Five Vista annoyances and how to work around them

MicrosoftI have been using Vista for development work for a number of months now, which has given me time to experience many of its oddities. With XP no longer available pre-installed on new equipment, more people are now likely to start experiencing Vista. I therefore feel it an appropriate time to share what I consider to be the five biggest annoyances of Vista from a developer’s perspective. As I’m not interested in just moaning about then though, I’ll also suggest work-arounds to those annoyances.

1. User Account Control

User Account Control (UAC) is easily the most annoying feature of Vista. Most developers. Even if they have never used Vista, you will likely have heard of it. The most infamous aspect of it is a set of annoying pop-ups that appear every time you do just about anything on the system (allegedly including changing font sizes!). There is more to it though, as even if one if logged in as a local administrator, they do not get administrator rights by default. Processes must be launched via the “run as administrator” option and one must jump through hoops to delete files and the like.

Unfortunately the user of Vista has two choices:

  1. Live with the annoyance of UAC.
  2. Turn off UAC.

I chose the second route. I did so in the full knowledge that if I then had a subsequent problem with malware, it was my own fault. Please therefore note that if you are the sort of person that seeks to blame others when you screw up, you are expressly forbidden from using the following information to disable UAC for yourself. If you are happy to accept that disabling UAC carries some risks, and that that if anything goes wrong, it is your fault, then you can disable UAC thus:

  1. Open the control panel
  2. Select “User Accounts”! (green title)
  3. Select “User Accounts” again on the next screen
  4. Select “Turn User Account Control on or off”
  5. Click “Continue” on the UAC warning
  6. Untick the “Use User Account Control (UAC) to help proect your computer” checkbox.
  7. Click “OK” and then “Restart Now” on the dialogue.

When your machine restarts, you will be UAC (and UAC protection) free.

2. Automatic Scrolling

Vista introduced a concept called “dynamic multi-dimensional scrolling”. Rather than me try to describe it, I suggest you watch the animation on this page. It’s a feature that divides opinion: some love it, some hate it. One thing is for sure though: there is no way of disabling it.

Another thing for sure is that if you use the Eclipse IDE, it will drive you mad. The same automatic scrolling occurs in tree views in that application. So the debug tree randomly scrolls about when you try to use it. Thankfully there is a solution: simply run Eclipse in compatibility mode. Right click on the executable (or a shortcut if you’ll use that all the time.) Select properties and go to the Compatibility tab. Then tick the”Run this program in compatibility mode for:” checkbox and make sure “Windows XP (service Pack 2)” is selected as the compatibility mode.

Eclipse properties

When you next run Eclipse, the only change you should notice is that the trees now behave.

3. Search

Vista’s search is, in my opinion at least, useless. I could rant on about it, I could use a string of expletives to describe it. There is no point though: “useless” describes it succinctly. It simply cannot be made to perform “proper” searches. By proper, I mean giving it a string to match and a location to search and having it search every file and find every occurrence of that string. The solution I came up with was to install a third-party search product. I picked Effective File Search, a $30 shareware product that took about 1 minute to download, install and perform a successful search on a mixture of source and binary files. I’d previously spent around three hours trying to get Vista’s built-in search joke to do the same job, and it failed. That’s £15 very well spent in my view, though there may be better and/ or cheaper options available.

4. Windows Sidebar

Windows SidebarVista’s Windows Sidebar is a good idea that is poorly executed. The idea of having a bunch of user-selectable gadgets is a good one, but the sidebar is irritatingly rigid in appearance (it cannot be resized or reskinned) and there is a distinct lack of useful gadgets for it. It can be turned off though, and other sidebar solutions are available.

The obvious replacement choice is the Google Desktop Sidebar. It suffers from the same problems as the Vista one though in my view: lack of reconfigurability, lots of useless gadgets and too few useful ones. Obviously “useful” and “useless” are very subjective terms. To my mind, useful gadgets are a RSS reader that can handle multiple feeds, a memory & CPU meter, support for shortcuts and outlook integration.

The only sidebar I’ve found that offers all these features is  Desktop Sidebar (shown on the right). It is a highly skinnable, configurable sidebar that has some great features. The downside is that it is a “dead development”, as it has not been updated since just after Vista was released. As a result, it must be run with full administrator rights. If you can live with this though, it is a great product. It’s RSS reader is the best I’ve seen, as it supports multiple feeds, each shown on a separate “page”, rather than jumbled together as most multi-feed readers do. The sidebar is worth running for that feature alone in my view.

5. Insufficient access rights

Even if you switch off UAC, it is still possible to get weird errors from Vista informing you that you have insufficient access rights to delete a file. A check of the properties reveals you have full access rights and you own the file, yet this weird “you are not worthy” message will greet your every attempt at deleting the file. The reason turns out to be mundane and frustrating: what the message is trying to tell you is that a process has the file locked and so it cannot be deleted. Shut the process down, and the file can be deleted with ease.

There is a bit of a problem here though. How do you know which process has a lock on the file? Easy: install Process Explorer, run it, go to the menu option

Find -> Find handle or DLL…

enter the file’s path into the search box and it will tell you exactly which processes are using it. Process Explorer is a really powerful Windows tool that is:

  1. Written by Microsoft
  2. Free
  3. Useful

(Mac and Linux fan-boys take note: a useful, free, Microsoft product really does exist!)

So there you have it: five tips on making the transition from XP to Vista a less painful, more enjoyable, experience.