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March 2007 - Vol. 7, Issue No. 89
By Scot Finnie
In This Issue
Daylight-saving time a one-hour shift of time during late spring, summer, and early autumn that provides an extra hour of light in the evening is beginning and ending on different days this year. The government is experimenting with lengthening daylight-saving time by one month in order to conserve energy during early-evening peak-usage time. So daylight-saving time starts three weeks earlier this year and stops one week later. The change is an excellent idea. But like a lot of things to do with time and computers, in this first year of change it's causing headaches for those who maintain computer operating systems and applications.
Apple has fixed this for Macs with an online update that was released a couple of weeks ago. (Mac applications might also need updating, though, such as Microsoft Office Entourage.)
Microsoft has also fixed it for Vista users and Windows XP users who have Automatic Updates turned on. I've seen both Vista and XP patches on my machines. The XP patch has the Microsoft Knowledgebase ID number of 931836.
One complicating factor is that this isn't just about the operating system. Microsoft Outlook, for example, is also affected (KB931667).
For IT people this gets even more complicated. Here's Microsoft's list of desktop and server products that need to be updated for daylight-saving time.
This Microsoft support document, "Preparing for Daylight Saving Time Changes in 2007," offers an excellent explanation of the problems, with links to steps and solutions.
Microsoft also has a start page for this issue that's aimed at both end-users and IT people. It's worth a look.
All that's the good news. The bad news is that Microsoft is not offering help for users of Windows 98, Windows ME, and all Microsoft operating systems prior to Windows 2000 with Service Pack 4. Now, obviously, you can manually change the time on your system clock and turn off the automatic time-switch for daylight-savings time. But there may be other related issues, perhaps in applications.
Whatever computer you're using, you should double-check that the proper patches have been installed. Do this now before March 11 wreaks its minor havoc on your PC.
For help finding daylight saving time content from a variety of software vendors, see Sharon Machlis's blog post on Computerworld.
Thanks to longtime SFNL reader Betty Nakamoto for suggesting this item.
Microsoft's Knowledgebase article for the update doesn't tell you what's new in this latest release. It's just an undocumented update of WGA Notifications. (For more info, read this description of the Windows Genuine Advantage Notifications application.)
I continue to recommend that you not accept this update, even though it's not really the business end of Microsoft's anti-piracy measures for XP. The heart of Microsoft's WGA for XP is a related but separate program called WGA Validation. It is also an optional installation that dates back to July 2005. But most people's PCs have this bit installed. WGA Validation determines the validity of your Windows installation; WGA Notifications is the tool that communicates with you when WGA Validation determines your copy of Windows XP might not be legitimate. Microsoft's companion Knowledgebase article for WGA Validation is: Description of Windows Genuine Advantage.
The WGA Notifications Knowledgebase article now claims you can't uninstall WGA Notifications permanently. (Microsoft is nuts!) You used to be able to uninstall it, and they gave you directions in an older version of this very document on how to do that.
For more information about WGA Validation and WGA Notifications, including how to both block and uninstall the latter (at least in the previous versions of it), please see this SFNL story from last summer and read it carefully:
• What Is WGA?
• How to Block WGA Notifications from Installing
• How to Uninstall WGA Notifications (may not work for latest version)
Also, while I received both nice and mean-spirited messages from dyed-in-the-wool Windows people letting me know that they were unsubscribing or that they might do so in the future, those messages were outnumbered some 5:1 by messages from dyed-in-the-wool Windows people who are Mac-curious or who are themselves multiplatform-oriented.
For example, John Edvin Kasa is one of literally scores of people who have written me with very similar sentiments. Addressing my question in the last newsletter about how my embrace of the Mac for my main machine would affect your plans for continuing to take Scot's Newsletter, he wrote:
"It's a really easy answer to that question; absolutely no impact! :-) In fact I think your switch to Mac is extending the useful [information] in your publication. Thanks for all the effort you put into your articles."
Judging from a few messages from some of my Windows brethren, the fear is that I'm about to transform into some sort of Mac-fanatic Windows-hater. Not going to happen, people. Both operating systems have their advantages. I'm using Windows XP, the Mac, and Vista on a regular basis.
