Windows Vista

Where Vista Fails


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Inconsistent user interfaces

Windows has always been a boiling cauldron of inconsistent user interfaces, from the bizarre Command Line window in Windows XP (yes, it's fixed in Vista) to the Windows 95 icons that still pop up from time to time in today's Vista. Here are a few of the inconsistencies that drive me crazy in Windows Vista.

Controls Panels

In previous versions of Windows, every Control Panel applet was a standard Properties dialog (sometimes called a Property Sheet), ensuring that users would know what to expect. In Vista, it's like a game of roulette. Some Control Panels are Properties dialogs like before (like Color Management, Date and Time, and Folder Options), while others have graduated to a new-to-Vista shell window (such as Backup and Restore Center, Personalization, and Power Options). My guess is that a future Windows version will consolidate more and more Control Panels into the new style. But I also guess that these things will never be completely consistent.

Favorite Links

Windows Vista's new Explorer shell includes a new Favorite Links pane where you can customize a list of system shortcuts that will appear in every Explorer window, including the File Open and Save dialogs. That's neat, and I've spent a bit of time on each of my systems customizing both the contents and order of this list so it's exactly the way I want it. But explain something to me. Why does this list display properly in Explorer windows such as Computer and Network, but not in others, where the list is randomly ordered. For example, the Internet Explorer Open dialog displays this list in a crazy, nonsensical order. That's silly.

Recycle Bin

During the Windows Vista beta, the Recycle Bin used to visually "fill up" as you deleted more and more files. Now, it appears full regardless of how much has been deleted, or empty when there's nothing in there. And why doesn't Recycle Bin appear in Computer along with a useful fuel gauge-style free/total storage visual, like drives and partitions? That would be pretty useful.

Jarring UI changes

Windows Vista's new Aero user interface is absolutely beautiful, but whenever you run a legacy application that's not compatible (for whatever reason) with Aero, Vista performs the technical equivalent of a slap in the face, brutally and suddenly jerking your system out of Aero mode and into the uglier but more compatible Vista Basic graphical mode. I can't imagine why this is necessary, nor do I understand why only that application can't just run in the lower-end mode. The whole transition is poorly handled and, frankly, even a bit scary if you don't expect it to happen. And why would you? I don't recall Mac OS X's Aqua UI ever giving up the ghost and display the OS 9 UI when something goes wrong. That type of thing will happen in Vista.

Relics from previous Windows versions

If you were to buy a new 2007 Volkswagen New Beetle, you'd feel pretty ripped off if the vehicle included the seatbelt from a 1972 Beetle, or the bumper from a 1969 model. And so it is with Windows Vista: Despite the spit shine afforded by the vaunted Aero interface, if you look a little deeper, you're bound to come across various bits of UI from versions of Windows dating back as far as 1990. There's the widely reported Add Fonts dialog (navigate to C:\Windows\Fonts and choose Install New Fonts from the hidden File menu) which dates back to Windows 3 (!) and the Windows 2000-era permission dialog you'll see pop-up when you attempt to access a network share for which you don't have access. Ah, memories.

x64 is still a second-class citizen

I've already harped on this in other parts of the review, but let me restate the obvious here: Windows Vista was supposed to usher in an era of 64-bit computing, and while this could still happen, it's not going to happen in 2007. Thanks to widespread software incompatibilities that will take some time to overcome, the more secure and scalable x64 versions of Windows Vista will be useless to most users for at least the next year. I'll re-examine this constantly, but for now, x64 is a non-starter despite an admirable job by Microsoft to ensure that the x64 versions are otherwise identical to the 32-bit versions.

File type associations

Changing file type associations in Windows Vista is a joke and I'm honestly wondering whether this wasn't done on purpose to ensure that users have a more difficult time using third party applications like Apple's iTunes that are designed to replace built-in Windows applications like Windows Media Player. To see what I mean, check out the Set Associations Control Panel that appears any time an application tries to change file associates. Yikes.

