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Computing At Chaos Manor: September 11, 2006

The User's Column, September, 2006
Column 314, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

I am writing this using Word 2007 from the Office 2007 Beta distribution. Before the end of the month I expect to be running Office 2007 under the first Vista release candidate. I just finished downloading both the 32 and 64 bit versions. Vista is large, 2.6 GB for the 32-bit version, 3.7 GB for the 64-bit. The 32-bit was a 3.5 hour download. The 64-bit took a bit over four hours. Both require that I make an ISO image DVD before I can install.

I'm still debating with myself: should I install 32-bit or 64 bit Vista? The main machine on which I'll install Vista is Satine, an AMD 64 - 4000 which first appeared in my April, 2005 Column. She has an nVidia 6600 display adapter, which is a long way from the top of the line but which has proven to be good enough for the work I do. In particular, the text output to the HP f2105 wide flat screen (actual screen size 11" high by 18" wide) monitor is superb, and the half acre of screen real estate gives me plenty of room for work. I play games on this machine, and while I have several much faster video boards, I have not got around to opening up Satine to put in a new one. She ain't broke, and I see no need to fix her.

I am told that when I install Vista I'll have to rethink that decision. Vista is mostly eye candy, and to get that I'll need lots of graphic processing power. More on this later, because it's an important point.

Satine is a working machine. I depend on her for almost all the non-fiction and business correspondence writing I do here in the office (as opposed to work I do in the monk's cell, where I write most of my fiction).


I'm not really being foolhardy in installing a release candidate operating system on a production machine. Satine ran an earlier version of Vista. I decided that was unstable and went back to the previous system state. I was able to do that with Norton Save and Restore (link), which is Norton Ghost on steroids. I have used Norton Save and Restore (as well as Ghost) often enough to have confidence in the program. It installs easily, and once installed can be told to record the system's current state: operating system, applications, data, and everything else. This restoration file can be put on an external drive, such as one of the Seagate USB 2.0/Firewire units. I have several of these drives in various sizes and I've never had a problem with one.

When it comes time to restore, you boot up with the Norton CD with the external drive connected to the system, and things go automatically. The whole operation takes less than half an hour, and you're back to the last place you recorded. In my case we went from a quirky early Vista to XP with all applications restored and operating while I was having lunch. If you do much fooling around with your computer, you will definitely want to have and to use Norton Save and Restore.

Looking at the Future: A Discussion

Prior to deciding whether to go with Vista 32 or Vista 64, there's another question: why go to Vista at all? That may seem like a silly question, because pretty soon you'll be buying machines with Vista already installed, and after a while you won't be able to find a new machine that doesn't have one or another flavor of Vista (link)


This generated a discussion among my friends and advisors. It began innocently enough with a story from David Em:

I spoke with a friend who works at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it's at the La Brea Tarpits) the other day who told me a horrific story about Dell's current customer support model: All support was routed to India. Support personnel were unfamiliar with upgrade and replacement policies. Incorrectly filled out forms resulted in products being shipped to incorrect addressees. An emergency support number connected to a shrimp shack in Louisiana. Hours on the phone before someone finally got it partially right -- it goes on.

This is very different from my experience ordering from Dell several years ago, which was excellent. In a world where profit margins on computers are so thin, good support becomes the differentiator. LACMA's locked into buying Dell-only, but their experience has them tearing their hair out and wanting to jump ship ASAP. Do other corporate customers feel the same, and does this spell big trouble for Dell?

-- David Em

Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs responded:

Supposedly, Dell had a major customer rebellion brewing and brought back a lot of their US-based support. That was a good while back and things don't seem much improved (link to ZDNet story).

I am baffled by the policies of big brand computer makers. I've often felt I could make better time assembling a PC and installing the OS and apps than 'fixing' a new consumer model PC. The real problem is that these companies so frequently make most of their money from bundled promotional software than from the sale of the machine itself. The bundleware garbage is often stuff guaranteed to make a system crash-prone. (RealPlayer was a huge offender.)

On top of that, there are the odd customizations these companies do that are supposed to add value tied to the brand but actually just make the machines less stable and slow when they aren't crashing. I've had countless occasions when fixing one of these machines consisted of wiping it down and reinstalling the OS and drivers without any of the proprietary garbage.

Customer service is a debit center but if they didn't ship the machines in broken form in the first place it would cost far less.

Eric Pobirs

To which Captain Ron Morse replied,

That's a good point, and it's germane to Microsoft's introduction of Vista. The traditional way most people get a new Microsoft operating system is to buy a new computer and that is likely to be the case with Vista. Should it be?

We're on the cusp of the second hardware replacement cycle since Y2K. Intel's Core2Duo presents an attractive reason to upgrade for performance and cost reasons. That means every new Wintel computer sold will come with a Vista tax...consumers will we be forced to eat a copy of Vista even if they don't want it just like they do with XP now.

