General Software

Vista + CAD: Is It a Lock? (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 May, 2007 By: Ron LaFon

How Microsoft's Newest OS is Clicking with the Design World


With the introduction of Microsoft Vista, PC users are beginning to experience the wide range of difficulties inherent in upgrading to a new operating system (OS) and becoming productive using it. This month, Cadalyst provides an early—and very general—glance at what is involved, as well as some speculation about when moving to Vista might make sense for users.

If you've been vacationing in the Valles Marineris on Mars or taking a leisurely sojourn off the ring plane of Saturn, you may have missed the news that Microsoft released a new version of Windows. Yes, Windows Vista—in a variety of flavors—has finally made its way to the marketplace. Although I don't watch television—no, not even PBS—I knew the media onslaught had begun when my FedEx delivery person asked me about Vista because he'd seen part of the announcement coverage before he came to work that morning.

Having been an early adopter of Windows—my first version was 1.04—I've managed to live through all the launches and the associated angst that they have engendered. Windows releases always seem to bring out the vocal minorities who either espouse how the new version of the OS will lift the course of humanity or how it must surely be the first harbinger of the downfall of civilization. For most of us, the truth falls somewhere in the middle—how does it apply to what we do, and what does it mean in terms of getting work done? Vista is, after all, just a way of interacting with a computer.

Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate, showing the Welcome Center window at startup and the side toolbar.
Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate, showing the Welcome Center window at startup and the side toolbar.

Designing an OS that is easy enough on one hand for Grandma to receive and read the e-mailed pictures of her grandkids and capable enough on the other hand to drive sophisticated enterprise-level manufacturing processes is no small feat. No matter what decisions are made at the OS-design level, there are bound to be compromises. You simply can't please everyone—or even do everything you want to do.

At the base level, the shiny new Vista interface will be inviting for new users. For those more experienced with Windows, particularly with Windows XP, some of the design decisions will be maddening. Old familiar ways of doing things often no longer work, and some things have been moved around and, frankly, aren't where they logically belong. These interactions with the OS will become familiar as time goes on, but gaining that familiarity will reduce productivity for a while.

Vista's User Access Control, part of the new security features, is one of those things that sounds like a good idea on the surface. The idea here is to confirm what you're doing (or want to do), but the reality is that you're asked for confirmation for virtually everything you want to do—from changing fonts to starting most installation programs. After repeatedly confirming so many operations, a user's tendency is to just OK it without really paying attention to what it's actually doing, which isn't a good idea. You can turn off the User Access Control via the control panel, but then you lose part of the legitimate security benefits that it provides. It's a good idea in general, but Microsoft needs to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Vista Ultimate, showing the autoplay options dialog box preparing for installation of AutoCAD 2008 beta.
Vista Ultimate, showing the autoplay options dialog box preparing for installation of AutoCAD 2008 beta.

Most have heard of the spiffy hardware-accelerated Aero interface that's new with Vista. With its transparency, it is indeed both attractive and inviting. I, however, most likely will be turning it off for future Cadalyst Labs benchmark tests. Most CAD users will be switching Aero off as well because performance means time and money. A recent conversation with NVIDIA, for example, indicated that the company's expected testing procedure for certified drivers and applications will stipulate that Aero be turned off.

Hardware

Windows Vista uses an entirely new driver model, which means that early adopters will be scrambling to find drivers that work with their hardware—printers, graphics cards, scanners or just about any device they attach to their systems. Vista ships with a fairly wide array of drivers, so many devices will operate with at least a basic level of functionality. You might not have all the features enabled in a given device. At this writing, drivers vary widely—some aren't available, others are available but buggy.

After you've decided on a version of Vista—most CAD users likely will need one of the more expensive and capable versions to drive their demanding design applications—you'll have to find drivers. Every time a new version of Windows appears, the chase for drivers becomes an ongoing activity. Some older hardware—and by old, I mean even a few months old—may never have available Vista drivers. For hardware vendors, it's often not economically feasible to produce drivers for older hardware, even if it's possible, so some hardware devices will be abandoned as far as Vista support is concerned. This situation is a painful reality of upgrades and not specific to Vista. Although not everyone is fortunate enough to have a budget that will stretch to accommodate all new hard-ware, for many the solution of new hardware might not only be the easiest path to Vista, but the only path.

A typical application installation screen that shows AutoCAD 2008 beta installing under Windows Vista Ultimate.
A typical application installation screen that shows AutoCAD 2008 beta installing under Windows Vista Ultimate.

New hardware on the horizon has Vista environments in mind. For example, Samsung has introduced the MH80 series of hybrid hard drives that combine conventional hard drive technology with oneNAND Flash cache and Microsoft's ReadyDrive software for faster booting and resume times. Microsoft Vista can take advantage of flash memory for faster boots and, with mobile systems, this capability should help prolong battery life.

