Yes, Windows XP does allow limited users which would have prevented that sort of damage, and generally speaking this works fine for desktop apps and everyday productivity type of stuff. But, many apps still haven't gotten the now ages old memo that we're not going to write to Program Files anymore. Games especially are guilty of this, and being the type of person who games regularly, a limited user account quickly wore out its welcome on Windows XP. Vista has that UAC feature though. Perhaps I can make that work to my advantage.
For one thing, the closer we get to XP being officially discontinued, the more apps I see repenting the old ways and writing their crap into the user account - that means that on XP with limited users things work just fine...for the most part. And on Vista those apps that are trying really hard to reserve a seat in hell and continue to write to their program folder will only require that I allow them, instead of just failing miserably like early XP did.
I actually did several Vista installs over 3 days before finally satisfying my curiosity with the installer. It's nice that it can take drive controller drivers from a USB stick now (about damn time - I haven't had a floppy since before XP was released), but the default install is enormous and slow to install. I ended up using vLite to slim the install. After chopping out several gigabytes worth of language packs, printer drivers, and random legacy bullshit, the installer is much easier to stomach. What you take out seems to matter little to performance, except the things that are otherwise running on a default install that are no longer there. But, I'd rather just disable these items than rip them out completely - you never know what you'll need later. Frankly, I'd like to see an option to leave all but the most critical drivers and such on the DVD. Hard drive space is cheap, but it's not that cheap and I usually download the latest driver from the website anyways, if it's available (sidenote: this is why I hate the Linux way of including all drivers: I'd rather just download the newest version of what I need, and on Linux that usually means compiling kernel modules, which is a horrible, horrible pain the ass to do every time the damn kernel updates). It's really uncalled for to have 50 languages sitting on my computer, when I'm the only one that ever uses it, and I only speak one language. Especially when the languages alone are an extra gigabyte of data.
The first boot had me create a new user, which it oddly enough created as a system administrator. I apparently misunderstood how UAC works - you're still given total access, you just have to elevate to it; it's very similar to sudo. I know it's supposed to be a protected prompt that a bit of malicious software couldn't get around, but I suspect that at least one clever hack will be discovered for UAC in Vista's time, so I used the Microsoft Management Console to enable the Administrator account, and then lowered my user account to regular user privileges. By doing this, the UAC prompts not just for your permission, but the permission of an administrator, complete with a password box. Hey, it's not like Microsoft has actually inspires confidence in the security arena, so warranted or not I'm going to assume that Vista is a security sieve.
This actually works really well. Anywhere where you would see a normal UAC box, I now get a similar UAC box except with added username/password fields, and administrator access is required to get past it. And since SP1 reduced the cases where UAC pops up needlessly, I'm not terribly annoyed by it. After getting everything set the way I wanted it, I go days without seeing any prompts now - I don't tinker with the system setup daily.
I got some unexpected behavior when I started using a program that I knew for a fact wrote it's configuration files to the application folder - located in Program Files. I fully expected to need to elevate for this, but it ran perfectly. I was suspicious: the program was obviously saving my preferences somewhere, as even if I quit and relaunched the program all my settings were saved. I was sure that I had just totally misunderstood Vista's security functions, that I had just made the world's most annoying account that would still burn down the Windows install eventually. That is, until I looked in the application folder and saw that no new files had been created to save my preferences.
It took me the better part of a day to realize that Vista was redirecting accesses to Program Files at the file system level and it was going to a folder in my user account. This can cause some problems. Especially in World of Warcraft, which implements addons (plugins, using Lua as the scripting language) by having you copy their files into a designated folder in the game folder; the addon's data is saved into the game folder when you quit the game. This is (incidentally) one of the programs that will be burning in hell for abusing the Program Files folder. It's best to just not copy anything to the game folder at all and instead let Vista redirect all this into your special folder in your user account. It seems that the behavior isn't entirely clear with respect to what gets loaded if two copies of the same file exist, and while addons placed in the WoW directory by an administrator will work fine, they sometimes would not save or retrieve their data properly if you did this. But, it worked fantastically if you let Windows work it's magic: put the plugins in the appropriate place in your user account, and World of Warcraft won't know the difference. It's a clever feature and solves the problem of making you elevate too frequently. Most users won't even know it's there if they don't go mucking about with their file structure. I predict a nightmare if you have to support programs being worked around this way, though, and it might even have it's own security issues - I can think of several ways this could be used to cause all sorts of undesired behavior. You could, for example, just copy a malicious World of Warcraft addon to the proper place in the user's account folder. No need to get around UAC or modify the game files. But at least it wouldn't be able to hose the entire system, unless you're running World of Warcraft in the Administrator account for some reason.
