Migration to Vista x64

About a month ago I made the migration to Windows Vista x64. A little back story first — I tried Vista Business soon after it was released. I hated it, most apps had terrible compatibility (even Microsoft’s own apps), and it didn’t feel very fast.

But recently my Windows XP install was yet again beginning to decay. This happened every time I reformatted. Usually after a few days (or even hours) of setting up my typical XP environment, it started exhibiting strange bugs, slow downs, and random problems. For example, the entire user interface would randomly stop working and I’d have to reboot. Clicking the ‘Start’ button would freeze the taskbar for about two seconds. Some USB devices wouldn’t work until they got power cycled. Killing things in Task Manager would always have some ridiculous delay (which I think is a general problem in XP).

These problems got so predictable that when my hard drive died in March, I decided up to upgrade to Vista again, and take another plunge at the same time – Vista x64. So far, I don’t have many complaints. The user interface is slick and responsive. I’m using Aero which says a lot — I never used Luna on XP. The organizational changes, for the most part, aren’t really much of a problem for me. I switch between the “Classic” and new control panels frequently to adapt.

UAC is not a problem, and in fact I like it after some tweaks. I disabled “Secure Desktop” (which is an extreme annoyance) and disabled confirmation for Administrators. I run my primary account as LUA (limited user account). Typing in the Administrator password to install apps is no big deal, I’m used to this from administering Linux boxes. On a few occasions I’ve seen the box pop up from suspicious programs that shouldn’t need Administrator privileges — on XP, these would have gracefully executed with no chance to inspect them.

Application compatibility has improved since a year ago. While most apps aren’t x64-native, a few were — 7-Zip, Ventrilo, MySQL, Perl, and a fair number of Microsoft apps. Some aren’t for decent reasons. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Media players and the like are often dependent on third-party libraries which don’t have x64 ports. You can’t mix 64-bit and 32-bit code in the same process.

I did have a few 16-bit Windows games which no longer run (x64 dropped the 16-bit subsystem). I even had one very esoteric program with a 16-bit installer. I wasn’t too broken up about losing those though, and VMWare will suffice if I ever need to run them.

As for driver compatibility, I did have one issue. My XP system had two GeForce cards, a 5200 and an 8800. On Vista (or at least, Vista x64) the 5xxx series and lower is no longer supported by any of the new nVidia drivers. The 5xxx series is only supported up to ForceWare 96.85 and the 8800 requires much later versions (the latest is 169.35). I tried to install both drivers at once and ended up with a nice blue screen, which is pretty understandable. Out of pure luck I had a GeForce 6 in another machine so the problem was easily resolved.

The one thing I do not like about Vista is its Explorer changes. The new Explorer is pretty bad. I removed the new organizational changes almost instantly (and I’m glad Microsoft allows for those to be reconfigured). However, it changed my favorite hot-keys and left no revert mechanism in. Every time I use backspace I expect it to go up one level, and instead it treats file browsing like web browsing. There’s a new shortcut for this (ALT+Up) but now it’s confusing when I go back and forth between operating systems.

Vista’s Explorer makes it difficult to right-click files that aren’t selected, because it requires hitting the exact name text, rather than the row the file is in. If you miss this, you get the folder’s context menu and you might not realize it right away. The new dialog for “Copy/Replace” is great, except for one major detail – you can’t use the keyboard. I haven’t been able to find a key combination that will automatically select “Replace.” Enter, strangely enough, just cancels the dialog. This is really annoying because I’m a heavy keyboard user and I’m overwriting files a lot while debugging.

It also automatically sorts new files. This seems pretty cool at first until you drop a file in a folder and watch it get sorted into a completely different location than you visually plopped it.

Back to application compatibility — some people still don’t get things totally right. A few apps failed to create Start Menu/Desktop shortcuts. Some did so, but created them with Administrator privileges (which is annoying because then I can’t remove them). Some apps almost get the right idea. For example, mIRC uses “Application Data” instead of “Program Files” now, but it uses “AppData” to store log files. That’s kind of strange, since they’re user-readable documents. “AppData” is a hidden folder and shouldn’t be used for things like that.

My favorite changes in Vista? Task Manager’s “Kill” function seems to actually work. “Documents and Settings” has been changed to the much more palatable “Users”. Symlinks now provide a bit more functionality over XP/2000′s “Junctions.” UAC makes me feel more in control.

That’s enough ranting for today — your mileage may vary.

Edit: Twisty suggested I try TAB+Space which ended up working. Huzzah!

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