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Burning Issues With Vista, by Richard Rasker - Updated
Sunday, May 06 2007 @ 12:54 PM EDT

Burning Issues With Vista
~ by Richard Rasker

Having heard that Vista's CD/DVD burn utility by default uses a nonstandard format, possibly as a result of yet another one of Microsoft's lock-in schemes, I decided to check things out for myself. That would also give me a nice chance to see what Vista was all about.

The plan was simple:

1. Locate a Vista box,

2. Bring empty CD's plus some arbitrary files on a USB stick, and

3. Burn CD's in several ways while making screenshots.

As it turned out, the planning was the simplest part by far. The rest is best described as a tale of frustration.



Step 1: Locating a Vista computer

Locating a working Vista box proved harder than I expected. First I went over to a local computer shop, the owner of which I know personally, and asked if I might have a go on any Vista demo box they might have standing around. They said they'd be happy to oblige, but that they had no Vista computers on offer at all, because “Vista doesn't work well enough yet.” It turned out that they'd tested a Vista installation on several machines and concluded that it wasn't yet something they wanted to sell to their customers.

The exact same thing happened at another computer shop. The third vendor, a large retail chain, did actually have some preinstalled Vista machines running but wouldn't let me touch them, because, they said, then: “We can't sell them as new any more.”

After a week of calling around, I finally located someone with a preinstalled Vista box that I could try out -- he wasn't using it, as it turned out that the owner (an experienced Windows XP user) couldn't get the hang of Vista at all and considered buying the machine “a mistake”. Not a good sign.

So I had the machine all to myself: a dual-core 2.8GHz Pentium D with one GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce 7300 SE featuring 128MB graphics RAM, preloaded with Vista Home Premium. This is a vastly more powerful machine than any of my Linux boxes (which run smoothly and snappily nonetheless), yet it seemed to me to be underpowered to run all the Vista eye-candy, in particular the 3D effects. Ah well.

For starters, I decided to check the boot time. And lo and behold, the Vista desktop shows up in a minute and a half. But alas, not in a functional state. It takes over two more minutes before the hard disk stops rattling and the machine becomes fully responsive. So nearly four minutes in all. This is a pretty sad figure, especially when compared to the 55 seconds Mandriva Linux 2007 takes on my Toshiba laptop. And I can't really see the “Wow” factor either. In fact, I find the transparency effects both ugly and annoying. Especially window title bars are no longer well-defined, and appear to be infected with some sort of mold. But OK, there's no accounting for taste, and no doubt it can be switched off -- and I'm actually thankful for the absence of any 3D “special effects”, which I find even more distracting and annoying. An OS and user interface should behave like the perfect butler: make your life as easy as possible while remaining as unobtrusive as possible. Vista behaves more like a very stupid servant in a flashy outfit. It makes its presence felt throughout, raises the alarm every so often without any real need, gets confused easily, drops the dishes on a regular basis, and while appearing to be easygoing and helpful, drives its employer insane with its unpredictable whims and intrusive behavior. (Note that this is my personal opinion, based on my own, rather limited experience with Vista.)

Then there's the main menu button, formerly the Start button, in the lower left corner. As the contradiction of clicking a button labeled “Start” in order to shut down Windows seemed to confuse users and was often ridiculed, Microsoft replaced it with a neutral button featuring the Vista logo. But guess which Tool Tip appears when hovering the mouse over this button. Yup: “Start”. Quite funny, actually, although I very much doubt that this was the result of a healthy sense of humor on the part of the interface designers.

Next up: how to take screen shots. Now in Mandriva, it's simply a matter of pressing the Prt Scr key, after which KSnapshot, an application for taking, naming and saving screen shots, automatically pops up. It even features automatic image file numbering, to make taking several successive screen shots easier. Not so in Vista. After pressing Prt Scr, or any combination of this key with any other key, nothing seems to happen. How, then, to take a Windows screenshot?

