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Windows Vista eats laptop batteries for lunch

Windows Vista eats laptop batteries for lunch

Living with Windows Vista beta 2: Day 2.

In yesterday's installment, I loaded some drivers and applications on Vista. Part of that day was spent away from an electrical outlet. The dual-core Acer TravelMate 8200 rated pretty highly in our CNET review, especially in terms of battery life, yet I returned to my desk midmorning yesterday to find that Vista had shut down prematurely because I'd run out of battery life.

So I spent nearly all of my Saturday trying to prove this. I must admit that my colleague at CNET News.com Ina Fried also tipped me off to this potential bug in Vista, so I volunteered to investigate. Short of a full-on CNET Labs test, I decided upon three simple tests. First, operating on a fully charged battery, I would play a DVD movie in Windows Media Player 9 on Windows XP and record that time, then I'd repeat the above in Windows Media Player 11 on Windows Vista running with Aero (Microsoft's new 3D graphics system). Finally, I'd run the test again in Windows Media Player 11 in Windows Vista Standard mode. It's the new Vista graphics system, called GPU, that's the issue; when it's engaged, it really eats up battery life.

If you don't already know, Vista will run differently depending on the hardware. Lower-end machines will have a choice between Windows Vista Classic and Windows Vista Standard, which both give you many of the features in the new OS but without the 3D graphics. Higher-end machines will have those choices, plus Windows Vista Basic, which gives you more features, and Windows Vista Aero (the version with all the 3D bells and whistles). Mostly to get Aero, you must have a relatively new graphics card with a lot of built-in video memory.

One thing I found in conducting the test is that Microsoft doesn't make it easy to switch between these modes. For desktop users, it's a moot point; you have AC power. But if you're working on a notebook and want to conserve every last second of battery life, you'll want to switch to a less graphics-intensive envirnoment. To do so in Vista, you first need to find Personalization And Appearance in the Control Panel, then choose Personalization > Visual Appearance. From Visual Appearance, click to Appearance Settings, then click "Open Classic appearance properties." Under Color Schemes, you have all the choices listed above, plus four monochromatic color schemes. The process of reducing or increasing your graphics output is not exactly intuitive.

OK, so what did I find? Under Windows XP, my Acer TravelMate 8200 enjoyed a comfortable 3 hours and 15 minutes of battery life--more than enough to watch any major motion picture released these days. But under Windows Vista Aero, my battery life dropped considerably, to a mere 2 hours. Under Windows Vista Standard, battery life did improve--to a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes--better, but not enough to justify doing without all the glitz and glammor of Vista Aero.

But once you've seen Vista Aero in action, it's really hard to do without. Microsoft's planning its whole Vista marketing campaign around Aero, though in reality many, many people will upgrade only to a relatively bland Vista Standard or Basic--sure you'll have built-in search and a new file structure, but it's the transparent windows and flip 3D effect you'll be wanting. For that, you'll need to buy a whole new machine with Windows Vista preinstalled. If you've bought a new PC within the last two years, I'd recommend staying with Windows XP until you absolutely need to upgrade, then buy a new Windows Vista machine.

Check back tomorrow to see what I uncover next.