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Windows Vista — Upgrade Or Wait?

PC Notes
By Martin Walker

After a long wait, the new Windows Vista OS is actually on the horizon - so should we all be rushing to upgrade?

There can be few computer owners on the planet who haven't yet heard about Microsoft's forthcoming Vista operating system. After all, it's been five years in the writing, is claimed to be the most important OS launch since Windows 95, and by the time you read this should be only a couple of weeks from release. (It was released to manufacturing on November 8th, becoming available to volume license customers before Christmas and to the rest of us on January 30th, 2007.)

Fortunately, musicians are probably less likely than the average PC user to leap into installing a new OS, only to find that they have taken one step forward and two steps backward. Musicians may be unique in needing to run lots of software applications (sequencer, plug-in effects, instruments and so on) from different developers simultaneously, many of which are protected by dongle or challenge/response protection, and if any one of these has problems running on a new operating system we may be unable to continue working on some of our material. So what do Microsoft have on offer in Vista that will tempt us to take the plunge, dig out that pile of application CDs and DVDs, search for those serial numbers and persuade all those audio developers to give us a new set of response codes?

Safe & Secure

Top priority for Microsoft in Vista is increased security from Internet nasties, with a new Security Center (sic) that includes a stronger two-way firewall (both to prevent outside nasties from getting in and to prevent rogue applications from sending your personal data out around the world), built-in anti-spyware functions and parental controls. In addition, the bundled Internet Explorer 7 browser now includes a phishing filter to protect you from accidentally accessing blacklisted fraudulent web sites.

With lots of features and an attractive interface, KV331 Audio's Synthmaster covers a lot of sonic bases. A five-voice version can be downloaded free from the KV331 web site.With lots of features and an attractive interface, KV331 Audio's Synthmaster covers a lot of sonic bases. A five-voice version can be downloaded free from the KV331 web site.

Most users run their Windows XP PCs by default as an 'Administrator', so they are all-powerful and can thus change their system settings at will. With Vista, Microsoft intend that you run it as a standard user, so that if you do become infected by a virus it can't use the extra Administrator power to warp and corrupt the contents of your PC. However, the associated new User Account Control launches plenty of 'are you sure' prompts that will persuade quite a few users to simply switch it off, defeating the object of the exercise. Nevertheless, extra security is always welcome as long as it doesn't slow down your sequencer.

Plug-in Spotlight: Synthmaster

KV331 Audio (www.kv331audio.com) is a new name to me, but judging by their first offering they're off to a fine start.

Synthmaster is a semi-modular VST and RTAS plug-in instrument and stand-alone synth for PC, featuring three multi-waveform oscillators; three multi-mode filters; four modulators with envelopes; two LFOs; extensive arpeggiator options; and multi-effects including EQ, echo, delay, chorus/flanging, reverb and a 16-band vocoder.

The multi-effects chain can also be used as a VST plug-in to treat other audio material. The interface looks lovely and there are lots of good-sounding presets covering leads, basses, pads and effects. A free version is available, limited to five-voice polyphony and two plug-in instances, while the unlimited version costs just $99.

Clear Benefits

The most obvious new Vista feature is the sophisticated new Aero graphics style, offering a 'glass' look, with see-through title bars, borders and various lighting effects, plus the eye-catching 'Flip 3D' option that lets you view all open windows in a pseudo-3D environment. As you might expect, you'll need a more powerful PC to use these features, but you can switch off the new eye-candy, if you wish, and return to the Windows 2000/XP Classic view (just as you can with Windows XP), to keep as much of your CPU available for audio duties as possible. Even if you choose to do this, however, Vista's underlying graphics driver model promises greater stability and no more visual glitches.

Microsoft's minimum requirements for a 'Vista Capable' PC are an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a Direct X 9-capable graphics card. Don't be fooled, though: this won't be sufficient to run the Aero graphics. For that you'll need a 'Vista Premium Ready' PC with at least a 1GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM, along with a 128MB Direct X 9 graphics card. Personally, I'd recommend that musicians have a 2.5GHz single-core processor (or faster) plus 2GB of RAM, especially if they want to run the 64-bit version (more on this later).

Main Features

Other new features include Instant Search, which makes finding a file on today's vast hard drives a lot easier and quicker; Media Player 11, with more emphasis on album art than text-based selection, plus integration with MTV's Urge (a rival to iTunes); a new version of Movie Maker/DVD Maker; Photo Gallery; a streamlined Start menu that makes it easier to find and launch applications; rewritten networking features; and, of course, lots of new gadgets.

Forget Vista's eye candy: could this innocent-looking pair of Vista tick-boxes, labelled 'Exclusive Mode', be the Holy Grail for musicians, banishing audio glitches for good? Once Vista audio drivers are released that support this mode, we'll be able to find out.Forget Vista's eye candy: could this innocent-looking pair of Vista tick-boxes, labelled 'Exclusive Mode', be the Holy Grail for musicians, banishing audio glitches for good? Once Vista audio drivers are released that support this mode, we'll be able to find out.Windows Vista promises better audio quality and DSP functions for its own audio system, defaulting to 32-bit floating-point calculations and a dynamic range of up to 144dB, as well as lower latency Wave RT (Real Time) drivers. Microsoft are also pleased with their new per-application volume control feature: users no longer need to be deafened by system sounds when playing music, as they can set their preferred audio level individually for every application. However, many musicians disable system sounds and are primarily interested in ASIO driver performance, which is entirely separate from Windows audio, so sadly these audio improvements remain largely irrelevant to us.

