In preparation for this portion of my Windows Vista Release Candidate 1 (RC1) review, I went back and re-read my compatibility report for Windows Vista Beta 2. I'm a bit surprised that I wrote that Beta 2 compatibility was "excellent" overall, though I must have mean that only in the context of previous betas.

Yes, that's my story and I'm sticking with it.

The reason is simple. In RC1, hardware and software compatibility is, in fact, excellent. But it's excellent in ways that previous Vista pre-release builds were not. It's excellent even when compared to Windows XP, and I don't write that lightly. It's just excellent, with no caveats.

OK, there is one caveat. If you try to install an x64 version of Windows Vista, well, God help you. I have no idea what Microsoft was thinking with these products, but after getting over my initial euphoria at how good the hardware support was, I descended quite quickly into software compatibility hell. So unless I mention it explicitly, all the good news here applies solely to standard 32-bit (x86) Vista versions. The x64 stuff is still a nightmare. My guess is that it will always be a nightmare. So unless you have some specific workstation-type needs for more than 4 GB of RAM and very specific applications, please just skip out on x64 Vista versions entirely. There's no happy ending there and your sanity hangs in the balance.

Hardware compatibility

I've now installed Windows Vista RC1 on five different computers, four of which are notebooks. I have a few more systems to go, but the results so far are better than I could have ever hoped for. On every single system--even a low-end Celeron-based notebook with integrated graphics--Windows Vista correctly installed and configured every single piece of hardware I've thrown at it. (Note that in most cases, one or two drivers had to be installed via Windows Update after Setup, but these installations all occurred automatically and without any intervention on my part.) With very few exceptions, too, these installs were all perfect: In addition to clean Device Managers with no "bangs" (representing unrecognized hardware), virtually everything seems to work fine on each system.

There is one exception. A Lenovo ThinkPad T60 is configured with two sound devices, Digital Output Device (SPDIF) and Speakers. It thinks the speakers are not attached, so the sound is going through SPDIF. In short, I don't hear any sound on that system. I haven't really troubleshooted it yet, but it's the one weirdism in an otherwise very positive set of hardware experiences.

And let me give the Vista x64 versions a rare pat on the back: On the sole system to which I installed Windows Vista Ultimate x64 edition, all of the hardware was correctly installed and configured. That's just good stuff. Even XP x64 doesn't do that.

Software compatibility

In previous Windows Vista pre-release versions, there was always some bizarre issue that prevented me from staying in Vista full-time. After Beta 2, Adobe PhotoShop Elements 4.0 started acting oddly, for example. It's Save To Web feature would only save in GIF format. But with RC1, PhotoShop Elements has bounced right back. With a few exceptions, most of my often-used software is humming along quite nicely.

And get this: Games work now. Actually, they don't just work; they now work just as fast as they do in Windows XP. This actually shocked me somewhat, but I'm running Half-Life 2 at 1920 x 1200 and getting great frame rates for my hardware. You couldn't even run Half-Life 2 on previous builds. It was just a disaster.

In a recent briefing, I jokingly asked Microsoft if they had flipped the "stop s#cking" bit. Part of my rationale for this question was gaming. It's just astonishing at how far along this has come in just a short time. I was told that they, too, had been quite eager for this day. What it basically required was a bunch of code from a variety of sources to get into the code tree. "We're only as good as our slowest coder," I was told. Apparently, he's caught up.

My software compatibility checklist

In keeping with my software compatibility list from Beta 2, here's what I've tested with Windows Vista RC1:

Adobe PhotoShop Elements 4.0
Works: Yes
Notes: Despite an error dialog warning you that this application has "known compatibility issues," it works great in RC1. From what I can tell, the issues are actually related to Adobe Updater, which PhotoShop uses to obtain software updates online. Given the scarcity of such updates, this isn't a huge loss.

Adobe Reader 7.0.8
Works: Yes

Apple iTunes and QuickTime
Works: Yes
Notes: QuickTime triggers the Windows Standard user interface, but you can disable this by configure QuickTime to run in Safe Mode. Otherwise, both applications appear to work fine.

Cyberlink PowerDVD 7 Deluxe
Works: Yes

Flickr Uploader
Works: Yes
Notes: I use this tool to upload photos to my Flickr collection. It appears to work fine.

LeechFTP
Works: Yes
Notes: This is a really old FTP application that I should have bailed on years ago, but it still works.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006
Works: Yes
Notes: This one used to trigger weird display issues in previous Vista versions, but it works uneventfully now. Curiously, the application window is styled like a Windows Standard window, but the rest of the UI remains in Aero mode.

Microsoft Expression Web Designer CTP1
Works: Yes
Notes: This is the FrontPage successor for Web standards people, and it works just fine.

Microsoft Office 2003
Works: Yes
Notes: I'll reinstall Office 2007 when the Beta 2 Tech Refresh hits (any day now). But Office 2003 (and FrontPage 2003) work great in RC1.

Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 with SP2
Works: Yes
Notes: This is another application that warns of oncoming compatibility issues, but then works normally, aside from triggering a switch to the Windows Standard user interface.

Microsoft Windows Live OneCare
Works: No
Notes: I'd really like to get this PC safety suite up and running on Vista, since there are no good security suites for this Windows version yet. No go: Microsoft says it will ship a Vista-compatible OneCare version by the end of the year, however.

Microsoft Windows Messenger 8.0
Works: Yes

Mozilla Firefox 1.5.0.6
Works: Yes

Nero 7.2.7.0
Works: No
Notes: As with Beta 2, I've had no love with Nero 7.x in RC1. I've been told by a number of readers that their CD-based versions of Nero installed just fine, however. I'm using the Web installer and it won't work. Since switching to Vista several months ago, I've had to figure out other solutions. I use a free application called ImgBurn, for example, to burn ISOs to disk.

Slysoft AnyDVD
Works: Yes
Notes: This is an absolutely wonderful program that provides a number of very useful features. First, it decrypts DVD movies so that they appear to be unprotected, and can thus be backed up. Second, it lets you skip all the annoying advertising mumbo-jumbo that appears at the beginning of each DVD and jump right to the movie or title menu. (Sweet!) And third, it's lets you switch regions, so you can play DVDs from around the world. In short, it does everything a DVD player should do automatically. It's the best $30 I ever spent.

Steam, Half-Life 2, and Sin Emergence
Works: Yes
Notes: Games based on the Half-Life 2 game engine are among the most demanding in the world, and though my PC is two years old and my video card is a middle-of-the-road AGP-based ATI Radeon X800 XL with 256 MB of RAM, these games just kick under Vista RC1. I can play both Half-Life 2 and Sin Emergence at 1920 x 1200, just as I do in Windows XP. When you consider how anemic these games were under Beta 2, that's a miracle.

Sunbelt I Hate Spam
Works: Yes
Notes: This is an anti-spam add-on for Microsoft Outlook. It works fine in Vista.

Techsmith SnagIt 8
Works: Yes
Notes: So I've finally upgraded to the latest SnagIt version and it works great. (I do run it in Classic view, as I'm an old-timer.)

VMWare Workstation 5
Works: Yes
Notes: Appears to work fine.

WinRAR 3.6
Works: Yes
Notes: I've played around with various compression utilities, but WinRAR is amazing. I use it for ZIP files primarily, but given the compression benefits of RAR, I'm starting to wonder whether that still makes sense. Anyway... WinRAR works as expected in RC1. I had been using a late beta, but a reader noted that the final version of WinRAR 3.6 is available, so I've upgraded (and purchased the application online).

Welcome to Hell: Software compatibility and Vista x64

You think you're tough? Then try running Windows Vista in x64 mode: It can make a grown man wail like a little girl whose brother just catapulted Barbie over the fence. What's insidious about it is that the first impressions are deceptively good: After installing the thing in under 30 minutes and watching it recognize every single piece of hardware connected to my PC, I started installing applications thinking that this, finally, might be the time to move fully to x64 on my desktop machine.

Big mistake. Applications like Microsoft Office work just fine on the x64 versions of Windows Vista, but almost nothing else does. Adobe Photoshop won't install at all, citing an unspecified compatibility issue. Ditto for Virtual PC 2004. And AnyDVD. And Nero. And iTunes.

Yikes.

Then there are the applications that install just fine but silently fail in different ways when running. The Flickr Uploader application is a good example: This one installs as you'd expect. But when you right-click an image file to upload it, there's no Send to Flickr option in the pop-up menu. The reason is simple: Shell extensions for 32-bit applications won't work in x64 Windows versions. So applications like WinZip and WinRAR will have similar issues.

Quite quickly, it became obvious that x64 was going to be a nonstarter for me. So I wiped out the install and reinstalled the 32-bit version. And now, everything works. I'm so glad that only lasted half a day. Learn from my mistakes and just skip x64 unless you really know what you're doing. Or maybe you just hate yourself.

Final thoughts

Back in my Beta 2 compatibility report, I noted that Vista was "still not ready to be used as your sole OS, and should only be installed in a dual-boot situation with XP, or on a dedicated test system." The reasons were varied, but included performance problems and compatibility issues. Today, with RC1, those issues have largely been resolved. Windows Vista performs admirably, and the 32-bit versions offer amazing hardware and software compatibility, even compared with XP. So should you just drop XP and go fully Vista with RC1? No, of course not. But this is going to be the line in the sand for a lot of people, the time when it will be possible to stay in Vista longer than in XP. And over time, as your XP usage drops off, you'll find yourself not missing XP at all. You'll be unhappy when you do have to boot into XP for some random reason.

Windows Vista RC1 is a huge improvement over previous Vista versions, and compatibility plays a big part in that success. This is now one less thing to worry about when migrating to the next Windows.

On to Part 3: Upgrading from Windows XP ...