Opinion: A Mac fan takes on Vista

Earlier this month, when I found I could install Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) on my MacBook Pro, I quickly took the plunge, practically chortling at the thought that my dual-core laptop could run Microsoft’s next operating system. What better way to show that when you buy a Mac you get two computers in one?

I’ve been using Vista off and on for a couple of weeks now, but I’m not chortling as much.

The MacBook Pro is fine. Yes, it runs hotter than normal on Vista and battery life is greatly reduced. That’s no surprise. Vista isn’t exactly optimized for Mac use, and the drivers that Apple supplies with its Boot Camp software don’t work in Microsoft’s upcoming OS. (I had to install a small third-party app, Apple Mouse, to enable a right-click function in Vista on the Macbook Pro.) I’m assuming that by the time Vista is out, Apple will be ready. And with the exception of a few such glitches along the way, Vista RC1 (Build 5600) has been generally stable: No blue screens of death, no untoward infections that I’m aware of. A lot of applications I use regularly — the Firefox browser, iTunes, Quicktime — work just fine in Vista.

But how is it to use? One of the first things a longtime Mac user will notice about Windows is the look. This isn’t your father’s (or mother’s) Windows. It’s superficially Mac-like — as if Microsoft, rather than coming up with a more original look for its OS — decided to offer its take on Mac OS X’s interface.

Apple’s UI is called Aqua. Microsoft calls its interface Aero. Hmmmm.

If you’re familiar with Apple’s bright white-and-turquoise look, you’ll notice similarities. The open-close-resize buttons for windows in Vista light up when the mouse cursor hovers over them, for instance. When a user account control (UAC) warning pops up — and it will, often — a taskbar icon sometimes flashes with a soft, shiny orange glow to get your attention. Desktop icons are more photorealistic and scale nicely. You can dial up or down the transparency of windows, which is cool, though not especially useful. There’s even a “sidebar” that, while it functions differently than OS X’s dock, looks similar at first glance. (The little apps that run in the sidebar in Vista are called “gadgets;” the little apps that run as part of Expose in OS X are “widgets.”)

Aqua and Aero. Gadgets and widgets. What’s that line about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

I know it’s a two-way street. Mac OS X users can now alt-tab their way through open applications just as quickly as Windows users. Thanks, Apple, for taking an extremely useful feature from Windows and incorporating it into OS X. And that dock I mentioned? It offers a lot of the functions of the Windows taskbar. But taking a feature or two and building it into an OS isn’t the same as copying the overall look and feel of a competitor’s software. What’s next: Sony trying to devise a laptop that looks like a Macbook? The result of Microsoft’s lengthy development effort is a glassy, glossy version of Windows with eye-catching bling, yielding a shimmering look that I actually like. I should. I’ve been using something like it on Mac OS X for five years.

Note to Microsoft GUI gurus: Take a look at the latest version of Apple’s iTunes software, the recently-released Version 7. Gloss and shine are out, the 3-D sandblasted look is in. From what I’ve seen so far, Mac OS X 10.5, or Leopard, still looks pretty much like the current OS X 10.4 — at least according to the developer preview Apple released selectively last month. But I’m really hoping that one of the tricks Apple CEO Steve Jobs has up his sleeve is a plan to make the entire OS look like the interface used in iTunes 7. We’ll know in a few months.

Perhaps most annoying is the fact that millions of Windows users will be delighted by the new look of Windows when it’s released next year, blissfully unaware that Mac users have enjoyed bling for years.

They’ll also likely be delighted by the fact that Microsoft has slammed the door on some of the more glaring security holes that have plagued XP users for years. The inclusion of Windows Defender to help keep malware at bay will be welcomed by users. But I doubt they’ll be nearly as content with the way Vista constantly reminds you that you’re safe. I’m talking here, of course, about UAC, which a number of Vista reviewers, including Computerworld’s own Scot Finnie have already criticized for its intrusiveness.

UAC, for those not familiar with it, is designed to essentially stop bad things from happening to your computer. It can prevent an evil .exe file from running unprompted and infecting your PC. It can stop you from doing something stupid like installing software that, given a few seconds to think about it, you might not want to install. It can stop you from making changes to Vista that might cause problems later on. Those are all OK. Apple does much the same thing in OS X — asking, for instance, if you really want to download and install that little app you found online, or asking you for your password when you go to make a user account change.

What’s annoying about the UAC implementation in Vista is that it’s so heavy-handed and intrusive — and it halts what you’re doing, even if you want to do something as simple as change your clock. Or set your network connection. Or change the font DPI. Or activate Windows. That’s right. When I installed Vista on my MacBook Pro a few weeks back, I unchecked the box asking if i wanted to automatically activate Vista with Microsoft. Then, a few days ago, a warning message popped up telling me that unless I activated Vista, the OS would stop running in two days.

