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I pity the fool (Windows XP good, Vista bad)

Advice from Mr. H about buying a new Windows computer.

It saddens me to think of all the ill advised people buying new computers running Windows Vista, when they could have chosen XP. As Mr. T was fond of saying back in the 1980s, I pity the fool.

Let me be clear, my point is only about the choice between XP and Vista and has nothing to do with Macs or Linux, many of whose devotees feel this way about all Windows users. I'm also not here to defend Windows XP, whose faults are many. My point is simply that if you are buying a new computer to run Windows applications, XP is the right choice; Vista is the wrong choice.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. On Wednesday nights I'm privileged to be on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI-FM. The four regular techies on the show (Joe King and Hank Kee are the hosts and Alfred Poor has been on the show for years) share more years of computer experience than you can possibly imagine. We agree about nothing and can offer five opinions amongst the four of us, with two exceptions. One is, if you are buying a new Windows computer, get XP instead of Vista (the other is to backup, backup, backup, but that's another story).

This posting was prompted by the recent stories about the upcoming Service Pack for Vista. Typical was Ina Fried's August 30th article Will update drive Vista use?. Ina writes that "Many analysts have consistently advised companies to hold off on Vista deployments until the first service pack's arrival."

This is bad advice. Perhaps there is a herd mentality at work. In the old days, the common wisdom was that you can't go wrong buying IBM. That was supplanted over time by the feeling that you can't go wrong buying Microsoft (exhibit A being Microsoft Office). Now this.

I completely agree with the concept of waiting for a new operating system to shake out before bothering with it. Most, if not all, techies feel this way. But how long to wait is a matter of opinion and my Defensive Computing opinion is not to consider using Vista until it's 2.5 years old. Mark your calendar for the summer of 2009. And, that's being conservative.

For the most part, a service pack is a collection of bug fixes ("patches" is the more popular term, but "bug fix" is more accurate). How many bug fixes need to be applied to an operating system before it's mature enough to use for work you consider important? 12? 25? 38?

The maturity of an operating system is not measured merely in terms of the number of bug fixes issued. Time is also a huge component. My rule of thumb (2.5 years) not only allows for more bug fixes, it also gives the operating system ecosystem more time to mature.

  1. Waiting allows time for software companies to adapt to the programming changes necessitated by Vista. After 2.5 years, not only will more software be Vista compatible, but the the Vista compatible software will have matured a bit itself. Defensively speaking, I'm not a big fan of using the first Vista compatible version of an application just after it's released.
  2. Waiting allows for the development of more Vista drivers for older hardware and, just as importantly, the maturity of the first generation of Vista drivers. If there is one thing you really really want to avoid it's a buggy driver.
  3. For very old hardware, waiting allows time for early adopters to see which, if any, of the XP drivers work and/or work well with Vista. The NEC SuperScript 870 printer is an excellent case in point. I griped about this printer starting back in 1999 when I first purchased it. Despite its being discontinued years ago, people still use the 870 and want it work with Vista (and Macs too). Needless to say, NEC isn't going to write new Vista drivers for such an old printer. But many people have found their way to my SuperScript 870 gripes page and offered Vista advice on what worked and didn't work for them. Anyone wanting to use this printer with Vista now can easily benefit from this advice--if you Google "NEC SuperScript 870" today, my page for the 870 is the second search result.
  4. Waiting allows time for bloggers, reporters and early adopters to develop a whole host of workarounds for common Vista problems. Want to turn off UAC? Simply search for "turn off uac vista" to find a wealth of advice. The longer you wait, the more workarounds there will be for common annoyances.
  5. The books about Vista will have been written based on the shipping version rather than a beta version

History is also on my side.

Any computer nerd would describe running Windows XP with Service Pack 1 as dangerous and archaic. To illustrate how conservative my 2.5 year starting point is, consider XP at age 2.5. It was released in October 2001. Using it now with bug fixes as of February 2004 would be very dangerous indeed. Anyone who thinks the situation with Vista will be different hasn't learned from history.

Vote with your head and your pocketbook. If you're buying a new computer to run Windows applications, get XP instead of Vista. It may not be available on the shelves of retailers, but XP is available on computers purchased at the websites of Lenovo, Dell, HP, Fujitsu, Toshiba, Gateway, Acer and, no doubt, others (you may have to look in the business sections). Even Wal-Mart still has four laptops with Windows XP for sale.

You're in charge, not Microsoft. And it's not like Microsoft loses money if you buy a computer running Windows XP.

Update. September 2, 2007: In the first comment on this posting, reta9 said "Best Buy said XP was not available..." Let's be clear on this. Windows XP may not have been available from Best Buy, but it is available from Microsoft and from the computer manufacturers listed above.

Update. September 10, 2007: According to the Windows Life-Cycle Policy you will be able to buy Windows XP at a retail outlet and from direct OEMs until January 31, 2008. If anyone speaks Microsoft, please leave a comment as to the meaning of "direct OEMs". It also says that "System Builders" will be able to sell computers with XP until January 31, 2009. Again, translation needed...

Update. September 18, 2007: An article in the Wall Street Journal today, Vista Looks to Pioneers by Robert Guth, reports on a recent study of 565 large companies. Only 7% plan to start rolling out Vista this year, and a whopping 38% have no plans to move to Vista.

A thank you to CNET user HANtwister for the comment OEMs and System Builders that explains these terms and offers a suggestion on how to obtain a copy of Windows XP after January 2008.

Update. September 26, 2007: For more on this subject see When to convert from Windows XP to Vista, part 2