Features that shouldn't show up but do

So let me get this straight. I don't see Mobility Center on my desktop PC, but I do see features like Tablet PC and SideShow, even though my PC's hardware doesn't support that functionality? Yeah, that makes sense.

Media Center CableCard/HD restrictions

Did you get a nice, shiny new Media Center PC this Christmas? Well, congratulations. But I've got bad news for you: It's already obsolete. If you want to use CableCARD with Windows Media Center, you don't just need Windows Vista. You need a brand new PC that includes the necessary hardware out of the box. You can't upgrade from an XP MCE 2005-based Media Center, and you can't even upgrade from a Vista-class Media Center that didn't already include this functionality. Yes, that's restrictive. And yes, that's dumb.

And if you're wondering why you can't capture a full-screen screenshot in Media Center under Windows Vista, you'll enjoy the reason: Microsoft doesn't want pirates capturing full-sized HDTV images frame-by-frame. Is George Orwell in the house? We have a call for a Mr. George Orwell.

Internet Explorer

I like Internet Explorer 7 a lot (a phrase I'm still coming to grips with, believe me) but there are a few issues with this next generation browser that just don't make sense. First, the UI is scatter-brained. The Home button is over on the far right instead of next to the Address Bar where it belongs, for example, and there's no way to change it. But my favorite bit of inconsistency in IE has got to be the "Remember my password" option on the Connect dialog that appears when you use IE to connect to a secure Web site. In previous Windows versions, you could check this option to ensure that you'd never have to type the password in again. In Windows Vista, this option does nothing, so you can check it every single time you use it, but you will still have to type that darned password. Microsoft tells me this is by design, but I have one question: If I can't save the password, why is the option displayed at all?

Features I miss from the Windows shell

While I'm pretty happy with the selection of folder view styles in Windows Vista, I miss the Filmstrip view from Windows XP. I used this view style almost daily to triage screenshots that I wanted to post to this site. In Windows Vista, there's no Filmstrip view, and even Extra Large Icon view doesn't supply big enough image views. Outgoing Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin told me recently that the Vista shell's hidden Preview pane was a valid alternative to Filmstrip view, and on the face of it, that seems correct: Though the image preview is on the right and not on the top as in Filmstrip view, the Preview pane does, in fact, give you an in-place preview pane. There's just one problem: Unlike a true view style, the Preview pane is a global Explorer option that affects every single Explorer window on the system. With Filmstrip view, you were affecting only the view of the current window. So every time I use the Preview Pane (which, again, is hidden by default), I need to remember to turn it off when I'm done. Thus, the Preview pane is not a replacement for Filmstrip view at all. It's just a different feature that works somewhat similarly.

More problematic, Windows Vista's photo import functionality is completely and horribly broken, because it is horribly limited and less functional than the version Microsoft included in Windows XP. In XP, when you connected a digital camera (or inserted a memory card), you got a nice wizard that let you pick which photos to import. In Vista, you can only choose to import all of the photos at one time. This means that all of these photos will be made part of the same set and be tagged in Photo Gallery with the same metadata. So if those photos are of a bunch of events over a long period of time, you're out of luck, and you'll have to manually go in and edit meta data (and, if you're particularly anal, file names and folders) if you use Vista's broken photo importer. This is a huge problem, because it's a regression from XP's functionality and is definitely not an improvement.

As noted previously, none of these problems are major or fatal. Many are annoying. Some will certainly cause a certain segment of the computer-using public to react angrily, while others will simply wonder what all the fuss is about. Certainly, you might be able to come up with a list of other problems, or missing features, or whatever. Windows Vista is, after all, a big system. But that's part of the problem: Microsoft has never really nailed the consistency thing, and they've never been particularly good with fit and finish. Hopefully, this will improve in the future. In the meantime, Windows Vista is more consistent and elegant than any Windows version before it. But let's be honest. That's not saying much.

--Paul Thurrott

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