Thoughts on computers…

I don’t often return stuff to the store where it was bought, especially technology goods. I always have this little drive within me to just work harder at making the devices I buy work, and usually that works. However this year alone I’ve managed to have to return two HP computers back to the shop. One of them was bought in April (I blogged about that), and one of them was the laptop I bought just 3 weeks ago, and which I decided wasn’t going to do.

Obviously I’m not crazy about Vista. I think it’s largely uncalled for; to an advanced user Vista really doesn’t offer much over XP, but it does consume vastly more resources. To be honest no one should buy a Vista PC that doesn’t have 2 gigabytes of memory, and the tx1218 has only one out-of-the-box.  It runs the OS fine, but when you’re using a few apps (as you would in the real world) the performance quickly becomes dismal. This is especially true with a laptop because a laptop will have a smaller, slower hard disk than a desktop, so Vista’s constantly having to go to the swap file takes a serious hit on system performance.

Doubly bad is that the tx1218 is in fact a Tablet PC. For some reason the software that comes with those HP “Home” Tablet PCs seems to tie up quite a bit of  memory and CPU time. One thing I rather liked was the fingerprint reader, but the identity manager that uses the device seems to be constantly sniffing for a place where you have to authenticate yourself as a user. That ties up resources, as does the input manager for the touch screen.

Another factor is that the tx1218, as with all TPC, is very small and really wastes no space. Among other things this means that the hard disk’s heat isn’t properly diffused, so with all the swap file access the laptop quickly grows quite warm. It’s not a bad thing if you keep your office cold in the winter — it’s a little hand-warmer, in fact! — but it’s not so practical if you have your laptop, well, on your lap. You won’t get scorched or anything like that, but you definitely feel the warmth. That may be a plus for some people 😉 Also when you flip the screen to use your laptop as a tablet the hot side is always on the bottom (unless you register that you’re left-handed, presumably) so using the tablet when it’s leaning against a desk also results in your getting warmth in an area of the body where you might not want to have it.

But those reasons aren’t why I returned the tx1218.  I returned it because it started blue-screening on me. This started when I put it to sleep after watching a movie on it last night (it’s a great laptop for that purpose, by the way). I noticed that the PC wasn’t going to sleep and the hard drive was still plugging away after a few minutes, so I opened the display again and, after a few minutes, the blue screen appeared. I tried again after the restart, and the same thing happened. This morning I ran the software recovery disk, and after the installation was done this started happening again, twice.

The blue screen info hinted at a problem with the driver that detects the power state of the laptop. I found that interesting, because this is a laptop that’s built for Vista and its “foolproof” signed drivers. It’s (I believe) purposely made incompatible with existing PC drivers for common elements like the video card. Simply put you will not find the drivers you need to make this thing work in XP. And yet even THAT hardware seems to have driver problems. When I realized that I knew I was not going to be able to fix this, so I grabbed the box, found my receipt and went on my way back to Best Buy  — which, in Canada, has a decent returns policy, as does its sister store Future Shop (I like to give credit where credit is due).

I’m guessing it was a hardware problem — basically I had bought a defective laptop. This kinda bugs me. This is the second time I have to return HP goods to the shop because of a hardware malfunction. Granted, one of them was an open-box floor demo, but still it made me think that either I’m extremely unlucky with buying PCs or that HP has a seriously quality assurance problem. It’s worrisome to think this, however, because HP provides computers for a very large number of people and institutions. It makes me wonder how many people buy a computer at a store like that, having trust in the brand, only to find that they’ve bought a dud a couple of weeks down the line. And how many places like banks and government offices are running with computers that aren’t reliable. And what that lack of reliability could mean in terms of security issues.

My system is quicker than baseball’s. Two strikes and you’re out. So, HP is off my list of computers to buy in the future.  Also any computer that’s “made for Vista”. The fact is that because of its new foundation Vista really is unfixable once it starts breaking, and it’s really not good value for the resources it requires, even if you get the license for “free” with a (cost-adjusted) new PC. I’m someone who enjoys installing Linux on PCs, but reinstalling Vista really isn’t as much fun. It also takes much longer (hours sometimes, depending on your hardware) and it’s not nearly as customizeable.

As for its “great new features” — UAC, Aero, the new connection manager, the new certificates interface and the explorer improvements — I give them a resounding “meh”. UAC in particular was pretty much a waste of development time. Power users like myself won’t use it because people like me are paranoid and use one or more filesystem protection system already; and novice users (who are still administrators by default!) will be utterly confused by it and just end up approving every request UAC sends them. I didn’t use Aero at all because I had set my user experience parameters to “best performance” in the hope that that would cause my Tablet PC to spring to life and become responsive (it didn’t). The new certificates interface is actually causing companies to tell their employees they can’t use Vista to access their certificate-enabled wireless networks (incorrectly by the way, I resolved the issue in two minutes at my employer’s facilities) and the connection manager seems like just a way to annoy users by its new interface, which is just one more step in the way of you changing the parameters you want to change.

And DirectX10? If I wanted it that much I would have bought an Xbox 360. That’s a hell of a lot less bothersome than running Vista. We PC gamers sadly have to get used to the idea that we’re second class citizens in the games, er, game now. Just look at the Unreal Tournament 3 interface. It’s lifted straight off a console, and it “works” poorly on the PC as an interface. You just don’t get the sort of enhanced, customizeable experience that you got with the Unreal Tournament games of years gone by. And that, unfortunately, seems to be the future of PC gaming — waiting for ports of console games, sometimes poorly-coded (GTA San Andreas was a real bugfest on the PC), and with no real advantage over the console versions aside from the more versatile keyboard-and-mouse controller setup. From a gamer’s POV the games get to the consoles faster (usually), and the console will usually get a more-thoroughly-tested product. So even DX10, Vista’s party piece, ultimately doesn’t justify it.

Throw in often-reported reports of device driver problems and you pretty much come to see Vista as a great answer to a question nobody was asking. Unless that question was “how can Microsoft make more money from Windows licensing”. And I’m pretty damn sure no end user was asking THAT question.

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