Readers' Submissions

Vista on the Horizon

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • July 14th, 2007
  • 22 min read



$399.95. That’s the price currently on most software retailers' websites for a copy of Microsoft’s Windows Vista Ultimate. That’s a lot for an operating system, but does it make for a good submission? Maybe, after all there are thousands of “should I, shouldn’t I” and “Microsoft is the anti-christ” articles already on the internet so what could I possibly offer that you can’t already get a better version of from a simple Google? Easy, the Thailand perspective! Really? Yes, but I’ll be the first to admit that while there are valid Thailand related issues concerning Vista, it’s nothing you probably didn’t already know. Still, I’ve spent the last 3-4 weeks upgrading 4 laptops and 3 workstations to Windows Vista Ultimate and experienced the good and bad and have some areas I’d like to share. After all, computers tie us all together as we click on this site and spend a portion of our Saturdays together anyways. So, lets’ get started and if you read far enough I’ll even cover the subject of piracy and how you’ll want to pirate your copy of Vista properly vs. buying a copy at Pantip Plaza.

Mac vs. PCs. What a debate this can be, perhaps more controversial of a subject than abortion or gun control. We won’t be having that discussion. Vista now runs on both Mac’s and PCs so this submission applies to both types of installations. We’ve had XP over 7 years now. When XP first came out you might remember the warnings and caution flag waving and the people vowing to move to France rather than to buy another Microsoft product. Still, we’ve all been running XP for years and California didn’t sink into the Pacific Ocean and now we hear the same warnings from the same people about Vista. Are there valid concerns? Yes. XP throughout its entire lifespan had monthly security and function updates and will continue to have them as long as it’s supported. Vista will too, but from what I can see they’ll be a lot fewer in number. ANY software product evolves, improves, you discover and fix flaws, and this will never change. Still, after installing it on 7 PCs of different configurations and vintages I feel safe in saying you’ll end up with a better Windows experience than you have now. Allow me to sidetrack for a moment and briefly explain to you where most of the problems will occur and what can be done about them, and to do this I have to explain a bit about the way a computer works.

Every computer has these two things in common. 1. They are designed for a certain operating system. 2. They all have “devices” such as hard drives, keyboards, mice, monitors and other hardware devices that the operating system controls at your request. There has been the virtual “shi*load” of devices built for PCs over the years. The operating system interfaces (talks to) these devices by way of a “device driver”, a set of computer programming instructions that basically allow the operating system to know the capabilities and language of the device, and the device the operating system. Microsoft makes the operating system, the device manufacturer makes the device drivers. Probably 99% of the issues you’ve heard concerning Vista can be traced to these device drivers. Microsoft also makes ‘generic’ drivers and even device specific drivers and included them as standard equipment on the Vista installation DVD, but it’s entirely unreasonable to expect them to include the device drivers for the millions of devices built over the years. Device manufacturers often post device driver updates on their websites and many device drivers for Vista can be found there, but you’ll find that the latest/newer/most popular devices will be supported first, and the older devices supported later if at all. The bottom line, the newer your hardware and/or the more popular the hardware, the better the chances it will be supported with updated device drivers either from Vista directly or the device manufacturer. With all that said I’ve installed Vista on two machines over five years old and everything went fine. If you end up having installation issues the odds are great it will be because of a device driver not yet being available. Fortunately the folks at Microsoft know this and have included a nifty “pre-installation” scanning utility (you can download it from the Microsoft website) that will scan your system and let you know before installation of any device driver conflicts or anything else that will make your flight bumpy.

The installation of Vista for me, on all 7 computers, was the smoothest and fastest installation I’ve ever experienced. ALL of my software, even some in excess of 10 years old, operates as it was designed to operate using the Vista operating system. I use a lot of software for a variety of reasons and frankly it surprised me that everything I had worked. So.. I dug through some boxes and found some even older software and tried it. It all worked. Some software will require you to run it either under “Administrator” mode, or “Windows XP 32 bit compatibility” mode during the installation. Once you install it then it loads and functions like any other piece of software.

The easiest and most trouble free installations I had were on the brand name machines like Dell or HP. For example Dell has a Vista upgrade center, you tell it your model number and it tells you exactly what you need to do to get Vista installed and they provide everything you need to get it done. All in one place at one time, very easy. The most difficult installation was a brand new state of the art workstation I put together myself with pieces from different manufacturers.

Which version to install? We now have Ultimate, Home, Home Premium, and Business editions. Microsoft has a comparison chart on their website that lists all the differences and if you have specific needs I recommend you take a look. If you’re still not sure or just want some easy advice let me offer my suggestions.