The way I look at this, working with Windows and the Mac (and with perhaps more Linux in the future as well) is the best way for me to learn and grow as a desktop computing specialist. Learning about other operating systems teaches me more about Windows. From grade school to high school, I took French. In college, I took Spanish. I never became a full-fledged French or Spanish speaker, but studying other languages taught me a great deal about English. Using the Mac, Linux, and Windows does the same.
Of course, I didn't make my Mac decision because I was secretly doing this to learn more about Windows. I'm enjoying the Mac immensely, and I believe that all things considered the user experience is better than that of Windows. I also truly detest Microsoft's anti-piracy measures and, more importantly, Microsoft's gradual shift away from being a user-focused software company to a more overtly bottom-line-obsessed mega-corporation. Nothing wrong with making money, but I preferred the Microsoft that was on the way up.
I don't have to give up on Windows to use the Mac. It isn't an either/or proposition. That's the key point: Using the Mac is an "and" thing. I'm not switching my allegiance, I'm expanding my focus.
There's good reason for becoming more multiplatform right now. The numbers of Windows users switching to Linux and the Mac has got to be at an all-time high. In fact, one of the most surprising anecdotal facts to come out of the 400 emails I received from respondents to my question about whether my move to the Mac might change their subscription to the newsletter pertains to Vista adoption. Of the vast majority of people who talked about their Windows usage (which was most people), fewer than 10 said they're moving to Windows Vista. In fact, many specifically said they have no plans to upgrade to Vista. While this isn't a statistically valid data point, I was very surprised. When Windows XP came out, SFNL readers were ready to adopt the new OS in overwhelming numbers.
There's another important reason why this is a good time to be multiplatform-focused. For the first time ever in the personal computer's history, platform monopolization is less important than it once was. It will take a long time for platform-based market positions to erode, mind you. It's not like Microsoft is in trouble with Windows. On the other hand, it's becoming less and less important what OS you're using. The rise of Web-based applications is making the Web browser a de facto platform. And while Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the only browser that supports ActiveX, over time, Java and open-standard Web technologies have been taking over. Microsoft has failed in trying to possess the development environments, technologies, and plumbing that supports Web 2.0 functionality and other application-oriented Web programming. The development community and the enterprise buyers of IT products and services are keeping an open mind about the solutions that will work for them and provide a solid return on investment. Microsoft is not the only answer.
On the other hand, I'm not part of some sort of religious war against Microsoft. In the same way that you have to embrace the other options, I feel you have to continue to consider all options. There's a difference between the computer with which I prefer to work with for my everyday computer usage and the one that's the server on my network or that acts as a Web server for my Web site. In my case, the Mac, Windows, and Linux all factor in when you consider my full scenario.
What About Windows XP?
One of the most common responses to my call for input about the newsletter in light of my switch to the Mac was from readers who said that as long as I continue to cover Windows (and, specifically, Windows XP was the version most often cited), they will continue to take the newsletter.
Let me put that concern to rest. Scot's Newsletter will not be a Mac-only newsletter. It will cover more Mac-oriented topics than it did last year. But it will also continue to cover Windows-only topics. For the time being, and for unrelated reasons, I'm forced to reduce my coverage of Linux-oriented topics, but that change is not a strategic editorial decision. It's one I've made purely for what I hope are temporary logistical reasons. (I am planning a foray into Ubuntu at some point later this year, for example.)
I want my Windows XP readers to be realistic about something: Far and away you represent the newsletter's largest segment. As long as that's true, I will continue to look for Windows XP topics to cover. But after seven years of covering XP, there just aren't that many new topics for me to write about. (You can expect coverage when Windows XP SP3 arrives, for example, or anything else new. You can expect me to test applications in the XP environment. You can expect me to watch out for your interests.) The same thing occurred in 2001 and 2002, when most of my readers were using Windows 98 but there just wasn't that much more to say.
Even though only a small percentage of SFNL readers are switching to Vista, I will be covering Vista, too. It's what there is to write about, and as time goes by, more and more current XP readers who decide to stick with Windows are likely to wind up moving to Vista. That has happened every time Microsoft has released a major new OS. Two years from now, many Windows-based enterprises will likely be sourcing Windows Vista machines. It's already becoming difficult to find Windows XP consumer machines.
