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Vista SP1: Still lagging behind the Linux desktop


I had really thought that Vista SP1 would be an improvement. I didn’t think it would be a big improvement, but still that it would be more competitive with Windows XP and the modern Linux desktop. I was wrong.

I’ve now been working with Vista SP1, the so-called RTM (release to manufacturing) version, for about two weeks. I am amazed at how little improvement I see in this so-called major update.

Last year, I took a long, hard look at Vista versus desktop Linux, testing SimplyMEPIS 6, in a four-part series. In the months since then, we’ve learned that Microsoft lied about how much hardware was needed to run Vista in an affair that we’re now calling Vistagate.

Personally, I didn’t need to see Microsoft/Intel e-mails to know that “Vista Capable” PC requirements were so much BS. I found that doubling Microsoft’s minimum daily PC requirements would get you to the point of a bearable Vista experience. Not a good one, mind you, just one that wouldn’t have you pulling out your hair.

SP1 was supposed to make this better. Or, to be more precise, it was supposed to improve Vista’s performance, fix problems and improve its interoperability. In my fortnight of living with Vista, I’ve found it’s done none of the above.

This time, I ran Vista on two different systems. The first was the same HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC I had used in my 2007 MEPIS-vs.-Vista test. The m7360n has a hyperthreaded 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, 4MB of Level 2 cache, an 800MHz front-side bus, and 2GB of DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. It also has a 300GB SATA hard drive; a dual-layer, multiformat LightScribe DVD/CD burner; and a DVD-ROM drive.

This system also has six USB 2.0, two FireWire, one VGA, one S-Video and one composite AV ports. And it comes with a 9-in-1 memory card reader, 10/100BaseT Ethernet, 56K-bps V.92 modem and 802.11g Wi-Fi. For graphics, it has an NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card (which takes up 256MB of the system’s main RAM) and Intel Azalea high-definition audio with 5.1-channel surround sound.

My other test box was a Gateway 835GM. This is another older�circa 2005�system. It has a dual-core 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 820 with the Intel 945G Express for graphics. I had upgraded it to 2GB of DDR RAM.

Like the HP Pavilion, it started life as a Windows Media Center PC.

Now, I did not expect either system to be great with Vista. Neither one has the horses for that. If you really want to run Vista, I think you need 3GB of RAM, a dedicated graphics processor with a minimum of 256MB RAM of its own, and a modern dual-core processor like the 2.33GHz Intel Core2 Duo E6550. I did expect better than what I found, though.

These same two systems, however, are killer desktop Linux PCs. On each of them I used the following Linux distributions over the last year: OpenSUSE 10.3, SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP1, MEPIS 6.5 and 7.0, and Kubuntu 7.10. Each of these Linuxes ran lightning quick.

There were some hardware compatibility quirks at first, but nothing that took more than a couple of minutes to fix with any of these distributions.

In short, these computers made great Linux PCs. It was a different story with Vista SP1. For my tests, I didn’t try to upgrade either system to Vista.

Microsoft has admitted that SP1 has hardware incompatibilities with some hardware on already working Vista systems. Don’t ask me how they managed to break drivers that were already working on Vista PCs; they just did. So, I decided to skip these potential issues and do complete delete, reformat and install routines on each PC.

That didn’t stop hardware installation problems, though. First, I ran into serious hardware incompatibilities. With the m7360n, it kept setting the NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE to a too-high frequency setting for my 19-inch Gateway FPD1960 flat-screen monitor. What the heck?

This was the same setup that had worked out of the box with original Vista! I mean, it hadn’t worked well, but at least I got a display. I finally got past this by burning my own Vista SP1 disc with the latest (169) NVIDIA ForceWare Release drivers patched in. And people say installing Linux is hard! Ha!

That worked, but then on both systems, Vista failed to get the basic audio working. This is insane. The audio on both systems is supplied by the plain-Jane RealTek ALC 882 audio chip set. What makes it even worse is that I saw this same problem more than a year ago with the first version of Vista. Come on, Microsoft, this is basic audio. This same audio hardware works great with all the Linuxes.

The Vista experience control told me that both systems were capable of running the fancy-dancy Aero graphics interface, albeit without its most complicated features. No, they weren’t. Translucency is the only Aero feature I ever got to work, and when I did even that, it felt like I was in an old-fashioned manual transmission car and I had just switched to a lower gear. You could actually see the PC slowing down to make the display a bit prettier.

In all fairness, I’m also not thrilled with Compviz 0.5.2, Linux’s 3-D interface equivalent to Aero. My problem with Compviz is that its development has recently slowed to a crawl and you really must tweak it to get the best performance out of it. On the other hand, you’ll get far more graphical goodies out of it than Aero on 2005/2006 hardware. On 2008’s finest systems, Vista Aero should outperform Compviz, but I haven’t had a chance to test this out yet.

What I can say, though, is that while Vista PC�s overall performance has improved, it’s still not the equal of any of the Linux distributions on my hardware. I also discovered, and this really was a surprise to me, that Vista SP1’s network performance was beyond awful.

I run my systems on a small network of about 20 workstations and four servers. Because I use my LAN for testing, I can switch it from its usual hybrid AD (Active Directory)/domain infrastructure to a pure AD model to an LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) framework. No matter how I set up the network, my Vista PCs averaged over a minute, over Gigabit Ethernet, just to display the servers. Logging in to the network appeared to be going faster, but then I discovered from the network logs that the Vista PCs were using cached server log-in sessions rather than actually checking to see if the servers were alive.

File copying over the network, as you would guess, was also a painful experience. Microsoft’s Mark Russinovich wrote an excellent blog posting explaining how Vista SP1 handles file copying, and why it may appear slower than XP, and I’ll add to Linux his list.

Part of it is that Microsoft has saved its network file performance improvements for its SMB2 network file protocol. SMB2 is only available in Vista and Server 2008. In theory, this should be released to Samba, along with the rest of Microsoft’s proprietary protocols. In practice, Microsoft recently talked a good open game. I didn’t believe it then and since the European Union whacked Microsoft with a $1.35 billion fine, I guess they don’t buy it either.

So, if you’re running Linux servers or older Microsoft servers like Server 2003 or earlier, expect to see poor network performance. I also found that, and for this I don’t have an explanation, Vista is awful at USB 2.0 file transfers. That’s not too big a deal if you’re just backing up the day’s work on a USB stick. However, if you’re doing graphics work, for example, and using a USB 2.0-connected storage device for your images, you’re going to notice a real performance drop.

I also found that applications fared poorly in general on Vista SP1. I found Microsoft Office 2003, for example, to be more sluggish on Vista SP1 than it was running with CrossOver Linux 6.2 and Linux on the exact same hardware. Yes, that’s right: Windows applications ran faster on Linux than they did on Vista. Now, it wasn’t a lot faster, but I found that, on average, Office 2003 was about 5 to 10 percent faster on Linux with CrossOver than on Vista SP1.

At day’s end, what I found was that Vista SP1 really has not improved that much from Vista. The Linux desktop, on the other hand, has improved since I first compared MEPIS 6 to Vista. It’s not so much Linux has improved its performance as it has increased its ease of use and hardware compatibility. The Linux desktop of early 2008 is clearly better than the Linux desktop of early 2007. The same cannot be said of Vista.

XP SP3, on the other hand, is a step forward from XP SP2. I find it more than a little odd that Microsoft is pushing Vista, which is a failure, no matter how Microsoft cuts its prices. XP SP3, not Vista SP1, is Microsoft’s real competition for the steadily improving Linux desktop.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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