Windows' Hardware Compatibility Problem

Think Linux has hardware issues? Think again.

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I did a bad thing: I installed Windows 7 on a laptop the other day. And yes, while it was bad in the "Brian-are-you-a-moron?" kind of way, it was also a bad technical experience to boot.

In my defense, I had to do it: it was for a project that requires Office, a rare case when Apache OpenOffice unfortunately does not do the job for me. But I had a spare laptop around that I use for distro reviews and I figured, what the heck, not doing any reviews in the foreseeable future, so why not?

The machine is a Lenovo G570, a decent middle-of-the-road device that works well as a review platform and a travel machine for those increasingly rare work trips I take. It was running openSUSE 12.1 quite well, and I remember having zero problems with installation.

Installation of Linux on most machines is no longer the game of Device Driver Landmine that it used to be back in the days of yore when your l33t HaX0r cred was established by how smoothly you could get your distro running on your computer. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a hardware incompatibility issue with a Linux installation. Maybe, what, four years ago for a display driver, I think?

Now, somewhere in my home offi--er, Nerve Center of Open Source--is the factory image disc for the G570. But, naturally when I need it, I could not find it. But, no worries, because I had an OEM disc of Windows 7 lying around, so I would just copy my work files off the laptop and blow the openSUSE partitions away for a clean single-boot install.

While that sounds like a good plan on paper, it turns out, not so much. The actual installation of Windows went all right, and was not terribly slower than a Linux install. (But it was noticeable, that's for sure.)

Where things went awry was in the post-installation phase when I discovered that Windows, an operating system that had been around for over two decades, had no clue what my laptop's Ethernet, wireless, or display drivers should be.

To me, this was not only an unpleasant surprise, it was also irony served on a silver platter: after years of slamming Linux around with hardware incompatibility FUD, it turns out that the secret to Windows success was OEM packaging. Manufacturers, it seems, have been doing all the heavy lifting for Windows this whole time.

As far as out-of-the-box hardware support goes, Windows is terrible.

This is not exactly news, I'll grant you, but seeing it so glaringly demonstrated was simply surreal.

At this point, many Windows advocates will roll in and say, of course that's the way it is, idiot, you're not supposed to install Windows after you buy a PC. You just use what they give you, and maybe upgrade to a new version if you want to.

There are elements to that line of reasoning that feel like fingernails down a blackboard for any computer user who wants to have some real control over their systems. "Not supposed to install," "use what they give you"… those are all reasons that simply revolve around the one concept Windows is hoping every user will swallow unconditionally: all your software are belong to us.

To Lenovo's credit, they have a very useful and extensive support site where I was able to download and install every driver I needed. So I have to give Windows some points here, for the sake of fairness: in the early days of Linux, I might have had to hunt through four community sites and two IRC channels to hunt down the right driver file.

Of course, I am fortunate to have another PC (running Ubuntu) from which I could grab these files and sneaker-net them over to the laptop via a USB stick. I wonder, with a network-blind computer, how a single-computer household is supposed to even get these drivers? But again, to be fair, this was a problem with Linux installations back in the Bad Old Days, too.

Of course, this was not the end of my troubles. After finally seeing that there was an Internet out there, Windows then did the obligatory download of updated packages. This process took nearly as long as the original installation. Security updates like this are a part of Linux installations, too, but for me, it rarely takes that long to catch a new Linux system up with current update status.

Overall, if I were every grading a current clean install of any distribution of Linux versus Windows 7, I think any honest person would have to give Windows low marks here. This was only one machine, and perhaps there's something kinky about the Lenovo G570, but this is Lenovo, for goodness' sake, not Larry's Laptops R Us. You would think that some base hardware coverage here would be built in.

Since, as the Windows advocates say, most people never have to do a clean install of Windows, what does it matter?

It matters because this goes to the core mentality of how Microsoft works: do only as much as is cost feasible, and don't be afraid to take credit for your partner's work as much as possible.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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