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March 2006 - Vol. 6, Issue No. 78
By Scot Finnie
IN THIS ISSUE
- Windows Defender Anti-Spyware Beta 2.0
- Testing BitDefender 9 Standard Antivirus
Pricing has not been announced yet, but you can bet some of these versions of Vista will be relatively inexpensive. Why? Because a couple of them are heavily stripped down.
There will be three consumer versions and two business versions of Windows Vista. I'll come back to the sixth version, Windows Vista Starter, in few moments. None of the new Windows SKUs (stock keeping units) directly equates to Windows XP Pro, Windows XP Home, Windows XP for Tablet PC, Windows XP Media Center, or Windows XP 64-bit Edition. And yet the corresponding XP editions are covered in the new version of Windows. Microsoft has decided to wrap versions around core business and core consumer functionalities, expanding each grouping to include extended functionalities. So, for example, Tablet PC functionality is available in four different versions of Vista (detailed below). And Media Center is available in two Vista SKUs.
Windows Vista Ultimate, which Microsoft describes as a consumer version (probably because businesses will be loathe to spend for it) is the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink edition. It merges all the features and functionalities of all the other Vista client versions. Windows Vista Starter is at the opposite end of the spectrum with the least number of features. Quoting the press release directly:
Microsoft ... will offer Windows Vista Starter in emerging markets. Windows Vista Starter is designed to empower families and entry-level PC users in these markets to experience the world of social and educational benefits that personal computer technology and the Internet makes possible. A 32-bit operating system designed specifically for lower-cost computers, Windows Vista Starter enables popular beginner PC activities and provides an easy-to-use and more affordable entry point to the Windows Vista family of products."
The four versions in between Ultimate and Starter are divided between Business and Consumer flavors:
Windows Vista Business offers full support for Vista's high-end Aero graphics, which includes more finely detailed, very small graphical elements, as well as transparency, reflections, and better 3D rendering. It will also have integrated desktop search features. And it will include Windows Vista Tablet PC functionalities for computers that support them.
The up-level business version, Windows Vista Enterprise, will sold only via Microsoft's enterprise licensing program. It contains everything in the Vista Business edition, and adds full hard-drive encryption, expanded application compatibility, and a Unix emulation module for running Unix applications.
The consumer lineup starts with Windows Vista Home Basic. Think of this version of Vista as being about half a notch below Windows XP Home Edition. Vista Home Basic will lack integrated desktop search features and will support only the base level Vista graphics. For more on the tiered graphics support in Windows Vista, see this older review of Vista, under the subhead "Graphics Tiering."
Windows Vista Home Premium is a big jump up from Vista Home Basic. To the Home Basic feature set, it adds desktop search and Aero support, both Media Center and Tablet PC support, integrated DVD burning, Windows Media Player 11 recording and sharing, and high-def support in Windows Movie Maker.
Moving up to Windows Vista Ultimate adds a package called Windows Vista Ultimate Extras, which is empty in the February CTP (Community Technology Preview). It appears the Extras will be offered online via Windows Update, so they can be added at any time by Microsoft. Published reports also state (but I have not verified this yet) that Vista Ultimate adds remote desktop, IIS, and scanning and faxing. If it's true that Vista Home Premium does not contain remote desktop functionality, that's a truly annoying limitation.
Microsoft has previously said that 64-bit support would be included in the box with most versions of Windows Vista. A statement in the press release, though, implies that there might be separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Which is it?
With the release of the February CTP pre-release version of Windows Vista (see next article), beta testers and reviewers are finally able to install most of the different versions of Vista. So expect more information about the differences between the SKUs in the near future.
So what's the fallout of the new division of Windows versions? There's a certain logic to what Microsoft is doing, and the flavors of Windows Vista will be more distinct and offer competitive advantages. This will help OEM PC makers differentiate their products, for example. It might help drive Microsoft's enterprising licensing program.
But for people buying new PCs, the new versioning could create a caveat emptor (buyer beware) situation. There will be lots of different versions of Windows that might arrive on a new desktop or standard notebook PC. Where today the choices are usually between two versions for most desktops, under Vista there could be three or four possible choices on Vista consumer and small business PCs. PC buyers will need to watch out that they don't buy too little Windows Vista or too much. Until we see the actual pricing, it's tough to put the entire picture in focus.
PCs that come with Windows Vista Basic should probably sell for well under $500. They don't truly support the full graphics capability of Windows Vista's new Avalon graphics subsystem, and more than likely their makers will have cut corners on performance and expandability. On the other hand, Vista Home Basic should at least be considered by anyone intending to buy a Vista upgrade for an older PC.
Finally, a nod to Ed Bott for his exploration and outing of Microsoft's plan to make Windows Vista consumer version upgrades available from the Windows Anytime Upgrade Control Panel.