1. Vista Home. This is the most basic version and the most like XP. No fancy graphic “Aero” component, the bare minimum of features, and everything many people need.
2. Vista Home Premium. This is probably the most appropriate version for most private users. It has the nicer “Aero” graphic component, the Media Centre component, and if you don’t need the business specific components for private use this is probably what you need.
3. Vista Business. This won’t have the Media Centre component and other nice to have things like a movie maker, but it will have hard drive on-the-fly encryption, folder syncing, advanced networking capabilities and it will include the Aero component. For business users this is probably the most appropriate version.
4. Vista Ultimate. This has all the components. It’s also the most expensive version. It’s the version I chose for all my machines not because I needed it on ‘all’ my machines, but because I combine both my business and home computers so several computers needed it, but I put it on the others as well so my family would always be looking at the same interface and not have to think about the differences.

There are two versions of each version above, the 64 bit version and the 32 bit version. I’ll make this easy. For 99.9% of the users the most appropriate choice at this time will be the 32 bit version. It will be the easiest to install, the most compatible, and unless you’re an advanced user the 64 bit version won’t offer any additional benefits. IF you are an advanced user and routinely use over 2gigs of RAM then I’d recommend the 64 bit version. There are no (or very few) 64 bit programs out there yet, 64 bit programs if they happen at all won’t happen in any significant number for years to come. However, if you use more than 2gigs of RAM, and your applications can use more than 2gigs of RAM, then the 64 bit version becomes worth the extra work. For example, I have 4gigs of RAM in my main workstation and now that I have the 64 bit version installed I might go to 8gigs. Photoshop will use any part of that I assign to great benefit, and I also run other RAM intensive applications at the same time as Photoshop so this becomes valuable to me. Also, your RAM is 64 bit so accessing your RAM 64 bits at a time offers performance increases on RAM intensive applications, though it won’t make ANY difference if you’re using MS Office Suite and the more common programs.

What benefits does Vista offer that make it worth upgrading? There are many and I’m not sure which benefits will be important to you, but I will tell you what was important to me and maybe that will be useful.. I’ll also tell you what is useful for everybody.

What’s useful for everybody:

1. The interface. The Vista interface is both nicer and more intuitive at the same time. This will make for a much more pleasant experience and more productive as well.
2. Memory manager. The Vista RAM memory manager is significantly better than the leaky XP memory manager. If you use a lot of RAM the memory manager is worth the upgrade cost alone. I could really give some examples about this but I won’t, suffice it to say this is a huge benefit.
3. Stability. All the improvements directly affect stability but it would take too long to explain how. What I will say is that even with my cleanest and best XP installation the need to reboot, the frequency of the blue screen of death, freeze-ups, and memory management errors were frequent and annoying. With Vista I’ve yet to have a blue screen of death (remember, this is with 7 machines), had a freeze-up that required a reboot vs. a program reset, or any sort of error that required a reboot. My oldest Vista installation is about two months old and I’ll often go for weeks without shutting down or rebooting the system, and when I do it’s because I’ve installed or uninstalled a program that required it. This is simply the most stable operating system I’ve ever used.
4. Security. Vista is more secure than ever before in proportion to the amount of stability which has increased.

What’s useful for me so far?

1. Better memory management.
2. The ability to use more RAM
3. Everything above.
4. The interface is wonderful, I use the full Aero desktop and it’s more attractive, easier to use, and productive at the same time.
5. Home networking capabilities are greatly enhanced and I use these to link up all our computers/workstations/laptops.
6. Colour management is hugely improved.
7. Windows Explorer has a new look, new functions, and increased functionality.. No more need for add-ons or third party enhancements.
8. Windows Photo Gallery is wonderful, and I say this as a professional photographer. It works very well, and only includes the most commonly used image program functions which make it both streamlined and easy to use. If you’re a hobbyist photographer, the kind of photographer that owns a small point and shoot camera and this is all you need, then the Windows Photo Gallery might be the only program you every need. It will resize your photos with a single click to make them the appropriate size to email, burn disks with your images to send to friends, fix red-eye/exposure/sharpening/cropping and the most common editing tasks, make movies from your video camera, photo albums, and slide shows. All without knowing how to do anything, it’s that intuitive.
9. Media Centre. I use this to record shows, play shows, manage my music, interface with my HDTV and surround sound system and much more. This effectively interfaces your computer with your home entertainment system in a very easy to use logical way.
10. Syncs directories in the same computer. This is useful for mirroring directories that you want more than one copy of.
11. Syncs drives, directories, and/or files across several machines on your home network. This is extremely useful for making sure your desktop and laptops have the same contact lists, email directories, data files, or anything else you do at home and take on the road. When returning home it then updates the other computers on your network. You can set this up in an almost infinite number of ways to suit your needs.
12. Encryption and security. Big feature for me.
13. Computer maintenance utilities new to Vista.

