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Author sounds off on Vista's annoyances

David Karp, who has chronicled pet peeves since Windows 95, says the complaints over Vista echo past gripes. But solving Vista's issues proves more challenging.

After beta testing Windows 95, David Karp was impressed with how much better the operating system was than Windows 3.1. Still, he had a gripe or two.

To share his experiences, Karp started a Web site called "Windows 95 Annoyances" where he posted some of the pet peeves, as well as some workarounds.

What began as a hobby to make his work computer better, eventually became his work. Karp has written nearly a dozen books chronicling the annoyances of each Windows release.

Vista annoyances

Needless to say, Vista has given Karp another book's worth of material--664 pages worth, in fact. Windows Vista Annoyances is fresh off the press. Karp took a few minutes to chat about the year-old operating system. Below is an edited transcript.

You also wrote a book or two on "XP annoyances." Did you have more or fewer things to write about with Vista?
Karp: Vista was a little bit of a change of pace for me. I've written Annoyances books going back to 1996. Windows Vista posed a little bit more of a problem for me, or I should say a challenge? It wasn't that it had more annoyances or fewer annoyances. The issues with Vista were more complex. With earlier versions of Windows, you had simple things like programs crashing and features not working.

The problems in Vista are tricky and, with a book like mine, I don't just write about problems. I only write about problems that I can solve or at least that I can work around. The ones in Vista took a little bit more time and a little more creativity to solve.

For example, there's a problem a lot of people have with Vista and that's what's affectionately been coined the "green ribbon of death." It's the little green progress bar that goes across the top of Windows Explorer and sometimes it just seems to linger there and everything stops working. That little green ribbon is the symptom of a lot of problems and they are all quite different. There's one having to do with codecs for video files and there is one that has to do with security when copying files over a network.

A fair number of people have been annoyed by Vista. What's on the top of your list?
Karp: The thing that ticks me off most about Vista is probably a minor quibble to most people. But it hits me every day. There is a feature--it's kind of convoluted--that allows Windows Explorer to show folders containing different items in different ways. For example, if you look at a folder full of photos or videos, you see thumbnails. If you look at a folder full of MP3s, you'll see a detailed list of artist names and track titles and track numbers. Basically, Windows Explorer is designed to automatically show you a different view for different types of files to show you the relevant information. The problem is it gets it right infrequently. It gets it wrong most of the time. It will show pictures as music files. It should be something that's so simple, I think that's part of why I am annoyed by it.

When you talk to other people about Vista, what do you hear most often?
Karp: There's kind of two camps when you are talking to people who use Vista. There's the "I can't believe I upgraded to Vista; how do I get back to XP?" What's funny about that to me is that I pretty much heard exactly the same thing when XP came out six years ago: "Oh my God, I hate XP. How do I get back to Windows 98?" What I think whenever I hear that kind of a comment is, "Yeah, I get it, it's frustrating to use and a lot of the things don't work, but the previous version wasn't any better, you're just used to it. You are used to all of the problems. You know how to get around all the quirks."

In the other camp are the people who use Vista and aren't looking for a way to downgrade. They recognize the things that it does well, and they also recognize the things it doesn't do well.

Everybody sees that Vista has shortcomings. It's kind of divided on how severe those shortcomings appear. Some people are just willing to throw it away and say, "Hey, give me the older version." Other people notice the shortcomings and see them, but feel they can live with them.

My book is written toward both camps. To be honest, I very rarely talk to anyone who loves Vista and is just enamored with the whole experience, which is really a shame. You talk to any Mac fan and they just love every single product that Apple throws at them.

It's not that the Mac is any better than Windows, it's just that people like it better. Windows users don't have any problem seeing the faults of their platform, which I respect. One of the reasons that I wrote this book is the book helps fix the problems.

You don't just note annoying things. You also offer tips on workarounds. What are some of the best things people can do to improve their Vista experience?
Karp: The first thing that I felt like fixing when I was playing with the search tool. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to promote this new search tool. At the top of every Windows Explorer window, there's a little search box. You type something into the search box and right away you get all the matching files in the current folder and subfolders. The problem is that it doesn't work very well. Often the searches are out of date. You can be looking at a folder full of JPEG files and in the search box say, "Show me all the JPEG files" and it will show you nothing. Other times it will just take a long time to show search results. The search is something that I use quite a bit. It's how I find my stuff.

The good thing is there are several things you can do to improve searches, like indexing more locations. You can tell the search tool where to index. By default it only indexes files in your documents folder. It doesn't index files anywhere else, for example, your desktop. There are some really easy ways to go into the search tool and add new places to be indexed and remove places you don't need, so your searches can be faster.

Another thing you can do to speed up and improve searches is to remove Vista's built-in support for ZIP files. Vista supports Zip files out of the box. Removing that does require a registry hack. Once you get rid of it, you can install another program to handle zip files which has the added benefit of doing a better job. By removing the ZIP (support), it speeds up searches.

How did you get into the business of writing about annoyances?
Karp: In 1995, I was a beta tester for Windows 95. Being the geek that I am, I wanted to play with it and I wanted to see what I could do with that. Windows 95, which had plenty of its own problems, was just such a huge leap. Microsoft has done nothing like it since. There were so many things right off the bat that were so obviously done wrong...some of which still don't work in Vista today.

Features like those were things I was interested in fixing. This was going to be my computer. This was something I was going to use for my business, and I wanted it to work better. I wanted it to be faster. I wanted it to not crash so often.

I started a silly little Web site called Windows 95 Annoyances and started listing some of the problems I had found and some of the corresponding solutions. Some of the problems didn't have solutions. Almost immediately other people started writing in. A few months later, an editor at O'Reilly saw this page. He said, "Hey, how would you like to put this into a book?" I said, "OK." It's been about a dozen books, and here we are at Windows Vista.

Do you think Microsoft will keep you busy full time, or will you have to move on to Mac or Linux annoyances?
Karp: I never seem to run out of material. There always seems to be something to write about. It isn't just annoying little problems you can fix. I write about different ways to hack the system, how to change the start-up logo and the shut-down logo. No matter what Microsoft does, there are always going to be a lot of things that drive people nuts. Look how many people want to go back to Windows XP. That software was written in 2001.

I don't see any danger in running out of annoyances. There actually is a Linux annoyances book. I didn't write it. I don't think a Mac annoyances book would ever sell because Mac people don't find their computers annoying. Whether they are or not is a different matter.

What's next for you?
Karp: Some rest. I put a lot of time into this book. There's a book I've been wanting to write on eBay, a strategy guide. Windows Vista Service Pack 1 is coming out in a few months, so expect to see a second edition of my book.