I decided to give the new and much praised Search function a whirl. But no matter what I enter in the text box, nothing relevant is found, even when I select Search All. Apparently, help information isn't included in the search process. And pressing the good old F1 button for Help doesn't do anything either. A few more minutes of searching with Google finally turns up an answer: it is the Prt Scr key after all, but the image is saved in the Clipboard, to be pasted into Paint or another suitable application. Not very handy, in my opinion, but then again, I never liked the Windows Way. So I open Paint, and Ctrl+V the images in there, and save them manually. A bit of a drag, but nothing serious. Later, I found out that I also had to crop the images manually, because Paint didn't resize the saved image automatically to the pasted image size. My mistake.

And oh, right from the start, popups started, well, popping up from the System Tray. Something about Blocked Programs or the like. And this minor annoyance quickly grew into frustration as it turned out that these popups would reappear with ten minute intervals. According to the owner, this had something to do with security settings, and he said he'd spent hours trying to fix it, but the only thing that would work was to disable User Access Control (UAC) completely -- at which point the System Tray would start popping up nag messages that security features were disabled. I was beginning to understand why he didn't like Vista. I decide not to change anything and ignore the messages.

Steps 2 and 3: Transfer USB files to CD, and try to burn a CD

So, back to the burning issue. I plug in my USB stick and have Vista open an Explorer window with its contents. Then I click the “Computer” icon on the desktop and drag a file from USB stick to the burner icon. Right away, a window pops up, prompting me to load a CD or DVD in the burner (note that the images are all in Dutch, my language, but I'll translate for English speakers):


Figure 1: Vista asks for a writable disk (“Put a writable disk in the F: drive”)

That I do, after which a terse burn dialog turns up:


Figure 2: Vista's burn dialog is very concise (“Prepare this blank disk”)

This seems simple enough. Now if I had clicked Next (“Volgende”), the CD would have been burned with Microsoft's Live File System format without informing or warning the user. This is Not Good, in my view, and smells a bit of sneaky lock-in. Instead, then, I click Show Formatting Options (“Opties voor formatteren weergeven”).


Figure 3: Vista's burn tool formatting options

The options are clear: the Mastered format is readable on any computer, the Live File System format only on Windows computers -- and even then, it depends on the chosen version (via “Versie wijzigen”) of Live File System, as the following screen shots show:








Figure 4: Live File System version selection -- or UDF version selection? (“Annuleren” = “Cancel”)

All of a sudden, Live File System is called UDF, which is rather confusing. Is the resulting disk a UDF disk or not? Anyway, I stick with the default option (UDF 2.01), which should be compatible with Vista and XP. After I click OK, Vista says it needs to format the disk:


Figure 5: Vista is formatting the disk, calculating the remaining time -- forever, as it turned out

And this is the moment where mere annoyance turns into frustration, as nothing seems to be happening. After waiting for over five minutes, I decide to try and cancel the whole operation, but that's not so easy. There's no way to close the Formatting window, as the Close button, Alt+F4 and other Close options are greyed out. After a bit of searching I locate the Task Manager and forcibly kill the task. But the associated window won't go away, no matter what I try:


Figure 6: Vista's burn tool crashed and burned -- or rather crashed and failed to burn.

It seems that the only way to get rid of this non-responding “zombie window” is a complete reboot. Yes, indeed, another five minutes down the drain.

Giving up is not an option. So I reboot and try once more. Weird enough, this time when dragging the file from the USB stick to the burner icon and popping in a blank CD at Vista's request, a new dialog comes up:


Figure 7: Yet another burn dialog?

If I thought things were confusing already, with the mysterious Live File System available in no less than four versions called UDF, this really takes the biscuit. And to top it all, this dialog's title bar says “Automatic Playing”, while offering a large amount of burning applications (most of which were installed by the user). Why? The only real difference is that the first time, I used a CD-RW, and now I just put in an ordinary, blank CD-R.

I close this window and continue with the now familiar Vista burn dialog (which has popped up as well). Again, I don't choose anything at all, in effect “choosing” Live File System. Again, the formatting dialog shows up, but this time, it doesn't hang -- it produces an error message: “Can't complete formatting.” Nothing else, no reason, no help, just nothing. No error details whatsoever.


