At the risk of stating the obvious: now is not yet a good time to upgrade to Vista. That much is generally expected with a new operating system. What’s unexpected is that it’s some of the biggest partners who aren’t ready. Microsoft’s own developer tools for Vista are still in beta. Basic hardware drivers are missing. NVIDIA and ATI are missing drivers for major, current-generation video hardware. And worse, marketing materials from Microsoft and some of their larger partners are distorting the reality of the situation.

Unless you have drivers in hand for your computer, your graphics drivers, your sound hardware, and confirmed Vista-ready updates for your critical apps, I wouldn’t even bother putting Vista on a second partition. There’s just no benefit right now. (If you were a beta tester, of course, go for it — but I’d say even early adopters may want to wait another couple of weeks.) Now, you’ll hear lots of members of the PC press say “don’t upgrade; wait until you buy a new system.” That’s ridiculous. The whole advantage of the PC platform is upgrading. And the real problem is that even brand-new machines are unlikely to work, because the problem is drivers and apps — not how new your hardware is or whether it was “built for Vista.”

Based on what I’m seeing, I do think the current incompatibilities are unlikely to last long; I’ve seen some encouraging signs that people with simpler setups may be able to update in the next few weeks to two months, and, frankly, given the size of this OS, that’s not all that bad. But right now, the upgrade process is likely to be a nightmare for almost everyone. And the really frustrating thing is that the very companies claiming to be ready are often the ones who aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Operating systems are incredibly complex things. And development quickly becomes a tradeoff between new functionality and backwards compatibility; Microsoft had to break some features to improve the OS — that’s a given with them, with Apple, with Linux, with any software.

But imagine two different scenarios, if you will:

1. A new OS is released. Many drivers and apps are incompatible. You head to the vendors for your computer, your gear, and your apps to check on Vista compatibility. You find statements posted at the support sites. There are links to beta drivers for some tools, while others simply say “we don’t recommend upgrading now; we’ll have drivers soon.”

2. A new OS is released. Many drivers and apps are incompatible. You receive a barrage of press releases, email newsletters, web ads, TV ads, press events, parties, and more telling you specific products that are optimized for the new OS and touting a brave new era of compatibility. You go to their support site — once you’ve found it, because you mistakenly click on a giant banner announcing the new OS that turns out to include marketing materials instead of solid information. Not only are drivers missing, but there’s not any information on when to expect them. Searches for drivers come up blank.

Is this really a technical problem? Is it a development problem? To me, the real issue is that users haven’t been given the facts they need. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot in Vista that will be worth upgrading, eventually — maybe even in a month or two for many users. Misinformation, however, will only create unnecessary frustration and a fear of the OS itself.

“Vista Ready” May be Anything But, For Now

For instance, I’ve been testing Vista on a brand-new Alienware m5550 laptop. According to Alienware’s Vista marketing materials, pitched via email and Web last week, Alienware gives you “the Definitive Vista Experience.” I sure hope not.

Vista installation itself went quite smoothly, but without NVIDIA graphics drivers for the GeForce Go 7600 in this machine, the display defaulted to generic VGA drivers, shut down Aero, disabled all copy-protected content playback, and showed up at a non-native resolution that was barely usable. Neither Alienware nor NVIDIA currently have any mobile graphics drivers available for download. Ironically, while NVIDIA has gone to a universal driver model, they don’t allow you to use the universal driver installer with their mobile GPUs. I was only able to enable those drivers by using the hacked installer at laptopvideo2go. That works, but with bugs: the Lego Star Wars Episode II disc included in my gift bag at the Vista launch doesn’t work consistently. (Glitches are occasional, but render the game unplayable.) And because the driver installer is unsigned, Vista disables copy protected playback. Microsoft has said “most” of the copy protection in Vista already existed in XP. That may be true, but one of the new copy protection restrictions Microsoft added is the inability to play DVDs via unrecognized display drivers — a major new addition, and one that could make using alternative drivers a no-go.

Alienware doesn’t have any other drivers publicly available, either; they were able to get me some, but not all, of the drivers required for this machine. And the audio driver they did supply, which finally enabled the volume knob and headphone jack on this laptop, is still unavailable from their website.