The idea behind this is that if you suddenly upgrade your video card and want to take advantage of Aero, for example, you can use this tool to pay for an upgrade via credit card and then download it and install it in much the same fashion that millions of Windows XP owners downloaded and installed Windows XP Service Pack 2. Check out Bott's blog for screen shots of part of the Windows Anytime Upgrade process, along with his astute comments.
I was prepared to, I'll admit. The giant Start menu is bad enough. And I know my desktop is going to be littered with desktop icons, no matter what Microsoft tries to do about it. So what did I want with yet another block of graphical goodies taking up space and getting in the way?
The last version of the Sidebar I used was the one Microsoft distributed with the first widespread alpha release of Vista, from Microsoft's October 2003 Professional Developers Conference, and it was your quintessential tall graphical rectangle taking up a bunch of space, with no real use whatsoever. I disliked it, and that's why I was prepared to dislike this version.
Screenshot: Windows Sidebar (33K, 150 x 994 pixels)
The Windows Sidebar is a little thin on stuff to put in it right now, but Microsoft's designers and programmers did an excellent job in designing and implementing this tool. It's not going to get in your way, at all. And yet it's handy.
There's no getting around the fact that Microsoft got the Sidebar right, though. It uses transparency to excellent effect. You don't feel like part of your desktop is taken away. Even when you set the Sidebar to its most aggressively screen-robbing setting, "Keep the Sidebar on top of the other windows," it doesn't shrink your desktop size. Other program windows that overlap the Sidebar merely slide under it, and you can still see them because the Sidebar column is transparent. Two other settings give you full control. You can make it so that app windows appear on top of the Sidebar, so it's just part of the background. And, of course, you can turn it off. In build 5308, it's turned off by default. Another positive point is that the Sidebar doesn't seem as system resource hungry as the earlier version from October 2003.
Screenshot: Feed Viewer Gadget (10K, 130 x 189 pixels)
The Feed Viewer Gadget let's you directly access headlines displayed from live RSS feeds in your IE7 feed store.
I've told you about the Sidebar itself, but let's get to the reason why you would want this new structure on your desktop. Anyone who has seen Apple's Widgets in OS X Tiger will immediately get the idea when I say that the Sidebar is designed to display Gadgets, little single-purpose .XML-based applets that will (hopefully) offer useful functionalities. In Windows Vista's February CTP (Community Technology Preview), build 5308, also known as the Enterprise CTP, the number of useful gadgets is quite small. Microsoft included five Gadgets: Feed Viewer, Launcher, Recycle Bin, Slide Show, and World Clock. Recycle Bin is really only useful if you don't already have Recycle Bin on your desktop or would prefer to change the look of Windows' trash can. World Clock is a glorified version of the system clock from the system tray. It's an analog clock that shows your part of the world as a background in its face. Slide Show lets you display a small image or run a slide show. Launcher is a container into which you can drag and drop program icons for one-click launching. In other words, it's very similar in functionality to the Quick Launch toolbar that appears next to the Start button. Feed Viewer lets you display feeds that are saved to Windows Vista's new feed store, a feature included with Internet Explorer 7.
Screenshot: Launcher Gadget (6K, 130 x 130 pixels)
The Launcher Gadget is a very simple but effective tool not unlike the Quick Launch toolbar that appears beside the Start button.
There's enough in the sample pack of Gadgets Microsoft offers to play around with Sidebar, but before Sidebar will be truly valuable to Vista users, a developer community will have to grow up around Gadgets. One already materialized around Microsoft's Windows Live Gadgets. Windows Live offers Web-based applets and software designed to run in Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, it appears that Gadgets written for Windows Live don't work in Windows Vista Sidebar, and possibly vice versa. And at this writing, none of the Gadgets available on the Microsoft Gadgets website (which is linked to directly from the user interface in the Sidebar's Settings area) was designed for Sidebar. I could only find one third-party Gadget, though I continue to hunt for them. I expect several to become available in the near future, but if you've found one that works and is useful, tell me about it.
Screenshot: World Clock Gadget (5K, 153 x 151 pixels)
The World Clock Gadget adds the aesthetic of analog to your digital desktop. It's just visually a breath of fresh air. Don't forget to turn on the second hand.
You didn't think you were going to get away entirely, uh, Scot-free, did you? [Editor's Note: Uh, no, honey. I unfortunately gave up on all that the day we said "I do." --Cyndy] There are things you need to know. So now that I've covered the most visible new feature in this build of Windows Vista, let's get to some of the nitty gritty.
Windows Vista Build 5308 is the first build that is nearly feature complete. It's also the first build that allows testers to install the five major flavors of Vista that will be offered when the OS ships: Windows Vista Business, Windows Vista Enterprise, Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Home Premium, and Windows Vista Ultimate. (See the article above for more on the different flavors of Vista.) The research for this story was based on Windows Vista Ultimate. Microsoft has not released a features-comparison table that shows what's offered (or not offered) in the various Vista SKUs. It's going to take people like me a while to install all those flavors and figure out what's different. Morevoer, even if we had the comparison data right now, there's every possibility that it could change in the final versions of Vista.
