Windows Vista: A Review Recap

Back in late 2006 and early 2007, most appraisals of Vista were fairly kind.

By  |  Monday, October 12, 2009 at 2:48 am

Windows Vista InspectedMicrosoft CEO Steve Ballmer isn’t so sure about how folks are going to respond to Windows 7. As Mary-Jo Foley says in a ZDNet blog post, Ballmer told Bloomberg that “The test feedback (on Windows 7) has been good, but the test feedback on Vista was good. I am optimistic, but the proof will be in the pudding.”

Mary-Jo goes on to muse:

…I’m left wondering about Vista, as many are/were about the current financial crisis: Why didn’t anyone inform us sooner of the impending meltdown? Weren’t there warning signs? Where was everybody?

Most of Mary-Jo’s post involves Windows Vista beta testers’ reaction to the OS, but it got me wondering: How about the reviews that came out when Windows Vista was released? Negative reaction to Vista among consumers and businesses ended up preventing it from ever truly superseding Windows XP in the way it was supposed to do–but were the reviews among the first signs that something was amiss?

To find out, I dug up evaluations of Vista from late 2006 and early 2007 as they appeared in nine major publications, written by a bunch of distinguished Windows-watchers: BusinessWeek (Steve Wildstrom), CNET (Robert Vamosi), Forbes (Stephen Manes),  The New York Times (David Pogue), PC Magazine (John Clyman), Paul Thurrott’s Windows Supersite, PC World (Preston Gralla and Richard Baguley), USA Today (Ed Baig), The Wall Street Journal (Walt Mossberg), and ZDNet (Ed Bott). I reread them all, and in a moment I’ll summarize here what they said about Vista’s visuals, its performance and stability, its compatibility with existing products, and User Account Control security–as well as their overall take on the OS.

First, though, a mini-FAQ on what I found:

How favorable were the reviews? I’d say the majority were guardedly positive, saying that Vista looked good overall but wasn’t a killer product that demanded instant installation on every PC on the planet. ZDNet’s Ed Bott (who didn’t publish a comprehensive review), PC World’s Preston Gralla, and Paul Thurrott were enthusiastic overall; BusinessWeek’s Steve Wildstrom, CNET’s Robert Vamosi, and PC Magazine’s John Clyman all accentuated more negatives than most. Only Forbes’ Manes was extremely negative, period. (His piece, the last he’s written for Forbes to date, is the only software review I’ve ever read which discusses ripping anyone’s liver out.)

Did any of the reviews predict widespread dislike of and/or disinterest in Vista, or guess that it would never become the dominant version of the OS? No, and that’s OK: The point of a product review isn’t to predict how the marketplace will react. Some of the reviews did make the understandable but incorrect assumption that Vista would become pervasive (Mossberg: “Gradually, all Windows computers will be Vista computers”), and I suspect that even the reviewers that were lukewarm-to-negative would be startled by the widespread rejection of the OS that came to happen.

Did the reviews identify performance and compatibility as problem points? Some said that Vista would require a beefy PC and might be slower than XP (others, however, explicitly contended it would run well on modest machines). Some mentioned compatibility snafus with applications and drivers–BusinessWeek’s Wildstrom warned readers to be cautious based on the woes he’d encountered–but with the possible exception of Manes, nobody said that Vista would continue to be rocky from a compatibility standpoint for months after its release.

What did reviewers say about UAC, which ended up being the poster boy for everything that Vistaphobes disliked about the OS? Some of them  actively praised it as an effective security measure, including Baig, Mossberg, and Pogue. Others call it potentially annoying but worth the pain. Only Manes and Gralla seemed to regard it as a significant, permanent annoyance.

What was the bottom-line buying advice? Most writers said to think carefully before upgrading an existing PC to Vista, but that it would be a welcome improvement over XP when acquired on a new machine. Ed Bott recommended that medium- and larger-sized businesses wait for Service Pack 1 but said consumers and small companies didn’t need to hesitate; Manes said nobody should upgrade existing PCs, period, and that it was best to avoid the OS on new machines until Service Pack 1.

Hey, Harry, you were writing and editing stories about Vista back when it came out, right? What did you say? Um, thanks for reminding me. I wrote quite a bit about Vista in my Techlog blog for PC World, and was smart enough to express caution about its significance and raise questions about compatibility issues, but not savvy enough to guess it would become a legendary flop. (Here’s a post from March 2006 in which I’m fairly skeptical, but say “It…seems unlikely that it’ll be a Windows Me-style fiasco.” Wrong!)

I was editor of PC World when it published the review discussed below. Do I wish, in retrospect, that we’d held the new OS to a higher standard, criticizing it for introducing too few new features of substance and failing to fix enough long-standing Windows annoyances? Do I think we should have reminded readers that all new OSes have bugs and compatibility problems that can be largely avoided by waiting for the first service pack? Do I believe we gave it too much credit for looking pretty? Yes, I do.

