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Vista RC1 not all there yet

Release Candidate 1. It's like that quick taste of stuffing you get an hour before Christmas dinner. But in Microsoft's case, with all the recent beta builds we've been seeing, we've overdosed on stuffing. We're ready for our dinner.

With that attitude we set about running Windows Vista RC1 through some slightly tougher scenarios than simply seeing if we could get it to install. For one thing, we tried an actual upgrade from Windows XP. We used a Gateway M255E with a 1.6GHz Core Duo CPU, 512MB of RAM, and basic Intel embedded graphics chipset, running Windows XP Pro with SP2.

The worst part of the upgrade process should be easier going when the shipping version of the operating system arrives - that's the compatibility check. Vista RC1 runs this for a good 10 minutes, examining every bit of hardware and software to see if it's Vista-compatible. We expected quite a number of issues there, but were pleasantly surprised that the only application Vista insisted be removed was Nero 7.0. There was a long list of apps that Vista thought should be upgraded after its installation, but none of them was a showstopper.

After uninstalling Nero, we restarted the Vista upgrade and suffered through yet another 10-minute compatibility check. After that, the OS asked only a few questions and then ran unattended, much like a clean install would... except for the length of time required. We've run a Vista install before, and got suspicious of the installation time after about an hour. We let the upgrade finish, which took almost 2 hours and 20 minutes, and then kicked off a clean installation on an IBM ThinkPad T42p with 2GB of RAM and a 128MB ATI graphics card. That install took just under an hour and 10 minutes.

Between our Gateway and ThinkPad machines, we ran into three hardware or driver incompatibilities. The first one we noticed was audio: neither the Gateway nor the IBM had working audio after the install, a problem well-known to users of the Vista betas. The second was a glitch with Bluetooth, which refused to connect to the iPaq we'd had on that connection under Windows XP, though Vista did display all the appropriate icons.

The third hardware hiccup was with our Iomega StorCenter 500GB networked hard drive. Vista originally saw the device, but couldn't open it. Then, after switching from our wired interface to our wireless one and back again, Vista lost the Iomega completely. Iomega's software drivers aren't up to Vista yet, so we didn't bother trying to re-install it.

A pleasant surprise was the HP Color LaserJet 3800dn, which is configured as a network printer using a local TCP/IP port. The Vista upgrade didn't seem to affect this at all, and the HP worked normally without any tweaks.

On the software side, compatibility issues were more mixed. Aside from the Nero uninstall, our SonicWall VPN client died a hard death as soon as Vista took over. Adobe Acrobat flaked out a little, though it ran, but at least that was on the list of applications that Vista told us would need to be upgraded. Let's just hope Adobe has that version ready by the time Vista ships.

Microsoft's own software worked well enough. Post installation, the Office 2003 applications ran fine and Outlook lost no local data. We ran an Office 2007 beta upgrade and maintained that same data as well - though you could really see a performance hit on our memory-anemic Gateway. Even Microsoft Digital Photo Suite 10 and Windows Live Writer Beta 1.0 worked without hitches.

Beyond compatibility concerns, shops considering Vista will need to look carefully at hardware requirements. Our ATI-carrying ThinkPad with 2GB of RAM, for instance, ran fast and sweet including all the Aero graphics glitz. Our embedded-Intel-graphics Gateway with 512MB of RAM, on the other hand, got defaulted to a non-Aero state, and it was still slow loading applications.

The upshot for network administrators is that deploying Vista as a large-scale OS upgrade is most likely a mistake; moving it in along with new PCs is best, not only because it gives you the advantage of testing your software library, but also because you'll most likely need an upgraded video system and more RAM to support it.

Then there's training. Microsoft has messed with an awful lot in this release, and the changes are going to annoy users if they're not introduced to them properly. Finding a network share, for example, runs users through a completely new interface. Microsoft is obviously trying to make the process more intuitive, but for the vast majority of users, they've failed. It's only easier after someone explains to them how it works. That goes for the control panel, the start menu, and the system tools as well, and carries right through to Office 2007. Heck, they've even gone and messed with Solitaire, and you know that's going to generate user complaints.

If there's one immediate use we can think of for Vista RC1, it's setting up learning machines for the power users in your organisation so you can begin the training process now. Overall, we did find it to be far more polished and reliable than even the latest beta build. As new Vista-compatible software arrives from third-party ISVs, RC1 is definitely the OS we'd use for testing. This version is close enough that we feel a release date of January 2007 is not only possible, but likely. Use RC1 to get ready.

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