Featured: A Gamer's Review Of Windows Vista

-=== Featured NeoSmart Review ===-
Title: A Gamer's Review of Windows Vista
Author: JayNightingale
Build: Vista Beta 2 (Build 5384)

Welcome to the unofficial Gamer's Review of Microsoft Vista Beta 2 Build 5384. I'll be your host tonight and I'll provide you with a quick overview of Vista and its abilities with regards to file-management and gaming - I'll range between the simple and the not-so-simple stuff. There is a special focus on gaming for two reasons: first is that Microsoft uses it as a strong advertisement point, and second is that it's rarely looked at although its very important.

Use the bracketed numbers/letters to quick-jump to the section you want to read.


1 Machine Details
[1a] Test Machine Specs
[1b] Quick Note on HDD Sharing

2 Usability/GUI
[2a] Installing Vista
[2b] Booting Up For The Fist Time
[2c] Logging On
[2d] The Virgin Desktop
[2e] Aero
[2f] Vista Basic
[2g] Taskbar and Sidebar, but no Minibar
[2h] Voice Recognition

3 Functionality/Drivers
[3a] Video Drivers
[3b] Audio Drivers
[3c] Physics Drivers

4 Performance/Gaming
[4a] Performance
[4b] Gaming

============================================ Machine Details ============================================

[1a] Test Machine Specs
My personal system - which is a primary home computer intended for gaming started it's life as a Compaq Presario. With some after-market modifications it's become quite a beast. In-short, it's built to be a gaming machine and nothing else, it's not meant to be a beta testing machine and it's most certainly not the most stable rig in the universe. Here's what's in the box (all the important bits anyway):

AMD Athlon 64 "San Diego" 3700+ @ 2.2 GHz (939)
ATi Radeon XPRESS 200
nVidia GeForce 7800GTX O/C PCI-E
SoundBlaster Live! 24-Bit Internal PCI
2 GB 184-Pin 128-Bit PC3200 Dual-Channel 400mhz RAM
AGEIA PHYSX 128 MB PPU 2.4.3 Physics Engine
300W Silent PSU

The system is running the Windows XP x64 (64-bit) Service Pack 2 O/S before any changes have been made.

Also connected (via the onboard gigabyte LAN) is a router and XBOX360, and Laptop (via the routers wireless connection). More on these later.

[1b] Quick Note on HDD Sharing
If you install Vista like I have, make sure you use the Vista's Properties menu on each non-Vista HDD to 'Share' it with 'Everyone' and give them Full Access. Otherwise some of the tips contained herein will not work.

============================================ User Interface & Ease-of-Use ============================================

[2a] Installing Vista
I installed Vista from the downloadable DVD ISO. After I got it on DVD and let it cool off a little I marveled at its shininess and eventually came to the conclusion that it was better not seen nor heard so it got popped back into the DVD drive (with Windows XP x64 SP2 running).

The installer was nice and friendly with plenty of bold lettering that doesn't mislead the novice user. One of these nice touches particularly was the pseudo-Aero interface that mimics the look and feel of Vista throughout the installer.

Anyways; It automatically disabled the Update Windows XP option because I'm running the Vista x86 (32-bit) edition and you obviously can't upgrade an x64 O/S with an x86 O/S. This was a very nice thing for it to do because it meant that even if something went wrong I would still have my old familiar O/S to go back to. Another thing it did was very clearly outline my drive partitions and their labels (since I'm more used to going by my own personal labels rather than the drive-letters). It allowed my to install to my secondary logical drive (C:\ (XP) and D:\ (Vista) are both logical drives on the same physical drive).

After I'd provided the basic information the Vista installer went on its own merry way. It restarted my computer only a couple of times and handled almost every task itself with minimal input from me (in fact I actually went and watched a movie while it installed - Monty Pythons Holy Grail if anyone's interested). Roughly an hour later I returned to find Vista wanting to know what region I was in and what keyboard layout I wanted to use. It had a couple of other questions but all-in-all it was much smoother and far more satisfactory than the post-install set-up provided with XP.

[2b] Booting Up For The First Time
Booting up without a third-party boot-loader can often be a very stressful business when running multiple O/S on a single PC, especially when they're on a single physical drive. Thankfully Vista made this painless too.

By default it provides a new O/S selection screen in its own style, this offers more options than the old-style one provided by XP. I must admit I've not explored the options provided for fear that it'll stop working as well as it does.

