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Opening My Vistas

I just bought a new laptop with Windows Vista pre-installed, and, hey, I kinda like it.

As I dodge flaming arrows from regular TidBITS readers, let me note that it’s not my main computer nor intended to be; that I’ve been using the Mac platform since 1985; and that I currently own something like five working Macs. (Yes, we Mac owners know the difference: I have two other Macs of ancient vintage that haven’t been powered on in years.)

I purchased a Dell Inspiron 6400 laptop for two reasons. First, I’m a technology journalist, and Vista is destined to be the world’s dominant platform within a year or two. I need to know how it works and how to use it. Second, I write quite a bit about Wi-Fi and wireless data. Invariably, new wireless cards come out with Windows drivers first; Mac drivers lag by weeks or years, and often lack full feature support.

My criteria for a Vista system were fairly elaborate. I wanted a dual-core Intel chip – the one I got is a “budget” Core Duo chip with half the Core Duo’s Level 2 cache – and I thought it would be nice to have a good platform on which to perform side-by-side comparisons with similar Mac platforms. I needed an ExpressCard expansion slot because that’s the format in which new Wi-Fi and cell data modems will be issued. By the same token, I ordered the Intel Draft N (802.11n) internal card that’s just been released because it will be among the most heavily sold Wi-Fi adapters this year.

Finally, I wouldn’t buy a PC that didn’t have Vista pre-installed. From everything I’ve read, buying a machine with Windows XP today and upgrading tomorrow is a sucker’s bet. Further, I needed at least the Vista Business flavor to get the networking options necessary for the kind of testing I would be performing.

I looked at all the major manufacturers, and Dell came closest to what I needed at a reasonable price. Despite quite a lot of well-publicized missteps in the last couple of years – Dell used to be ranked a not-too-distant No. 2 behind Apple for customer support, but has slipped quite a bit – the company seems in the middle of a turnaround that includes Michael Dell resuming leadership.

The Inspiron 6400 I settled on has a 15.4-inch screen, 2 GB of RAM, a 120 GB 5400 RPM hard drive, a dual-layer 8x DVD burner, a Draft N adapter, and a 1.6 GHz Pentium T2060 dual-core processor. It does not feature gigabit Ethernet. (A previous version of this article posted to the TidBITS Web site stated that the Inspiron 6400 had a Core 2 Duo processor rather than the “budget” Core Duo that it actually includes.)

Along with the computer, I purchased a two-year subscription to a full McAfee anti-everything package: anti-spyware, anti-virus, firewall, and anti-this-and-that. Pre-purchasing that package meant the software is installed and supported, and was cheaper, too. I also bought a three-year extended warranty that includes 24-hour-a-day phone support and next-day, on-site repair.

For all that, I paid $1,500 including sales tax. That’s not a terrible price.

Dell made setup easy. Unpack the box. Plug in a power adapter. Press the power key. A simple one-sheet setup poster came with it, and I didn’t need to refer to it. Initializing Vista involved answering just a few questions before it was up and running.

My early experience with Vista, after spending only a couple of hours getting it set up and running, wasn’t awful. Sure, it asks me about granting approval for programs more often than I’d like. It’s weird that I can’t easily say, “Hey, I trust this action for this particular program,” since I’ve been able to do that with Zone Alarm Pro under Windows XP for years.

The McAfee package, however, did lock up my computer. A minimized window needed user approval to proceed, and that locked the whole minimized windows task bar at the bottom of the screen. I had to use the old Control-Alt-Delete trick to display the Process Manager, and then I was able to bring the McAfee program to the front and move ahead. That happened just once.

Vista, as a whole, does conform to reports that at the surface it’s Windows XP with fancier dressing. (Beneath the surface, there’s a lot that’s changed, but we will have to wait to see how it shakes out on the security and stability fronts.) There are some nice features, many of them familiar to me as a long-time Mac OS X user, but I don’t find it offensive or confusing. The Aero interface, which offers translucency among other features, is attractive. Vista, so far, is just fine. (Wait until I start really using it, of course, to see how it holds up.)

Now, you will ask me, “Why, Glenn, oh why did you not simply buy a MacBook Pro? It has a full Intel Core 2 Duo – not the budget Core Duo you got – along with an ExpressCard slot, and it can run Windows.”

My answer is that at the moment, you can only install Windows Vista under Boot Camp for a native boot – which would be needed to handle Windows drivers for the ExpressCard slot – with a bit of elbow grease. Boot Camp is still in beta; Apple doesn’t support Vista with Boot Camp yet, either.

Also, a similarly equipped MacBook Pro from Apple is nearly $2,400 including sales tax. That’s for a far superior 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo processor with gigabit Ethernet and Apple-supplied RAM, but that’s the cheapest and slowest MacBook Pro offered and I could shave only a few dollars by supplying third-party RAM myself. Further, given Apple’s product cycles, I expect that we’ll see new versions of the MacBook Pro in the next two to four months.

The folks at Parallels told me at Macworld Expo that their Parallels Desktop virtualization software might be able to support Windows drivers working on devices inserted in the ExpressCard slot, just as they’ve improved USB support in their most recent release. However, that’s speculative until it’s available.

My insidious plan is to use the Dell laptop until the time comes that I can easily install and run Vista for all my needs using either Boot Camp or Parallels Desktop. The Dell should fetch a decent price when sold. And this is, of course, all a mental trick to justify buying a MacBook Pro in the future – but only when the time is right.

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