For the record, SFNL Labs these days includes four Vista installations, eight XP installations plus one 64-bit XP installation, and three Macintoshes (one of which is running XP in a Parallels-based virtual environment). I no longer have test machines for Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Windows 9.x. In my extended environment, I support another three or four machines that are all running Windows XP. What has changed in the past couple of months is this: My two primary machines are a Macintosh and a Lenovo dual-core notebook upgraded from XP to Windows Vista.
Introducing the Mac Software A-List
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Mac. What's absolutely the worst one, though, is that there's no software for it.
Before I bought a Mac mini in 2005 (the first step in my current Mac odyssey), I hadn't used a Mac since 1996, when I owned several Macs and Windows machines. The five years at the center of the last decade were a bleak time for Apple and the Mac. Windows 95 caught up with and surpassed the Macintosh system software in 1995. Apple wasn't doing well in general, and Macintosh software creation was at an all-time low.
Fast-forward through Steve Jobs' return to the company in 1997, the release of innovative new Macs thereafter, and especially the release of OS X. When Apple offered its Intel-based Macs early last year, I was drawn almost involuntarily to purchasing a Core Duo MacBook Pro 15.
The first thing I realized as I began to explore the Mac world in earnest was just how much more software there is for the Mac than the last time I used it. The Mac shareware/freeware marketplace, while not as gargantuan as that for Windows, is filled with a rich selection of largely well-done products. There are many small commercial Mac software companies. At the same time that Windows development companies appear to be consolidating, you have the sense of renaissance among Mac software makers. The Mac market was reborn with OS X.
That's the backdrop for my decision to convert the Apple Leaf series of articles in Scot's Newsletter to a new series called the A-List of Mac Software. The Macintosh apps that have made it to my tried and approved list of Mac software throughout the Apple Leaf series has prompted the most emails and comments from readers, both here in the newsletter and also at Computerworld.
The A-List will change with every edition of the newsletter as I continue to research new software. I welcome the input of others. I'm willing to reverse my decisions, try new versions, even reassess my needs. My goals are to point out the best software products, improve the software available to Mac users, and make it easier for other new Mac users to locate solutions that work for them. If you'd like to point something out to me, please reference software products with URLs, and tell me why you like them. Drop me a line.
Now, on to the products I've evaluated most recently.
Screen-Capture Promise: SnapNDrag
In the last installment in this series, I published a list of 10 features I expect to find from an advanced screenshot utility. Several readers read my list and advised me to look closely at a free program called SnapNDrag by Yellow Mug Software.
I had looked at the specs for this program earlier and had concluded that it wouldn't address all my needs. And while it's true that it doesn't do it all, SnapNDrag 2.1.3 is an extremely well-designed product that includes features that address the majority of my needs. The user interface is surprisingly simples and therefore good. It's the kind of utility that you just like intuitively.
If you're keeping score, SnapNDrag meets these specific needs from my list of 10 features: 2, 3, 5, 6, and parts of 1. Yellow Mug also makes other programs that can be integrated with SnapNDrag that offer additional functionality I was looking for, including cropping and edge effects.
What Yellow Mug does not offer is image file conversion, the ability to temporarily hide all icons from your desktop (other freeware products do this), a capture-preview window that you can select small screens from, and the ability to save named groups of settings for different screen-capture tasks and recall them later. In other words, SnapNDrag skips my more esoteric features.
Bottom line: SnapNDrag has all the features I absolutely have to have. It's not the end of my search, but at least I have a product I can live with for now.
SnapNDrag is free to use as is, but there is an optional $4.95 registration fee that provides permanent access to some features that I need occasionally (like adding a basic rule around an image). Yellow Mug also offers various bundles and groupings of its inexpensive software. I still haven't decided whether to buy EasyCrop for $11.95 and get SnapNDrag Pro for free, or whether to I should just splurge for the $40 bundle of eight Yellow Mug programs, including some that have nothing to do with image management. Four of the eight are interesting to me.
Another interesting bit of news is that two representatives of a graphics software company that shall remain nameless for now contacted me to let me know that most of the features on my list are being worked on for a major upgrade of its existing product. So whenever that app is made available to me, I will give it a close look.