So, on the O/S selection I have "Earlier Version Of Microsoft Windows" and "Vista"... Or something to that effect, the exact wording eludes me at the moment. The main point is that it's made it very simple. There's no multiple entries of "Microsoft Windows" and no 5 second selection time. It provides an ample 30 seconds selection time as default and also defaults to booting up Vista as the primary O/S should this time expire without there being a choice made.

One personal point of interest is that even the Beta version of Vista is far faster at loading than a fully updated version of XP. That's because it's not booting all the svchost processes that XP does (not at boot, but by the time you want to restart there will be more than enough svchost processes to make you sick!) and it's not wasting all your valuable memory on giving each service its own shell. It looks like most services are contained within the Aero interface's shell rather than being separated.

[2c] Logging On
The log-on screen is very much like the Fedora Core log-in screen (screenshot here: http://www.fedoraonline.it/immagini/19.jpg). It provides your username for you and then you just have to put in the password. This does make it somewhat faster to log into a single user computer because there's no need to select a username first. There is a switch user button though, so it does support multiple user accounts.

After typing the password to my account, I was presented with the "Preparing Your Desktop" screen in which the O/S weighs up the pros and cons of your graphics card and processing ability, as well as available RAM and virtual memory. Depending on how well your computer stands up to this basic test you'll either get Aero or Vista Basic.

[2d] The Virgin Desktop
What a beautiful sight, the desktop at last. No doubt populated by a picture of some stunning high-def scenery and rendered in beautiful 800x600 resolution. Thankfully my monitor upscaled automatically to 1024x768.

The desktop itself opens rather fast, and provides almost instant access to the Start menu. This doesn't last for long however (not that that's a bad thing - depending on how you look at it). Quickly up comes the Welcome Center which is like a dumbed-down Control Panel. This is useful to new users with features like adding new users, Control Panel access, System details, Printers, What's New, Vista Basics and Personalizing Windows. There's also a rather useful checkbox at the bottom that says "Run at startup (Welcome Center can be found in the Control Panel)", and this caught my eye instantly and quickly became the first thing I clicked to uncheck it.

Across the top of the Welcome Center is a System Details overview in a sickly green pane. It provides hardware information as well as basic information on the computer name and edition of windows currently running. There's a sexy "More Details" button punctuated by a bright arrow, so I clicked that. A new window pops up. It's the good ol' System window from the Control Panel. You'll want to go here to click the "Activate Windows Now" link at the bottom.

The System panel now also provides a Performance Rating. It's got an easy to understand number (1-10 I assume). Clicking the link provided with the bright number provides a set of Olympic style scores for each section of your system (Processor, RAM, Primary HDD, Graphics and Gaming Graphics). It also helps by displaying a list of current problems just above these scores - clicking any one of them will bring up a description; e.g. clicking "Some Programs are causing Windows to start slowly." will bring up a list of programs that start with the O/S and are causing it to slow down - this makes identifying problems very easy and allows even inexperienced users to disable the things that are slowing down their boot-up.

[2e] Aero
The new 'Glass' style presentation for Vista. There's been quite a few changes made too, and most for the better. First off I'd like to say that Aero can scale to a systems performance so don't get scared is Aero's 'Glass' style isn't there after one reboot. In short, Aero is a scalable Graphical User Interface which provides some level of 2d and 3D special effects to the experience. It's semi-transparent and it glows occasionally is what I'm trying to say. The glowing bits over the window manipulation buttons (minimize, maximize, close) remind me of the MAC OS/X.

Aero makes navigating the files and folders on a system easier, though to an old-school user it can be confusing. Thankfully my experience with Fedora Core 3 has allowed me to ease into using it... easily. Not everyone will welcome the changes though. Gone is the 'Tree' system in favor of a 'Linear' system. Across the top of an Aero Explorer window there's a bar, in it might be the name 'Jay'. Clicking the arrow next to it will bring down a short drop-down box with the 2 most popular folders within the 'Jay' folder e.g. 'Documents' and 'Downloads'. Holding the mouse button for a moment will bring up an extended menu of every folder within 'Jay'. Clicking the little 'cell' that contains the folder name will take you to that folder.

