2.8Ghz with a high end nVidia graphics subsystem. Probably have nearly 30 installation tries across these platforms. Thus far I’m not impressed, bits and pieces of eye candy, but as far as getting work done, I’ll drop back to my trusty Win2K Pro box and my Linux systems.

  • http://uncensored.citadel.org IGnatius T Foobar

    Rest assured, Vista 7 will be just as bad as all previous versions of Windows. Microsoft is always trumpeting how wonderful their NEXT version of Windows will be. This time around they’re paying an awful lot of money to have astroturfers make us think that Vista 7 “really got it right this time.” Don’t believe the hype. Linux and Mac are the stable, reliable, and useful operating systems, the likes of which Microsoft will never be able to produce.

  • Brent

    2 words (and an address) – Linux Mint (linuxmint.com)

  • Bill

    It’s been my experience that when MS is about to come out with a new version, the current version gets real s l o w after updates. Okay, in this case it started s l o w.

  • Jim

    The first Vista computer I converted to Fedora Linux, kinda blew muy mind. As a Linux user, I couldn’t believe how Vista was a massive Advertising OS, just about every Icon I clicked on the desktop was advertising for something. It’s quite clear that $Microsoft has only one motivation , MONEY !!

    Very happy using Linux

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