A note on the above. There are many more useful features but I listed these off the top of my head because I used to purchase and maintain third party software applications to do this stuff for me. Now it can do all of the above inside Vista, with full compatibility, and no troubles. The cost of these programs is easily more than the cost of Vista Ultimate by itself. In other words I spent less on Vista that includes these features and more, than I would have buying these third party software applications. Just one example: I’ll sometimes make DVD movies from my video camera to send home to family. The DVD codec for my old movie making program was $110. This codec and more are now included in Vista. Great value in Vista if you use these features.

Ok, so Vista can do a lot of great things and is a good value, but how does this relate to Thailand? In a number of ways. First, lets talk about software piracy in a general sense. It’s both harmful to the industry and good for the industry, though you’ll only hear the media talking about the bad. The good is never talked about, it’s almost a trade secret. Let me put it simply. The more people who use a program the more of a standard it becomes in the industry. The more of an industry standard it is, the more copies they sell, the more people “must” have it, and the more they can charge for it. Adobe Creative Suite is a good example, it includes Photoshop and much more. Depending on the Suite choice you make it can range from $1295 to $2500 USD’s! Few users outside of the imaging industry are willing/able to pay that much for their software, yet it’s an industry standard everybody uses. How? Because of piracy. Adobe knows they need more people using their Creative Suites than who will/can pay for it to maintain it as an industry standard, after all they certainly don’t want a rash of open source applications becoming the industry standard because then the software will improve and the industry clients will start using it instead of buying their software. Adobe could easily make their product piracy proof, but they don’t. Why? Because the want a certain set of people to pirate their software to help it maintain as an industry standard. Hobbyists, people in poor countries, etc, will pirate Adobe’s software and everyone will be using the same software, but only some will be paying to use it. Adobe knows this when they price their software, and in fact count on it. If you think about it, it’s a type of software welfare. The people who can afford it pay the entire tab, and the people who can’t use it for free. Adobe knows it can’t come to Thailand or Laos and effectively (cost effectively) defend their licenses, but through aggressive laws in western countries they can easily control those in the industry and scare the heck out of private users who have something they could lose if taken to court. I know I’m making this very simplistic, but fill in the blanks and it will start to make sense.

Can you imagine the average Thai shelling out about $600 USD for a copy of Vista Ultimate? That’s what it costs here in Thailand, yet we all know that’s way too much money for the vast majority of Thai’s to pay for an operating system. Most of us who have been here a while have already noticed that most of the “affordable” computers sold to most Thai’s don’t include a licensed copy of Windows, it’s an option no one buys. Microsoft knows that if entire nations of people couldn’t afford to buy, and couldn’t pirate their software, then open source operating systems like Linux would become the industry standard and the worth of their products would drastically recline if they’d survive at all.

Do I condone piracy? No. I make my living producing copyrighted materials. However, I do believe in being aware of how things work and it’s a fact that those of us in western countries pick up the tab so third world countries can get it for free, and this extends to pharmaceuticals and much more. Piracy is a fact of life we must live and work with. However, pirated copies and versions of software can be problematic if not done correctly. In the interest of our Thai readership and anyone else who truly cannot afford to pay bloated retail prices I’ll talk a bit about what and what not to do concerning pirated software.

There are basically three type of software security.

1. Physical control. These are disks that once you have them in your hands can be installed on a computer with no serial number, activation, or anything else.
2. Serial number. These are applications that require a serial number but require no activation.
3. Activation. These are applications that “phone home” and confirm your copy of the software is valid and authorized for use.

Only 2&3 above need anything done to pirate. Serial number applications are the easiest to pirate. People trade serial numbers on-line and you can find long lists that have active serial numbers for thousands of applications in the same document. You can also find “key generators” on-line. These are useful for programs that ask for both a name and a serial number. You don’t necessarily need a issued serial number as these types of applications merely use the name to generate a mathematical algorithm serial number, if the serial number mathematically matches the name then the application will activate and will never “phone home” to check out the number. You can update these programs with no issues, though sometimes new versions will require a new serial. You can find these key generators at many of the bittorrent sites.