Finally, I need to pass out an apology. Last month I dissed the demo version of Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X, claiming that it "renders your screenshots unusable." That's true only after 30 days of try-before-you-buy testing. I had forgotten that I had installed Snapz Pro X several weeks earlier and then removed it. Then I installed it again on the same Mac when I was testing it for the story. The 30-day countdown continued in between, of course, and caught up with me. My bad.
Over the past month, Safari has become my default browser. As previously noted, I don't love it. But it's less annoying than all the rest the other options, and I hope that the browser improves in the near future with the release OS X 10.5. I'm also assessing two products related to Safari that might improve the experience.
The first of those is Saft, a Safari plug-in that offers a long list of improvements for Apple's browser. Surprisingly, I'm under-whelmed by Saft so far. There's nothing wrong with it, but I don't find it to be of huge value either. My favorite Saft feature is undocumented. It lets you double-click anywhere on a blank area of the tab bar to open a new tab. A Firefox extension called Tab Clicking Options does the same thing.
Showing a bit more promise but in need of more finishing is a product called Shiira, a browser based on the same open-source Web-rendering engine as Safari, called WebKit. Shiira offers an elegant and intriguing user interface with lots of nice touches. But too many things aren't working in the beta 2 version for Tiger for me to make it my default browser.
Lotus Notes 7.0.2 Finally Wakes Up to the Mac
I started using Lotus Notes 1.1 in 1990 just as it was coming to market for Windows. Three years later all of Ziff-Davis, where I worked at the time, was using it, and Lotus released the first Mac client with Notes 3.0. I can remember quite well how disappointed Ziff-Davis's Mac users were at being forced to move to this truly terrible "email" package. And throughout its history since then, some 14 years, Lotus Notes has been a truly bad Mac app.
Until now, that is. I've been testing Notes 7.0.2 for the last month, and it's much better. Early last year, IBM made a commitment to improving Notes for Mac users throughout the 7 release timeframe, and the first real strides were made in the 7.0.2 version, which came out in early December 2006.
Frustrating problems for me with Notes 6.5x include:
1. Terrible font support, with either teeny-tiny fonts or fuzzy larger ones.
2. No way to click a hyperlink in a mail message and have it launch in Safari (or any other Mac browser).
3. Instability problems.
4. Very long replication times, especially noticeable when you add a large new database to your environment. At my company, it took several hours just to add my mail file and company address book on an initial setup of a new Macintosh. Windows Notes did not have the same problem.
Lotus Notes 7.0.2 for the Mac erases all four of these problems. It is literally a no-brainer for Mac users with Lotus Notes to upgrade. Although those first two issues may sound minor, when you're squinting at your email 12 hours a day and having to copy and paste URLs colleagues send you into your Web browser, it gets old fast. Lotus Notes 7.0.2 for the Mac is a distinct improvement. The fourth improvement alone is worth the upgrade.
Let's hope IBM is getting hip about fixing the myriad UI breaks in Lotus Notes. I'm still not a big fan of Notes, but at least the Mac version is now as good as the Windows version. Mac users are no longer in some sort of Lotus Notes penalty box.
Still Stuck with Eudora: Apple Mail Isn't Good Enough
My high hopes for dumping Eudora once and for all were dashed when I realized that Apple Mail can't apply email-filtering rules to outbound messages. For more than a dozen years I have saved both halves of all email conversations in a folder named for the person or company I'm communicating with. If you're the read-and-delete sort of email user, this won't appeal to you. But if you're like me, and you save a lot most of your email (well, not the spam), it's a very powerful way of working.
If you're the kind of person who ever goes back to check email you or someone else wrote weeks or months earlier, you'll find this way of storing email invaluable. What's more, using email rules the way I do, it all happens automatically. Messages are routed automatically to their appropriate folders, and the folders open up automatically (showing the most recent messages at the top), so I can see what's just arrived. If I'm not interested, I just close the folder.
Apple Mail has a feature called Smart Mailboxes that sort of does the same thing, but not really. It lets you create rules that will display aliases of email in Smart Mailboxes. So you could create a Smart Mailbox for your best friend Bob, and it would show both your messages to Bob and his messages to you. But the messages wouldn't actually reside in your Smart Folder: they would be pointers to the actual messages.