I fully expect these issues to be resolved by updated drivers. For the record, Alienware promises drivers by the end of this week; as soon as I have them I’ll post an update, as this machine could be great for Vista. But that doesn’t change the basic problem here:

Microsoft and partners were not upfront at launch about the readiness of the OS. In a beta OS, it’s perfectly fine to expect users to hunt down drivers and hack their system. But a final-release OS with a marketing campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars — with countless more dollars spent by partners — should be another story. And it’s not okay to tell users your entire product line is compatible when there are no drivers. I wish my Alienware example were an exception; early indications are that it’s the rule; in fact, anyone with a laptop could be impacted by the lack of a significant number of public-release, non-beta graphics drivers.

There’s a simple solution that was missed here. So, you had a big marketing plan and engineering didn’t keep up. Big deal. We understand: we miss deadlines, too. Just throw us a bone. If you’re going to run the splashy marketing, put a link to the support site. Talk to your engineers. Even if you can’t get a realistic timetable for availability, put a placeholder page on your support site.

What About Music?

Unfortunately, until the basic hardware issues get sorted, it’s not really worth looking at music compatibility for a few weeks yet. But I can say this: if something isn’t officially updated for Vista, don’t assume it works. It might work beautifully — or it might not run. Case in point: in a completely unscientific test, I tried Native Instruments Massive and Ableton Live on my Alienware laptop running Vista. Massive runs perfectly in standalone mode, and even works, glitch-free and with no detectable latency, with the built-in sound card. Ableton Live, meanwhile, triggered Vista’s XP compatibility mode, disabling Aero. It then crashed as soon as I tried to do anything. The good news is, unlike XP, the crash itself was neat and tidy, and I know some Ableton users have had no trouble. But you get the idea: you’re going to want Vista updates for any major apps. SONAR 6.2 and Reason, as we’ve reported here before, are ready; FL Studio 7 should be available soon and will also be compatible. As for other software, we’re waiting on more information, and will report it — and test it, where possible — as soon as we’ve got it.

The bottom line: I’m going to keep working with Vista, because I know millions of new machines are shipping with Vista installed, and the OS is making its way around the globe. XP, Mac OS X, Linux, and the one person who logged into the forum this month on an Amiga (no joke) — all of these are viable OS choices, too. If you’ve got facts, you can make an informed decision. That’s the beautiful advantage of facts over meaningless hype.

  • Adrian Anders

    It's tough for us with legacy sound cards too. I don't think my ESI Waveterminal 192M is going to get any new drivers for Vista, which may make it unusable for a future Vista-based DAW. In the past it was only obsolete cards and a couple rare esoteric pieces of hardware like the Korg Oasys that were left behind in the transition from 98/Me to 2000/XP.

    Overall, I think Windows musicians are going to have to deal with the kinds of compatibility and abandonware issues with Vista that only Mac users have been dealing with up to this point (OS9->OSX/PPC->Macintel anyone?). Perhaps (almost certainly) some of our favorite obscure, abandoned, and vintage Win PC plugs and programs will no longer work AT ALL in a Vista environment… which I'm not alone in being pissed off about.

    And I KNOW that in about 3 years there will be more than a few pro-audio hardware/software companies (cough*KORG*cough) that will go Vista exclusively… not to mention legit copies of XP becoming harder to find that will finally result in users having to make a choice between keeping legacy software/hardware, and getting the latest and greatest pieces of kit… something that us Win PC users very rarely had to do up until now.

    In other words, it sucks! Bad Microsoft for breaking compatibility with no real benefit for us Pro-Audio types. Hell, is there any advantage to Vista? Security maybe, sure but I don't buy Microsoft products for security… if security truly mattered to me, I would be running a Linux or Mac box right now. Except for my laptop, I don't even put my Windows computers on the net. My DAW is offline, so why the hell should I care about internet security? Turn it all off I say. Let me change my OS so it's lean and mean, XP is pretty good at that with a few third-party tools. I doubt Vista will be the same way.

    Even gamers (which Vista was designed around) are kind of scratching their heads wondering why anyone would bother, especially considering that there is only going to be one Direct X 10 game in the near future.

    I'm pissed that there is so much work and hassle for users with so little to gain. Oooh Aero, a pretty interface that MIGHT work if you stick to surfing the web on your Windows machine. If you try to do anything creative or different with it, ah nope it violates security so we got to shut it down… I don't even WANT to play HD content, and now you want to fuck with my DVD playback too?

