Is the UI in Vista taking far too big a toll on your system? For now, under some circumstances, that seems to be the case. Here’s what I’ve seen, plus how to turn ths crud off. (It’s unscientific, so take it with a grain of salt, but this CPU graph actually did this just moving and resizing windows. Yipes!)

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend upgrading to Vista at this time, because too many drivers are missing (hello, M-Audio), many applications still need updates, and, most importantly, graphics drivers seem still to be in flux, performing unreliably, slowly, or both (hello, NVIDIA and ATI).

But there are reasons to upgrade, as long as Vista isn’t the only bootable OS on your only system. Multiple systems? New computer pre-installed with Vista? Dual-boot setup? Give it a try. People love to slam early adopters, but I actually like adopting early on a non-critical system, because it means when that machine is ready for a project, I won’t be troubleshooting anything.

Now, the beginning of the bad news. Out of the box, I’ve already found significant issues that can make a system slow to a crawl, and was able to confirm some of these issues with others. Fortunately, I did find some fixes; I hope to find more performance enhancements, but these will definitely get you started by eliminating the bigger bottlenecks. And some of them are reminiscent of similar situations on XP.

Disclaimers: Vista is new. Your mileage may vary. And I’m not done; part of the reason I’m glad to do this on the Web is to get some of your feedback, and update these tips over time.

But let’s start with the easy one: fixing Aero.

Why Aero Has Gone Horribly Wrong

This one I find especially annoying. Aero, the slick, shiny new user interface for Vista, should run more reliably than the Vista Basic UI and Windows XP. Aside from looking cooler (scalable interface elements, translucency, shiny things, flying windows), the whole point of Aero was supposed to be that most of the display processing took place on the GPU, the brain on your video card, instead of your CPU. UI elements still have to be calculated to some extent on the CPU, but you place the processor-intensive elements of animation and translucency on the GPU. This should mean that UI operations interfere less with CPU operations, like producing music. It should mean fewer glitches. It should not require a high-end graphics card. Three-dimensional transformations, translucent texture blends, and even animations can all be performed by shader code on the graphics card without even involving the CPU. This was even running on mainstream Mac hardware before the release of Windows XP.

Unfortunately, two things go wrong in Vista’s UI implementation:
1. Animations make systems feel slower. This one isn’t Vista’s fault. Adding an animation can easily make systems feel less responsive, because they literally add a delay while the animation draws, before you get the effect you wanted (opening/closing menus, minimizing windows, etc.). I turn off animations on OS X wherever I can, so I’ll do it on Windows, too.

2. Aero can cause the system to crawl, even with a fast video card. And that’s, of course, to be exp– erm, what did you say? [Insert the sound of a record screeching to a halt here.]

Not all users are having this issue. But let’s say that a significant number are, and not because they have an old system or low-end video card.

My situation: I have an NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT. It’s a more-than-ample card for Aero. It’s running the latest, Microsoft-validated NVIDIA drivers. It’s got 256MB video RAM. It can blaze through GPU-intensive games and 3D apps and pro graphics apps that are far more complex than the Windows UI. The CPU in my machine is a dual-core AMD 3800+ X2, again, quite capable of CPU-intensive work. Until you turn Aero on. Then, just running a stereo stream of audio in Windows Media Player, or simple ASIO audio mixes in FL Studio, SONAR, and Ableton Live, audio will stutter and stick if you so much as move a window.

And I’m not alone. This isn’t right. This is exactly the opposite of what should happen. And yet, it’s exactly what’s been happening to Vista users around the planet. Turning Aero on with all its visual effects seems to increase CPU load for many users, particularly if they’re using NVIDIA graphics cards. Native Instruments and PC vendor Rain Recording have both confirmed that audio performance can increase greatly with Aero turned off, possibly even independent of video cards.

