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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.