Figure 8: Formatting a blank CD failed - again: “Can't Finish Formatting”

Fed up with this, I decide to ask the owner of the machine for help. He says that I could try to turn off some security options, which should also stop the endless stream of System Tray popup warnings. He can't tell me how to do this, though. I told him I was logged in with admin rights already, but he says that's not enough.

After another fifteen minutes of rummaging around in the Control Center and checking out literally everything under “Security”, I finally find what I'm looking for -- buried deep somewhere under “User Accounts”. I turn off User Access Control (UAC), and now Vista says it must reboot for this to take effect! And I thought Vista needed far less reboots? This is already the second reboot in less than an hour, without any result yet.

OK, so reboot it is ... and this time, the formatting of the CD-R seems to work -- although it takes over two minutes. Burning starts .... and then ends in failure once again ...


Figure 9: Now the burning process failed ...

And again, the error message (well, error wizard, actually) is the stupidest you can get: “A problem has occurred while burning this disk. The disk may no longer be usable.” No further explanation whatsoever, no help. It “just failed”. OK, the user is offered three options: “Try again with another disk”, “Remove temporary files which weren't burned to disk”, and “Save temporary files and try to burn these at a later time”. Try, try, try. As it turns out, no matter what I choose, it keeps failing.

And now I'm getting System Tray popups again -- this time it's warnings that the machine is not properly secured. Wonderful.

I'm about to give up, but I decide to give it one more shot, this time with the Mastered format. For good measure, I reboot the machine once more, put in a new, blank CD-R, and go through the whole procedure again, taking care to choose the Mastered format this time:


Figure 10: Burning with the Mastered format option

A large window appears, to which I can drag and drop files. So in goes the file again, and I click “Burn to disk”. Now the burner actually shows some activity, but after a while, the previous error message pops up again. Checking the disk visually shows that something was burned but only the Vista machine seems to be able to read these files. Even an XP machine shows nothing at all. Also, I can't find any way of specifying this Mastered format as the default format -- which was one of the main reasons to embark on this burning adventure.

I try once more with yet another blank disk; but surprise surprise, when I click the burner icon, Vista says that the file I burned is on the disk already! And when I try to force Vista to burn the disk nonetheless, it keeps insisting that the files are there already ...


Figure 11: Vista says that files have been burned -- with a blank disk in the tray ...

The above dialog says that “Files have been written to the disk”, and “Would you like to copy the same files to another disk?” Well, nothing readable was burned to any disk in the first place, and choosing to burn the same files to another disk doesn't work either.


Figure 12: This is so confusing ...

When I drag-and-drop the file onto the burner again (with a blank CD-R in the tray), I get a warning that “This location already contains a file by this name”. No it doesn't! I just put in a blank disk! And again, regardless whether I choose “Copy and replace”, “Don't copy” or “Copy, but keep both files”, nothing readable ends up on the CD.

As a final test, I close all dialogs, and start the burn utility one more time. And as expected, it hadn't saved any previous settings and offered to burn the CD with Live File System once more. And failed once more. This was the point at which I finally gave up, after more than two hours of frustration and confusion and returned the box to its owner.

And there was nothing wrong with the burner device itself -- Nero had no problems burning files to CD.

Preliminary conclusion

I set out to check whether Vista tries to trick users into burning media in a format that is incompatible with non-Windows machines. Judging from the various dialogs, I'd say that this could indeed be the case, but in all honesty, I simply failed to burn even one disk, readable or not, and I couldn't get Vista to reliably do the same thing twice. Perhaps this was caused by the other installed burning tools, or perhaps I did things wrong (I hardly ever use Windows, so I guess there's a bit of a learning curve), but in the end, I got stuck with no results. And drawing conclusions from no results whatsoever may be in the finest tradition of politics and marketing -- it's a no-no in journalism. Or at least it should be.

Yet this turned out not to be the end of the saga ...

If at first you don't succeed...