Who’s to blame? That’s the hard one. Users do seem to have better luck with ATI graphics cards, at least in the area of Aero UI performance. (On the downside, a recent ATI driver update caused a rash of Blue Screens of Death and ATI seems to pale in OpenGL performance, and they’re still far behind on OpenGL and DirectX 10 implementation, so don’t rush to trade in your NVIDIA card just yet.) What this does suggest, though, is that software updates — perhaps from NVIDIA and ATI, but perhaps also from NVIDIA — will eventually fix the problem.

Here’s the amazing part: this seems to be nothing new. You can find people complaining about it in August 2006 on Channel 9, Microsoft’s developer community:

Still dissapointed [sic] with Aero performance/features in 5472

All the more interesting, not everyone was having the same results. This suggests to me a couple of things: one, the problem is specific to certain conditions and therefore some sort of fix may exist, and, two, some of these issues may have gotten frozen into the OS and/or drivers in order to make ship dates. (Okay, that’s a nice way of saying it. The other way of saying it: drivers and/or OS were a rush job.)

Can it be fixed? It’s definitely fixable. I hate to bring up the Mac example, but I’ve never seen a Mac have these kinds of issues with the UI prioritizing itself over simple CPU tasks, and the Mac has had GPU-accelerated graphics since OS X 10.0 running on far lesser hardware. Unfortunately, the press seems to be missing the Aero train wreck. Here’s the single most hyped feature of Vista and it consistently under-performs on at least one of the two biggest graphics hardware vendors. It performs in the exact opposite way in which it was supposed to perform. So, Microsoft, come on — fix it.

Tweaking Aero

Okay, now that the rant’s done, let’s see if I can actually advise how to fix all of this. (And if you are one of those people, perhaps with an ATI card, for whom this is all working swimmingly, let us know in comments.) For the rest of you:

Consider deep-sixing Aero altogether.

Vista includes an implementation of the XP-style user interface; you’ll see it show up automatically when you run an application that requires it for compatibility. If you get tired of the clunky way in which Vista switches to that compatibility mode, or if you want to see if the older interface will perform better, you can switch to it permanently.

Hidden in the color preferences is a tool for switching off Aero. (There are other ways of getting at this, too, thanks to the convoluted new Vista Control Panel.)

1. Open the Control Panel. Click “Control Panel Home” if you’re in “Classic View” so we’re on the same page, so to speak.
2. Under “Appearance and Personalization”, select “Customize Colors.”
3. Select “Open classic appearance properties for more color options.”
4. Under “Color Scheme”, choose “Windows Vista Basic.” You can even opt for “Windows Standard” or “Classic” for a retro-Windows 2000 look.

Sometimes low-fi options are better.

Vista Basic, while it looks similar to the UI in Aero, is really just a skin on the old UI model. (It’s the only UI choice in Vista Home Basic, which skips Aero altogether.) You should find performance roughly comparable on Vista Basic and Standard, so the only choice is aesthetic. And on aesthetic grounds, I do like Vista Basic better than the hideous XP Luna theme.

But, alternatively, you can:

Turn off superfluous visual effects

I’ve found Aero can run more efficiently on its own, by disabling some of the animations and translucency. Bonus: even if you aren’t finding Aero is bottlenecking your system, some of these effects may well be annoying the heck out of you, anyway.

Exploring this control panel will find you the “Effects” missing from the above dialog — and lots of other helpful performance tweaks and analysis tools.

1. Open the Control Panel. Select “Control Panel Home” if “Classic View” is selected.
2. Select “System and Maintenance.”
3. Select “System.”
4. Under “Tasks” in the left column, select “Advanced system settings.”
5. When User Account Control prompts you, select “continue.”
6. Under the “Advanced Tab” > “Performance”, click the “Settings…” button.
7. Under “Visual Effects”, select “Custom.”

