Despite the gradual disintegration of Windows I’ve talked about before, many of us—and I’m no exception—still have to run the Microsoft operating system. In my case, the laptop issued by my employer came with Windows XP. Although our IT guy is pretty open-minded and was willing to let me install Linux on the machine (with the understanding that I was on my own if I needed tech support), many of our business applications (like our electronic timesheets) require Windows so I couldn’t make the switch. I also need to make sure my web sites work on the Windows platform, so having a copy around in Parallels Desktop on my Mac is a necessity as well.

I am running Windows XP as my preferred Windows now, so the big news for my Microsoft-branded sub-universe is today’s release of Windows XP Service Pack 3, which is available through Windows Update. SP3 includes a ‘roll-up’ of most/all security fixes in XP to-date, as well as some relatively minor feature enhancements. If you’re behind on your Windows Updates, I strongly recommend installing the service pack. Even if you keep up-to-date, it’s worth installing (I’ve already upgraded my two XP installs with no hassles). SP3 is expected to be the ‘final’ version of XP, excluding further security updates, so if you’re avoiding Vista this will be what you have to live with for the long-haul—unless you’re switching to Mac OS X or Linux, that is.

Speaking of avoiding Vista, the wayward operating system from Redmond seems to be living up to its poor reputation. While Microsoft is officially retiring Windows XP on June 30, computer manufacturers are already announcing that they will use a Vista licensing loophole to continue selling computers pre-loaded with XP instead of Vista. There’s a vote of confidence if I ever heard one.

As ‘unofficial tech support’ for many of my friends, I recently had the supreme displeasure of trying to configure a Vista machine for web development. Simple tasks such as editing the hosts file were made nearly impossible—a minutes-long maze of right-clicking, running as administrator, and approving superfluous and duplicitive user access control (UAC) prompts. All this headache for a minor administrative task that takes seconds in Windows XP (no prompts, just open in Notepad), Mac OS X (open-hidden from Smultron, then one password prompt), or Linux (one password prompt to access the network controls).

Only about one week later, this same Vista laptop came before me with problems connecting to wireless networks. It saw the network, it tried to connect to it, then failed with a cryptic, meaningless error. It had the same failure when connecting to wired networks. Attempts to release/renew the IP address and clear the DNS cache (which required right-clicking the command prompt launcher, running as administrator, and—again—approving a UAC prompt, all new requirements since XP) also failed. I booted from an Ubuntu Linux live CD to discover that the wireless and ethernet hardware itself all worked fine; Vista was the problem.

Needless to say, after toughing it out for several months in hopes she would grow to like it, my friend with the Vista laptop will be upgrading to Windows XP. Yes, I said upgrading. Sad, Microsoft. Sad.

It is unfortunate that I cannot, in good conscience, recommend any Vista-based computer at this time. XP was and remains the pinnacle of Microsoft’s operating system universe, and if you intend to stick with Windows I recommend you stick to Windows XP (updated to SP3) for now. Perhaps Vista SP2 will be worth the upgrade, and if not perhaps Vista’s successor (code-named Windows 7) will. But for now, it’s simply not worth the headaches for a little bit of eye-candy (eye-candy that, by the way, can be found in Mac OS X or any modern Linux distribution with fewer headaches).