Screenshot: Windows Vista Destkop (149K, 1280 x 1024 pixels)
The Windows Vista desktop, displaying the new Start menu and the vertical Sidebar on the right.
What does "nearly feature complete" mean, and is this Beta 2 of Windows Vista? Microsoft claims that the February CTP (Community Technology Preview), also known as the Enterprise CTP, has all the programs, applets, and primary functionalities in place that Microsoft currently intends to ship in at least one of the final versions of Vista. But that doesn't mean all the features and functionalities will look, act, or perform the way they do in build 5308. Very likely aspects will be added or trimmed, and hopefully, they will run better too.
As to the Beta 2 question which may be more important to reporters and reviewers than to you Microsoft has elevated that to an existential question. Is it Beta 2, or have all the CTP releases been Beta 2? I can tell you that up until about December of last year, Microsoft was intending to release a feature-complete build called Beta 2. And build 5308 is that release. On the other hand, Microsoft is calling this the Enterprise CTP mostly because the enterprise features are ready, and it wants enterprises to test this version now to give it more time to bake in strongly requested changes. The consumer marketplace doesn't have anywhere near as strong a lobby (it is entirely the OEM PC makers). Microsoft's bread is buttered on the business side.
So, that's why Vista Beta 2, Release 2 (my nomenclature), is expected "sometime in the second quarter." That CTP will target the consumer-oriented features in Vista, and it will likely have a slew of changes and be a significant release. In a recent press briefing, Microsoft hinted that there will be CTP releases to follow the next one as well.
Screenshot: Windows Media Player 11 (87K, 710 x 651 pixels)
Windows Media Player 11 gets an heavily revised interface with many usability improvements. In Windows Home Premium and above, you can share and access other media libraries.
Is Microsoft on track to ship Vista this year? Yes, absolutely. Expect the code to freeze by early October, and that Vista PCs will be in vogue everywhere for most if not all of the holiday selling season.
This review is one of a series of Windows Vista articles that have been published in Scot's Newsletter over the last two or three years. Please refer back to the more recent ones to learn more about aspects of Windows Vista not covered in this story:
Pulling Back on Virtual Folders
One of the unsurprising changes in build 5308 is that part of the Virtual Folders feature, which has never really worked properly in any of the previous builds of the product, is absent. Some of the more performance challenging pre-built virtual folders present in earlier builds that are not visible in build 5308 are All Music, Albums, All Documents, All Videos, and Authors. The pre-configured saved searches that are included in build 5308 include Attachments, Last 7 Days E-mail, Last 30 Days Documents, Unread E-mail, and several others. The part that appears to have died is the notion of using search to populate virtual folders that would represent more broad, comprehensive listings, like All Documents and so forth.
That doesn't mean the virtual-folder notion is gone. You can create keyword searches across the entire Windows Vista index and then save them in the Saved Searches folder for re-use later. When you open a Saved Search, it checks the Windows Vista file index and dynamically displays all the files on your hard drive that match the search string. Then it displays them as if they were in a single folder, even though they actually reside in multiple directories on your hard drive. And the file icons are not shortcuts to files; they are your files. Saved Search folders give you a new way to parse and view your data, organized not by where files are stored but by verbal associations that make sense to you. All along, I've felt that Microsoft should find a better way to differentiate the presentation of virtual folders to help people understand that this is something different. I don't think a different color works. Microsoft should label virtual folders something like a "Collection folder." It appears Saved Searches might be what Microsoft is going with, but that doesn't prepare people for the results, which may be confusing at first.
Screenshot: Windows Mail (158K, 832 x 914 pixels)
Windows Mail is the new name for Outlook Express. The upgrade is modest, with most of what's new focusing on mail-store search and junk-mail filtering.
You can also stack (or roll up hierarchically) virtual folders by one additional criterion, such as Kinds, Authors, Keywords, etc. But the differences between Stack By, Group By, and Sort By are still likely to confuse most Windows users. When you work with your data in Saved Searches like this, it's very easy to lose track of the significance of what you're looking at.
I also continue to run into bugs and inconsistencies with this functionality, which has never worked properly especially since Microsoft removed WinFS, its next generation file system, from Windows Vista. For example, I created and saved a search called Cyndy, but when I attempted to reopen it, Vista build 5308 repeatedly opened the Favorite Music saved search. [Editor's Note: That's because I'm your favorite everything, right? --Cyndy.] And performance continues to be an issue, not with the indexing process so much as with creating and later opening Saved Searches.