I could say something at this point about how Vista’s control panels are actually worse than XP’s, something we never thought possible. But I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Here’s what I’d suggest turning off:

  1. Animate controls and elements inside windows
  2. Animate windows when minimizing and maximizing
  3. Enable transparent glass
  4. Fade or slide menus into view (just because it’s annoying and makes the machine feel slower
  5. Fader or slide ToolTips into view (ditto)
  6. Fade out menu items after clicking (why?)
  7. Show window contents while dragging. (That’s one I haven’t turned off in a long time under XP; hopefully these drivers will get better and we can turn it back on. Party like it’s 1997, in the meantime.)
  8. Slide open combo boxes
  9. Slide taskbar buttons
  10. Smooth-scroll list boxes

The most important ones, though, appear to be animating windows when minimizing and maximizing, and, in particular, enable transparent glass. Turning off these two alone made the system far more responsive.

Note that you can also turn off the “Enable desktop composition” option, and get basically the same effect — albeit controlled on a more granular level — as switching to Vista Basic.

Vista Basic vs. “Aero Basic”

That raises an interesting question: which will work better, turning off Aero entirely and opting for Vista Basic, or just disabling the eye candy and leaving Aero (desktop composition) on? Certainly, going with Aero provides a much smoother OS experience. With Vista Basic, you lose not only the spiffy Flip 3D interface for switching apps (which, okay, many people can’t stand), but also useful features like window previews in alt-tab. More importantly, switching to Vista Basic gives you some of the same on-screen refresh glitches as XP had. I seem to be having some luck with Aero Basic and no effects, but I still have some issues — resizing images in Windows Photo Gallery, for instance, causes audio playback issues. (Don’t ask.)

My guess is that Aero will be the way we’ll go in the long haul. For now, since there’s not enough data, I’d recommend experimenting, using Aero with everything on as a “control”, but experimenting primarily with Aero “Lite” versus Vista Basic.

Final Tip: Don’t Touch Anything

Okay, that’s a little silly, but suffice to say that because the graphics systems seems not-so-optimized, avoiding anything else UI-intensive is a good idea. For instance, I found FL Studio 7 would have issues if its auto-scroll playback was turned on. This can happen on any system, but it does seem slightly exaggerated in Vista, at least with my current display setup and drivers. Solution: turn off FL Studio’s own eye candy (like glass effects), stop it from moving things around (consider turning off auto-scroll), and then don’t touch anything while playing (which you probably wouldn’t do, anyway).

But generally speaking, just avoiding minimizing windows and such while you’re playing doesn’t seem to be the only issue. Hands-off benchmarks with Aero versus Vista Basic or even my “Aero Lite” configuration suggest the UI is pulling resources

Hopefully, we’ll see a string of updates that erases the memory of this forever. Even then, I’ll be glad to turn these other effects off on a granular level for their annoyance factor. (And I am glad that at least Microsoft gives you the option, even if it’s buried in layers of dialog boxes.)

We’ve got more tips coming, but Vista users, do share what you’ve experienced — I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s different from what I’ve seen, given the number of variables.

  • 12bitter

    Audio stuttering when dragging a window ??

    In 2007 and with a last gen hardware system ??

    The horror!

    I'm not going to switch from XP anytime soon but developers should really yell at them for having such basic things fixed NOW!

  • helio9000

    The press missing the so called trainwreck? Huh? I think they have actually been quite hard on vista including areo with a decent helping of straight up FUD on the side.

    My Vistabox is a system very similiar to yours (same proc, slightly better graphics card, lesser RAM) and it runs without hiccup with the notable exception of flash which is utterly useless. There are some other (non performance)issues but I find it stable as a whole (never had a system crash but some processes have had to be killed off) and generally I like the interface fine (visually anyway). Some stuff better than OS X [runs]. It isn't on par with my mac stability wise and still a ways off from my XP 64 video editing station (which is, believe it or not, easily the most solid system I've ever used on a day to day basis.)

    However, I put together a box for my dad and made the mistake of using an (admittedly cheap) nvidia card. The drivers suck. Performance was notably off XP's and the (also installed) ubuntu. A friend who recently upgraded had me take a look because he was having some audio stuttering and what do I find but an NVIDIA card. (You are right about all the factors though – a vista install at work is running on an old nVidia 6600 just fine. Are the drivers different for older hardware? Maybe they are MS versions?) Anyway, ATI's drivers are not what they should but IMHO nvidia's border on scandal. It isn't like they haven't had time…I place most of the blame (mostly) on them.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Thanks for the insight, helio; this is what I want to hear.