Through Beta1, Vista's eye candy is a big resource sink, but so far the eye candy seems to be the only reason for choosing Vista over XP. So, not only will consumers be forced to pay more for an operating system they may not want (continuing that time-honored Microsoft tradition) but supporting the most desirable "feature" of that O/S will push the market toward higher-tier and more expensive hardware, too.

Somebody needs to follow-up on Peter Glaskowsky's suggestion to install Vista on a system equipped only with Intel's integrated graphics and report their real-world experience with that. If my experience is any indication you will not be happy with that combination, unless you find real glee in something that makes your tablet look like a snappy powerhouse of a small computer.

Our only response may be to buy a copy of Bob's book (shameless plug dept.) and start building our own.

Ron Morse

The book Ron recommends is one of our favorites, Building the Perfect PC by Robert Bruce and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, and the suggestion is serious. The Core 2 Duo CPU chips are a genuine new generation, high computing power with lower cooling costs and problems, and we are at a point in the PC purchasing cycle where it makes sense to replace some of the Pentium, and all of the pre-Pentium, systems. Companies favoring Intel systems, or changing from AMD to Intel, will be wanting new computers: should they buy them, or build them?

Of course it's more likely that a big company will "build" by contracting with a local white box house rather than doing the actual construction in house, but it amounts to the same thing. Upgrading by that path allows salvage of the previous operating system and application software by transferring from one machine to another; that way you get what you had before, only it's faster and more stable. Add memory and larger disk drives, and it's still unlikely to be as expensive as buying a new system with a new OS.

Of course, neither Microsoft nor Dell is likely to be happy with that decision. The question, then, is what Vista adds to a new system.

Experimenting with Vista

All of which pretty well indicates the direction of my experiments with Vista for the rest of the month. First, is there anything more than eye candy here? I'll be installing Vista on a machine that's more than Good Enough for what it does - Office and games - so the question is, will it need hardware upgrades?

Second, assuming that it works well enough, is there a point to Vista beyond eye candy? Not that eye candy is entirely bad; the "user experience" is important. I spend a lot of time at this machine, and if Vista makes that more enjoyable I certainly can't complain. But I'll also be looking at work quality. Is it easier to write essays and stories? Will I be able to do web research better? Accounting and taxes? Use OneNote to collect and organize materials?

And after that, it's probably time to learn what really does happen if you install Vista on a system with integrated sound and graphics? I hadn't thought about that one. Readers will recall Rich Heimlich's speculations about these matters.

Writing with Computers

I have a love/hate relationship with Word 2007. When it's working well - actually, when it's doing something the way I expect it to - it's really neat, and I like it a lot. The editing tools are laid out well, and you can have as much or as little clutter in the tool bars as you like. When I first began writing with computers I didn't want any distractions: I wanted my text and only my text on display, and anything else on the screen was a serious distraction. Over the years, though, I grew accustomed to having all kinds of formatting tools and other such stuff sharing the page with my text, and the convenience of having it there overcame the distraction factor. In a word, I got used to Microsoft Word, and over time I even became fond of it.

Word was never small, but during the "feature wars" Word became quite unwieldy. As features were added they were tucked in here and there, distributed among the various menus and folders as seemed most appropriate; but since there had never been any systematic plan of those menus and folders, the arrangements made less and less sense, until eventually there was often very little connection between a feature and the way you set its options.

For those who learned Word from the beginning this wasn't really a problem. A great many features were added to Word from its beginning through Word 2003, but few were taken away - and more importantly, the way you used them remained the same. If you learned how to set the font and type size, to set the default directories for finding and saving files, how to import files and graphics, how to add and edit spelling dictionaries, and all the other myriad features of Word, you never had to relearn any of that with a new edition. In rare cases a feature's controls might be moved, but about as often as not the old way would be left in as well.

The problem here is that Word contains many features that users desperately want, but since they aren't organized in any logical way, you either have to know the feature exists and set forth on safari to discover it, or you need a guru. Microsoft has found in survey after survey that when users suggest features to be added to Word, most of the time those features are already there, but users can't find them.

Needless to say, HELP was no help at all. That wasn't always the case. At one time Chris Peters owned Word within Microsoft, and he took his show on the road, inviting people to use Word, watching what they did, and modifying HELP accordingly. For a while there Word's HELP was actually helpful. Alas, somewhere in the last decade all that seems to have been lost. HELP is now apparently the domain of programmers who use technical terms, and since they already know how to find the feature they want, they never try common sense descriptions. By Word 2003 HELP was generally useless unless you already had a pretty good idea of what you wanted to find and how to find it.

And that's the way it is for most Word users in August of this year of grace 2006: most of us know how to find most of what we want in Word, and we've spent a lot of time learning that. There are probably features in Word that we want, but we don't know how to find or use them.