Generally, Vista is a more visual OS than XP, with larger icons that require more screen space, so users may need larger monitors to ensure productivity gains. I looked at Vista running under one of the new high-gamut color LCD displays: the newly introduced Dell UltraSharp 2707WFP HDCP-compatible (high-bandwidth digital copy protection) monitor. Security is a big issue with Microsoft Vista, and a significant amount of resources are devoted to this end every time you run the OS. With that in mind, if you expect to watch full-resolution Blu-ray or HD-DVD movies on your PC, you'll need to be sure that you have a monitor and cable that will support these technologies securely.

For those accustomed to high-performance graphics cards that use OpenGL, the news at press time remains neutral. OpenGL devices will run under Windows Vista but are dependent upon the graphic card drivers to provide adequate support. The preferred driver acceleration with Windows Vista for several vendors appears to be DirectX 10, which is newly introduced with this release of Vista and isn't backwards compatible to XP. For many of the new versions of the design and CAD applications that I've seen thus far in beta release—at least in the Autodesk-centric world—the default accelerated driver is Direct3D. This trend has been around for some time, but it really comes to fruition in Vista environments. Customer demand will play a large part in how well OpenGL accelerated drivers perform in Vista, although I think that the standards-based OpenGL is likely to remain the preferred method for getting graphics on the screen for cross-platform applications.

Beta 5 of AutoCAD 2008 running under Windows Vista Ultimate.
Beta 5 of AutoCAD 2008 running under Windows Vista Ultimate.

CAD users will, of course, need graphics cards that support DirectX 10 to take advantage of its features—it isn't supported in older versions of graphics cards currently on the market. The good news is that Direct3D performance using DirectX 10 under Vista is producing dazzling performance numbers—far beyond what I've ever seen under Windows XP.

If moving to Windows Vista is sounding like an expensive proposition, it will be for many people, particularly for those who use or expect to use applications that demand the utmost from their computers. That will be CAD users. Combined with expensive hardware upgrades, the increased cost of Windows itself (which seems like a bargain compared with the hardware costs) and the present state of drivers, it's little wonder that firms are showing some reluctance to make the move. IT departments are carefully evaluating hardware needs, performance issues and application compatibility, of course, before beginning the transition to Vista.

Applications

With the introduction of Vista, Microsoft also released a list of applications that work under Vista. As might have been foreseen, major design, CAD and DCC (digital content creation) applications were conspicuously absent from that list. In actuality, there are three lists—applications that work under Vista, those that are certified for Vista and those that simply won't run under Vista. A Vista application compatibility update is available for both 32 and 64-bit versions of the new OS and can be downloaded from Microsoft.

Numerous older applications run under Vista. A number of users have, for example, been able to get AutoCAD 2007 to run, but others haven't had any luck, even using the same procedures. During the course of writing this article, I was able—with a minimum of tweaking—to get Auto-desk 3ds Max 9 running—albeit with Vista's Aero interface disabled.

Beta 5 of AutoCAD 2008 running under Windows Vista Ultimate.
Beta 5 of AutoCAD 2008 running under Windows Vista Ultimate.

Some software vendors have stated that they will provide updates to older versions of their software to provide Vista compatibility, though exactly how extensive this support will be remains to be seen. Autodesk, for example, has announced that it will provide compatibility updates for a number of its products, including an AutoCAD 2007 update expected this spring, but updates to other products haven't been announced. (For more information about running AutoCAD 2007 on Vista, see Kenneth Wong's article titled "Vista and AutoCAD 2007: A Contentious Combo" at www.cadalyst.com/031907Daily.)

The first Vista-certified drivers and applications were expected to appear sometime in April, so by the time this article reaches print, CAD users should be getting early looks at how these applications and drivers are shaping up.

During the course of preparing this article, I reviewed a beta version of AutoCAD 2008, which was released in March along with AutoCAD LT 2008. The beta version runs under Microsoft Vista. Although it's impossible to provide concrete observations based on beta-level software, my general observation was that it and other applications I evaluated run 10% to 15% slower as individual applications, but they are affected minimally when multiple applications are running concurrently. Using AutoCAD 2008's default D3D display driver, I obtained C2006 total index scores higher than 400. However, because this was on beta software on a new version of Windows, final performance numbers may (and probably will) vary. The speedy performance is a very welcome preview, though.

SolidWorks has been testing a beta version of its flagship application for some time, so I expect that a release version for Vista—or at least a version that works under Vista—is close at hand. Other vendors similarly are working toward a Vista release, so users should get some realistic idea of what's in store for them in the not-too-distant future.