    I tell you what, I've paid for software, including Microsoft OSs for a long time now. But, if Vista doesn't shape up, I'm going to stay with Windows XP for all of my future machines even if I have to pirate copies in order to get it working on new computers. No Vista, not for a LONG time.



  • Choong

    it's a shame that I never really got around to reading that initial vista article, given that from what I remember, it seemed to have promoted upgrading to vista sooner. Perhaps it didn't, but I am also interested in the pros of upgrading now as opposed to later.

  • uhhh….

    vista is smoking fast and stable for me… MUCH more so than intel mac was for about a year.

    the performance is incredible. I would never go back to XP….

    ..but i have an intel integrated video card so i dont have to worry about nvidia or ati drivers. older than dirt echo mona pcmcia drivers work flawlessly though… there are two sides to this story. vista is way faster, way smoother, way sexier, more secure and sleep/hibernate is so much better.

    i say take the plunge.

  • RichardL

    My ACER 8200 is running quite well with Vista now. It actually runs much better than it did under XP with the motley crew of drivers Acer shipped with it.

    Hardware-wise this laptop is very similar to the Core Duo Apple MacBook Pro only it has more video and system memory and a higher res display.

    Besides the drivers Vista installed I've installed a video driver from ATI. (Apparently unlike NVidia, ATI will allow you to download and install a universal mobile driver for Vista (but not for XP).) I installed the Synaptics touchpad driver. Vista installed a driver for the built-in webcam, and I installed Logitech software to support it.

    The latest ATI X1600 drivers have been quite stable and support for DirectX and OpenGL seems to have come together at last. But all that improvement to the ATI driver has happened since Vista was RTM.

    I'm running Microsoft's driver for the built-in Reaktek HD audio hardware although there's also been a Vista drivers from Realtek since last summer.

    The biggest improvement specific to this hardware over XP is in the area of power management. It sleeps and wakes flawlessly (this was not always the case with the Vista Betas), and is not the case with XP.

    In all I'm a happy camper with this system, but I think I paid my dues last year with the Vista betas. Ironically the smooth, trouble free operation of this system is no thanks to it's maker Acer. Acer's website has no Vista drivers posted. The only support for Vista they have is some Express Upgrade offers for new system purchases. Fortunately Microsoft has supported the hardware in this system well.

  • Thomas A.

    The Propellerheads demonstrates again how well their software has been developed.

    I'm really happy with Vista, Reason and ASIO4All on my Dell notebook and I'll never go back.

  • When I wanted to switch from Windows 98 to XP, XP was the (much more) stable system, but my soundcard at the time (Guillemot Maxi Studio ISIS) didn't have suitbale drivers. After exchanging emails with developer/tech help it didn't look like it was going to happen either so I switched to RME. Now it RME has Vista drivers for their current stuff, but I have an older DIGI96 so I might end up in the same boat again.

    What seems different this time though is indeed lack of basic stuff like video drivers from the bigger players.

  • Thomas, Richard, Ryan — thanks for your feedback, and keep it coming!

    This isn't a critique of Vista, as I said. And "later" may well be next week. I'm simply saying:

    1. Most music users are unlikely to be able upgrade at this point. Since the beginning, I've said that only a few will be able to upgrade. If you exclusively use SONAR and Reason, for instance, and you can verify compatibility of your audio and MIDI gear, you're part of the select few I'd recommend. You just need a critical mass to upgrade even as an early adopter / on a second partition as a secondary OS. I do expect this will change over the coming weeks, and we'll have updates here on CDM every week or two.

    2. The more significant problem has nothing to do with music, and little to do with Vista, and that's that some hardware vendors (NVIDIA and Alienware in my case, but I don't think they're alone) aren't giving upfront details. That means the decision to upgrade can't be impulsive; you need to double-check that all the drivers are actually there, and you can't assume otherwise they'll work. That's always the case, but there's an unusually large gap between the PR and the technical side. And people should be aware that changes to the way graphics works, etc., means that some incompatibilities will be far more than aesthetic.

    #1 I expected; musicians almost never upgrade OSes on day one, and given the complexity of our software and hardware setups relative to other users, that's fine. #2 I find a little frustrating. It is good to know ATI is onboard (which also says good things about the MacBook Pro, incidentally).

