I'm no fan of Macs (twice the money for half the performance, and if their interfaces are intuitive, then I've got a defective intuition), but recent experiences with Microsoft do lend some credence to their appeal. (And their amusing ads sure do hit home.) I recently bought my husband a new PC, because apparently 256Mb of RAM was no longer sufficient for someone who basically just uses AOL and IE. These days, what with Vista and all the bloatware that Windows drags along and the pervasive-ware of Windows apps (is there no such thing as a simple app anymore? must every little thing install itself into my system tray, plug itself in to my explorer toolbar, and start as soon as my system boots?), it seems a hi-speed Pentium-4 processor with 1Gb of RAM is a minimal configuration for your most basic home user. I was curious to see what Vista was like. As I expected, it's got a few cool new gadgets, but it's impossible to find anything because they've rearranged all the menus, control panels, and even the way the explorer looks and works. There's nothing compellingly better about it, it's just different for the sake of being different. (Fortunately, there's a "classic view" option on the Control Panel, at least.)
I did get it set up without too much pain, and aside from the fact that Vista is still bleeding new, and Vista device drivers aren't available for everything yet, it's been running well enough for the first month. Until today. This morning my husband calls me in a panic, saying he can't log in because it's giving him a message saying "Invalid product key - Windows activation required". Vista has a thorough security feature that helps Microsoft stop pirated copies of Windows. They spin it as a protection for the user ("you'll know you've got an authentic copy of Windows"), but of course it's really all about protecting Microsoft. For the user, all it is is something else to go wrong, and when it does, it's a royal pain in the butt to sort out. OEMs like HP/Compaq pre-install Windows and pre-activate it (which entails entering absurdly long strings of digits), sparing their customers a tedious out-of-the-box experience. Unfortunately, Vista has a bug where installing certain software or turning the machine off at the wrong time or various other innocent actions can cause Vista to lose its factory-installed product key, and to think that it's a pirated copy, locking down your computer. Microsoft recognizes this bug and offers a patch for it on their support site. Which would be nifty, except that Microsoft doesn't allow your computer to download anything from its support site unless you're running a "genuine" copy of Windows. So in other words, the only computers that will be able to download the patch are the ones that don't have the bug. How brilliant is that? We tried an option to manually re-enter the product key (a 25-character code found on a sticker near the back of the computer), which failed. So we tried an alternate option to get a "confirmation code" by speaking a 54-digit(!) code into a voice response system. That too failed, and we ended up speaking to a live Microsoft technician. After two more failed attempts, and several reboots, he was able to give us a correct 54-digit code that enabled the computer. (You think a 16-digit credit card number is easy to mix up over the phone, try a 54-digit number!) If we ever have to go through this ordeal again, I will scream.