The very next day, I received an email message from the owner (er, correction: licensee). He had already resigned himself to upgrading (sic) the box to XP, but he powered it up one more time. To his surprise, a message appeared saying that “There were files in a burn queue”, and would he like to have these burned to CD? So he chose “Yes”, dropped a blank CD in the burner tray, and to his amazement, Vista burned the CD without a hitch. If he was surprised, I was speechless. I went over to his place, and sure enough, the machine now does what it's supposed to do.

So once more, I'll try and find out all about Vista's burn tool. And so here I am again, with the machine purring away.

Taking a systematic approach, I first check to see what happens when I load a blank DVD-RW in the burner tray as a first course of action. And incredible as it may seem, yet another burn selection dialog pops up!


Figure 13: And here's the third burn dialog.

It resembles the one from Figure 7, but with all the options for the user installed burn software magically absent. The only difference here is that I put in a DVD instead of a CD. Ah well, so much for consistency. And where's Vista's familiar, austere burn dialog from Figure 2 or 3? The one that never failed to pop up so far? OK, I remain calm, and select the second option (“Burn files to disk -- with Windows”). Ah, there it is -- and it's the one in Figure 2, with the formatting options hidden; when clicking the latter, the format is set to Live File System. So just clicking Next would have resulted in a Live File System disk, incompatible with anything but Windows Vista and Windows XP. One mark on the lock-in side of the tally.

I change the format to “Mastered”, and the dialog from figure 10 appears. I drag-and-drop some files in there, and right away, a System Tray popup appears, informing me that “there are files in the disk queue”. Yeah, I know. It was me who put 'em there not a second ago. And I can “Click this balloon to display the files”. Talking about useless messages ...


Figure 14: Vista has noticed that I put files in a burning queue, and tells me about it

Undaunted, I proceed to click “Burn to disk” (“Op schijf branden”). A dialog appears, with options to change the name and the burning speed. OK, fine.


Figure 15: The disk is prepared

(Note that the word “Mastered” is the name I gave the disk.) After clicking Next and expecting the actual burning to begin, Vista comes up with a warning dialog (and accompanied by a sound, at that):


Figure 16: Vista apparently tries to dissuade users from using the Mastered format

This is what it says: “If you use the Mastered format, you can only write once on this type of disk. If you wish to add files to this disk more often, you should use the Live File System format. Do you wish to continue to use the Mastered format?” Yes, of course I do! That's why I selected it in the first place. Also note how cunningly the No (“Nee”) option is selected by default, causing a switch to LFS when the user presses the Enter key without thinking. This appears to me to be another attempt to steer users away from a universally readable format. Add one mark for lock-in. After clicking Yes, the disk is finally burned, and yes, it's readable in my Linux machines. After the burning finishes, Vista offers to burn the files to another disk, with the dialog from Figure 11. I decide to see what happens when I accept, and drop in yet another blank DVD-RW. And yes, once again, the warning message of Figure 16 pops up. Vista (or rather: Microsoft) really doesn't want you to use a universally compatible format, I don't think. I confirm the Mastered option once again, and let the burning tool run its course. This time, the burn tool crashes once more:


Figure 17: An all too familiar sight by now: “... doesn't respond”

Nope, the Cancel button (“Annuleren”) doesn't work. When I click the close button, I get a message that “Windows Explorer does not respond” (Huh? Windows Explorer? So that is the burn tool?):


Figure 18: Yeah, I know it doesn't respond. Do something about it!

Ah well, let's simply kill it, then ... that should be the easiest option by far. But alas, choosing the second option “Terminate the program” results in another, yet almost identically phrased error message:


Figure 19: Grrrrrrrr ...

Again, “Windows Explorer doesn't respond” -- But this time, “More information is being gathered about the problem. This may take several minutes”. So I wait. After a dozen more seconds, and without a warning, all of the desktop goes blank! I can't do anything any more. No, not even take a screenshot, so you have to take me at my word this time ...

After waiting for a dozen or so minutes and contemplating a hard reset, I try pressing the DVD burner button. Out comes the DVD -- and lo and behold, the desktop pops up again! With the same System Tray message as in Figure 14, “There are files in the disk queue”. How thoughtful. Bizarre but thoughtful.