OK, enough preface. Here’s what software critics said about Vista before anyone knew for sure just how Windows users would greet it.

BusinessWeek

“Vista: Upgrade–or Trade Up?” by Steve Wildstrom, January 15th, 2007 (also: “Burglar Proof Windows,” January 22nd, 2007)

How are the visuals? “All this eye candy is nice, but it’s not going to make it any easier to draft a business plan or a budget.”

How are performance and stability? Not addressed.

How compatible is it? “Based on the troubles I’ve had in tests, I’d warn against upgrading if you have old accessories, such as printers, or if you run any custom or obscure business software. If you decide to upgrade anyway, make sure your existing computer has the horsepower to do Vista justice. Any system older than six months or a year may be trouble. Functions could feel sticky or sluggish, and if the graphics on your PC aren’t up to snuff, you’ll lose the fancy visual effects.”

How’s UAC? “Vista won’t install anything, from any source, without explicit permission…But some work needs to be done, especially by third-party software suppliers, to keep account control from driving you nuts. For example, every time I start up, the Logitech mouse software wants to check the Web for updates—and triggers an alert. So does a test version of Norton Antivirus. Eliminating these false alarms will encourage users to pay attention to the warnings rather than just reflexively clicking O.K.”

The bottom line? “XP…is good enough that you may just want to make do, for now. Based on the troubles I’ve had in tests, I’d warn against upgrading if you have old accessories, such as printers, or if you run any custom or obscure business software.Any system older than six months or a year may be trouble…With a new made-for-Vista computer, at least you’ll know that everything will work. And Vista is a big step forward; in time, you’ll want it.”

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31 Comments For This Post

  1. ediedi Says:

    "Most writers said to think carefully before upgrading an existing PC to Vista, but that it would be a welcome improvement over XP when acquired on a new machine." – pretty accurate in my experience.

    On a related note, Vista reviews were moderate, because they compared it to the very mature XP.

    W7 reviews are raving because they compare it to Vista. – something to take note of when forming an opinion based on reviews

  2. Steve Wildstrom Says:

    As I wrap up another Win 7 column, thanks for reminding me that I was reasonably prescient about Vista. I would have been tougher on UAC, but I really thought Microsoft would fix it quickly. Actually, I should not have been surprised that they didn’t since I had been telling them how much it sucked since beta 1 to no effect whatever.

  3. oldtaku Says:

    Well just look at that list of book and magazine whores. Of course they’d be all enthusiastic about Vista so they can publish a whole new set of ‘how to make this not suck’ articles and books. I don’t trust their Win7 reviews either – which is fine, because you can try it yourself before buying.

  4. P Says:

    One thing I note that never gets mentioned…user interface changes that affect the normal productivity as one needs to get used to and figure out how to use. Just as productivity challenges exist in Office 2007, such is the OS as well.

    This is only exacerbated by MS getting it wrong and then having to fix soon there after–and I think this is one of the reasons business is slow to change.

  5. zato Says:

    “Did any of the reviews predict widespread dislike of and/or disinterest in Vista, or guess that it would never become the dominant version of the OS? No, and that’s OK: The point of a product review isn’t to predict how the marketplace will react.”

    All reviewers work for Microsoft. Their job is to fool the suckers into buying / preserve the monoply at all cost..

    “Only Forbes’ Manes was extremely negative, period. (His piece, the last he’s written for Forbes to date,”

    This is what happens when you go against Ballmer. RIP Mr. Manes.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    “All reviewers work for Microsoft. Their job is to fool the suckers into buying / preserve the monoply at all cost..”

    The “all reviewers work for Microsoft” meme was always grounded in conspiracy theory rather than truth, but it seems especially removed from reality in 2009. Much coverage of Microsoft is profoundly negative. And the monopolies are all in decline.

    “This is what happens when you go against Ballmer. RIP Mr. Manes.”

    Steve’s fine–he just decided to take a break from tech writing…

    –Harry

  7. david Says:

    interesting findings. now do the same for mac os x 10.6 snow leopard. very weird that all of the apple-loving pundits (including mossberg pogue macworld) made no mention of the crippling bugs this ‘finely tuned’ os is filled with. only place that has addressed the bugs, or solutions, is oddly enough ilounge… a site that doesn’t cover mac very often. look at all the comments, and the people thrilled with the solutions. is the reviewing media failing us?

    http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/backstage/comments/problems-with-mac-os-x-10.6-snow-leopard-join-the-sizable-minority/
    http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/backstage/comments/two-proposed-solutions-to-snow-leopard-crash-problems-on-macs/

  8. Rob Pegoraro Says:

    Thanks for writing this–it persuaded me to re-read the review I did of Vista in the Washington Post back in 2007. To sum that piece up:

    * I was lukewarm overall about Vista.

