Vista vs. Julian. Round 2.

published: Wed, 25-Apr-2007   |   updated: Mon, 18-Feb-2008

After the last round when I retired bowed and bloody but vowing to continue, I decided that I needed proper (not beta) video divers for the Toshiba M200 tablet. So I waited and waited and waited. Toshiba themselves had decided that the M200 wasn't on their list of supported machines for Vista, but I hoped to get a driver directly from NVIDIA.

No such luck: once NVIDIA had released their official drivers for Vista and the GEForce Go 5200 was not in the list, I realized that the Tosh was going to remain a Windows XP (Tablet PC Edition) machine for the rest of its life.

So the only thing for it was to buy a new laptop, one that had Vista already installed. No faffing around with drivers for me: the manufacturer would be responsible for all that worry. But which one? I started to monitor the e-coupons and to check the manufacturers sites. Dell, Gateway, Sony, Toshiba, Fujitsu, HP, I looked at them all.

The biggest question to answer first was to tablet or not to tablet. It was hard: I did like the tablet I had, but came to realize that over the past year of working for Developer Express, I really hadn't used the tablet part at all. In my previous job, I would undock it and go to meetings and jot down notes, but with DX, I don't have any of that: all meetings are via Skype conference calls. In practice I was hardly undocking it at all, and when I did I didn't really use the pen at all.

Consequently a tablet was out and a standard laptop was in. Nevertheless, I really liked the weight of the M200: nice and light. The battery duration tended to suck, even after I'd bought a new battery. So my next laptop had to be light and with great battery power.

After many pricing sessions with various web sites, I decided to go for the Dell XPS M1210. Not only that but also fully loaded, as they say in car showrooms. 2.23 GHz Intel Core Duo, 2GB RAM at 667 MHz, 256MB NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400, 160GB 7200rpm hard disk, CD/DVD burner, Bluetooth, a/b/g WiFi, 9-cell battery (plus spare). And Windows Vista Home Premium, not that that would stay long on the machine: I had Vista Ultimate all ready to go.

It took two days to build and two days to deliver (over a weekend, unfortunately), and suddenly it was there on the Monday last week in all its (small) glory. And did I say light, even with the 9-cell battery plugged in the back? Yes, it was light.

And it all worked. I could plug in my external monitor and it came up and I could move windows around both screens. Beautiful.

Step 1 was installing Vista Ultimate. I slipped the DVD into the drive and it upgraded my Vista Home Premium to its big brother. More beauty.

Step 2 was uninstalling the things I didn't want. Dell gives you the option whether to install antivirus, ISP offers, etc, etc. I'd said no, and so the usual crapola wasn't there, but I didn't want the Dell-badged frou-frou either. So it got uninstalled.

Step 3 was to start installing all the software I can't seem to do without. I started off with Office 2007. No problems. I was just about to start installing Visual Studio 2005, when I noticed...

...there was no bloody sound. The audio was not working. Nothing, nada, zip, zilch was coming out of the Dell's speakers. I stared in horrified fascination: the sound had been working when I got the machine — I'd tried the buttons on the front edge — but after upgrading to Vista Ultimate, nothing. Panic, moi? Nope, I unwrapped the Dell driver disk, slipped it in and installed the audio driver afresh. It all worked again. Just a weird occurrence, nothing to worry about, right?

I continued installing. Here's a quick table of stuff I've installed with notes (the list is alphabetical, but isn't the order I installed them).

  • ACDSee 9 Photo-Manager: I've used this photo app for ages and version 9 works fine in Vista.
  • Adobe Illustrator 9: I bought this ages ago as version 7 to do figures and diagrams in articles and only upgraded it once to version 9. It's now way out of date, but it installs fine in Vista. One day I might upgrade all the way to CS3 but for now it'll do.
  • Adobe InDesign 2: Again a purchase from 5 years ago or so. Installs fine.
  • Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: an awesome photography "lab" application that I bought very recently and am still exploring. Supposedly some of its functionality isn't working properly yet in Vista, but I haven't come across it yet.
  • Adobe TypeManager Deluxe 4.1: Oh man, this was a good one. ATM is no longer supported, and there is certainly nothing for Vista. Even worse, and this caused me to gasp as if all the air had suddenly rushed out of the room, PostScript type 1 fonts are not supported on Vista (ATM manages them on XP). I had at least a hundred type 1 fonts that I'd collected over the years. I'd bought several when I was exploring typography for my book (if you have the Lulu reprint, all the fonts used in there are type 1 fonts). I certainly couldn't afford to replace them all with OpenType fonts. This was looking to be a real deal killer. I did a little research and found a program called CrossFont that converts type 1 fonts to OpenType and in the process maintains things like the kerning tables, etc. Done deal: I bought it on the spot.
  • Audacity 1.2.6: I use this to record audio tracks for the screencasts we (Developer Express) put up on the web. Installs fine in Vista, although I have more news about recording in a moment.
  • CanoScan Toolbox 4.6: This is the standard application/driver that comes with the Canon 4200F scanner. I had to download a Vista-compatible version, but otherwise nothing too onerous.
  • CityDesk 2: This is the program I use to maintain this website. It installed fine, but there was a worrying crash when I ran it. No problem in the end though: Fog Creek had the workaround on their site.
  • CodeSmith Professional 3.2: Haven't really used this in a while (it was a lifesaver, though, in a project from a couple of years back), but installed it anyway. No problems.
  • FeedDemon 2.0: My favorite newsreader. After installing just fine, it connected to Newsgator and downloaded my subscriptions. Beautiful: the prime reason for having this kind of service.
  • Forte Agent 4.2: This is the newsgroup reader I use for all the newsgroups I monitor (mostly ours and Borland's). I've used it for years. Actually, I had version 1.95, but I decided it was high time to put some money back into Forte's pockets and I ordered the upgrade. At the time of writing I'm having issues with secure newsgroups, but otherwise, it installed and is generally working fine.
  • Google Gmail Notifier: For my gmail account. No issues: works just as on XP.
  • iTunes: 'Nuff said. Installs and works fine. There was a little messing around trying to get it to recognize the library I'd copied over from the tablet, but eventually all was OK and I had all the playing stats from my old machine. I haven't done anything about the small number of DRM-protected songs in my library yet.
  • Microsoft Encarta Premium 2007: I mostly use this for the dictionaries. Installed and works fine.
  • Microsoft Money 2006: Installed fine, and loaded my current Money file without problems. Online account updates work fine too.
  • Microsoft Office OneNote 2007: I'd been using the 2003 version for the longest time, especially with the tablet's pen. In fact, this is the application that makes the tablet a tablet for me. Just a great program. I've now got to get used to the new version without using a pen...
  • Microsoft Office Professional 2007: Mostly for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
  • Microsoft Virtual PC 2007: Once I realized that installing 2003 wouldn't work I downloaded the latest version from MS and installed that. My VMs loaded just fine.
  • Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team Suite: Ay yay yay. I only had the pre-SP1 version so I had to install that, download SP1 (all 400MB of it), install that, and then download the Vista support package and install that. Sheesh. Nevertheless, after quite some time doing all that prep work, VS2005 works fine.
  • Mozilla Firefox 2.0: Actually the first thing I downloaded and installed. I just do not like IE7.
  • Nero 7 Ultra Edition (7.8): This was a mess for some reason. I think I'd tried to install from the installer I had bought originally and ran into some nasty issues. Finally I downloaded the latest version from Nero's site and installed that. No problems.
  • Nokia PC Suite: For connecting my Nokia 6682 via Bluetooth: a free download from Nokia. No issues. The application found the phone immediately and synchronized just fine.
  • NoteTab Pro 5.2: My favorite text editor (I type all my articles for the web in this program, including this one). I'd learned my lesson by now and just went to the website and downloaded the latest version, the one that supports Vista.
  • Passwords Plus 1.0 from DataViz: I'd bought this program ages ago when I regularly used a Sony Clié. It's great for storing all those passwords you have for the web and other applications, and encrypting them into a single file. It syncs to my Sony Clié nicely. In fact this was amongst the first applications I installed on this Vista machine: it contains all the serial numbers for the software I've bought and it's much easier to copy/paste than enter in those 16 character serial numbers. It's also one of the most used applications I have: in Vista, all I have to do is hit the Windows key, type "pass", Enter, and then the password and I'm in.
  • RAD Studio 2007 (Delphi 2007): Although we as a company have been having all kinds of issues with this latest Delphi, it installed fine for me. I haven't used it in anger yet, but at least I didn't install Delphi 6.
  • ScanSoft OmniPage SE 4: The freebie OCR program that came with my Canon scanner. For some reason this was the worst culprit in my Vista install saga. I hadn't learned the "go to the website and download the latest version" trick yet, and so I blithely installed it from the original CD. Hey, it's only a program right? Well, it installed nicely and I thought nothing more of it and went onto the next program to install. Some time later I noticed that IE7 wouldn't run any more (there are certain things for which you need IE7, mostly to do with downloads from the Microsoft website). It would just crash immediately and then the Vista dialog would come up saying that it was looking for a fix. Funny thing was, if I ran IE7 as administrator, it worked fine. I got more and more irritated with IE7 until Vista finally came up with a suggestion to reset IE7 to factory defaults. Sure, why not? I'd already uninstalled the pre-installed Google toolbar, thinking it was the cause of the problems, but it wasn't, so why not go the whole way and reset? It didn't work; IE7 continued to crash. Time for some debugging. Since it seemed to be a security problem (it worked as admin but not otherwise), I went to the event log and did some searching. Pretty quickly I spotted an entry that IE7 was trying to run a particular DLL and it was failing. Some googling later, and I discovered it was a ScanSoft OmniPage dll. I uninstalled OmniPage and IE7 started working again. A few choice words later, I'd downloaded the updated OmniPage SE installer (the Vista-certified one) and it was installed.
  • ShortKeys 2: A text replacement program I've used for many years. It's great for typing in a couple of characters preceded by the equals sign and suddenly getting a whole slew of text to replace it. Great stuff and a wonderful timesaver.
  • SimpLite-MSN 2.2: An encryption program for IM, mostly MSN or Windows Live Messenger. Installed and works fine.
  • Skype 3.1: For free phone and conference calls. Installed and works fine.
  • SpamBayes 1.0.4: Essential tool for Outlook as the last line of defence (after the email servers have had their crack) against spam. Installed and works fine.
  • Sudoku by Pappocom: 'Nuff said. Installed and works fine.
  • TopStyle 3.0: I use this program by Nick Bradbury (now owned by Newsgator) for all my CSS stuff for this website. Installed and works fine.
  • Trillian: Can I tell you how much I hate this program? It's a real POS. But it's actually better than the real ICQ program which is a little too "festive" and "teenager-centric" for me. Anyway. Trillian crashes at start-up under Vista sometimes. It used to crash all the time when I used it for MSN Messenger. It's crap. Don't use it: find something else, like I should.
  • VMware Workstation 5: Don't install this in Vista, just download the beta for version 6. That one installs and works nicely under Vista, and I'll have to upgrade once VMware release it for real. For some reason though, something has changed under the hood, for when I open up a VM, the guest Windows informs me that the machine has changed and I need to re- authorize it.
  • Windows Live Messenger: For IM with friends. We use ICQ for work.
  • WinRAR 3.6: Since this compresses much better than Zip, we use it for compressing files.
  • WinZip 9.0: For nostalgia's sake, plus it's a better UI than WinRAR. I haven't updated it since Corel bought them out.
  • ZTreeWin 1.6: It had been a while since I'd updated this, my favorite file manager, and I noticed that Kim Henckel was requesting donations to keep the work going. I love this program: I find I'm much faster at doing file operations with it (despite its DOS-like console appearance) than with bare Windows. So Kim got a donation from me.

