It has been well documented that the reception for Microsoft’s Windows Vista has not been all that warm. Yet, visiting the web site of many PC manufacturers or visiting a retail outlet selling computers will show that most new hardware is being offered with Vista as the primary if not only option. O’Reilly’s newest in their Annoyances series, “Windows Vista Annoyances”, by David A. Karp, seeks to alleviate some of the pain for new Vista users. For the Vista owner who is able to put the book’s suggestion into place, the edge should be taken off. For the individual considering a purchase of Vista and wondering if it can really be that bad, this book seems to indicate that yes, it is that bad.
I’ve read a decent number of O’Reilly titles over the years. My bookshelf for technical books is a rainbow of the various volumes, each with their wood carving style cover. I don’t think in all those years I’ve ever read an introduction like the one in annoyances. O’Reilly authors tend to be enthusiastic about their topic and are often well known proponents of the technology discussed. I can only guess that Karp is not a huge fan of Vista. The preface begins with a section labeled “Why am I annoyed?” and that section concludes with the question, “Would Microsoft be making decisions like these if it had to compete fairly for your business?” The first sentence of the first chapter is, “Windows Vista is like a papaya: sleek on the outside, but a big mess on the inside.” And Karp never lets up. Throughout the book, from start to finish, he never tries to gloss over the ugliness of Vista. This book may be hazardous to the health of Microsoft fanboys. I would imagine that too much time reading would lead to high blood pressure at the very least.
In view of the mess that is Vista, Karp informs the reader that, “Whether it goes down smoothly or gives you heartburn is up to you.” The point of the book is to give the reader the information that they need to make Vista palatable. This may sound simple but it brings up what I thought was the most difficult issue for Karp. Vista Annoyances is written with a level of detail and explanation that marks it clearly for the user with casual knowledge of personal computers and how they work. Karp takes the time to explain things like what it means to zip a file, what happens when defrag is run on a hard drive, networking basics and so on. This is great for someone like me, who is sure to start getting a slew of calls from friends and family as some of them move to Vista. The problem is, many of the solutions revolve around steps that are not necessarily a good idea for the pc novice. A large portion of the solutions revolve around editing the registry. The third chapter of the book deals solely with the registry. How it works, how to navigate within it and how to alter it. For some people this could be a great route to take, for many it could lead to much more serious problems than they had in the first place.
For the technically proficient, this book will seem a bit bloated. They don’t need all the explanation given for the beginner. Many of the books solutions are not just Vista specific. They give information and work arounds for Windows issues that have existed in XP and possibly back to 98. The saving grace is a thorough index. The person who buys this as a reference to help out others, or deal with some specific issue will find that the extensive index helps to not waste time working through what could feel like a lot of extra material.
I don’t think this issue of complexity is necessarily the author’s fault. Many of the changes users will want to make to Vista just can’t be made any other way than through the registry. Where it is possible to use a programitic interface (gui or command line) Karp gives thorough and detailed instructions, with screen shots on how to do so. But for many options those tools don’t exist or have been removed, leaving direct editing of the registry as the only solution left. Another issue, that is somewhat similar, is that for most home users, some of the better solutions wont be available as they wont have access to tools available in Vista Ultimate and Business editions. This isn’t Karps fault again, but it means for many the book will have a lot of information that they just can’t use.
Dealing with the various editions and their features is handled immediately in the first chapter. That chapter, “Get Started with Windows Vista”, also covers installation. Karp goes over the various types of installs and gives tips on how to deal with failed installs, how to best set up prior to an install and how to deal with licensing. Throughout the book, Karp makes note when he is talking about a feature, choice or tool that is limited to a subset of the Vista family. Keeping track of it all can be a bit confusing. Once again, I don’t really see this as a shortcoming on the part of the author. It’s just the nature of the beast.
The title of the second chapter threw me at first. It is, “Shell Tweaks.” When I hear the word shell my mind immediately brings up bash or ksh. In this case Karp is talking about Windows Explorer. As this is the primary interface for users working with the Vista file system, the chapter holds some vital information for attaining a sane and consistent user experience. Karp points out that many of the defaults are not going to endear themselves to many users and in many cases do not make much sense. When Karp discusses explorer he explains how to modify it when opened to various folders and also in the context of the desktop and taskbar.
Karp points out many third party tools that he feels will help the user. Many are free, some are not. The tools mentioned more than any other are Creative Element’s Powertools. Powertools can be downloaded for a free 45 day trial period but costs $18 to license beyond that time frame. This is important as many of Karps solutions can be managed without this software but would be very cumbersome. This is especially true of all the editing done in the registry.
The registry chapter is thorough and offers a detailed explanation of what the registry is and how it works. This material could be useful for anyone using any version of windows. The issue of trying to make Vista useful for non-technical users rears its head here quite a bit, as I mentioned. I found myself reading explanations of hex and binary as well as reading how to create a patch file for the registry. This could be useful information for me, in helping others with Windows issues. But when I consider my parents, there is no way I would want them trying out half of what is in this chapter. They would in all likelihood need a complete reinstall in no time. What reading this said to me, more than anything was that most people are going to just have to settle for Vista the way Microsoft gives it to them.
The chapter on dealing with multimedia was interesting and could prove helpful for users with less experience. There are solid explanations on codecs, players and how to get the most out of media, especially video. There is very little said about Vista and DRM. There is no mention of possible problems with hardware due to DRM. In fact the discussion on DRM was primarily limited to a short mention of Tunebite and MyFair Tunes for DRM removal. I assume that this is because finding and explaining such issues would have required a lot more time, research and hardware. Vista annoyances pretty much sticks to the basics of media use.
I had to chuckle a bit as I read the chapter on performance as many of the recommendations involve turning off much of what differentiates Vista from XP. It is useful though, as Karp explains what the configurable options are and how much one can expect in gains. He does make it clear that the initial defaults are less than ideal and it is worth the time to dig in and make adjustments. The same can be said for security and in that regard the chapters on networking and users are indispensable. Once again, getting all the tools will involve having Ultimate/Business and installing third party tools to bring Vista into line.
I’ve rated the book 8 out of 10. This is due to two issues. The first negative I have explained quite a bit and that is the book speaks to the novice but requires someone with more experience in many cases. While this is may not be the fault of the author and a necessity brought on by the subject matter, it still makes the book less useful. The second is that quite often I found the author bringing up points only to say that he would explain more in the same chapter or later in another chapter. This is because the chapters themselves are built around topics like performance and troubleshooting. But when Karp is working his way through each option of a menu it branches out into other topics, as many options in Vista are spread all over the place. Once again, this seems to be more of a Vista issue, but hinders learning none the less.
After finishing this book, my first thought was that I am going to do all I can to make sure that no family or friends buy a machine with Vista if possible. Service Pack 1 will address just a few of the issues that Vista brings to the table. From what I’ve read about it fixing activation ‘loopholes’ it could make some things worse. Should I find myself approached by someone who already has Vista and wants help, I would recommend this book if they have some idea of what they are doing or can learn without getting into too much trouble. For that classic parent or grandparent always brought up as an example, I think I would just tell them Visa is the way it is and hope that they adjust. If I like them enough, I’ll pull this book off the shelf and head on over to help them out.
Title: Windows Vista Annoyances
Author: David A. Karp
Publisher: O’Reilly Media Inc.
Tagline: Tips, Secrets and Solutions.