    * I had no idea so many users would hate Vista. Mind you, I don’t like XP and was glad to see Vista improve a few things about XP that have bugged me, such as Windows Explorer’s default interface.

    * I did note performance and compatibility issues but grossly underestimated how long the second category of problems would persist. It amazes me how apathetic some Windows developers have been about tweaking their apps to work in Vista when so many Mac developers have rewritten their software twice in this decade (once for the OS 9-to-OS X transition, once for PowerPC-to-Intel).

    * I called UAC a “constant barrage of nags… a disaster in the making.” That last part may have been too negative, as UAC doesn’t seem to have made Vista less secure in practice.

    * I counseled against upgrading from XP but wrote that on a new machine with enough processor/memory/graphics resources, Vista represented an advance from XP. I still think that, but I suppose I’m in the minority on this point.

    In looking over my 2007 review, I also see that I placed way too much value in the applets bundled with Vista, inasmuch as Microsoft has yanked most of them from 7. And I didn’t even think to mention compatibility issues with 64-bit Vista, a topic that now takes up a non-trivial amount of my reader e-mail.

    - RP

  9. zato Says:

    “but it seems especially removed from reality in 2009. Much coverage of Microsoft is profoundly negative. And the monopolies are all in decline.”

    That’s a good one, Harry. The 2 top ads on this page are from Microsoft, (Bing and Win Mobile) and are probably the only real paying ads. Tell us how much of Technologizers’ monthly income is from Microsoft. My guess is 70%. You work for Microsoft. And it’s no different anywhere else you go in the tech internet, You know what Microsoft wants for their money, and you supply it.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hey, Zato, your analysis of Technologizer’s revenue stream is not only wildly, wildly, WILDLY off–like, everything about it is utterly inaccurate other than the fact you saw some Microsoft ads–but just plain silly. If you’re going to fabricate an estimate of the situation based on, well, no knowledge whatsoever and a willful disregard of this site’s content, why stop at estimating that 70 percent of the site’s revenue comes from Microsoft? Why not 80 percent, or 90 percent, or 100%? Wouldn’t that be better proof of your thesis?

    Actually, why not hazard a guess that Microsoft is paying me off in gold-plated Ferraris, driven to my door by Steve Ballmer himself? Or that “David Pogue” and “Walt Mossberg” are Betty Crocker-like characters created by Microsoft’s corporate communications team? It’s only a little less accurate than your guestimate, and a lot more fun!

    –Harry

  11. Ric Says:

    Whats going to be funny is how Win7 will be an overwhelming success by comparison to Vista as it will just blow its sales and adoption figures out of the water, which is an effortless non-achievement. M$ will toot its horn loud and proud too! I have a Vista machine that I love the hardware but detest the OS and I am going to Win7 as a freebie upgrade. I wouldnt do 7 if it werent free and you best believe I will count in the stats for adoption and perhaps even sales (you know they will be fudged!) But the most telling fact of my story is I have XP Pro standing by in the wings ready to reformat the machine at the slightest Win7 terminal error. I lived without Vista and if 7 sucks I can live without it too.

  12. zato Says:

    “Why not 80 percent”
    Wow! I swear I was going to say 80%…

  13. zato Says:

    “Actually, why not hazard a guess that Microsoft is paying me off in gold-plated Ferraris, driven to my door by Steve Ballmer himself?”

    Quit joking, Harry. You’d have to be Pogue, Mossberg, Levy, or Ihnatko to get the Ferrari. A Harry McCracken is more like Geo Metro territory.

  14. tripleman Says:

    Funny, David, I’ve been running 10.6 since it came out and have had no problems – let alone “crippling” ones.

    I’m constantly running intensive graphics apps (practically the whole Adobe Suite) almost all the time as well as the browser, mail, etc.. and still have no issues.

    The system is a little faster, smaller and more stable. Not bad for a $35CDN upgrade.

  15. Harold Says:

    Windows Vista is absolute crapola!! A couple of tech guys I trust have told me that win7 is a decent, clean and strong OS and a big improvement over Vista. However they still are recommending XP over both until win7 SP1. But it may be too late for me. The frustration I experienced with Vista “forced” me to download UBUNTU via the wubi virtual partition on my OS. I estimate that I now run the UBUNTU OS about 35% of the time and when I figure out the WINE app, UBUNTU will most likely be my primary OS. I loved XP. Why Microsoft did not build upon XP’s success is a mystery to just about everyone that us/used to run it.