So I take a deep breath, and proceed to put a blank DVD-RW in the burner once again. For good measure, I click the DVD burner icon (the F: drive) in “Computer”, to check whether it's blank indeed. To my utter surprise, Vista once again tells me that there is a file on the disk nonetheless:


Figure 20: Vista's F: drive shows what isn't there

But wait a minute ... now I see ... this line at the top, “Files ready to be written to disk”, is the only clue. So this is what happens: Clicking the F: drive icon doesn't necessarily show the contents of the disk -- it may instead show the contents of Vista's burn queue. Congratulations, Microsoft! By overly dumbing down the user interface and trying to predict what the user might want to do (i.e., burn stuff to a disk), no doubt to “make things easier”, you actually created a major point of confusion. Let me tell you: clicking a drive icon should always tell you the contents of this drive, nothing else, and most certainly not what you may wish to write to that drive or not.

Ah well, after putting in the blank DVD, at least I now get the fully expanded burn dialog from way back in Figure 3. No, not the one from Figure 7, not the one from Figure 13, and not the one from Figure 10. And, surprisingly, the Mastered format option is preselected this time round. Who knows, perhaps the tool has a memory after all, and stores its latest settings ...

But alas, as soon as I empty the burn queue and start the whole procedure again, up comes the terse dialog from Figure 2, and a quick check confirms that, yes, the Live File System is selected by default once again.

Final Conclusion

In my view, the final conclusion is quite clear. In several ways, users are pushed towards the Live File System (LFS) format, which is only compatible with Vista and XP. LFS is the format which is selected by default, and there appears to be no way to change this that I could find. In many cases, the user doesn't even get to see this selection, and following the easiest way to burn a CD or DVD will almost certainly result in an LFS format disk. Contrarily, in order to use the universally readable Mastered format, users have to select it consciously every single time, and still confirm this choice every single time. As far as I could see, LFS is some kind of unfinalized type of UDF -- with UDF standing for Universal Disk Format. Even if UDF is a universal format, LFS most certainly is not. I tried reading LFS format media on my Linux systems but failed, even though I installed udftools. Yes, K3b (a great Linux burning tool) could tell me that there was data on the disks, but it was unable to show the actual data itself. All other tools failed with the error message that the disk couldn't be mounted.

As for why Microsoft pushes LFS, I can't think of any good reasons. The only advantage of LFS over the Mastered format is the option to add files to an already burned disk later on. But there is already such a thing as multi-session, so this argument is largely moot, and besides, people actually expect to burn a CD or DVD in one go.

For all the rest, LFS has only drawbacks. First, it's confusing to the user, with no less than four versions, aimed at distinct Windows and Mac versions. Second, and most importantly, it will create compatibility problems in the world of creating CD's and DVD's – a world that at the moment features a near universal support and compatibility of available formats.

The only true reason I can think of for pushing LFS is that Microsoft attempts to lock its users once more into its products. Innocent users who use Vista's tool to save their photos, MP3 collection or back-ups in general may find that all of a sudden, they have no access to their own data any more, especially when abandoning Microsoft products. So far, I haven't been able to find any technical specifications with regard to LFS; and it is to be expected that Microsoft will consider it their Intellectual Property, the use and support of which is licensed under its terms to users. I think this is Not Good at all.

And as for the general quality of Vista and my personal “Vista experience”? I think the story speaks for itself.



* * *

Postscript: After reading some feedback to the article, I fired up the Vista box once more, testing some things posted. What I find is that the two oldest UDF versions (1.50 and 2.00) indeed can be read by Linux -- but only if udftools are installed on the Linux system, which isn't the case by default. This option also suffers from a similar problem as the Mastered format, i.e., it can't be set as the default choice and must thus be selected consciously every single time.