As the desktop search and virtual folder functionality is built into the operating system now, it's not going to wow you. There continue to be search fields everywhere, but the actual functionality just isn't all that different from what's in Windows XP. After you open a Saved Search, there's no clear way to get back to the Saved Searches folder either. The Back button doesn't always work properly in this setting; so your only real option is the graphical breadcrumbs (address bar) feature. In fact, navigation in Windows Vista appears to be more of challenge in this build. Earlier versions of the new OS let you customize folder windows toolbars with the Up button. And some folders that used to have the folder tree don't any longer. Microsoft's insistence on turning off the classic File menu by default is another annoying user interface direction. Don't mess with what we already know!
Screenshot: Welcome Center (60K, 594 x 428 pixels)
The Welcome Center is designed to help first-time Vista users take care of tasks like making sure their hardware is properly configured and adding new user accounts.
Lotsa New Programs
For Vista, Microsoft is doing something it really hasn't done with this level of commitment in quite some time. It's heavily updating and adding to the onboard programs that come with Windows. (I can hear the howls for new anti-trust proceedings already.) All of these programs and applets come with Windows Vista: Windows Media Player 11, Internet Explorer 7, Windows Mail (Outlook Express), Window Defender, Sidebar, Welcome Center, Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Calendar, Windows Movie Maker HD, Windows Firewall, Windows Fax and Scan, Windows Collaboration, Windows Easy Transfer (Migration Wizard), Connect to a Network Projector, Sync Center, Windows DVD Maker, Memory Diagnostic, Task Scheduler, and others. Control Panel sports several other tools that I've written about in recent stories, but they include AutoPlay, Backup and Restore, BitLocker Driver Encryption, Mobility Center, Network Center, Parental Controls, Performance Rating and Tools, Personalization (wayward re-implementation of Display Properties), and Windows SideShow (for mobile computers with auxiliary displays).
This is by no means an exhaustive study of all these news bits in Vista, but let me walk through the high points:
Screenshot: Windows Photo Gallery (139KK, 866 x 793 pixels)
Windows Photo Gallery is a delightfully versatile image-viewing and editing utility that should come in very handy for most consumer and business users.
A lot of Vista's applets and programs are pretty buggy in this build, and aren't really worth deep assessment at this time. I've covered the newest bundled programs, and will come back and revisit the point later.
Screenshot: Windows Calendar (101K, 801 x 571 pixels)
Windows Calendar plugs an obvious hole among the basic applets that come with Windows. It let's you share calendars with others, but doesn't display holidays.
Sinking Feeling About Security
One of the most annoying aspects of Windows Vista is how frequently it pops up a box asking whether it should open something that I've specifically directed it to do. It's also surprising how frequently it tells me that I can't delete this or that folder. Even folders that you'd think are outside its purview to monitor can be problematic. Most of the time I've been running Vista not with the Administrator login, but with Administrator rights. I password protect my user accounts. Right now, the overall user experience is pretty terrible.
Here's a typical experience. I go to open a Windows utility or control that Vista considers to be potentially dangerous. A box pops up with big letters reading: "Windows needs your permission to use this program." The options are to Allow or Cancel. If you click Allow, in most cases you get where you were intending to go.
Screenshot: Pop-Up Access Approval Box (24K, 429 x 222 pixels)
This pop-up box requires you to click the Allow button to accomplish things that just launched without a prompt in previous versions of Windows. Is this is the final user experience, Microsoft has a problem.
It's the same kind of overblown security impinging on the user experience that Microsoft loaded into IE6 for Windows XP Service Pack 2. All those pop-up windows and "info bars" rapidly set me in motion away from Internet Explorer. And if I begin to feel like the idiot who has to click the OK box over and over again in Vista, I'll be a Macintosh guy in a heartbeat.
If this is all Microsoft can do to truly sandbox Windows, foist the responsibility on the end-user to double check everything, it's a really sad state of affairs. Let's hope that I'm wrong, that Microsoft has worked out something better. Wouldn't it be nice if they briefed the reviewing press on these things?
Screenshot: Control Panel (146K, 847 x 785 pixels)
Control Panel has grown ridiculously large in Vista; it's jam-packed with new stuff. If you look closely, you'll even notice a bug: It has two Power Options applets.
The one thing Microsoft did brief us on, ad nauseum, is all the many enterprise-level features in the 5308 build. They're hoping to entice enterprise IT managers to set up testing to evaluate the new client operating system (so they'll complain about what they don't like while Microsoft has a chance to do something about it).
All kidding aside, Microsoft has put a lot of thought into how to make it easier for IT departments to plan, test, build, and deploy Vista in corporate environments. To get an overview, check out the Microsoft Windows Vista Enterprise CTP Fact Sheet.
This is the first widespread build of Windows Vista that is good enough to run as an everyday operating system. While I'm not recommending that, it's at least possible. Running on a 2-plus-year-old Pentium 4 3GHz machine with 1GB RAM, fairly fast hard drives, a very fast 128MB video card, performance is noticeably slow here and there, but not terrible. Although many of the things you don't use very often are a little buggy, the stuff you use frequently runs fine.
