Windows XP vs. Vista - A Tale of Three HP Media Center PCs and Three ThinkPads

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In early 2005, I was a year into a job that I really liked and that brought me some new prosperity. I had been running RedHat Linux on a series of home-made boxes for the last several years with some success, but had switched to their Enterprise product in the last few months. It was quite troublesome and restrictive, and, quite disappointed in RedHat, I was searching for alternatives.

About this time, our company came out with a Windows product, and suddenly folks were asking me about their Windows problems. Yikes! The company sent me a ThinkPad T21 to use for customer support. It ran Windows XP Professional, and I was surprised at how stable Windows XP was on it.

A few months later, I was in the market for a new television. I had been catching up on Windows by reading back issues of PC Magazine at the local college library. I was interested in the then-new Media Center Edition PCs that were being introduced. What if, I wondered, I forwent the new TV and got instead a Windows PC that could act as a TV and VCR.

I had had great luck running HP peripherals in Linux and had an HP scanner and LaserJet , so I looked at HP’s lineup. I selected a mid-range model with Windows Media Center Edition (basically XP Professional with Media Center added in), a 160 MB hard drive, an Intel processor, and one gig of RAM. Eagerly I hooked it up and then screwed the cable company’s coaxial cable directly into the TV tuner. I had some parts left over. What should I do with the remote, infrared box, and infrared transmitter? This was a puzzle. It turned out that these weren’t needed because the tuner card was “cable ready” and found the channels just like they were coming from an aerial.

The Linux box and, to an extent, the ThinkPad were set aside as I concentrated on getting the Media Center box running the way I wanted it to. The final update, UR2, or Update Rollup 2, had come in from Windows Update, and the TV part and recording TV worked fine. I was well-pleased with the way the machine worked, and I was constantly spending time moving recorded shows off the hard drive.

By then, the hype machine had been working over-time for Windows Vista, and I became interested in upgrading the PC to Vista. I downloaded the Vista Upgrade Adviser, and, with little enthusiasm, it told me that the PC was capable of running any version of Vista.

On February 1, 2007, I drove to Jacksonville, Florida and purchased a copy of Vista Ultimate in a big box store. Goodbye, 399 dollars.

At home, I inserted the DVD, rebooted the PC, and selected “Upgrade my system.” It ran for about an hour, and then I tried to set up the Media Center. There were some glitches. In fact, there wasn’t much anything else but glitches. Boy, was it ever unstable.

I ordered another gig of RAM for it, bought a bigger external hard drive, and tried to use it for work.

And work was a big part of my problem. I had been installing whatever the engineers sent me. I had a mix of alpha, beta, and test versions of our applications on the PC, and I was constantly installing and uninstalling our programs.

The first sign of spiraling doom was when application uninstalls began to fail. Then there were install failures, blue screens of death (BSODs), freeze-ups, and other annoyances. It seemed that the “Install Shield stack” had been hosed. When this happens, it doesn’t get any better.

I booted it from the DVD and used the recovery environment to recover my work data from the hard drive and direct it to the external drive. Then I formatted the hard drive and reinstalled Vista afresh.

This was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, everything just worked, and I was very happy with my Media Center PC again.

Until one day a year later when I pushed the power button and it went “beep BEEP pause beep BEEP.”

HP’s hardware support documentation on their website said this was a “planar failure.” I peered inside the case and saw nothing amiss. The CPU fan and other fans were running, the cards were all seated, and I tried first swapping the memory from slot to slot, and then tried booting it with only one or the other stick installed. “beep BEEP.”

I had work to do, and no time to work on the PC, so I drove to Jacksonville and picked up a new one.

This had an AMD processor, a 250 MB hard drive, WIFI, and an upgraded tuner. It ran Vista Ultimate already. I realized that I also then had a Vista Ultimate license that I wasn’t using that I could use on another computer.

I had a newer ThinkPad, but it was, I determined, a bit underpowered to try Vista on.

This Vista machine was a pretty PC. The beige case had turned into a black case with a shiny piano black finish on the top and front panel.

Next: Casey Jones, Better Watch Your Speed, Ascribing Human Emotions to Inaminate Objects, and One More Media Center PC

It died in October 2007, but when it went, I had a nice fresh backup of all my work on the external hard drive.

I already had aspirations to reuse the case and power supply to build another PC – a quieter Media Center entertainment center for my folks.

By this time, I had moved close to Atlanta, so off it was to the big box store, and I picked up my third HP Media Center PC. This came with a faster AMD 64x2 processor, a 500 GB “multimedia” hard drive, 3 gigs of RAM, and Vista Ultimate.

I also had a Dish Network set-top box in the office, and I got to use all those extra parts I’d been boxing up.

And now it is slightly over a year later. The Media Center is still my primary PC, and it’s working fine. Initially there were several problems with the Nvidia graphics set, but they sorted themselves out in a few months of updates, and I have had no problems since.

The slow ThinkPad, by the way, turned into a fast ThinkPad last December. I think that I’ll install that extra license for Vista Ultimate on it someday.

So there are my experiences with Windows XP vs. Vista.

I’ve used Windows XP Professional on two notebooks, XP Media Center Edition on one PC, Vista Ultimate on three PCs, and the newest ThinkPad runs Vista Home Premium for the moment.

I make my living writing mostly about Windows Vista. I concur that it has high hardware demands. You really need a dual-core CPU and two to three gigs of RAM in order to get good use of Vista. You need to keep up with your Windows updates, too.

I would not suggest upgrading an XP computer to Vista without completely wiping the hard drive and starting over. That route caused me nothing but grief.

I’ve had people tell me that they had a lot of trouble with their new computer, but it “settled down” over time and is now much better. Although I like the concept of settling in, I think it’s more likely that these users subconsciously observed and tracked the types of operations that cause trouble on their computers. In other words, over a period of time, they learn not to provoke problems.

My father also often told me that his cars ran better after an oil change.

I know that this was not true, and I know that computers don’t decide to settle down and work. We shouldn’t attribute human emotions and traits to inanimate machines.

Any operating system can be stable and efficient. Windows XP just got it done without flashiness or panache. Vista added some dash, but no daring. (In fact, Vista is sort of timid in some ways.)

So there’s a little anthropomorphism from me, too!

My preference, given the hardware to run it, is Vista. Both XP and Vista have let me do my work and watch and record television. They have worked well on desktops and laptops, and both respond nicely to a little tweaking.

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