All the in-Explorer customization options are there, you can change the icons to small, large, lists etc. You can order them like before too, but this time with a new twist. Right-clicking and selecting 'Sort By' will now bring up the old sort dialog with a new addition 'More...' - This is where the changes begin to show. Clicking 'More...' brings up a huge list of checkboxes, and in this list you can check other ways of sorting your files such as 'Total Bit-rate' and 'File Extension' and 'Is Recurring'. There's literally dozens of choices and they're all useful for different file types. You can 'Group By' too, which arranges things into titled areas of the folder depending on the criteria you choose. There's also 'Stack By' and 'View'. Only one of these 4 options (View, Sort By, Group By, Stack By) can be active at once, so you can't Stack Large Icons by File Type for example, but you can view Large Icons or Stack By File Type. Not that it really hampers the systems effectiveness, in fact it keeps things uncomplicated and usable.

At the top of every Explorer window, near to the new-style Address bar (the 'Line' as I dubbed it) is the new Search function. There's no longer any need to hit CTRL+F or Start>Search because you have an in-folder search. This is good because if you have hundreds of files in one folder, you can find the one you want without having to sift through all the ones with the same name on your system. There's a Search in the Start menu too, which allows for both online and offline searching quickly. Hitting the Enter key however will instantly search the web with whatever string you've entered via live.com. This Search will constantly update your search on the computer however (including emails, files and communications such as RSS feeds) as you enter/modify text within the Search string field.

[2f] Vista Basic (Aero Express)
Is a graphical dumbed-down version of Aero. Its still retains all of the above features but just doesn't have the fancy special effects that go with Aero. Neither does it allow for the Taskbar's Preview function either. I'll detail that next.

[2g] Taskbar and Sidebar, but no Minibar
In short the Taskbar remains unchanged from XP, which remained unchanged from 2000, 98... You get the idea. It's the same-old familiar thing that sits across the bottom of your screen, tells you what's running, lets you change windows, go to the Start menu and take a peek at the time.

There's one important improvement though and that's the preview. Hover over one of the little bars (the ones that depict an open window) and you'll get a mini-pane that shows exactly what's happening in that window at the time, kind of like a picture-in-picture type effect. It even shows moving things like movies and visualizations too. So it's useful. That's about the only major change.

They changed the Start Menu's icon to a circular one too, but that's more aesthetic than functional. It's also turned gray instead of blue. I think it's personal taste there. Another handy thing added to the Taskbar is the audio control panel that now has a number of different sliders in it to depict different programs. So you can just click that and change how loud your music is in Windows Media Player or lower the volume of the alerts Vista provides without having to go through different menus or open different windows. This is also extremely useful.

The Sidebar however is a nuisance in my humble opinion. It sits on the left or right of the screen and looks all black and contains a bunch of different 'Gadgets'. Some Gadgets are useful, like a CPU/RAM monitor (in the style of a speedometer) and an RSS Monitor (comes in 2 varieties; single and multiple). I've also downloaded a Poker game to play in it (which can be dragged out of the Sidebar and played in a larger form) and Sudoku. There's also a slide-show too, which I presume displays a slide-show, though I could be mistaken.

[2h] Voice Recognition
Voice Recognition has often gone overlooked by most users as a lazy way of inputting text in the most frustrating way possible. While this is semi-true of the Voice Recognition in Vista isn't an exception to this is has expanded on the functionality of the microphone.

With Voice Recognition you can control your browsers, keyboard, mouse and settings. The commands aren't overly complicated either.

Setting up is easy, you go through a little flash-style training scheme that takes roughly 20 minutes to complete and configures Vista to recognize your voice effectively as well as teaches it a few basic words and letters as well as teaching you some of the commands. It's worth the time anyway.

What you can do (some of the useful things):
Select text, input text, delete text, correct text, open programs, select icons, browse files, control native programs fully, switch applications, move the mouse, click things, bring up menus, navigate the Start Menu, number useful on-screen objects for easy selection.

What you can't do (some of the frustrating things):
Input large bodies of text (full sentences for example, you have to break them down to 2-3 words at a time), click links while browsing the net (have to use the mouse-grid command and direct the pointer there), expect it to be 100% accurate (it takes its time in learning your voice), control WMP without crashing it occasionally.

============================================ Driver Support ============================================

[3a] Video Drivers
Vista comes pre-loaded with a basic (61.88 for nVidia) video driver. It's not fancy but it gets the job done and is optimized for running Aero so it works well as a rule. nVidia have since updated their driver version to 88.61 which is in Beta but is more stable for playing video games. Occasionally installing the 88.61 drivers will cause the Aero system to fail and revert to Vista Basic, though I've yet to have that happen on x86, the problem appears confined to x64.