    For the record, my Alienware is running pretty well, and I do have the Visual Studio hotfix beta running, so while that "Microsoft's own development tools" comment still holds, they do have the beta available and they are communicating what to do.

    No, mostly I'm frustrated because some of the major vendors could have made their process easier. And, yeah, ATI is winning out on driver availability this round.

  • RichardL

    I think your advise is sound (nar nar).

    While I've had good result with my ACER laptop, I'm not planning to upgrade my Dell Precision 370 desktop anytime soon. That system runs several programs that have dongles and advanced copy protection (C-Dilla, Rainbow etc). Also several programs require specific OpenGL support, and I don't know how good the Vista driver for the video board (NVidia Quadro FX1400) is. And I also have an M-Audio Project Mix audio interface that isn't yet (or maybe ever) supported by Vista. So that system is a long ways off from Vista or maybe never.

  • DaveL.Vista_Confusio

    I have 2 questions:

    I've just ordered a new computer currently being built to spec….as Vista has just come out I had the 64-bit home version installed as I retardly didn't think there would be any problems with backwards compatibility for using XP music software on Vista. So:

    (i) would it be recommended that I just ask the people building my computer to load XP instead? (I primarily use Cubase SX 2, Adobe Audition, Wavelab and numerous VST instruments)

    (ii) in addition to the software listed above, a friend of mine (*cough *cough) uses a lot of freeware and 'cracked' software for more minor apps as he's not yet making any money from 'his' music, and simply can't yet afford to spend thousands of £ on the software 'he' needs. How will the security & DRM parameters of Vista affect cracked software usage? Will 'he' still be able to use it, or will Vista simply turn its nose up, laugh at you & crash?

  • RichardL

    I think you'd be better off with XP. The biggest issue with Vista 64 is going to be hardware drivers for any special hardware. But as noted some applications aren't ready for Vista. And music production software and hardware tends to trail behind the rest of the industry because there are so many interrelationships between the various pieces.

    Vista probably doesn't really change anything with respect to software cracks except maybe cracks of Vista. General compatibility of the program with Vista is probably the biggest issue. Because Vista throws another factor into the equation it may be difficult to debug problems if you don't know if Vista is causing a crash or if it's the software. But I have to ask is it really necessary to run cracks in this day and age? There's so much good software that's free or really affordable I have to question the need. If you are student there's tons of great student discounts.

  • Simple answer: use XP. Not only will Vista cause new compatibility issues, 64-bit (on either XP or Vista) may, as well.

    If you're on a tight budget for software on Windows, there are fantastic free and cheap alternatives to cracked software. Some of these rival or best their more expensive alternatives in many respects. And try taking the leap to make this new machine cracked-free: you may find you have a much more hassle-free, stable system. I'll admit, not all cracked software causes system problems, but some can cause some very serious ones. And you're missing out on a lot of the most unique software for PC.

    From CDM:

    Straight Out of No Cash series for cheap and (largely) free software

    Highlife, free sampler / slicer / gadget

    Reaper, superb host for $40 from the creator of Winamp

    I still say go XP over Vista for now for this stuff, for compatibility reasons.

  • DaveL.Vista_Confusion

    Okay – thanks for the info….

  • Stormax

    It's very funny =))

    In 2010 Microsoft will promise a Vienna – another new OS. Why?! 1.5 years for developing drivers and apps for Vista. Through next 1.5 years – welcome, Vienna.

    I don't need Vista, absolutely =))

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  • c3ajeff

    I agree. I would not advise the general public to upgrade and especially DAW users. My company builds DAWs and we're testing Vista RTM (have been working with Beta and RC2 for months) and we like what we see, so far.

    My laptop mfg (Compaq) says my laptop will not work with Vista (it's one year old) but I backed up all the data and upgraded anyway. It works great – except the AC97 sound driver really was awful. I reinstalled the old XP driver and joy! Performance is noticeably better than XP Pro SP2 (I am using Vista Business edition.)

    Like the article said, Vista is close and will be ready soon, but not yet. I would, however recommend installing it on a 2nd partition or drive if you want to start learning all about Vista now and put yourself ahead of the curve.

    I have two apps that work great in Vista; Sonar 6.2 and FL Studio 7. I haven't had any problems with VST's at all, from Albino to Discovery to Melodyne (and about 80 others I have tested.)