Activation is more tricky. Adobe for instance authorizes the user to use their software on two computers and two computers only. You can install their software on 100 computers if you want, but you can only activate and then use two of them at a time. You get two activations, and once you use both then you must “deactivate” a computer before authorizing another. I like this, it’s convenient, fast, and no human help or phone calls are needed. I’ll often install their software on up to five or more computers, but since I can only use one computer at a time if I decide to use another computer I’ll simply transfer the activations to match my usage needs.

When you upgrade this type of software it must be activated. No activation, no updates. There are “hacks” out there for this software that will allow you to use the software, but not to update it. Updates might not be important for Photoshop and some other applications (or they could be very important, depends on the upgrade), but they are critical for operating systems that require monthly security upgrades, function upgrades, and more. I would never recommend any “hack” for an operating system that did anything less than a full activation that allowed upgrades. There are two types of pirate types that will do this. One type is a hack that merely extends a trial period for an indefinite amount of time. Another type fully activates the software so you can’t tell the difference from a factory authorized computer. For instance, when you buy a Dell laptop its copy of Windows comes fully activated. I won’t tell you how these “better” hacks work, but I will tell you they can also be found on the bit torrent sites, so know what you’re “shopping” for and don’t settle for the timer hacks that extend trial periods.

Again, an operating system is the heart of your machine, it must be “upgradeable” and ANY hack you use carries with it the potential for Trojans and other viruses or malware that might allow the writer/distributor of the “hack” full access to your system without your knowledge. They might be able to see all your personal information such as banking numbers and codes, passwords, etc.. use your machine for it’s computing power in the background, as a SPAM server, or any number of uses that are both illegal and potentially costly to you. If your IP address gets traced back and it’s found out that your machine set out a few million SPAM emails then you might have some explaining to do.

How can you tell if the “hacks” carry viruses and the such? You really can’t know with 100% certainty. It’s your operating system and there are many ways to hide illicit functions. However, you can scan the file with a good virus scanner which will reveal most unsophisticated viruses, or you can do a bit of research and verify the author of the hack is a “good” guy. Most bit torrent sites have a place for users to add comments about the software, so if the hack has a virus you’ll usually see it listed in the comments section. The best hackers want to preserve their reputations as “good “ guys as a matter of pride, so it pays to get to know the names of the best hackers and only use their hacks. None of this takes longer than a few Google searches now that you know what to look for.

Politically piracy is a bag of worms. Now you know software companies use piracy as a tool, a valuable tool. You also know that in a way they take advantage of entire nations of people like the Thai’s, by pricing software way out of the average guys realm of affordability, while at the same time allowing piracy that keeps their software the industry standard that the average Thai must have to do business, learn, or enjoy a typical computing experience. But there’s more.

Places like Pantip Plaze carry a high risk of virus and malware infection. The people producing the copies of the software in their disk copying machines often can’t resist piggybacking their own Trojans and malware to the pirated copies to take advantage of their own people, and of course of their rich farang customers. Either can those who upload to bit torrent search engines though they quickly get exposed. They would like nothing better than to piggyback a Trojan on a 100 baht piece of software, so that once you’re back in your home country with the software installed, it will look for the type of banking files with account information and forward it back to them over the internet. Is this common? Yes. Is it likely? No. Obviously the bad guys can’t do this as often as they want or people will catch on and avoid buying software at certain places, more it will bring in law enforcement they can’t buy off. But it is done. You probably won’t hear about it any more often than you hear about the double scanning of credit cards at nice hotels, but it’s done. The point of me mentioning this isn’t to get you to not pirate software, but to make you aware of the risks. When we’re talking about an operating system we’re talking about the master key to your computer.

This is a huge topic and I could have written a small book about it, but for this submission I just wanted hit the most relevant parts. I certainly don’t want to encourage piracy, but I think it’s important to know it’s a tool of the software companies as well, and that if you’re going to do it then be aware of the different methods and choose the best one for your needs. More, those who look at Microsoft and Bill Gates as the anti-christ have beaten their drums overtime trying to discourage people from upgrading to Vista. I think this is a huge disservice. Know that almost all issues you have will be device driver issues that won’t necessarily be Microsoft’s fault. Know that Vista is a GREAT product with many very useful performance and feature enhancements. There are improvements in any technology over a 7 year period, but with software and electronics the improvements are usually much more and Vista is no exception. I think it’s also useful to understand at least part of the dynamics of all this as it affects Thailand and other third world countries.

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

I have fiddled about with Vista a little and liked it. Might be time to get a copy! While not specifically about Thailand, I still very much enjoyed this submission.