    I agree, the press have been hard on Vista — but what I've gotten seems to be a misunderstanding of what was wrong. So I've seen repeated over and over again "Aero needs a fast video card." That doesn't seem to be the issue; in fact, the *video card's performance* seems to be entirely independent. In fairness, print has to be so far ahead of this thing that it's very, very difficult to investigate these issues.

    Flash is crap on Vista — meaning Adobe Flash?

    I'm curious, which video card are you using in the system that's … ahem … working? :)

    The 6-series NVIDIA drivers I believe are not on the unified NVIDIA driver model as the 7-series are. For the 7- and 8-series, there's a single driver that runs everything, though not necessarily with identical functionality. So, ironically, maybe that unified driver model is either not playing nicely with Vista or making the task of being Vista-ready harder. (In theory, a unified model should make it easier, but I can see many reasons why that might not be the case.)

  • dead_red_eyes

    Vista is a damn train wreck really. The fact that they're all super gun ho for an OS that's still riddled with problems is just rediculous. There's still TONS of drivers that are in beta stage for it … and Microsoft is being really picky about who gets to see under the hood.

    You ask me, Vista isn't worth buying until they release a SP pack or 2. The first SP pack is supposed to come this fall … I seriously doubt it will tho.

  • helio9000

    Peter have you run the reliabilty monitor? [Just in case - It is winkey > re > ENTER.] I'd be interested in your score. Are there "hardware failures" checked off? On the 6600 machine it is at 7.45 (Down from a high of 10 and up from a low of 4.78) with one "OS stopped working" note since installation. (2 months or so.)

    >The 6-series NVIDIA drivers I believe are not on the unified NVIDIA

    There you go…interesting. I got my dad a 7300 thinking it would be at least as good as the 6600 which, as stated, runs aero pretty smoothly. But the first time I win+tabbed I could see trouble brewing. Also, how is this for crazy? The performance meter on the 6600 machine pegs aero graphics at 3.9! For the 7300 it was 3.0. No way the benchmarking is that far off.

    >Microsoft is being really picky about who gets to see under the hood.

    In the long run that is a good thing. As much as people hate MS's sloppy programming most BSODs are caused, straight up, by bad drivers. You can argue that the system should handle that better no question but this is also just a function of a wide open (hardware anyway) system.

    With Vista 64 you can't run unsigned drivers at all which is an interesting attempt to impose some closed-system_ness. This is a pain for me now because I've had fantastic luck with xp 64 but in the long run it will make it even more stable than what I have experienced.

    >which video card are you using in the system

    Radeon X1800 xl. If memory serves it was either this or the card you have. It turns out my (performace index) issue is slow system RAM.

    >Flash is crap on Vista — meaning Adobe Flash?

    Yeah. Totally unusable. It seems fine 80% of the time…until you drill into a mc and then you see the (very subtle normally) "drill down" animation plays out in supreme slow mo. There is a hack you can turn on to see all of the Vista's anims play out in slow motion which is actually kind of interesting…the flash issue reminds me of that. It is so exaggerated that it is actually kind of funny. You start looking for the "play applications animations in slo mo" check box. To me this is Adobe's problem, not MS's. Premiere Elements had a similiar issue but they patched it.

    For me vista has generally been worth the upgrade (I got an oem copy for actually cheaper than what xp sells for) and didn't go a day without Start ++. This might also be because I have been using it since last year and got used to it. I do have a catalog of some hilarious.sometimes mindblowing missteps (help is actually the train wreck and doesn't even come close to OS X's) and as usual for MS there are 103 ways to do the same thing but it has actually helped me organize some data very effectively (stacks are way underrated) and I miss some things when I'm back in xp or even in OS X. However, I still have xp 64 installed and it isn't like I'm giving up my mac. I also have high hopes for ubuntu studio.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    My reliability score is hovering around 5, but that may or may not mean anything. Contributing:

    * I initially had some issues with Ableton Live.