In Apple Mail, all the messages you sent would be in the Sent folder. In my email environment, there would be thousands of messages in the Sent folder. Sooner or later, that folder would be overflowing, and at some point, the stability of the program would begin to erode. What can I say? I write a lot of email.
Thunderbird, which would be my next choice, has the same problem. In fact, no other Macintosh email package I'm aware of can filter outbound email. If you know of one I've missed, give me a shout.
The Ongoing HTML Editor Saga
Parallels is still getting a workout on my Macs. Why? Despite the discovery I mentioned in the last issue of the newsletter that Dreamweaver for the Mac incorporates whole chunks of my favorite HTML editor, HomeSite Dreamweaver is not my new HTML editor.
You see, I looked very briefly at Dreamweaver's "coding" environment, saw that it was HomeSite, and thought I'd solved my problem. Wrong. As it turns out, Macromedia messed up several of HomeSite's features. For example, HomeSite's excellent search-and-replace features, which let you search for multiple lines of text, don't recognize line endings in Dreamweaver. It's complicated, but I have several routine search-and-replace operations that I carry out in creating the newsletter that rely on newline recognition in the HTML code.
Another annoyance: Macromedia deleted the ability to split the code window to compare two code blocks in different parts of the file. The split screen now only offers code in one pane and Dreamweaver's pathetic WYSIWYG view in another. The final blow is that the aforementioned WYSIWYG mode is absolutely terrible. I opened several HTML pages that I'm familiar with into the WYSIWYG view, and none of them rendered properly. These are pages that at least six Windows, Linux, and Mac browsers render identically. Dreamweaver makes them look like an HTML Frankenstein.
So if Dreamweaver isn't the answer, let me tell you that even worse is Nvu, the Mac WYSIWYG HTML package that has been most frequently recommended by readers. Nvu didn't have what I needed when I tried it, but it compounded the problem by rearranging my code automatically without asking when I was working in Nvu's HTML mode (the non-WYSIWYG mode). Nvu may be fine for people who don't know how to code HTML, but for those of us who do, this program rivals Microsoft's original FrontPage for worst WYSIWYG HTML-creation package in history.
Going from one extreme to the other, Bare Bones Software's BBEdit has also been frequently recommended by Mac readers and it's a woefully inadequate tool for HTML editing. BBEdit is extremely powerful, but I'd rather use the Unix command line than its clunky, sometimes ridiculous user interface. BBEdit continues to be my primary text editor because it does things no other program does, but there's no way this product is a useful HTML editor. Those of you who are using it that way are using a tool akin to an iron maiden it's just painful. Give yourself a break and find something else.
I have yet to give Optima System's Pagespinner a real try, and I will do that because several people have suggested that tool as well. So I'll have to report on that one in some future issue.
In the meantime, I've been using Taco HTML by Taco Software. Taco HTML has a nice, light user interface. Unfortunately, the features are lightweight too. What is it with Mac apps that don't let you thoroughly customize the toolbar? Why are toolbars considered to be gauche on the Mac? Toolbars work, and they provide shortcuts for many commonly used functions. For example, the Insert Link function doesn't have a main toolbar option in Taco. I use that feature frequently, and I'm not a big fan of three-key keyboard commands. (They slow me down.) A good program should have a two-key command for that function as well as a toolbar button option. Taco has neither.
Taco's biggest failing, though, is its lame search-and-replace dialog. It doesn't automatically insert the selected text as the Find text unless you select the "Use Selection for Find" option on the Find menu. HomeSite does this by default in the Find menu. Taco's approach is kludgy. Have the courage of your convictions! The search and replace fields each only show one line, which is frustrating when you're working with large blocks of text. You also can't control the direction of the search.
Taco HTML also has no facility for opening multiple documents within the program window. Instead, if you open 20 files, each one is a separate window on your screen quickly becoming window-management hell.
Taco is far too simplistic for me. I use it for quick nip-in-and-fix-it tasks, but for the real deal, I'm back in Windows XP running in Parallels using my old standby, HomeSite.