Update: Burning Issues in Vista -- the Aftermath

In the article, I attempted to find out more about the way Vista burns CD's and DVD's, and in particular about the format Vista uses by default, something which Microsoft calls Live File System, or LFS in short. From what I gathered on the Internet and experienced hands-on with a Vista machine, I drew the conclusion that LFS was likely a deliberate attempt by Microsoft to lock users into a new, proprietary format for storing data on CD's and DVD's. Well, as the reactions from lots of Groklaw readers started pouring in, it became clear that LFS wasn't a new, proprietary format after all.

Rather quickly, evidence mounted that Live File System isn't (as I thought) just based on a ISO standard called Universal Disk Format, (UDF), but that LFS is UDF. So how did I get the idea that LFS was a new, incompatible Microsoft format? Well, Microsoft itself is partly to blame. In its own words:

The latest version of Windows offers a new format, called Live File System.

Discs formatted with the Live File System option:

... Are only compatible with Windows XP and later versions of Windows.

Nowhere does Microsoft say that Live File System is actually the same as UDF, which I find rather misleading – if you use a well-defined and open standard, why not call it by its proper name? Add to this the facts that a) Vista clearly steers users away from the universally readable “Mastered format”, both by means of default settings that can't be changed and a warning message, and b) the resulting LFS disks initially couldn't be read on my Linux systems at all, and c) it would by no means be the first time for Microsoft to convert an open standard into their own incompatible one, and a foul play theory is quickly born.

But if LFS is in fact UDF, why couldn't my Linux boxes read the disks? Well, this was due to sloppiness on my part, a lack of proper UDF support in Linux, and my hardware setup.

Initially, I tried all four LFS/UDF versions, but couldn't read anything, although Linux was said to offer UDF support. Some time later, I gave it another try – but this time only with the 2.01 version, with the same negative result. As reactions on my article came in, it became clear that at least the two oldest UDF versions (1.50 and 2.00) could be read on Linux after all – which resulted in a bit of an “ahum” feeling, let me tell you. One of Groklaw's readers pointed me to a Linux kernel patch for improved UDF support, and also provided the following general information on UDF support in Linux:

Linux 2.6.X supports the following UDF versions:

  • Read & Write: 1.02, 1.50, 2.0x (Kernel 2.6.10 up),

  • Read Only: 2.50 (with patch)

Windows Vista supports the following UDF versions:

  • Read & Write: 1.02, 1.50, 2.0x, 2.50

  • Read Only: 2.60

Still, this doesn't explain why I had trouble reading UDF disks formatted with the older (older than 2.50) versions, but that turned out to be a hardware issue. My (older) CD-ROM players seemed to be incompatible with UDF, most probably because they didn't support the 2048 bytes per sector UDF uses. When I put the UDF formatted CD-RW's in my DVD burner, they could be read properly (with the exception of version 2.50).

The problem with the kernel patch, of course, is that it requires quite a bit of hands-on work in the department of kernel-compiling and the like, so the average user may have to wait a little longer for a simple kernel update for his or her distribution of choice.

I found this lagging UDF support in Linux a bit surprising, especially as it seems that UDF 2.50 has been around for four years. Apparently, there wasn't any reason to support it because it was very rarely used. But with the arrival of Vista, and also new DVD formats, this will no doubt change.

Summary:

  • Microsoft's Live File System is in fact Universal Disk Format(*).
  • Linux does support the older versions of Universal Disk Format, but may require a kernel patch to support Vista's currently used versions.
  • “Out-of-the box” Linux support of the latest UDF version (2.50) is not yet realized.
  • Not all CD-ROM players are capable of handling UDF disks.

* Let's hope that Microsoft doesn't get any weird ideas and decide to “extend” its Live File System beyond the UDF specification after all ...

So in this case, it's actually Linux that's lagging in development; Microsoft isn't really to blame, at least as far as lock-in is concerned – although more accurate information on the nature of “Live File System” could have prevented quite a bit of trouble and confusion. Also, it depends on the CD or DVD device whether a UDF formatted disk can be used or not. Especially older CD-ROM players may not be UDF-compatible.

I hope this information is useful for others as well, and I would like to thank Groklaw's readership for their feedback, which was a valuable help to get a clearer picture.




Richard Rasker runs a translation agency in the Netherlands, specializing in computer books.


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