Screenshot: Windows Mobility Center (41K, 623 x 292 pixels)
Windows Mobility Center wasn't able to hook up with the Brightness controls on my ThinkPad T43, but it's nice to have the syncing, display, and other controls in one handy place.
The personality of the next version of Windows is beginning to emerge in build 5308. Microsoft has done an excellent job with the Sidebar and Internet Explorer. The Start menu is significantly refined, although no one will be surprised by it. The task bar and notification area work as you expect them to. The most startling aspect of the product is its fast vector-based graphics, which when properly executed, open effortlessly and add visual cues we've never experienced in Windows before. New applications like Windows Defender and Photo Gallery are welcome additions to the operating system. There's a lot to like about this version of Windows.
Contrasting with the many positives, though, is Microsoft's relentless insistence on security at all costs. And while I'm a big supporter of security hardening, especially for desktop computers, which are the leakiest part of the equation, I'm not willing to compromise the user experience to get there. It's early yet, but Microsoft may not be quite as concerned about that as I am or as I believe most of you are.
The next CTP is the true full-fledged Beta 2 we've been waiting for, and that's traditionally where I have begun to offer deeper assessment and opinion about a new version of Windows. So keep an eye out for my coverage of the Vista Consumer CTP (in May?), or whatever Microsoft decides to call it.
Whatever you call it, the new Beta 2 version of the anti-spyware utility is a significant upgrade. It offers a new detection-and-removal spyware engine, an increased number of Windows monitoring points it watches for possible spyware symptoms, a heavily streamlined user interface, fewer pop-ups from its real-time protection asking for user input, and protection for all Windows user accounts. It also runs on Windows 2000, Windows Server 2003, and Windows XP (Service Pack 2 required). Microsoft has committed to making this software freely available for download, so long as you're downloading to an authorized copy of Windows.
For more details about Windows Defender Beta 2, please see my Desktop Pipeline story, Microsoft Updates Anti-Spyware Utility, Renames It Windows Defender.
Windows Defender will also be included in Windows Vista, and first made an appearance there in the December CTP version. I wrote about that version of Windows Defender in the Desktop Pipeline story, Visual Tour: Windows Vista Begins to Get Real.
So is Windows Defender a good product? It's a tale of two installations. I have had no end of trouble with Windows Defender Beta 2 installed on a machine that previous ran both Microsoft AntiSpyware and an early pre-release version of Windows Defender Beta 2 that Microsoft sent me in advance of Beta 2's formal release. I did properly uninstall each previous version of the product before installing each new version. I also uninstalled Windows Defender Beta 2 twice after the initial install. But in all three attempts the experience was the same. It would work for a while, but then serious error messages would appear, and before I uninstalled it for the last time the utility brought my computer to a crawl.
Even so, I also installed Windows Defender on a brand new PC just purchased for SFNL Labs, and the utility has been working fine there for several days. So my Windows Defender Beta 2 woes could be related to conflicts with things left behind in the System Registry or elsewhere in Windows by earlier versions of Microsoft's anti-spyware utility. It might be related to the Windows Defender Beta 2 pre-release software I was given (which was not widely distributed), because I have not heard widespread complaints.
But then ... something strange happened. Just as this newsletter was being readied, one of the two computers running the February CTP of Windows Vista, which includes an almost identical version of Windows Defender, starting throwing off the same error messages. This Vista installation was cleanly installed to its own partition, and I have installed no software over it other than software that supports onboard hardware. So ... it appears there is a problem with the code of some sort. Interestingly, both computers that are having troubles with Windows Defender Beta 2 are IBM ThinkPad T43s. On the other hand, the computer that isn't having trouble is also a T43. Go figure.
For what it's worth, I have tried to report my Windows Defender problems through the PR channels to Microsoft, but have not been successful in doing so. They have not gotten back to me. So, at this point, I might advise hanging back on Windows Defender Beta 2. If you have installed it, I'd be interested to hear about your experiences.
All in all, though, I consider Windows Defender to be an improvement over Microsoft AntiSpyware, and it continues to be the only real-time anti-spyware protection running on most of the machines in my care. I'm sure Microsoft will work out the glitch I'm currently experiencing in the latest beta.
Testing BitDefender 9 Standard Antivirus
In my continuing search for a long-term replacement for Norton AntiVirus, I have so far tested the Panda products, Alwil Software's Avast!, and I'm now giving BitDefender 9 Standard (antivirus only) a thorough evaluation.
I am mightily impressed with the extremely simplistic user interface implemented in BitDefender 9 Standard, which is available in a 30-day trial and costs $30 for the first year and $15 for each successive year. That covers new versions and also online updates of antivirus signatures.