Because Vista is available in both 32- and 64-bit versions and major CAD and design applications are always resource and memory hungry, the shift to 64-bit computing—at least for these applications—likely will gain momentum. Undoubtedly, the most popular versions of Vista will be the 32-bit versions, particularly for home and most office uses, so most driver development will be directed first at that version, and 64-bit drivers will lag behind. With some design applications barely fitting within the confines of 32-bit operating systems at present, the move to 64-bit versions will offer possibilities for CAD operations that previously had been impossible in the Windows environment.

Getting Testy

Despite the fact that Vista is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary upgrade, it is a difficult and at times daunting upgrade process thanks to the new driver model and security features. Cadalyst will be re-evaluating all of its testing procedures in the coming months and making determinations as to the appropriate test procedures for benchmarking performance.

I anticipate a new version of the Cadalyst 2006 benchmark before the end of this year. The current version of the C2006 benchmark appears to run under at least the beta version of AutoCAD 2008 with only minimal glitches, although model rotations are so fast using the Direct3D drivers that monitors can't display them in their entirety. Whether Cadalyst will continue testing for OpenGL performance is unknown at this time (although Cadalyst probably will); much will depend upon whether OpenGL proves a viable option for significant performance under Vista. I was unable to get the SPEC ViewPerf 9.03 or any of its components to run under Vista, which wasn't too surprising because it's not designed to do so.

The Vista Performance Index, based on the slowest performing components in a system, is likely to become a guide in the overall evaluation of workstations and is something that I am considering incorporating in future reviews. In the meantime, I expect to continue testing under Windows XP for the immediate future—at least until the Cadalyst user base moves to Vista in significant numbers.

The Vista Ahead

As is true with significant upgrades of any operating systems, some problems need to be resolved. Many of the complaints about Vista really have more to do with the process of upgrading rather than with the new OS itself. Vista presents some unique difficulties of its own, though.

Some of the enhanced capabilities of Microsoft Vista provide benefits for the CAD workplace. The enhanced ability to manage information, moving somewhat beyond the file-folder paradigm, will prove useful, as will the enhanced search capabilities that go well beyond what was available in XP. New security features will prove a boon for laptops and the mobile workforce, with BitLocker providing the ability to encrypt and lock down information—even e-mails—to protect intellectual property.

Connectivity options provided by Dot Net 3 promise enhanced Internet services and the use of XML to exchange information and promote collaboration. Policy management will be useful in limiting what individual users or groups of users can do with specific data, and will both protect secure data and help eliminate some costly errors.

Although the 3D properties of some components of the interface promise enhanced 3D capabilities in Vista, objects don't really lend themselves to 3D manipulation, so there doesn't appear to be any out-of-the-box productivity gains. The communication of CAD and other design data offers opportunities for improving workflow.

Taken all together, Vista's functions are both great and not so great. Most users want easier and more powerful ways of doing what they already do; in actuality, most of Vista's features fall somewhere in the between of being faster and more powerful. Evaluating Vista is difficult at this early stage, particularly because solid drivers and Vista-capable applications are in very short supply.

For this reason, I don't expect to see any significant movement toward the adoption of Vista until late 2007, after the expected release of the first Service Pack. By that time, many of the driver and software problems will have resolved themselves. At some point, XP will disappear from the marketplace and, of course, the majority of new computer systems will ship with Vista. Then, too, the support for XP will be finite, so if you want support—and updates—you'll eventually be out of luck unless you make the move to Vista. That time is still in the future, but it's a real and forthcoming event.

Of some concern in this context is the expectation that support for Vista will run for five years, much less than the support cycle for XP. If this turns out to be the case, the usefulness of Vista in the long term will be diminished. If it takes until after the first Service Pack to gain momentum, and as many people expect two to three years before widespread corporate-level adoption, that only leaves a couple of years of support before the next iteration makes its way to the marketplace with great fanfare. At that time, users will begin this process all over again.

Even though Vista isn't all it could be or was intended to be, and it can never successfully be all things to all people, it isn't at all bad. At this stage, PC users have no viable alternatives. Linux doesn't have application support; the Mac OS, although beautifully integrated and easy to use, likewise doesn't have the kind of application and device support that will make it a good fit, particularly in the CAD, engineering and visualization communities. That leaves Windows and, in the case at hand, the latest Microsoft release—Vista. Many in the industry feel that the days of monolithic operating systems are numbered and that these behemoths are unsustainable, but the end isn't quite in sight.

After numerous OS upgrades, I've become more conservative in making the move to new ones. Like most users, I want it to be as easy and painless as possible. Certainly CAD shops and corporations have more at risk than I, with people's livelihoods and even the existence of the firm being at stake. Will I make the move to Vista? Yes, eventually, but personally I see no compelling reason to do so immediately. And that, I think, sums up what I see for Vista's widespread adoption. We'll get there eventually, but it's not yet time.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor and a computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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