Please wait while Windows calculates how it can suck even more.

The Ultimate in SuckIt should come as no surprise to anyone that I lasted about a nanosecond before I broke down and bought a new computer (cat does not come standard). (Actually, cat does not come, period). It’s way more computer than I need — it’s way more computer than most shuttle launches need — and it was way too expensive, but somehow those facts don’t make it any less awesome. Just looking at it, I get a tingling in my extremity.

Keeping up the theme of needless excess, I bought a copy of Windows Vista to install on it. Mac OS X, Vista under Boot Camp, with a Parallels installation to get access without rebooting — it was going to be sheer operating system perfection. Remember that this was before I knew I was going to be working full time at a videogame company, back when I was actually going to have the time and desire to play videogames.

The thing about Vista is that it kinda sucks. I kept hearing how it was supposedly a rip-off of OS X, but I don’t really see it. It’s more like if Donald Trump got a hold of Windows XP. “We’re gonna make it very classy. Get a load of those transparent window borders and tell me that doesn’t make for the finest computing experience there is.”

Back when I was working on an Xbox game, the joke was that Microsoft kept demanding more flair: gameplay was secondary; what mattered was just cramming as many visual effects as you could into the game. It looks like Microsoft extended that same philosophy to their new OS. The fact that you can’t even tell which is the active window is irrelevant; it’s far more important that it looks like glass!

Normally I wouldn’t bitch about gratuitous visual effects; OS X basically pioneered that field (and I still spend minutes dropping widgets onto the dashboard just to see the ripple effect). But even when they’re not actually getting in the way of UI usability — like the active window thing — they’re really all that’s apparent to the user in the upgrade. It just feels like you’ve broken compatibility with most of your existing apps just for the sake of a billion new notification messages and windows that you can see through.

And they still can’t make a standards-compliant web browser. Seriously, how long is it going to take for them to just give up and go with every other browser available?

So it’s kind of garish and ugly, but mostly usable, so it shouldn’t matter all that much since I only use it for games and the occasional work-related task, right? Well, as it turns out, I completely missed the news that you need to buy the most expensive version of Vista in order to run it under virtualization software like Parallels. XP has no such limitation. And, Parallels doesn’t let you boot from your Vista boot camp partition, so if you want to have Boot Camp and Parallels, you have to do another install, which requires another Windows activation. Which I can’t do, because it violates the EULA.

Luckily, Microsoft is there for me: thanks to their innovative Windows BendOverAnywhere program, I can upgrade my copy of Vista to the ULTIMATE MEGAWEAPON version for the low, low price of $158. Which means the secondary just-for-games OS would end up adding over 200 bucks to the cost of the computer. But at least I’d be able to run it under Parallels… or would I? Paying that cost just gets you a download, because you’re only allowed to do it on one machine. And the Parallels VM counts as a separate machine. So installing it there gets me my virtualization-unfriendly version of Vista. Which won’t activate, because it thinks I’m trying to install it on a new computer. (Who knows what would happen if I needed to do a clean re-install of the OS. I’m guessing I’d need another $150 every time I wipe my hard drive?)

(Meanwhile, Parallels is sending me e-mails asking me to send them 40 bucks to upgrade to their newest version, which may or may not solve my problem. Does it let you run off the Boot Camp partition instead of requiring a separate install? No one will say definitively. You can try asking them for support… if you can find their secret forum that isn’t linked from their main page, only from Google searches. And no representatives are on hand there to answer questions. But at least I know that the new version can indeed run Quake 4, so that’s a relief.)

It’d be nice to ask somebody at Microsoft whether the software they’re charging me a couple hundred bucks for will actually run on my machine in the configuration I want. After going through ten pages on their customer support site, I finally get to a page that says it will let me e-mail somebody. As long as I enter my product key, and they determine that the key is valid for support; otherwise it’s $60 per “incident.” I enter the product key, out of pure optimism, and it takes me to a Microsoft SQL Server error page.

So as it stands now, I’m somewhat screwed. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I can determine exactly how much money I’ve wasted. It’s either going to be the cost of Parallels and its upgrade, or the cost of Vista and its upgrade. Until then, it means rebooting the machine every time I want to play a game, at which point it hardly seems worth the effort. Maybe I’m supposed to be spending even more money on the Mac-native versions of these games? Or maybe finding a cheaper and more worthwhile hobby?

I should make it clear that I’m not enough of an Apple fanboy to say that they don’t suck. They do, but in a slightly different way. I’ve complained about the $125 they charge for every yearly OS upgrade, but at this point, all of that seems quaint. As Jon Gruber pointed out in an insightful post on his Daring Fireball blog, Apple is primarily a hardware company, not a software company. And as such, where they truly suck is in the hardware.

It’s all beautifully designed, of course, even the cheese grater. But there’s that deviously-planned obsolescence built right into every one, from the iPod batteries with the lifespans of mayflies, to the exploding laptop batteries, to the laptop latches.

Almost one month to the day after the warranty on my Mac laptop ran out, the latch broke (from what I read on the internet, it’s a very common problem, partly because the latch is ridiculously over-engineered). I put off getting it repaired until now, because I knew that phone support would be useless — the second you connect with a real human, they ask for your credit card number or try to sell you AppleCare. So I finally made an appointment to talk to a Genius. Forty-five minutes after my appointment time, said genius looked at my machine’s serial number, typed it into a database, and told me that it’d be $326 to get fixed. She referred me to a place across town that could probably do it for cheaper. When I got there, they said that they usually ship those repairs directly to Apple and that it’d cost me $426 including parts and labor.

And still, the Apple aura is so persuasive that I sit here typing on a ridiculously over-priced machine that could very well explode at any moment (or more likely, will explode exactly on April 19, 2008), and the only thing I can think of is bitching about Windows.

Update: Man, what’s the computer world coming to when a guy can’t make an over-long, whiny post bitching about cost and incompatiblities anymore? The day after I wrote this, Parallels released the new version of their software. Hidden among the new features is what I think is the most valuable one — being able to use your BootCamp Vista partition. Meaning no additional activation, no copying software over, just the ability to use your Vista stuff within OSX without rebooting. I’ve installed it with no problems, and so far it works mostly like I wanted. (Direct3D isn’t working for me at the moment, but it could very well just be a configuration thing I missed).

Having a piece of software work as advertised, and provide greater compatibility between rival operating systems with a minimum of hassle (if not a minimum of cost)? That sets a very bad precedent for the industry.