Death match: Windows Vista versus XP

Round 3: Reliability

With so much attention being paid to the more visible changes in Vista -- UAC, Aero, the revised Explorer GUI -- the tweaks Microsoft made under the hood have gotten little press. To be sure, Microsoft did some retrofitting with Vista. Heap management has improved. The power management subsystems have been completely rewritten. I/O tasks can be configured to run at a low priority, and they can even be canceled in certain situations, improving the user experience during background service processing, network timeouts, and so on.

There's no question this is all good stuff. However, from a practical standpoint, the changes are far from earthshaking. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to point out examples of their impact during day-to-day operation. The lone exception: low-priority I/O, which is helpful during initial OS startup because Vista loads so many more background services than Windows XP. In other words, Microsoft needed something to offset all of that additional startup processing. If Vista boots before you return with your cup of coffee, you have I/O prioritization to thank.

As for overall stability, most customers will agree that -- barring a buggy driver or virus infection -- Windows XP has been rock stable since Service Pack 2 was released nearly four years ago. And with Service Pack 3 arriving any day now (sporting even more robustness and improved performance), the Vista reliability message becomes an even harder sell.

Decision: There is little or no clamor in the Windows XP community for better stability or reliability. Windows XP is a mature, stable OS with a well-known list of weaknesses and corresponding work-arounds. On paper, Vista brings a better foundation, but in practice, it addresses problems that most customers weren't aware even existed, let alone needed fixing.

Round 4: Usability

Vista Aero: Either you love it or you hate it. If you're an Aero hater, you can disable much of the slickness via the Control Panel, but you can't get rid of it entirely. That's because the changes Aero brings are more than superficial. Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, decided to move things around. Gone is the familiar "up a level" button in Explorer. In its place is a foreign-looking -- and infinitely more powerful -- breadcrumbs feature in the Address Bar. Other options have been uprooted and scattered across myriad task-specific, pseudo-control panels (System Properties, Security Center, Mobility Center, and more).

Veteran XP users will need some time to adjust. Some will require retraining, especially with regard to UAC and its never-ending parade of confirmation dialogs. Likewise with the Search mechanism, which, though pervasive (almost every Explorer window or dialog has a Search field), can quickly lead the user down the rabbit hole of nested results with no clear route back to the beginning. And some new features, such as the Windows Backup Utility, so thoroughly insulate users from the underlying process that they don't know until it's too late that their data wasn't really backed up at all -- something I found out the hard way early on.

Add to this the fact that many of Vista's enhancements can be replicated on XP (such as Windows Desktop Search), and you can't help but wonder: Did the Windows UI really need such a radical overhaul? After all, an entire generation of our newest workers was raised on the Windows 9x Explorer motif which, with a few exceptions, has remained stable for more than a decade. Vista's UI is definitely different. However, the jury's still out on whether it's better.

Decision: Change, for change's sake, is never a good idea. And while you can understand Microsoft's desire to refresh the Windows UI (all those Mac OS X screen shots look so much prettier than XP), Vista's designers seem to have cut off their nose to spite their face. Regardless, the usability "improvements" in Vista are unlikely to make IT's list of compelling reasons to move away from XP anytime soon.

Round 5: Performance

Windows Vista is a bloated pig of an operating system. In fact, compared to Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or 3, Vista requires roughly twice the hardware resources to deliver comparable performance. Even stripped to the bone, with every new UI enhancement turned off and every new background service disabled, Vista is a good 40 percent slower than XP at a variety of business productivity tasks.

The above is no generalization. I've run the tests (repeatedly). I have the hard numbers. (You can see the full range of my results at exo.performance.network, or take in a quick snapshot of Vista/Office 2007 versus XP/Office 2003 results here; see the Test Center Daily for info on the Clarity Studio OfficeBench test script I used for these tests.) Upgrading a user from Windows XP to Vista, without upgrading their hardware, is tantamount to crippling their PC. Think of users with torches lining up outside your datacenter. It's not a pretty picture.

So just wait for the next hardware upgrade cycle and hit them with Vista then, right? Maybe. But consider this: For every CPU cycle wasted bringing Vista's bloated image on par with XP's, you could be providing your users with an actual performance increase across their core applications. If there were some compelling reason to run Vista over XP -- a quantum leap in usability or manageability -- I could see why the investment might be worth it. But upgrading hardware just to maintain the status quo seems silly.

Decision: Would you rather throw new hardware cycles at offsetting Microsoft's code bloat and voracious appetite for CPU bandwidth, or at a tangible, measurable improvement in application throughput and user productivity? Enough said.

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Randall C. Kennedy

InfoWorld

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