    * SaffireControl, for my Focusrite audio interface, crashed until I successfully updated firmware.

    * iTunes is knocking down the score as it crashes on quit. (Otherwise fine, actually, and seems less CPU-intensive than WMP.)

    * DllHost has had some issues.

    * Couple of random 044 BSODs, which I think may be firmware related.

    * A couple of forced-shutdowns because my machine won't wake up if I switch via a KVM I have plugged into it and my Mac.

    No hardware failures whatsoever.

    But my biggest problem at the moment is USB device installation. I can't install either a Canon printer or Edirol MIDI keyboard — regardless of which USB port I use or if I uninstall and reinstall — even though each of these has Vista drivers.

    I agree that it's often vendors who cause the problem. But Microsoft promised better relations with vendors, and has actually singled out each one of the companies I just mentioned (NVIDIA, Edirol, and Canon, among others) as "model examples."

    FYI, Experience Index 4.8.

    I'm curious, though, Helio — what about Vista *has* made it worth it, despite these complaints? Honestly, I'm just thinking about reinstalling XP, because superior performance and reliability, whoever is it fault or whatever the reason, is more important to me than Vista's modest improvements. Maybe this PC plus my (currently-XP) PC laptop will stay XP boxes, and I'll go Vista on the next machine.

    Part of the reason I'm thinking about going back is that XP does do things like run Java and Flash really well, and that it runs a lot of software that isn't on the Mac, let alone Linux. I love Ubuntu and the idea of Ubuntu Studio, but I'll be honest, the Windows *platform itself* for me has more to offer. (The Mac is a tighter race because of the amount of cross-platform software, but even there I have good reason to maintain both platforms in my studio.)

  • helio9000

    >But my biggest problem at the moment is USB device installation

    Which is a big problem! That blows. Especially if there are vista drivers. Kinda surprised about the canon. So far I haven't had anything that vista won't talk to. No question that these sorts of issues will altogether obscure any advantage vista might have.

    >what about Vista *has* made it worth it,

    For my own setup I haven't your number of problems. No BSODs at all and it benchmarks just below xp on the same machine (though despite the patch Elements is still faster on XP). There are hiccups – no question. But for the most part relability issue have more to do with individual apps and, at least for what I'm working on right now, it proves more annoyance than deal breaker.

    I know you said you turn off indexing but for me it is nice to have real search on a windows machine. I can't abide google desktop – viewing results in a browser window is too limiting and the last I looked (this may have changed) you couldn't chose which folders or file types to index and it didn't support booleans or natural language queries. (I don't get why they work searching billions of web pages but not 50,000 desktop files.)

    So vista's search has been really helpful for me because it really did get a lot of data that I had let go wild organized. More effectively than even Spotlight can due to the combination of composed searchs, stacks and far more powerful interaction with search results. (Better results interaction is coming in Leopard.)

    So on that basis it is been great but I was in kind of a unique situation where I had recently pulled together thousands of files from different projects and sources (multiple HDDs etc/all file-structured differently) and was overwhelmed by the mess. This isn't to say I couldn't have shaped up my filing another way it is just that in this case vista seemed to work best. I just kind of found myself doing it and then it was too late to turn back! Maybe now that I have reined in the mess it will seem less useful day to day. (For instance, many of the composed searches were to find scattered stuff that is now all in one folder that even XP's search could deal with.)

    Another note: I will say that in many places the UI is just silly. I found it necessary to install a couple little apps like ++Start and preview handler that tweak MS choices. (Also, I'd start with a dual boot no matter what.)

    Hmmm, I haven't noticed problems with java but I don't like the sound it. I'm going to run some more intesive java apps to check it out.

    >the idea of Ubuntu Studio

    Agreed. The idea is probably better than what the reality will be. Last time I checked some stuff I was looking forward to had been delayed in this release.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, I'm just giving people instructions for turning off search, not necessarily saying it's essential to do. I'd say if you do like it, give the system a burn-in time to get its index up to date … and presumably you could stop the search service when running anything critical rather than disabling it entirely at startup; it should maintain its index.

    There are good search options for XP, though, so this still raises the question of why upgrade to Vista? Certain parts of the OS do feel cleaner, and I like the new Explorer … but whether this can beat XP, I don't know. I'm hopeful for a future version or better luck with this one in future. ;)

  • anon

    I don't even know why you're giving it so much thought. It's clearly WinME for the 21st century, all flashy looking and a general POS.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I had to give it some thought, because I had a limited amount of time before I uninstalled it.

    I'm serious. ;)

    I'm a music tech journalist, though (and lots of other things, so my time is limited). I wish some of the PC journalists gave it more time and effort. One thing I'll say for people like Paul Thurrott: I don't always agree with him, but the guy spends a lot of time and mindpower on Windows operating systems.

  • http://www.Diggiti.com Diggiti

    I got RID of my M-Audio sound card. And I dont want ANYTHING M-AUDIO EVER AGAIN !

    Its just not worth the trouble

  • http://www.no.com slrl

    Diggiti ~ Don't get windows vista and you won't have problems with m-audio. Stick with xp.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    True, and missing drivers isn't the only issue. I had significant issues with Vista-compatible driver installation and reliability, not least being what seems to be an issue with the entire NVIDIA card line.

    So, maybe there's a reason to dump M-Audio (like refitting your whole studio with nothing but analog modular gear, which would be kinda nice), but Vista isn't that reason.

  • http://www.monotouchlive.cm DJ-Grobe

    Finally M-Audio start show the first drivers for vista !!

    First is for M-AUDIO "FAST TRACK"

    I hoppe they start make public more across this week.

    http://www.m-audio.com/index.php?do=support.drive

    Fast Track USB April 13, 2007 5.10.00.5093v2 FastTrack_V32_5.10.00.5093v2.exe

    Windows Vista

  • Fraser

    I also have the ui performance glitch, running nvidia card via e-pci, vista won't recognise my other pci card (bye bye goes the dual monitor setup).

    A new glitch for you here, i have 1.7 terrabyte via an assortment of 500gb & 250gb sata drives, windows search kept running at 90-100% randomly. Now its killed i'm under 10% usage (and i know how to hammer resources). I never liked windows search, great idea, but kills the system.

    The main thing for me is loads of common software, such as sony ericcson / samsung mobile syncrhonisation software won't work with vista, isn't it supposed to be backward compliant?

    As a developer though, this is the best windows to date, got glitches, but hopefully these will be ironed out soon seeing as microsoft have made it clear new pcs won't be bundled with xp from january 2008.

    right, i'm off for a pizza.

  • http://www.synaptik-gfx.com ChadB

    I'm having the same problems with the audio system dropping out due to display glitches. Every so often, my screen flashes white for a split second, almost like the "flash" on a Mac's photo booth application. When it does, I lose my audio interface and have to manually restart it through it's control panel app. I have an Alesis iO|26. I'm hoping that between MS, NVIDIA, and Alesis, that one of them will take responsibility for whichever bug is causing this problem and FIX IT. But right now I can't even listed to 2 songs worth of mp3 while I'm typing this reply, and that's sad.

  • http://www.soundclick.com/gcthree ed

    Just switch to Windows Classic theme.

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  • garth

    Can you please give a tutorial on MMCSS?

  • John Bailey

    Vista is USELESS. Microshit should be ashamed tbh – How dare they give us (The CONSUMER) such poorly written, buggy software. Mac OS X Leopard/Snow Leopard and Ubuntu Hardy all the way, thanks!

    Oh and I saw someone mention that the reason Windoze is so poor is because it's like open hardware – well, so is Ubuntu? So is Linux? I don't see how it makes any difference. Windows nowadays is old technology – who wants DLL's anyway? A UNIX Pipe can do the same task as a Windows Pipe but requiring half the lines of code, you do the maths. Vista, Microshit, Windows, XP – ALL CRAP