The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Vista versus Linux Face-Off

This is an excellent technical analysis of Vista versus Linux performed by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols. In case you’re wondering about his creds, Vaughan-Nichols is an operating system expert who has been working with and administering Windows, OS X, and Linux/Unix for a great many years. There are few such experts whom I respect more. I’ve enjoyed reading his articles for as long as I’ve been reading eWeek...

I've been working with Vista since its beta days, and I started using Linux in the mid-90s. There may be other people who have worked with both more than I have, but there can't be many of them. Along the way, I've formed a strong opinion: Linux is the better of the two.

But, now that Vista is on the brink of becoming widely available, I thought it was time to take a comprehensive look at how the two really compare. To do this, I decided to take one machine, install both of them on it, and then see what life was like with both operating systems on a completely even playing field.

Here is Part 1:

Here is Part 2:

One final thought on BitLocker before I go. Microsoft has only made it available on its Enterprise and Ultimate editions. Enterprise is only available to volume buyers, and Ultimate's the most expensive Vista of them all. I find it more than a little annoying that small business users will have to upgrade to Ultimate to get what I think of as one of Vista's best points for business users.

Here is Part 3 (how well do they work with hardware):

Apparently, Vista is weaker than Linux in the 64-bit environment.

Graphics is disappointing, too...

Now, the GeForce 6200SE is no speed demon. Instead of having its own video RAM, it cannibalizes 256MB of the system's main RAM. No one expects to get any kind of WOW experience from this card.

What I did expect, though, was, given the rest of the system, to be able to at least run Vista's fancy-pants new GUI, Aero, decently. Wrong.

While I was installing Vista, it told me that my "Windows Experience Index" was going to be 2.4. Let me translate that for you: my graphics quality was going to be mediocre. A 3.0 is considered adequate for Aero.

But Vista is particularly problematic with audio...

When I switched back to Vista, I tried to play Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD. Whoops! Not a single sound emerged from my speakers. After a little investigation, I found that Vista disables media outputs that don't incorporate DRM, when you try to play DRM protected media through them.

That was a kick in the head. I have a fully legal CD in my hand. Any other version of Windows will play it, Linux will play it, Mac OS will play it, and my CD player will play it, but if you're using S/PDIF for your computer-driven audio and Vista, you're out of luck. If you have a card with a Toslink optical digital audio port, you will be able to play it.

One of the ironies of the situation was that this very album had been first released on the Web without any DRM, in part as a protest against DRM. Ah well, that was yesterday.

If you're planning on viewing or listening to DRM-protected media of any sort, Linux is clearly going to give you better hardware support. By incorporating DRM into the operating system, Microsoft is going to make it very difficult for everyone from PC DVR (digital video recorder) users to just a guy who wants to play a DRM-crippled CD to be certain that everything will work properly.

Adding insult to injury, since DRM protection schemes must evolve constantly, to stay ahead of hackers tearing them down, I have little doubt that one day you'll come home to find that a Vista update to DRM-protection has just locked you out of your media collection. You know, the same collection, which had worked just fine the day before. Repeat after me: DRM does not belong in operating systems.

Windows Vista: Understanding Your Rights

What is interesting is not whether you have the right to use unactivated-but-properly-purchased software, but how Microsoft enforces its right. What Microsoft says is that the software will simply stop working. So, where is the proof that the software is not activated? Who has the burden of proof? What if you assert that you did activate the product, but Microsoft claims you did not? What if you attempt to activate the product, but Microsoft’s servers are down, or they provide improper information, or their servers are hacked and give you bad activation information? What the contract states is that unless you can activate the product (irrespective of whose fault it is that you cannot activate), you forfeit your right to use the product, and therefore access to any of the information on any computers using the product.

The problem with Vista is that you have to put your trust entirely in Microsoft’s hands. However, Microsoft is not infallible. If they screw up and you can’t prove that you’ve activated your software, what recourse do you have?

Once you activate the product, then you would assume that you are golden to go ahead and use the product, right? Wrong.

You see, even after you activate the software it will, according to the EULA, “from time to time validate the software, update or require download of the validation feature of the software.” It will once again “send information about the . . . version and product key of the software, and the Internet protocol address of the device.”

Here’s where it gets hairy again. If for some reason the software “phones home” back to Redmond, Washington, and gets or gives the wrong answer - irrespective of the reason - it will automatically disable itself. That's like saying definitively, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that...” Unless you can prove to the satisfaction of some automaton that the software is “Genuine,” or more accurately, that under the relevant copyright laws that you have satisfied the requirements of the copyright laws and all of the terms of the End User License Agreement, the software will, on its own, go into a “protect Microsoft” mode.

So not only does Vista spy on you constantly, again you are vulnerable to Microsoft screw-ups that may deny you access to your own computer.

This kind of shit does not happen with Mac OS X or Linux.