[3b] Audio Drivers
Audio drivers are the bane of my existence concerning Vista. The Vista Beta has no native audio drivers pre-loaded with the O/S. It will not auto-detect a PCI soundcard and getting it to tag one as something other than 'Multimedia Audio Controller' is a trial and error basis. However, there is a guide here on NeoSmart which you'll find very helpful.

Through personal experience, I know that Audigy2 and SB Live! users can first install the kX drivers, restart, then the ones supplied by Creative (they don't work but will cause Vista to recognize the soundcard for what it really is rather than just a 'Multimedia Audio Controller') and after another restart the kX drivers will take over and so long as you don't uninstall either your SoundBlaster card will work fine and be fully functional.

This is a big problem that I'd like to see fixed, I know in the final version Microsoft will license a bunch of Audio drivers, but it's a big bug where Vista can't recognize a device for what it really is and one that definitely needs to be addressed quickly.

[3c] Physics Drivers
The AGEIA PhysX drivers are Windows XP x86 only. But by running the installer package in XP compatibility mode with administrator privileges and installing to the partition containing XP (in this case C:\) they'll work just fine despite not having any form of Windows XP x86. Curious why they can't run on Windows XP x64 then eh?

============================================ Performance Notes ============================================

[4a] Performance
My Vista has suffered multiple CPU spikes since I've installed it and they often cause video stuttering in WMP and keyboard lag when typing. They aren't a killer however and very rarely happen after the O/S has been running over an hour. In all likelihood, these are remenants of unoptimized or buggy code still left in Vista, and since they occur at random and without reason (though it seems they're related to the Aero & DWM subsystems), they'll prolly (hopefully) be gone by RTM.

Other than that, applications run quickly, are relatively stable (as much as can be expected in a Beta build anyway). I've not had Aero or Vista actually crash on me yet (fingers crossed, touch wood, rabbits foot).

[4b] Gaming
I've had great results with running XP based games.
You can run games you installed on XP (before installing Vista) so long as you run them under administrator privileges and have full HDD sharing. Games like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter have a file that tells them the primary display driver and other information - this has now become invalid and needs to be deleted, the game will make a new one automatically. I can't give specifics as that'd be a gigantic task but just poke around, the files are sometimes obvious.

I've got 50fps with all settings maxed at 1024x768 on Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, 30fps on CellFactor Beta with all settings maxed at the same resolution and 180fps on Day Of Defeat Source with all settings maxed at that resolution.

I've yet to test Vistas ability to run older applications (Win98/95), with the way it looks now, it could out-do XP for backwards compatibility.

The previously mentioned CPU spikes don't seem to happen when running a 3D application - it could be the Aero system causing them. Switching to Vista Basic seems to remove them too. They could be caused by any number of things, and un-optimized code is a possibility.
Wow, Jay, that's just awesome work!!
Congratulations, it's been marked a "Featured NeoSmart Review" and pinned until the next build arrives :smile:

I'll be cross-linking some of the keywords to images from our gallery in a bit to keep things more real :smile:.
I've taken the liberty of spell-checking a bit... :wink: Hope you don't mind.

Sarge said:
...um, this is nice, really nice, well done :grinning:

EDIT: can I use x32 apps on Vista x64?
Yes you can Sarge, it works great too :smile:
(BTW, "x32" is actually called "x86")
You should be able to Sarge. Some applications will take a hit to performance - though it's usually aesthetic. e.g. I installed DoD:Source on an x64 WinXP and on an x86 Vista it doesn't display who killed who or report fps/ping properly. It's just to do with the way the O/S interfaces with the game. It's not the end of the world but it's just a fair heads up that most 32bit apps aren't written for Vista so they report certain things wrongly.

Thanks for the featured too.
Well, you know where to find me if you ever want to discuss more or have me write anything. I feed myself and don't need paying so I'm sure I can be of some use somewhere. I'm not 100% qualified but I do tend to spot the things that're useful to the average user, especially gamers - although I know this site doesn't focus on gamers at all.

But anyway, if you'd like to discuss things with me more, it's easier to email me or MSN me, I check them most frequently (5-6 times a night for the email) so I can reply faster through those mediums.
Wow, I'm quite chuffed that it's gotten that far. I only expected the users that frequent this forum, or come in here searching for sound card solutions (like I did) would read it. I really appreciate that you've submitted it to digg.
No problem Jay, we like to take good care of our members, whether by sticking through until each and every issue is solved or by bringing their work the publicity it rightly deserves :tongueout:oint: