Debunking Walter Mossberg - better PC buying advice

Another take on some of the issues faced when purchasing a new computer.

On October 18th in The Wall Street Journal, Walter Mossberg wrote his annual . Using his article as a springboard, I weigh in on some of the issues faced when buying a new computer.

Vista security


The first choice anyone makes in purchasing a new computer is the operating system. In judging the relative merits of Vista over XP, Mossberg calls Vista "better than prior versions of Windows, because it has a stronger security system under the hood."

But, according to CNET's Security Watch columnist Robert Vamosi, "most of the security enhancements touted in Windows Vista don't appear in the Home Premium and Basic editions" (see "That $200 Windows XP service pack called Vista"). Specifically, Device Lockdown, Network Access Protection, Enhanced Authentication Model and the Encrypting File System (EFS) are missing. Vamosi also takes issue with security features in the Business editions.

A new security feature in Vista is outbound protection in the Windows firewall. Sounds great on the surface, but as Vamosi describes it, it's a sham (my word, not his). A good firewall that provides outbound protection will, by default, deny everything and let you specify the allowable applications. To avoid nagging too often, some firewalls are aware of common Internet applications and allow them to make outbound connections.

In contrast, the Vista firewall requires you to create a rule for each malicious application known to mankind. Outbound connections from applications that don't match an existing rule in the firewall are, by default, allowed. This pretty much renders outbound protection ineffective.

Microsoft is making the same rookie mistake it made when Windows XP was first released. At the time, they could brag that XP came with a firewall, but, by default, it was turned off. Wrong choice (from a Defensive Computing perspective). It took them about four or five years to enable it by default.

The UAC security feature (User Account Control) in Vista probably gets the most publicity. The initial design asks so many questions that some people turn it off entirely. And Vamosi points out that unlike other operating systems, Vista allows an administrator to make system changes without having to enter a password. Thus one wrong OK click and you're infected with malicious software. Are you too busy or too inexperienced with Windows to read or understand the UAC message? There goes your protection.

What Vamosi calls the biggest improvement in Vista over XP is a feature in Internet Explorer 7 that runs ActiveX controls in a sandbox. Still, he says, you are safer using Firefox or Opera, an opinion I agree with.

In making a case for Vista security, Microsoft points to the included Windows Defender anti-spyware program. But it is available as a free download to Windows XP users. More importantly, though, it's not very effective, at least according to CNET. Vamosi says: "In testing done last spring by CNET Download.com, Windows Defender missed some of the test spyware, finishing well behind other antispyware programs on the market today."

FUD


In choosing between XP and Vista, Mossberg says "buying Vista may be the better choice for the long run. Over time, more and more products will be released that are tailored to the new system."

FUD is a term known to many of us computer nerds. It refers to sales practices used when a product is not good enough to sell itself. The letters stand for fear, uncertainty and doubt. If a software vendor resorts to this, it's a red flag their product can't stand up to an objective evaluation. Mossberg here is slinging the FUD for Microsoft.

Since, he says, Vista "may" (note the use of "may" instead of "will") be the better choice in the future, buy it now. In other words, choose Vista now out of fear that XP won't be compatible with future hardware and software. FUD personified.

James Fallows, who writes for The Atlantic, fell victim to this logic. He eventually wiped Vista off his computer and returned to Windows XP.

If the day arrives when Vista is more compatible with hardware and software than XP is, it will be a very long time from now. And a case can be made that such a day will never come.

Windows XP has been around for quite a while now--six years and counting. There are way too many copies of XP in use for any software or hardware vendor to dare come out with a product that works with Vista but not XP. If you ran a hardware or software company, at what point in the future would you produce a Vista-only product?

Consumers


While Vista is the rule at retail computer outlets, Mossberg notes that "PC makers are still offering XP on a few new consumer PCs."

Where is written that a consumer has to buy a computer marketed to consumers? It's not. No matter who you are, you are free to purchase a machine marketed to businesses, and I recommend doing so.

Flavors


Regarding the different flavors of Vista, Mossberg said "the best choice for average consumers is a version called Home Premium." In some ways though, it's a poor choice.

If your needs are simple or money is tight, Vista Home basic has the advantage of being the cheapest option both in terms of paying for the OS and in terms of the necessary hardware horsepower to support it. At a randomly selected Fujitsu notebook computer, Vista Business cost $100 more than Vista Home basic. And, as noted above, there's those missing security features in the home editions of Vista.

The two flavors of Vista business may have an ace in the hole - the ability to fall back to XP, should the need arise. I say "may" because each computer manufacturer has the option, not the requirement to offer this. Many will provide an XP Recovery CD for their customers who purchase, or have purchased, a business version of Vista. See "The XP alternative for Vista PCs."

The charge for the XP Recovery CD varies by manufacturer, but in general it is provided at cost. In the cases I've seen, it is less than purchasing XP at retail and much easier to install too, as it comes with the necessary drivers, is preactivated and lays down a disk image rather than requiring you to actually install XP.

Video



Unlike Windows XP, Vista has two different user interfaces (separate and distinct from the many flavors of the operating system itself). The Home basic edition only supports one interface, the one that requires less computing horsepower to produce. The other flavors of Vista can use a flashier interface known as Aero.

Regarding the hardware needed to support Aero, Mossberg says "Vista's flashy graphical interface works best with a separate, or 'discrete,' graphics card that has its own memory."

There is a hidden gotcha here that he doesn't go into. Graphics cards come with varying amounts of video ram (also referred to as on-board memory), usually 32, 64, 128 or 256 megabytes. To run Aero, Microsoft says in one place that Vista needs at least 64 megabytes of video ram (for resolutions with less than 1.3 million pixels, give or take), but in another place Microsoft says the minimum is 128 megabytes of video RAM. Go figure.

No matter which number you chose to believe, you next have to deal with the labeling and marketing of video cards which is, unquestionably, designed to mislead. Recently Dell sent me a catalog in the mail, and the fine print at the back contains this description of a video card in one of the computers they offer:

128MB ATI RADEON X300 SE HYPERMEMORY: The total of local and shared system memory used by this graphics card is up to 128MB. Local on-board memory is 32MB. Up to 96MB of system memory may be allocated to support graphics, depending on system memory size and other factors.

In other words, this 128MB video card cannot run Aero because it has only 32 megabytes of video ram. Not to pick on ATI exclusively, Nvidia does the same. The Dell fine print also contained this:

512MB NVIDIA QUADRO FX 350M TURBOCACHE: The total of local and shared system memory used by this graphics card is up to 512MB. Local on-board memory is 256MB. Up to 256MB of system memory may be allocated to support graphics, depending on system memory size and other factors.

This truth-in-labeling issue seems to apply to ATI Hypermemory cards and to Nvidia TurboCache models.

The Trivial


Another feature Mossberg cites as an advantage for Vista is better integrated searching. This is very much a matter of opinion. Personally, I don't want any integrated searching. But anyone who does want it can chose from many different XP-compatible products, both free and commercial. Either way, I find it hard to imagine someone switching from XP to Vista and citing the ability to find files on your own computer as a big factor in the decision.

Advice


Walter Mossberg would have probably liked to say more on some of these points but he is limited by the space requirements of his column, which literally is a column (how quaint). This does both him and his readers a disservice. Bloggers are fortunate in being able to take as many words as necessary to say what we have to say.

Still, Mossberg is a computer hobbyist, rather than a true techie nerd.


You don't read PC Magazine for mutual fund advice and you shouldn't read The Wall Street Journal for computer advice.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

    Disclosure.

     

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