BitDefender's user interface and system footprint is much better than that of Norton AntiVirus, and its simplicity, low-key graphics, and simple labels of product functions make it instantly comfortable, unlike the somewhat silly and shrill Avast! user experience. In Avast's favor, it does a good job of protecting you. But if I prove to myself that BitDefender excels at protection (something that has been claimed by mainstream independent product testing published elsewhere), it's a good bet I'll be switching to BitDefender. Of course, there are other antivirus tools too, and I'm not done exploring.
One downside to BitDefender is that it's not free. The 30-day trial expires quickly, and you may find enduring the ever-present nag screen its own trial. BitDefender also comes in several versions and price levels, and the company makes anti-spyware, anti-spam, firewall, and parental control software too. I'm not a big fan of integrated utility packages, but I've asked the BitDefender folks to give me access to their other products to see whether I might be wrong in this case. Hopefully they'll respond.
Head to Head: Verizon FiOS vs. Comcast High-Speed Internet
In the last issue of the newsletter, I offered an in-depth look at my FiOS installation day and my first few days with the new fiber-optic-to-the-premises broadband service.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a comparison review of Comcast High-Speed Internet and Verizon's 1.5Mbps Verizon Online DSL service.
In a very real sense, this story has been several years in the making. I've been paying for two broadband services for two years. With the publication of this piece, I'll be reducing that by one. So which service am I sticking with, Comcast Cable or Verizon FiOS? I don't think the answer will be a surprise to most regular readers of this newsletter. But my assessments of the two services might surprise you in places.
Ordering and Installation
Even though FiOS is a bit more complicated installation both for the consumer and the telecommunications company, I would have to give Verizon an A for my installation experience. To find out why, see the last issue of the newsletter (the link directly above). Meanwhile, I gave Comcast a C- for the conversion process from AT&T Broadband to Comcast High-Speed Internet back in July of 2003. And that didn't even involve waiting for the cable company to show up or guys with visible butt cracks and clomping boots tracking dirt through my house. All Comcast did was throw the conversion switch. But in the process, it appeared that Comcast tried to get its new customers to divulge personal computer usage information without disclosing that fact.
For the whole sorry story, see the Comcast Conversion Report Card.
To be fair, I would have to point out that in the Verizon DSL vs. Comcast Cable Head-to-Head review, I gave Comcast a B- for installation based primarily on my experience with AT&T Broadband, which was the company that actually installed my cable modem. But after three years, I now feel that the conversion experience is a better representative of the Comcast installation experience.
Hardware and Software
You be the judge: Comcast has been charging me $3 a month for "rental" of my four-year-old cable modem. Verizon installed all my hardware for free, and gave me a four-port wireless firewall/router as part of the bargain. I don't didn't even have to sign a contract with Verizon.
Software was a weak point of my early experiences with Verizon DSL, but I haven't even needed the Verizon software (they left me a CD) with my FiOS installation. It is not required, and more and more, Verizon is moving to make its Verizon user site provide the sort of functionality that its software does. I prefer the Web-based services. But Verizon has also improved its user installable software too. I rated it a B+ in 2003, and it's a little better than that now.
If Comcast has software, or useful Web-based services, the company has never told me about them. It also hasn't explained how to take advantage of the services it does have. For example, I used to have newsgroup access with Comcast. That stopped working a couple of years ago without any notice. When I called Comcast, they couldn't figure it out either. It still doesn't work. It seems to be something to do with my password login, so this probably isn't a widespread problem.
It should be noted that one part of FiOS's hardware you are responsible for is the backup battery. Verizon pays for the first one, but you're responsible for replacements, which you can figure you'll need every one to two years. This battery is required because FiOS's fiber-optic conduit isn't cable of carry electricity required to support the telephone, as standard copper lines do. Since FiOS is installed in conjunction with a phone line (and your phone will also use the fiber-optic line), when there's a power outage, the battery is required to support continued phone usage until the power comes back on.
Comcast offers McAfee's software-based personal firewall, antivirus, and "privacy service" freely as part of its overall cable Internet services. As noted above, Verizon gives you a firewall/wireless router with FiOS, a D-Link DI-624, a very good model that works well. Of the two, I would prefer the D-Link router mostly because I'm not a big fan of the McAfee products. If Comcast had made a deal with other security software companies, though, it might be a better value than Verizon's offering.
Both services provide full support for VPN usage. I've had no technical issues with running a VPN over either of them. Neither company even mentions anything about VPN usage in their Terms of Service statements. At one time, Comcast had negative language about VPN usage on its website, while Verizon has long been supportive of this activity.