Word 2007

Word 2007 is entirely different. The tool bars are different. The menus are different (and mostly gone). The starting points are different. With Word 2007 Microsoft bit the bullet: they reorganized Word from the ground up, grouping features in a reasonably logical manner. There are not many new features in Word 2007, but it's easier to find the ones that are there.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice it doesn't work that well. Word 2007 is probably easier to learn for someone who never used Word before, but for long time Word users like me it can be sheer hell. Nothing is where I expect it to be, and while the HELP files are actually useful, they are more useful the second time you've done something than the first.

For example. In previous editions of Word, the way to change default directories for both Save and Open was to use Tools | Options and choose the Files tab. There is no such thing as Tools | Options in Word 2007. HELP tells you to use the Office button. That turns out to be the larger round button with the stylized colored squares in it up in the upper left hand corner. The only problem is that when you put the mouse over that button it tells you that is the Files button. It's also the Office button, but only HELP knows that.

Once past that confusion you will find that the Office (Files) button works about the way the older Files button did, but there's a Word Options button down at its bottom. Clicking that one brings up menus that are quite useful once you know what you are looking at. One is Save, and in there you will find all the options you need for changing save defaults. It's all quite logical, and once you have done it once it's easy to do again; but it took me nearly ten minutes to find out how to do that.

Another change: there is no longer an Insert File command. Now you go to the Insert mode, where there's an acre of icons for inserting tables, pictures, charts, smart art, header, footer, and a whole bunch of other stuff: but no "file". For once HELP is helpful: it tells you to find the Insert "Object" command. Object is a tiny little icon off in one corner. Click it and there are two options: Object (again); and "Text from file." Now suppose the file you want to insert has pictures as well as text; what do you do now? Well, in fact, "insert text from file" simply inserts the file, pictures and all; but there's nothing to tell you that.

I could continue in this vein for quite a while, but to no purpose. I'd have to write a manual for Word 2007, and doubtless someone better skilled at that sort of thing than I am is already doing it. The point is, offices that upgrade to Word 2007 are going to need that manual, and need it badly.

My guess is that when you upgrade from Word 2003 to Word 2007 you will lose about a week of productivity over the course of the next six months, as experienced Word users tear their hair out trying to discover how to do things they used to do instinctively. On the other hand, it will take considerably less time to train new Word 2007 users because of the logical layout.

Of course Microsoft could cut way back on that loss of productivity by paying considerable attention to the HELP file entries - the one telling you how to insert a file might mention that "insert text from file" doesn't actually mean that - but I doubt that will happen. On the other hand, I know of at least three competent people who are working on new manuals for Word 2007. I hope I won't need all of them.

Is It Worth It?

The real question is whether you gain enough from changing to Word 2007 to justify the week or more of frustration and lower productivity you'll have to invest in order to do that; and that has no simple answer. The main user-level additions to Word 2007, other than the new reorganization of feature controls, are in formatting and collaboration, and while I work in collaboration with Larry Niven on many of my books, every edition of Word from Word 97 on has had more than adequate capabilities for comparing and merging documents, and that's all we really need. If both of us work on the same story at the same time, we can use compare/merge to see where we differ and decide whose version of a paragraph we want to keep. Word 2007 adds nothing new to that ability.

One other major change in Word 2007, and in fact of the entire Office 2007 suite, is that its native file format is now Open XML, the eXtensible Markup Language. As in the past, Word 2007 will save-as to a previous file format. I can't yet comment on how much this will affect the sharing of files with earlier versions of Word, but I can say: Every previous version of Word has had subtle incompatibilities in file formats with yet earlier versions. Word 2003 can save files which Word 97 can read, but more-complicated features such as complex or nested tables may be lost or oddly changed by the conversion. It seems a safe bet that Office 2007 will have such problems for anyone opening saved-as files in, say Office 2000.

Formatting is a different story. I don't use formats much, but those who have to produce formal proposals, books with many illustrations, and elaborately formatted documents will doubtless welcome many of Word 2007's new features.

My own conclusion is that I probably wouldn't have put the effort into learning Word 2007 if I hadn't had the obligation to learn more about it; but having done so, I do prefer it to the older versions of Word. Whether I prefer it enough to install it on every computer I work with is something else again. That would be quite expensive (not for me, perhaps, but for most readers). I expect that eventually I'll put it on the four desktops and two laptops I use when I'm writing simply because I do like it enough to use on my main machines and I don't want to have to keep switching back and forth; but we will see.

In a few months most new machines will have Office 2007 and Vista, and there won't be a lot of choice about that. Word 2007 works quite well with Word 2003 and earlier versions, and will read and write in those formats. Offices that have several versions of Word won't have any maj0r problems sharing documents. Every office will have a few curmudgeons who both insist on keeping their older versions of Office and have enough seniority to make that decision stick. My experience indicates that systems administrators needn't worry much about that. I expect to see Office 2000, Office 2003, and Office 2007 happily coexisting for several more years.