Of far more potential interest to musicians is the enhanced priority system that should finally enable audio applications to become more important than (for instance) background virus checkers, other applications, system sounds and so on. As long as your audio hardware is compatible (which presumably means new interface drivers), if the so-called 'Exclusive Mode' is switched on for your audio application and given priority, audio glitches could become a thing of the past!

Spoiled For Choice?

There are four versions of Vista. Home Premium is most likely to interest the musician. Home Basic doesn't include the Aero interface, but its greater security could still tempt entry-level users, while the Business and Ultimate versions offer more networking and data encryption features but are more expensive.

The DVD contains 32-bit and 64-bit versions, so if some of your hardware doesn't have 64-bit drivers, you'll still be able to install and use Vista in a 32-bit incarnation. Judging from my own experiences with Windows XP Professional x64, the main audio advantage of the 64-bit Vista version will be that, with a suitable 64-bit audio app (along with 64-bit plug-ins or a wrapper that runs 32-bit ones), you can expect a reduction in processor overhead of up to 30 percent in some songs, depending on their combination of audio tracks, plug-ins and soft synths. You'll also be able to install a lot more RAM, if you can afford it (isn't it a coincidence that RAM prices have increased a few months before we're all finally able to benefit from installing 4GB or 8GB?). However, although you'll also be able to install and run most existing 32-bit audio applications in 64-bit Vista, you won't get a performance boost for them, and we must expect to pay for new 64-bit versions of most of them in due course.

Passing The Driver Test

In Windows XP, when you're attempting to install drivers that are unknown to the OS, you can simply click on the 'carry on anyway' option of its warning dialogue. No such option is available in the 64-bit version of Vista. Instead, Microsoft are insisting on mandatory 'digitally signed' 64-bit hardware drivers, to prevent Trojan viruses getting into the system.

In itself, this is laudable, but it does mean that hardware driver developers will now be forced to spend extra time and money on this certification process whenever they wish to release new drivers. Expect far fewer updates and no Beta releases in future! This also means that even if your favourite audio interface already has 64-bit drivers originally written for Windows XP Professional x64, they won't necessarily be compatible with Windows Vista.

DRM (Digital Rights Management), designed to prevent you copying copyrighted audio and video content, also puts in an appearance in Vista, but details are still hazy at the moment concerning whether its inclusion has any implications for other audio and video data on your Vista PC. Microsoft are quoting as saying "it depends", which is a little worrying!

Making A Decision

So should we all rush out and buy Vista? Well, as you might expect, Vista uptake in the US is likely to be high, but surveys indicate that over half of European businesses don't have plans to upgrade. Of those that do, 20 percent will wait up to two years, presumably because they are still happy with 2000/XP, or don't relish the upheaval of such a major change.

There's no denying that the Aero graphics look lovely, and that Windows XP is now looking old hat compared with the latest Mac OS X. Some PC users are also always keen to buy the latest thing. However, many musicians are more interested in having a mature, stable platform for their music making, and XP has proved to be that for most of them.

Some early adopters of XP Professional x64 later regretted their decision, due to a lack of 64-bit drivers, but this time around no hardware manufacturer has any real excuse for not having compatible 64-bit drivers available at the time of the Vista launch, as the run-up has been so protracted. Cakewalk have had a 64-bit version of Sonar available for some time, but other companies, such as Digidesign and Steinberg, are promising updates to their sequencing packages some time after the Vista release, while plenty more audio developers are making encouraging noises but have yet to commit to any time-frame for 64-bit versions of their products. I suspect that it could be at least mid-2007 before 64-bit Vista-compatible audio software is widely available.

Until then, you'll be able to use the new Vista features and benefit from the greater security if your PC is Internet-enabled. You may also benefit from the increased RAM limit with some existing audio applications if you've installed the 64-bit version. The full audio performance benefits may take longer to appear, but once 'glitch-free' applications and associated interface drivers become available, this feature alone might make Vista extremely attractive for musicians.

With a radically new operating system, it makes the most sense to perform a 'clean' install to achieve the most stable system. So, given the upheaval of doing that, it also makes sense to jump straight to the 64-bit version for its performance advantages, unless you're determined to carry on using hardware that hasn't got 64-bit drivers. I'll be giving the 64-bit Vista a thorough test once I have several 64-bit audio applications to test it with, but don't be tempted to abandon a stable Windows XP system and install Vista in mid-project, especially if you're running a commercial studio! If you really want to install Vista early, it's better to do it alongside XP in a multi-boot configuration, as insurance in case something doesn't work properly. 

Published February 2007