At this point I should probably go ahead and specify how I set the Vista and the UI up just a bit. I left the 3D desktop turned on, because everyone likes "teh shiny." I did kill some of the background services, which is necessary for every version of Windows (why in the hell do I need the wireless network service running if I don't have any wireless cards?). I installed UltraMon, because dual monitors are like, you know, some new technology that Vista doesn't fully support yet. Seriously now: can I get a task bar on my secondary monitor? It's only been requested since roughly 1995 or so. I also disabled that "Windows Sidebar" crap. Listen guys, my desktop is buried 5 layers deep in various windows. I don't even want to know how many icons are sitting back there on my desktop - I don't use them, they're actually hidden so they don't even render. I can't see my desktop beyond the first five minutes of usage when I power on in the morning. For years I didn't have a desktop background - it was just black. I do actually have one set right now...it's black and blue. Incidentally, I had to use UltraMon for that as well, because once again Vista does not account for the secondary monitor well (though, neither does Linux - I'll probably make a separate journal someday about the various failings of Windows and Linux with multiple monitors). Gadgets, widgets, applets, whatever you want to call them: they suck, they're worthless, and they waste resources because I can't interact with or see them.
Anyways, back to the subject, because I'm a desktop real estate whore I don't use Quicklaunch and I hide most of the Notification Tray icons to get more space on my taskbar. And much to my disappointment, Vista still can't hide all Notification Tray icons properly, a bug that's been successfully carried over from Windows XP. Although, at least it's different icons it can't hide this time. This time it's SpeedFan, which I use to control my fans because the same people who designed Window's multimonitor features also designed my motherboard's fan speed controls (ie. there aren't any options, and the defaults are retarded). I believe this is because SpeedFan has the gall to update its tooltip once every few seconds to show the temperature or something like that.
Now that I've complained, let me elaborate on what's been done right. Let me just say that this is the first time Since Windows 95 that my operating system appearance has changed significantly. I changed back to one of the classic schemes in Windows XP, and disabled the Themes service. The fact that I didn't immediately decide to turn off Vista's theme means that it did a lot better than Microsoft's last attempt at pretty: Luna just reminded me of a certain company's child playtoys. So Vista earns a few imaginary points there. Second, you may notice that without ready access to Desktop icons, or Quicklaunch, I have only one option for launching programs: the Start Menu. In that regard, I like the changes made to the Start Menu. I customize the hell out of it in order to cram more icons onto it, and change what's shown, but I use the menu in a way most people don't these days. Which is to say I use it the way it was originally intended: to start programs. Also, the fact that All Programs now launches in a pseudo-window that I can scroll with my mousewheel is a godsend (and about damn time - the previous scrolling or double-column solution was absolute shit). It's also nice that I can hit a key to jump to a particular letter in the list, although having the focus still be in the Start Search box when I click All Programs is damn stupid; I'm sure this will now be incorporated into the next 5 versions of Windows, and it will piss me off every time.
The right hand side of the Start Menu functions in much the same way it did in Windows XP. You can still put things like a link to My Documents (properly redirected to another hard disk, thanks), My Computer, and My Music on it. There's also an entry with your user name, which opens up to a sort of home folder (Those who do not understand Unix...). That's a nice addition, though since I show hidden files mine's filled all the various crap that Windows keeps around in a user's folder. Luckily, I need to get to these hidden places often enough that I consider this a feature. You'll also notice some icons that look to be shortcuts, but will just throw "Access Denied" error messages when you try to open them. This is frustrating, because they have names like "Start Menu" and "Application Data" where you'd expect to be able to muss with that sort of thing. The thing is, these are links so that programs that hardcode these paths can be redirected to wherever Microsoft has moved them now. I suppose no one thought that the users might want to know where those went as well (actually moved to AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu because that's sooo much easier to find). Until I figured this out, I was rather frustrated by getting "Access Denied" from all the places I really needed to get to in order to restore my program's running settings (yep, saved my Windows user account).
As any real Windows user knows, the only thing that really matters is performance (please add your own flavor of sarcastic tone to that), and for far too long Vista lacked it noticeably more so than any other version of Windows. SP1 was supposed to correct a lot of the performance bottlenecks, but promises are made to be broken. It's fine on the desktop using normal apps, even with the 3D desktop turned on. It really seems just as good as XP or Linux in that respect (note: my Windows installs don't generally have 100 processes running in the background like that old lady's Dell, so they really are on par with Linux desktops here). One area where Vista really takes a step back is in hard disk usage, though. I'll hear my drive randomly start seeking for no reason I can discern, even with the indexing services turned off. And it'll start doing that at the worst possible times, like in the middle of a Ranked Arena match in World of Warcraft. This wouldn't matter except is seems that Vista's new IO scheduler is a flaming pile of crap.
