10 things Windows PCs should do - but can't

3rd Dec 2007 | 00:00

10 things Windows PCs should do - but can't

Our pet hates which really should have been fixed by now

1. Turn on instantly

When offered a deep fat fryer that could cook a side of beef in 30 seconds, Homer Simpson once complained, 'But I want it now!' We wait much longer to use our PCs every morning, but why?

PCs have long promised a faster boot time, with various suspend and resume options trying their best to fulfil that promise. But suspending to RAM risks losing your data in a power outage, and resuming from disk hibernation is only a bit faster than a full boot.

Even hybrid hard disks with flash memory merely speed things up, without providing that immediacy we now take for granted with our TVs and DVD players. The best we've been able to expect so far from our PCs is having limited access to a limited range of functions very quickly via a cut-down BIOS-based system, such as Phoenix's Hyperspace. But if we want the full capabilities of Windows, it looks like the waiting will go on for the foreseeable future.

2. Be as reliable as a consumer electronics device

There are some things in life we don't like but we're used to by now. The England football team will never live up to our expectations, Posh Spice has more money than sense, and your PC will crash eventually. Why do we tolerate this when most of the electronic devices in our living rooms simply switch on and work, and if they don't we take them back to the shop?

Although Windows XP was a huge leap forward after Windows 9x, and Vista's driver model is supposed to make it even more bullet-proof, it still can't compete with (admittedly less feature-rich) consumer electronic devices for reliability. As great as Windows Media Center Edition is, there's a reason why platforms such as Viiv, which try to make a PC the hub of your digital home, haven't ousted the set-top PVRs and games consoles from our living rooms. We don't trust them enough, nor are they anywhere as easy to use.

3. Tell us what is really wrong

Windows error codes. From time to time we're faced with these cryptic messages from our operating system. But it's never clear what they mean. Sure, you can pop them into the Microsoft knowledge Base - or even Google - to find out. A bit of searching will usually call up their meanings. But if this is the case, why can't the same facility be built right into Windows? Allegedly, this could be on its way in a future version of Windows. But it's still a surprise it isn't a feature already.

4. Update everything automatically

It's nice to know the security of your Windows PC is being kept up to date by Windows Update, and one or two of your applications might be checking for patches when they load (such as Adobe's Creative Suite 3). But most Windows software doesn't keep itself patched automatically - it leaves the job up to you.

Windows is very complicated and there are countless software combinations you can run. But surely it wouldn't be impossible to have a standard for checking if the software (and drivers) have new patches available, giving you the option to install them when you're ready? After all, Linux has been able to do this for years.

5. Organise your files for you

If you've ever owned a Palm PDA of some sort, one thing you are likely to have appreciated is the way all documents of the same type appear to be in the same place. In reality, you don't have to know where they are kept - it doesn't really matter. The physical location of a file is only important when you need to move it around. Palms can do this because their file system is actually a database.

Microsoft has been promising something similar for Windows since the early 1990s, the last promise being the WinFS format which was supposed to be part of Windows Vista. But it never arrived, and now looks like it never will. So, despite the handy search tool in Windows Vista, we will be hunting for files in directories all over our computers for the foreseeable future.

6. Let you work in true 3D

A much-vaunted feature of Windows Vista is its Aero interface, which harnesses the 3D acceleration power of your graphics card to render the GUI in Direct3D. But although there are some cool visuals on offer, it's hardly William Gibson's cyberspace. Apart from stacking windows in three dimensions as you switch between active programs, Vista is still resolutely not immersive. Using your PC is still a two-dimensional experience - until you fire up a game, that is.

7. Share music between systems like iTunes

If you have a network and a number of systems running iTunes, you will have been able to browse the music libraries on other people's computers for a number of years. Microsoft has tried to emulate this with Windows Media Connect. This is now built into Window Media Player 11, which comes as standard with Vista and is an upgrade for XP. Windows Media Connect is supposed to expose the media library on one PC to another, if allowed to do so by your security settings. But just try getting it to work.

8. Play MPEG-4 in Media Center Edition

Vista brought a built-in MPEG-2 decoder to Windows, at long last. Media Center Edition users no longer have to choose their own third-party codec to get a digital TV tuner working and play DVDs. But now more and more content is using MPEG-4 compression instead, so you still need a third-party decoder. Oh well.

9. Edit AVCHD

The Windows Movie Maker video editing application has been a handy part of Windows since the second service pack of XP. At that point, it supported the standard DV camcorder format. With Windows Vista, Windows Movie Maker has gone HD. Except that although the tape-based HDV format is supported, it's fast being supplanted by the AVCHD format in consumer HD camcorders.

Since Windows Vista doesn't have built-in MPEG-4 support (see above), it can't import or edit AVCHD. Fortunately, a couple of third-party alternatives can, including Ulead VideoStudio 11 Plus and Pinnacle Studio 11 Plus.

10. Support satellite tuners

If you want to watch free-to-air HD video, such as the BBC's HD service or the Channel 4 and ITV services due next year, a regular DVB-T tuner won't do the job just yet. Instead, you will need a satellite tuner. But unfortunately Windows Media Center Edition still doesn't support satellite tuners.

Some manufacturers, notably Hauppage, have gotten round this by supplying drivers which pretend to be DVB-T. But it still doesn't support MPEG-4 (see above), so you still won't be able to watch the HD channels which use this codec instead of MPEG-2, which is likely to be all of the UK ones.

AppleCamcorderComputingDigital homeDigital videoGraphicsHigh definitionInternetiPodMedia CenterMemoryMicrosoftMobile computingNetworkingPDAPortable audioPortable videoSoftwareTVUpgradesVideoWindows Vista
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