I'm still looking for answers on this one, folks. If you're serious about helping me, and you have access to Windows, HomeSite 5.5 is available in a free 30-day trial version. Take a look at it. Check out the multiple-document features, the Edit and Browse tabs, the search-and-replace dialog.
If you know of a Mac app that matches these features (or even comes close), please let me know about it.
Testing the Forgotten: Antivirus Software
I know many of you scoff at my insistence that antivirus is needed for the Mac, but I get a lot of email, and a certain percentage of it contains the nasty stuff. If I forward that mail to a Windows user, I could be spreading misery. Plus, the Mac is by no means impervious to this kind of threat. If the Mac becomes more popular (and I suspect it will), expect some problems. I can't say when, but someday.
I left off testing the free ClamXav antivirus program after using it for a couple of months. The program had no real tools for fixing problems it might find. And while that's not a big problem on the Mac, I just didn't like the idea. I've switched to Intego's VirusBarrier X4, which I instantly liked much better than ClamXav. Of course, for $70, I'd better like it much better.
Intego has an interesting bundle for Parallels users that offers VirusBarrier for the Mac and BitDefender for your Parallels-based Windows installation. For $10 more than you pay for VirusBarrier alone, you get both VirusBarrier and BitDefender.
I also intend to look at Symantec's Norton AntiVirus for the Mac.
Reminder: Scot's Newsletter recommends Eset's Nod32 2.7 antivirus/anti-malware utility for Windows and Linux.
The March 2007 A-List of Mac Software
These are the products tried and accepted to the A-List of Mac Software. Products are regularly reviewed, and some such as ClamXav have already dropped off the list. Others, such as SnapNDrag, are newly added this time.
Microsoft Office 2004 (office suite)
Lotus Notes 7.0.2 (enterprise email/database client)
Eudora by Qualcomm (email package)
Spamnix for Eudora by Spamnix Software (anti-spam utility)
Apple Safari (browser)
Mozilla Firefox (browser)
Parallels Desktop (virtualization utility)
BBEdit by Bare Bones Software (text editor)
iPartitions by Coriolis Systems (non-destructive disk partitioning utility)
Microsoft Remote Desktop Client (Mac to Windows remote access)
SuperDuper! by Shirt Pocket (whole-disk backup utility)
StuffIt Expander by SmithMicro Software (decompression tool)
SnapNDrag Pro by Yellow Mug Software (screen-capture utility)
Yummy FTP by Yummy Software (FTP client)
CuteFTP Mac Pro by GlobalScape (FTP client)
Adobe Reader (PDF reader)
DoubleCommand by Michael Baltaks (keyboard-customizing utility)
OnyX by Titanium Software (OS X system tweaking utility)
VirusBarrier X4 by Intego Software (antivirus utility)
ListGarden by Software Garden (RSS-feed-creation tool)
Apple .Mac (online storage and synching service)
Apple iCal (calendar)
Apple iChat (instant messaging client)
Apple iPhoto (photo-management tool)
Apple iTunes (music-library tool)
Apps Under Consideration
• Adium (instant messaging client)
• Apple Mail (email package)
• NetNewsWire by Newsgator (RSS reader)
• OmniWeb by Omni Group (browser)
• Camino by Mozilla's Camino Project (browser)
• Shirra by Shiira Project (browser overlay)
• SAFT by Haoli (Safari browser plug-in)
• Pagespinner by Optima System (HTML Editor)
• Norton AntiVirus 10.0 for Mac (antivirus utility)
Do you have something you want to tell me about a Mac application? Drop me a line.
With previous new versions of Windows, I have always recommended strongly either clean-installing a new version of Windows or just waiting until you're moving up to a new PC with that latter approach being the easiest one.
But things are very different with Windows Vista. Microsoft deserves praise for the work it has done on Vista's installation program. It works much better than any of its predecessors, and for several reasons. That change brings about a whole different set of good news and gotchas when considering your Windows Vista upgrade strategy.