Comcast still tries to market a more expensive "networked" version of Comcast cable. The price has come down, but it varies in different regions. Verizon actually gives you instructions on how to network your Verizon FiOS connection, and there is no extra charge. Effectively there is no extra charge for Comcast either. If you don't ask, they won't charge you, and they're unlikely to "catch" you either. I had something like 25 computers connected to my Comcast connection for three years. Of course, there are only a couple people actually using those computers at any one time. If you were running a business with 25 people sharing that connection, Comcast would very likely give you a call about that. That isn't just guess work; I know people it's happened to. Comcast is pretty fierce about it usage agreement.
For the average family using either of these services from their home, there's very little difference between Comcast and Verizon in this area. Verizon's longer history of enlightened customer policy on is the only real difference.
True ISP Services
Overall, neither of these companies is in the class of experienced ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like EarthLink or Speakeasy in terms of the breadth and value of services. However, both Verizon and Comcast offer more than just the basics. They have Web mail, websites, online storage, and so forth. Both fall down pretty seriously in the area of newsgroups especially Comcast, which so far as I can tell, no longer offers this functionality (at least, to me). Verizon's faux pas with newsgroups is that it's pretty heavy handed about not offering newsgroups that it deems to be questionable and also has limited storage retention of the newsgroups it does offer.
Support and Documentation
Comcast's big problem is that its website seems purposely designed to withhold information. The company also doesn't communicate with Internet customers very well. And when you have a problem, its support reps literally sound like it's worth their jobs to tell you the truth about anything - but mostly, they just don't know. The feeling you get from Comcast is a very nasty corporate culture that jealously guards information internally and views its customers as ignorant. Now, to be fair, Comcast has not raised its Cable Internet rates since I began taking the service three years ago. But it has raised its TV/entertainment services every January. And performance and some other service levels have retreated.
So, Comcast tech support is abysmal, and while you can find documentation on the website, you can't trust it because it is likely outdated. A very common experience with Comcast is that you find multiple versions of support documents whose instructions are conflicting. Virtually every sort of interaction with this company leaves you frustrated, at best, fuming at worst.
Verizon isn't perfect either, but at least the tech support people are much more competent, the website makes sense (if it's not as deep as I'd like with tech info), and the overall experience is significantly better.
Performance and Reliability
I was actually a tad annoyed by this experience, but it will illustrate how closely Verizon is monitoring FiOS service levels. A few weeks after FiOS was installed we had a two-hour power outage following a large storm. About 30 minutes into the outage, we got a phone call from Verizon. They wanted to let us know that our FiOS service was running on battery only. Since the backup battery only lasts for 4 to 8 hours, depending on how much you use the telephone your FiOS line is installed on, I guess Verizon wanted to make sure that someone hadn't inadvertently unplugged the Verizon FiOS box. Replacing the battery costs between $22 and $40, depending on where you buy it, and the user is responsible. So the call from Verizon was probably a good thing. I offer the story to serve as support for what I'm about to say: Although I haven't had FiOS long enough to be sure, my impression is that FiOS connections are rock solid. I have had no down-time at all, and that's just not the case with Comcast Cable Internet or even Verizon DSL. Both services occasionally go down, if even for only a few minutes. FiOS's reliability looks to be much better than many other consumer-oriented broadband services.
What can I say about performance? The 15Mbps downstream, and for me, 1.8Mbps upstream service levels are absolutely for real. FiOS is incredibly fast. Much faster, for example, than the average T1, T3, or whatever service that most business users experience on the job. Much, much faster than Comcast cable Internet or any other cable or DSL provider in the U.S.
For me, performance is the single most important factor in selecting broadband service. And in this area, there's just no contest.
Value and Overall Rating
The funny part of my experience with Verizon FiOS is that for reasons I can't fathom, Verizon's billing department and custom Website show me as continuing to be a Verizon DSL customer. They're still charging me the slightly lower DSL charge on my bill, and the Verizon support area lists me as a Verizon DSL customer. I have called Verizon twice about this, and each time I've been told it would be taken care of, but I've been through two bills and one-and-a-half billing cycles since the installation, and there is clearly something wrong with how they converted my account. I did upgrade from Verizon DSL, so it's not all that surprising.
So, bottom line, I can't give you my actual costs with FiOS because I haven't been billed yet. My understanding, however, is that there will be no charge for installation, my monthly cost for 15Mbps FiOS service will be $39.95. I'm also told that, unlike DSL and Cable Internet, there are currently no federal taxes on fiber-optic-delivered broadband services, so it will be a flat $39.95. There is no hardware rental charge or any other charges. This $39.95 price reflects a $5 a month discount because of a long-distance package I'm using on the phone line FiOS is associated with. I'm also told that the $5 discount might stop after one year, but at that time, I should be able to reinstate the discount by signing a one-year contract, if I want to do that.
Comcast, with the $3 a month rental fee for the cable modem that AT&T Broadband gave me, costs $45.95 per month. If there are additional federal access fees or use taxes related to cable Internet, those are not itemized on the Comcast bill in a way that I can be sure of. The $46 monthly Comcast price becomes $58 a month if you don't take Comcast's cable TV services too.