Anytime the hard disk reads games stops rendering entirely, and I still can't play games while people are pulling files from my computer over the network; something that was possible when I was using XP. I know that there's already been one issue related to network performance when sound is playing (that was patched, supposedly). I assume I can play audio while doing network transfers - I haven't had any trouble doing that, anyways. All these problems stink of being related, and of scheduling and priority conflicts. All in all, if there's anything that's really hurting Vista's reputation in the performance field, it's crap like this. Combined with the frequent hard disk access, the system feels a lot slower than it should entirely too often. Generally, once Vista's done molesting the hard disk, everything moves right along just fine. But, going from 80 to 0 FPS in a split second because Vista is on a whim rifling through your hard disk for no damn reason is really infuriating.
Vista is also somewhat slower about games in general. With NVIDIA cards, the difference doesn't seem to be that bad. I don't have any modern ATI cards to test with, but benchmarking site HardOCP did some tests that showed that ATI still did poorly in Vista compared to XP. Either way, with the 7900GS and 8800GT I tested with Vista was pretty much always slower, but only by a small margin. I'm willing to live with it, as Vista does do some nice things for my games.
It's not just the eye candy that makes a compositing desktop nice. In XP, if I run a game in Windowed mode, I must ensure that the game stays on the primary monitor. If any part of the game is drawn on my second monitor, the frame rates will drop off drastically, leaving the game unplayable. With Vista, there appears to be some performance hit for moving a game to the second monitor, but it's not nearly so ridiculously slow as it was in XP. It's playable at least. Vista also has no trouble rendering the game to a scaled thumbnail such as those shown on the taskbar when you hover the mouse over it's taskbar entry, or in the "Flip3D" feature, where I fully expected both to just leave me with a black box like everything Windows does with video or games. The neato transparency effects also work if you put another window on top of the game. All in all, this is the first time 3D accelerated games seem to be able to play nice with the rest of the system - it's nice to see, especially if you happen to be one of those people that plays your MMOs windowed so you can reference the internet as you play. Playing games full screen still kills the nice compositing desktop thing (it just turns into Areo Basic), but you'd never notice that unless you had dual monitors, and if it's full screen you can't easily switch to the second monitor anyways. And none of the graphical UI niceties I listed will help your score in Team Fortress 2 or anything. I did try it windowed across 2 monitors, though; just for kicks. It does actually work.
Also of note is the sound system. While I have never personally used anything besides the audio controllers on the motherboard, I know a lot of people were personally offended by the fact that their super expensive hardware decoding audio cards would retain the "super expensive" part but not the "hardware decoding" part. Honestly, the few times I ever played with a real hardware audio card and surround speakers I wasn't that impressed. Yes, it's loud, but you know what? I still can't tell what direction anyone's coming from anyways. The whole directional audio thing never worked for me. I do have 5.1 speakers, and they are set up correctly, I just don't think that 5 speakers accurately emulates what I hear. On the other hand, trying to balance the game volume with the volume of my friends talking to me via voice chat frequently leaves my ears ringing. Vista fixes that nicely by reworking the sound system so I can control the volume of individual applications, irregardless of whether or not they give me a volume control. I keep Firefox muted most of the time, and keep Ventrilo set a bit higher than everything else. Thankfully, it will remember where you set the volume for each application. I'll gladly take the tradeoff here.
So, what's the takeaway from this wall of text? Vista's really a mixed bag, but not as horrible as I once thought. On the one hand, it's got all the standard crap you hate about Windows, plus a lot of it's own baggage. Microsoft really needs to iron out their issues with IO scheduling, and drag the other half of it's UI into 1999 (the theme is nice, but doesn't fix a whole lot, really). On the other hand, it does add some nifty features, especially since I've recently acquired a World of Warcraft addiction, like half the internet (I started in February and already have a 70 rogue about half epiced, as well as a few alts at various levels). For games that you play in a more traditional manner (such as shooters or RTS) the graphical sugar that makes MMOs nice only slows down the frame rates. I've also got a few "out of left field" type of bugs. At the moment, when I shut down Windows it does everything properly, but somehow fails to actually power down the computer. I must hold the power button myself. It was not like this until I started fiddling with the sleep modes and trying to get it to sleep properly (something this desktop has never done reliably). Now I can't fix it. The first thing I said when I noticed it was "Not this shit again!" I think I've fought this bug on every version since Windows 98. Can we pleasefortheloveoftechseverywhere turn off the damn computer properly one of these days? There's been no showstoppers, though. I have not had a single blue screen or lockup, even when I'm flogging my computer for all it's worth encoding, compiling, and a million other little things at once. That, I do believe is a first in a Microsoft operating system. In the end, I think the product reflects the development process: it's got multiple personalities. Some parts are very well done and thought out. Features were added that just make sense for what people do with their computers. Somebody actually used Windows, and they cared. Others seem to have been given no thought at all. The same mistakes were made, things weren't taken far enough, or great ideas were botched by little details. Judging from what I've read about Vista's development process that sounds about right.