Your biggest problems with upgrading to Windows Vista boil down to these points:
1. Real-world hardware requirements
2. Upgrade paths
3. Cost, both for hardware upgrades and for Windows itself
4. Vista drivers and hardware-support software
The truth is that your average late-model Windows XP machine that wasn't of the bargain-basement variety will probably run Vista. The problem is that it might do so at the expense of one of the few primary reasons to upgrade to Vista the improved graphical user interface. There isn't enough that's compelling in Vista to skip this particular improvement. So unless you have a particular reason to install Vista (like to test application compatibility or something), I recommend against upgrading a machine that doesn't have the right stuff to run Windows Vista's Aero interface. Another option for desktop PCs is to upgrade the video card.
These are the system requirements for Vista that I recommend for anyone's primary or only computer: Intel (or comparable AMD) 1.8GHz (minimum) Pentium 4 CPU, 2GB of RAM, 80GB hard drive (60GB if you're clean installing), and a DVD drive.
In addition, there's a specific set of video requirements that are key for Aero: a DirectX 9 (or better) 3D graphics processor that supports 32 bits per pixel, and Pixel Shader 2.0. It must also be offered with a WDDM (Windows Vista Display Driver Model) driver. Graphics memory requirements are a little difficult to decipher. I have tested machines with 64MB of video memory that supported Aero just fine, while others with the same amount did not. Graphics cards with 128MB of graphics memory that meet all the other criteria do fine with Aero. But for the best experience, I recommend 256MB of video memory. (Aero also requires your system memory to be at least 512MB.)
It's important to run the free Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor software that you can download from Microsoft. The utility errs on the side of overwarning you; some things you may be able to ignore. But its results cover both hardware and software. Running this program first can make a big difference on your success rate in upgrading an XP installation to Vista.
Be advised about the upgrade paths that Microsoft offers from previous versions of Windows to specific versions of Windows Vista, because some of the limitations may surprise you.
I've covered the various Windows Vista editions in the past and have given my recommendations. But to recap, don't buy Vista Home Basic for your main machine. For most people, the decision should be between Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. If you're buying for Vista and have no interest in media support, including Media Center and digital media, Vista Business is an acceptable choice. This grid helps you compare the different versions.
My personal choice is for Ultimate. But I have installed these editions of the shipping product: Vista Enterprise, Vista Business, and Vista Ultimate.
If you're not performing an in-place upgrade of Windows XP, Microsoft expects you to purchase the full-install version of Vista. For Microsoft's highest-priced Ultimate edition, the full-install version costs $400 list. The upgrade version of Ultimate sells for about $260. (If you look around, you can find cheaper prices but be sure that you're buying from a reputable dealer; if you buy a pirated copy of Vista, Microsoft's anti-piracy features will more than likely make you pay again or shut you out of your computer.)
Note that with the hardware upgrades, the cost of Windows Vista, and the need to update or upgrade software for compatibility reasons, your move to Vista could be pricey. See "Forced Software Upgrades Can Add Up for Vista Users" for more information about the software side of the equation.
The peskiest problem, though, and one you see posted all over the Internet right now, is a raft of specific issues with hardware drivers and OEM-PC-specific software, especially for notebook PCs. Some people are giving up on Vista and going back to XP, figuring that they'll wait until the drivers and hardware-support software catch up.
In performing a Windows Vista Ultimate upgrade of Windows XP on my Lenovo ThinkPad, I wound up having to resort to downloading a utility called SafeMSI in order to uninstall OEM-supplied software that was incompatible with Vista and would not uninstall from Vista's programs-removal area. SafeMSI, apparently written by Harry Bates of Rock Systems, lets you uninstall programs while booted to safe mode in Windows XP or Vista. It's useful in some cases when an entry appears in Add/Remove Programs that doesn't work. Download SafeMSI here.
The Good News
Two things may surprise experienced Windows users. The Windows power-user community has lamented the fact that Microsoft has seemingly eliminated support for doing a traditional clean installation of Vista with the less expensive Upgrade versions of the new operating system. There is a workaround for clean-install purists that boils down to this: Use your upgrade DVD to install Vista, opting not to input your Vista product key during installation. You'll have 30 days to run the OS after you do that. During that time, reinstall Windows Vista over itself, and then activate your installation using your product key. For more details, see these Computerworld stories:
• Psst, Wanna Save $140 on Windows Vista?