  16. Steve Says:

    It is fun to look back at the reviews now to see who was able to call it like it is and who's head was stuck in Microsoft's posterior. The two extremes would be Stephen Manes and Paul Thurrott. Paul's review is a real gem that simply defines Windows zealotry. Not surprisingly the mainstream media all took an approach somewhere in between – how safe…

  17. heulenwolf Says:

    Good work, Harry. Reviews are often treated too much like news – only good for the moment and then forgotten. I think they should stand alone and, as you have done, be reviewed themselves.

    I’d even like to see more reviews of products after they’ve been out for a while, like CNet’s Road Tests on the Real Deal podcast, only more formal. I think most consumers wait until something forces or shocks them to change (e.g. Sidekick fiasco) rather than switching products when the latest thing comes out. I’d like to see how a product fares after significant use.

    There are differences between a reviewer’s perspective and a customer’s perspective that we should take into account when reading. For example, many reviewers have been constantly changing systems they use – whether it be the cell phone, computer, OS, or whatever is being reviewed – and are used to the upheaval. I think many folks reacted more negatively to Vista than reviews predicted because we hadn’t had any Windows OS upgrades to perform in 7 years (Win98/ME/NT/2K->XP). In fact, it had been so long between OS releases that many users had never been through an upgrade when Vista came along. Their entire computing experience had been on XP. The fact that the Vista upgrade process went drastically smoother than many prior Windows upgrades was lost on these users. We had forgotten that there is always something we’re giving up to move forward; its always painful. Sure, reviewers should try to take this difference in perspective into account but they can’t speak for everyone.

  18. sfmitch Says:

    Steve Wildstrom Says:
    October 12th, 2009 at 6:23 am
    As I wrap up another Win 7 column, thanks for reminding me that I was reasonably prescient about Vista. I would have been tougher on UAC, but I really thought Microsoft would fix it quickly. Actually, I should not have been surprised that they didn’t since I had been telling them how much it sucked since beta 1 to no effect whatever.

    Steve – you mean how reasonably prescient you were by ending the review by saying “And Vista is a big step forward; in time, you’ll want it.”

    You may want to stop patting yourself on the back, your review was overall quite complimentary to Vista and just warned about upgrading an existing XP PC rather than going out and buying a Vista Loaded PC (good advice, BTW (not being sarcastic)).

    Vista was a dog and still is a dog. For so many companies and individuals to go out of their way (and often pay more) to stick with an 8 year old OS speaks volumes about how bad Vista is.

  19. Bruce Says:

    This is a great post. More reviewers should go back and see how their predictions ended up when they encountered reality. ;)

    My only extensive experience with Vista was when I was in Japan for a week using a borrowed laptop (mine was lost in transit). I was never sure if the problems were because the interface was in Japan or because it was Vista.

  20. Bill Baker Says:

    Harry:

    Great piece. I thought you might appreciate a post on my personal blog from October 2006. Since I am generally incapable of predicting what I am going to have for lunch, I am bit proud of this one:

    http://bakercg.typepad.com/baker/2006/10/windows_vista_w.html

  21. Grapemanca Says:

    Having used 3 different machines with Vista, I can honestly say that I’ve had very few problems. Vista is smooth and fast, and has been much more stable than XP (esp. before XP’s SP2). In the past 2 years, I’ve only had 1 BSOD with Vista, and that was during my efforts to delete the wretched Office 2007 trial edition from my daughter’s HP laptop (which now runs great sans bloatware). Most of the Vista haters I know are Mac types who’ve never tried it, or are XP people who are outraged that Vista wouldn’t run on their old P4. Or, they are newbies who’ve bought a new laptop and blame Vista for all of the bloatware added to the machine by the manufacturer.

    In any case, I’ve now moved to Windows 7 – our business has been using it for a month – and I see very little difference between it and the 2 Vista machines I’m still using at home. It’s fast and stable, but then so was Vista. Some of the desktop refinements are nice, but not much of a help, to be honest. The best desktop app I’ve added recently is Fences 1.0, which has nothing to do with Vista or W7.

    When I read all the anti-Vista shrillness, all I can do is shrug my shoulders. What can I say? Vista has been good to me, and nothing like my brief but nightmarish experience with ME.

  22. uruiamme Says:

    Vista boosted both interest in Linux (see above comment), sales of Macs (great ad campaign) and kept a lot of service technicians in business. A new OS from Microsoft is like a Stimulus Plan for the tech sector… including publishers, ad agencies, software, hardware… you name it. Been watching it since the 90s and it’s always a chore to figure it out until it’s too late.

    Oh, and for Zato, come on. Ads are so… 1999. I have been blocking them with Squid and now with ADP (AdBlock Plus) since that time. But you made me look, so thanks for the laugh. My page has a mysterious blank section at the top. I figured this was the best for me and the world, since I decided not to click on ads since 97 anyway. See http://www.useit.com/alertbox/sitemaps.html for more on why I don’t look at ads even when they’re on my screen.

    Back to the peanut gallery I go.

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