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Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Vis a Vista

Well, my new lappie is all up and running now, and all ready to ship out to Ibiza with me and Marisa. I have to say that the customer service from laptopsdirect.co.uk (I won't grace them with a link) was absolutely appalling from start to finish.

First, after paying for next day delivery, it took nearly a week to arrive. They said it was because I'd ordered a recovery DVD, which they had to burn with the laptop - could it have hurt to inform me this when ordering, instead of after having to phone up 5 days running and spending nearly an hour on hold each time?

Then, when it arrived, it came with only 1GB of RAM instead of the 2GB I'd ordered and paid for! When I phoned them up to tell them about this (and spending another hour on hold to get through to someone of course), they had the cheek to ask me why I thought the laptop only had 1GB of RAM. I was like "well, there were 4 clues really - first, it said on the delivery note it only had 1GB, then it said on the box itself, then there was a big sticker on the keyboard telling me the same thing, then control panel told me when I opened the laptop for the first time!".

Then they went through a phase of telling me that they would be unable to accept the laptop back to fit the new RAM, as I'd already opened the box. I told them I'd paid for 2GB of RAM, and that's what I was going to get, and that I wouldn't send it back to them anyway, as I might never get it back in time before I left the country. After escalating the situation twice to the next supervisor up, they asked me how I'd like to see the situation resolved, as they were at a loss what to do. I told him to just send me the memory module, and I'd fit it myself. Finally they decided that it wasn't worth the effort any more, and agreed to this.

Now the laptop is all up and working (with 2GB RAM present and correct), I can tell you about Vista. Vista is basically XP, prettified with different bugs. I'm pretty ambivalent towards it to be honest, whereas when XP came out I was pretty excited, because we were getting rid of that horrible Windows 95/98 programming. Aero (the new Vista interface) is nice, I'll give you that. Everything is all very clear, and drop shadows behind windows are well overdue in my opinion, having being around on the Mac and Unix for donkeys years. They really have tarted up the XP interface a lot, but it comes at a price - you need a stupidly beefy graphics card just to be able to see all the snazzy effects. My laptop came with 512Mb GeForce card, so it was ok, but if you have a bog standard card, you pretty much get something that looks like a gay version of XP. Fuck that for a game of tin soldiers. Vista also sucks more RAM than Paris Hilton has sucked willies. There was a huge difference in performance between running the computer with 1GB and 2GB. In fact, from a clean startup, with no programs running, and Aero turned on, my computer was using 90% of 1GB, which is appalling, Bill.

Windows Media Player 11 - which seemed to run fine in XP, and I'd take any day over the bloated beast that iTunes has become - has become slow and crashy in Vista. I assume this is something to do with the fact that it's checking out all my music's DRM (or lack of it) and Window's march against non-DRM files (which is completely the opposite the the way the industry is headed, so why bother MS?). I think I'll be installing Winamp again very soon.

This audio-crippling spills over to all Audio applications, including Traktor, and the Direct Sound drivers for not only my onboard Realtek card, but also my Creative X-Fi Notebook card couldn't be set up with any degree of reliability or decent sound quality. Unfortunately there was also a lack of ASIO for the X-Fi card, which I didn't realize at the time when I ordered it. Stupid Creative - they made ASIO drivers for the Audigy 2 (which I used for DJing for nearly 2 years, which was why when I found that the X-Fi was pretty much the only PCIe compatible multi-out sound card, I had no problem with it), why not this one? Luckily, after a bit of fiddling, I managed to get ASIO4All working with my card, which actually allowed me to use both the onboard card and the Creative one simultaneously in Traktor, meaning that I don't have to use the splitter box from Creative after all (which they also failed to mention wasn't included in the price of the card, so I had to pay an extra £20 to get this, thinking I would need it for DJing). The ASIO4All solution works perfectly, and I now have my latency in Traktor down to 5ms, with no glitches in audio, and super-smooth wave display in Traktor. You can tell that the Core2Duo processor is so much better for these types of programs - before it would take about 5-10 seconds for a track to load into a deck, and there'd be a huge surge in CPU activity. On my new lappie, it loads pretty much instantly, and with the ASIO drivers, I'm able to run all 4 decks at once, with effects, timestretched at full quality, and the preview deck going as well, and not have the slightest drop in audio. The CPU usage meter stays below 25% the whole time. Amazing :) It amuses me that one man programming ASIO4All in his spare time has created something far more stable and usable than a whole team of Microsoft programmers (and there must be at least a few hundered) working on Direct X and Direct Sound.

So there seems to be a lot I don't like, or I'm ambivalent about towards Vista, what do I actually like? Well, as I've said before, the interface is nice, and I do care a lot about interface design. I like the nice big icons you can have (more on this in a minute), one thing I like more is the feedback the interface now gives you: If folders are going to take any amount of time to do anything, the percentage completed is shown as a green bar in the address bar. The address bar in folders has been re-thought, so that you only have to click the folder name in the heirarchy, and you'll be taken back to that folder - much better than clicking the "up folder" button loads of times. Also next to each folder in the heirarchy, there's a little arrow you can click to give you a list of sub-folders in that folder, making navigation very quick once you get used to it.

Instead of the super-slow search command in XP, there's now a search box in every folder (like firefox), which shows the results pretty much instantly, thanks to Vista's indexing of all your files while the computer is idle. I also like the fact that you can tag your files, which I think will eventually make folders obsolete - no need to organise things into different folders, just assign them relevant tags, and you can see everything related at once, even if some things can be grouped into more than one category.

The windows sidebar is a bit of an anti-climax, especially since Google Desktop has had the same functionality for years. There's nothing new here that hasn't been done better already, and without a major change to your operating system. Likewise with the windows picture album thing - Picasa does the same thing better, faster, and with Web Albums, don't even bother with the windows version. Internet Explorer 7 is the same as it's always been: a big pile of poo. I installed Firefox straight away before my system became riddled with spyware. Speaking of which, there's a spyware blocker built into IE7, but since I use firefox, I don't see a need to use it. There's also this thing called UAC, which blacks out the screen and asks you if you meant to do this every time you try to install a program, or delete a file or pick your nose or whatever. I turned it off as soon as I found out how.

One thing I did appreciate was the fact that Microsoft have finally included a screen grab utility - this must have taken about 10 minutes to program, but finally it's there! It beats having to Alt-Print and paste into MS Paint any day of the week. It also allows you to annotate screen captures.

There's a lot of things that are in different places in Vista - for example the menubars in folders are below the address bar (uh?), or "Add and Remove Programs..." has now changed to "Programs and Features" (which took me about 10 minutes to find). Some of these changes are difficult to understand the reasoning behind. Some less so - eg. instead of having a seperate "Run..." command in the start menu, you just type straight into the search box, and hit enter. You can also type web addresses in here, or names of programs and files, and the results will be shown in the start menu as you type.

Do I like it? It's memory hogging, slow, and still feels unfinished, but the same can be said about every previous version of windows, and hardware is catching up to be able to cope (as it always has). There's a couple of nice features, but nothing that will make you go "WOW!" like Microsoft's advertising would have you believe - more stuff that you see and think "I can't believe it's taken this long to get that", or stuff that you've already seen done better somewhere else (Apple, Google etc), so the impact is lost really with Vista's version. I'll keep with it for now - Traktor seems to be running fine in it, and that's all I'm really bothered about, so we'll see how things go from there.

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