Now for the real horror story. The story started earlier on when "it" disappeared entirely, but the second chapter brought more issues, and the third chapter was even worse. To put it mildly, "it", the audio, sucks. I don't know whether it is Vista or whether it is the audio hardware in the XPS, or both, but, man, have I lost hours to this crap.

The first problem was the audio "going away" after I upgraded to Vista Ultimate. A simple re-install fixed the issue, but I'm not sure why upgrading to Vista Ultimate broke it in the first place.

Next up was the Kensington Notebook Expansion Dock (K33239) I'd ordered with the XPS. I was used to my Toshiba docking station carrying all the connections and wanted something similar for my new XPS. I plugged it into the XPS and Vista loaded all the drivers fine. I plugged in my speakers into the dock and, you guessed it, no sound. More choice phrases. I went online and found out that the drivers loaded automatically didn't work, and there were newer ones to download. OK, I did that, and lo, there was sound and everything was good at Bucknall Towers.

For a while.

After a couple of unpluggings of the dock itself and plugging in some USB devices into the dock, suddenly I had no sound again. The drivers were the right ones, but nothing doing. I unplugged everything from the dock but the speakers. Still no sound. To this day (a week later), I can get no sound out of these drivers or this dock.

Fine, bugger it. I unplugged the dock and put it to one side. For now it was just too irritating. I just plugged the speakers directly into the XPS. And lo, there was sound again, and Bucknall Towers resounded to the music of New Order.

Then a couple of days ago, I had some audio recording to do for a screencast. No problem, just plug the mic into the line-in jack on the XPS and away we go. Except the level was way too low. And I mean, waaaay too low compared to the Toshiba. I futzed and played around with settings and dials (I use a tube pre- amp and a pro mic). I dinked with the audio driver settings and with Audacity. But, in the end, I had to set the gain way too high in order to get a clear recording of my voice and of course at that point all the background noise was amplified as well. I recorded a screencast and all I could hear in the gaps between words was the hum in the background.

At this point, I really feel like screaming. This is effing ridiculous. Am I supposed to keep my old machine going to do some recordings? I'm guessing the XPS audio hardware is pretty awful (SigmaTel are you listening? Your hardware is crap.), but that doesn't let Vista off the hook.

Since I absolutely must record, today I decided to go for a professional external audio mixer, the M-Audio FastTrack USB, and cut the crappy SigmaTel audio hardware out of the picture. The FastTrack USB is ostensibly for recording guitar music (it was hilarious answering their customer survey: I hadn't heard of any of the magazines they mentioned, and, no, I didn't think having a professional guitar player present would help my recording sessions), but it comes with a XLR mic input for professional mics, and you can play audio through it. And it connects via USB. And its Vista drivers work. And it was another $100 I shouldn't have had to spend, but at this stage, it's working, the sound is as clear as a bell and I get a new recording application to play around with.

So all in all, in this round, despite fielding some pretty hefty punches, I think I've come out on top. Round 2 to me. Ding!

But it's not over yet...