As soon as I moved to activate Vista, a UAC dialog box popped up, asking me if I really wanted to do that. Now that’s useful user control! Having been duly warned, I proceeded to activate my copy of Vista. Bouncing back and forth between Vista and OS X, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the way UAC works that bugs me in comparison to the way Apple handles similar security issues. Part of it is that seemingly innocuous actions trigger it — such as changing the time and date on the computer. Part of it is that you can’t selectively turn UAC off. In Mac OS X, changes to the system through system preferences can be “locked” and “unlocked,” making it easier to avoid having to type in your password when making changes. Don’t want your time and date easily changed? Just lock that particular preference and you’ll be asked to type in your password before you can do so in the future.

My sense here is that Microsoft has been criticized so often for security vulnerabilities that it decided to club users over the head with its new OS-in-lockdown-mode. It reminds me of the early days of HTML, when Web designers everywhere suddenly seemed to discover the blink tag — and sites everywhere began blinking at users. In a short while, all that blinking became distracting, then annoying, then finally ended as people got fed up. My sense is that a lot of users will get tired of UAC very quickly and do whatever they can to shut it off. That could leave them vulnerable to genuine threats and obviate the enhanced security Microsoft is so proud of.

I’m more enamored of Vista’s Flip 3D feature, which basically takes all of the open windows on your desktop, stands them up on end and stacks them in a way that you can cycle through to the one you want to use. It’s similar to what Apple’s Expose does. In Mac OS X, all of the open windows are arranged in a two-dimensional way that makes it easy to see what’s in each one. But it’s not as visually appealing.

Both do pretty much the same thing; Vista’s method wins on aesthetics.

I’m less enamored of Vista’s new sidebar feature, which allows small gadgets to run on screen all the time. These are useful little apps like a clock, CPU meter, currency converter, a weather window and stock ticker. You can run multiple instances of each gadget, plopping two clocks set for different time zones right on your screen. Gadgets generally sit in the sidebar and can be localized and customized — moved to the desktop or made transparent, for instance — or turned off altogether. They perform many of the same functions as widgets in Mac OS X, except that widgets are called up with a key combo and float onto the screen in front a user’s other windows. They don’t run in the OS X dock, and you can’t move them to the desktop without some third-party intervention. Maybe I’m just used to calling up widgets on my MacBook Pro with a quick keystroke — and dismissing them just as quickly — but I find widgets easier to use. They don’t get in the way and aren’t there when not needed. Gadgets, if they remain in the dock, take up screen real estate. Or, if I move them onto the Vista desktop and hide the sidebar, they sit behind the windows I’m using in the foreground. That means moving the windows around to find the gadget and check whatever information it provides. While gadgets can be set to remain on top of other windows, you then have to move the gadget around to see what you’re working on. In other words, the gadgets are useful tools that get in the way — meaning many users may well turn them off.

I see the same issue — good idea, so-so implementation — with Internet Explorer 7. One of the biggest advances touted in Microsoft’s long-overdue update to its Web browser is the addition of tabs. I use tabs daily, constantly shifting back and forth between Web pages. In fact, the easiest way for me to scan a large number of sites quickly is to launch a folder of URLs, with each one opening up in its own tab. IE7 lets you open links in a tab, too — one at a time. After configuring the confusing user interface Microsoft has slapped on its browser, you can add a folder of links to the links toolbar, just as you can with Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and a host of other browsers.

Now, try opening your list o’ links in multiple tabs at one time. Safari and Firefox, for instance, add an “Open in tabs” command to the bookmark folder menu that opens when you click on a folder of links. IE7 doesn’t offer that option — essentially making the use of tabs in Microsoft’s latest browser useless to me. That’s why, almost from the start, I’ve turned to Firefox when surfing the Web in Vista.

The upshot: Tabs in IE7 represent another good idea — albeit one already implemented years ago in other browsers — that was haphazardly implemented in a way that makes it an annoyance, not a convenience.

So if I turn off UAC, ignore the sidebar gadgets and skip IE7, what am I left with in Vista? A new operating system that is more secure than its predecessor, looks great on the surface and no doubt has a plethora of under-the-hood changes, but one that leaves the casual user frequently frustrated. I joked with a Computerworld colleague that I’d wrap up my report by noting that users who like Windows XP will love Vista.

Noting the various issues Vista presents, he shot back: “Don’t be so sure.”

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