For the first year at least, FiOS is both cheaper and faster. And even if the price eventually comes pretty close, Verizon's heavy advantages in performance and tech support make it the clear winner in this battle of the broadband services. Verizon FiOS is the Scot's Newsletter Best Broadband Provider of 2006.
Something that bears pointing out, though, is that Verizon is taking a huge risk by rolling out fiber-optics to literally all the homes in hundreds of communities across the U.S. Not only is the telecommunications company spending billions for this new infrastructure, it's doing so extremely quickly.
I was against the effective dismantling of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which turned power back over to the incumbent service providers (phone and cable companies) at the expense of their upstart competition, companies like Covad and many others. I believe in competition. But in some industries, there's a significant upside to letting some companies build out important infrastructure in return for extending them a temporary monopoly. In the U.S., we've done something similar with the drug companies, and it's resulted in very fast development of new medicines. The problem is that these advantages need to be capped off, limited, and other companies should be given the chance to find a competitive edge and flourish too.
Part of the big risk for Verizon isn't just based on the huge investment involved. Wall Street isn't quite sure yet whether what Verizon is doing will pay off. So if it takes off slowly, careers could be on the line. Personally, I think it will pay-off handsomely for Verizon. I have longed believed that fiber-optic technology would be the stuff of the next big build out for the global Internet. This is one of the earlier steps. And Verizon will be sitting on large portions of the lucrative U.S. marketplace.
The advent of Verizon TV, a fiber-optic competitor to cable and satellite television services, could be a huge win for consumers, even those who don't opt to take the FiOS TV service. Competition is a consumer's best friend. The Verizon FiOS broadband service is everything Verizon says it is too.
The people it taps into aren't professional editors either. They're avid tech readers. Let me tell you, it's very interesting reading the comments that Digg.com's "diggers" put on stories you've written. Because they pull no punches. But it's refreshing to see a low-tech solution. And I, for one, put more faith in Digg.com's rankings that I do those of Google News.
Digg.com isn't a search site. That's its main flaw, in my opinion. It relies entirely on the data about a story submitted by the member who finds it first. When other members "digg" the story too, they click the "digg it" link to add their vote. If Digg.com could pull up a search-engine index and match up the URLs, then perhaps it could show things like the date the story was published, the author name, and most importantly, the publication name. The site URL is visible, which helps. But the presentation isn't ideal.
Still, this is a pretty cool place for tech news junkies. I know you're going to like it. It's well deserving of Link of the Month recognition from Scot's Newsletter.
Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.
So far as I know, there's no outside help for customizing the Places bar in File > Open, File > Save, and File > Save As dialogs in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. But there is a completely free utility that makes the process of customizing the Places Bar on Windows common dialogs a good deal easier. It's Microsoft's Tweak UI 2.10 for Windows XP. Several SFNL readers wrote me to point that out, and I appreciate their help.
What's more, the instructions I offered for customizing the Places bar on Windows XP common dialogs apply to Windows XP Professional only. Windows XP Home users don't have access to the gpedit.msc utility, something I'll admit I had forgotten. Sorry about that. (I am on record, though, of recommending Windows XP Pro for everyone; I'm not a big fan of Windows XP Home Edition.)
It's easy to get Tweak UI. I recommend using this Best of Scot's Newsletter Installing Tweak UI page as your starting point for downloading and installing Microsoft's little unsupported Windows customization utility:
Once you install Tweak UI, run it from the "PowerToys for Windows XP" folder on the Programs menu. Click the plus sign beside "Common Dialogs on the left side of the Tweak UI window. Next, click the Places Bar entry that was revealed. Click the "Custom places bar" radio button. You'll find a list of pre-configured Places destination shortcuts from the drop-down menus of each of the five available fields. You can also type in the complete paths to any destination in the fields.
There are two important advantages of the Tweak UI method of customizing the Places bar in Windows dialogs. The first is that, while you still can't edit the names of things, Tweak UI and Windows more adroitly apply the proper name to most items whose paths you type into the Tweak UI. I think you'll find you have less reason to want to edit the names. The second advantage is that Tweak UI makes it much easier to return to the default settings. And, of course, there's no reason to edit the Registry directly with this method.
Personally, I prefer to do the work directly in the Registry for most things like this. It gives me complete control. But in this case, Tweak UI does a better job.
One Warning about Tweak UI: There's long been a bug in this tool in the Drives sub-entry below the My Computer entry. Don't use this part of the tool. It should actually have been removed. Scot's Newsletter's predecessor, Windows Insider, with the help of lots of readers, unearthed that bug back in 1999, and despite publishing the problem in Windows Magazine, the program author has never fixed it.
Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
While you're at it, visit the new Scot's Newsletter Forums.
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