• How to Run a Legal Copy of Vista for 120 Days Without Activation
Assuming your computer actually had Windows XP installed on it, this is a legitimate way of handling your preference for clean-installing Windows Vista. But I don't recommend it.
I tested Microsoft's way of handling that exact situation, and it works fine! Don't bother wiping your hard disk. Just run the in-place upgrade from your previous installation. You'll be given the option to perform either an Upgrade or Custom (advanced) installation. Opt for the Custom install to clean-install Vista, and Windows Vista Setup does something smart: It creates a folder called Windows.old in your root directory that contains your old Documents and Settings, Program Files, and Windows folders. On my test machine, this added step used an additional 7GB of disk storage. It also saves all your data and makes it easier for you to migrate drivers and application data to Vista. Once you've finished configuring everything, you can delete the Windows.old folder.
Unless you opt to format your disk as part of the installation process, this method of clean-installing will also preserve user-created folders in your root directory. PC makers often place driver backup folders there, so this is a good idea.
Despite these niceties, you will still have to reinstall all your applications and will likely need to tweak some of your drivers, or download Vista-compatible versions. It's a good idea to download your network card's drivers before you run the Vista setup routine. But you also end up with a fast, clean Windows installation without any XP carry-overs.
For more on Vista's clean installation process, check out Preston Gralla's Hands On: The Essential Vista Upgrade Guide.
Back It Up First!
Finally, before you install Vista on your XP system, no matter what method you choose, I strongly advise you to buy Acronis's True Image 10 Home disk-backup utility and use it. That means backing up your entire Win XP or Win 2000 hard drive before you do anything else. The easiest and best way to do this is to buy an external USB drive. I like the Seagate products, but the Maxtor line (which Seagate owns) is also very good. If you've only got one or two computers, you don't need even a 300GB drive, so save your money. On the other hand, you might want to use this thing for network storage.
I've tried several of the major and minor disk-cloning competitors, and Acronis is the best one. Additionally, I asked SFNL readers several months ago which disk-backup program they preferred, and the resounding answer was Acronis. Many of those responding had tried most of the disk-cloning alternatives and have, over the years, worked their way through PowerQuest's DriveImage, Symantec's Ghost, and others. Acronis is their choice, and mine. Acronis True Image 10 Home supports Windows Vista, XP, 2000 SP4, and XP x64. It costs $50 online at the Acronis site. Be sure to either buy the $13 backup CD or use the Acronis software to create a bootable Acronis CD because such a CD is an essential part of your protection.
The Acronis UI may be a little unclear at first. Use Help to get started if you're not sure what to do. Once you get it going, it becomes very easy to understand.
More keyboard-command-oriented SFNL readers may already know that Windows XP has a corresponding command: Ctrl-Backspace offers the same neat functionality. For the rest of us, it's a good keyboard command to get to know.
It's a small thing, but small tips are often the best ones.
Note: I no longer maintain Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Windows 9.x test machines with which to test tips like this one. If you're using any version of Windows prior to Windows XP, please feel free to let me know whether this tips works on your machine, and if there are variations worth noting, I'll include an update in a future issue.
P.S. Does anyone else wish that modern desktop PC keyboards placed the Ctrl key where the Caps Lock key is? I use Ctrl all the time. I rarely use Caps Lock. I admit that in touch typing, it can come in handy occasionally to have the Caps Lock key where it is. But a computer isn't an IBM Selectric. On many early 1980s computers and Unix machines, the Ctrl key was in the modern-day Caps Lock position. Applications such as WordStar built a huge part of their interfaces around this conveniently central location of the Ctrl key. Generally, IBM's influence on the keyboard has been hugely positive, but this is one Big Blue-ism I can't agree with.
Do you have a computing 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. You can also use this link to send me variations, suggested changes to, and criticism of this month's tip.
• Examining Parallels for the Mac Running Windows XP and Vista
• FiOS 15Mbps broadband: One Year Later
• Living with Vista
• Looking at Ubuntu
• A Cost Analysis of the Mac
• Mac OS X Leopard 10.5
• 10 Myths of Mac; 10 Myths of Windows
The next issue of the newsletter is expected in early April.
You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.
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