April 05, 2007


Windows Vista Upgrade. Microsoft. Home Basic, $100. Home Premium, $159. Business, $199. Ultimate, $259.

      Now that Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows Vista, has been around for a few months, it’s possible to make some intelligent recommendations about what to do with it – or not do with it.

      To put it succinctly, should you upgrade? Probably not. But should you feel good about getting it with a new computer? Emphatically yes. Windows Vista is a (++++) operating system if you receive it preinstalled on a new computer, as you will when you buy just about any new non-Apple PC now. But it is only a (+++) operating system as an upgrade, and that single (+) difference will be significant if you are trying to decide what to do with an older computer.

      There are six versions of Windows Vista, but only four that, for all practical purposes, you can actually buy, and only three that you will want to consider. Windows Vista Starter is a stripped-down version for the developing world only, not available in the U.S., Canada or other high-income nations. Windows Vista Enterprise is at the other end of the scale, designed for huge companies with complex technology infrastructures – you may end up using it, but you won’t be buying it unless you make purchasing decisions for a firm of that sort. Windows Vista Home Basic comes with many new computers, if you don’t upgrade to a better-featured version, and includes the new Windows interface, some Internet and data-protection elements, and that’s about all.

      So if you are considering an upgrade, you’re really deciding among Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business and Windows Vista Ultimate. Any version of Vista will eat up disk space – 15 gigabytes of it – and will require at least a full gigabyte of memory. If you have less of either, don’t even consider upgrading. But even if you do meet these minimum requirements, Vista may still be problematical, since it requires graphics cards of a certain power level to create its “Aero” interface. Therefore, before you even think of upgrading, download Microsoft’s free Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor from www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready and let this little program tell you whether your system can handle Vista.

     Then, even if it says yes, think again. Installation is not necessarily speedy or without glitches, and it is necessarily accompanied by one significant annoyance: after you install Vista, it may demand that you upgrade some programs that ran just fine under Windows XP. That can run into real time, money and irritation. And even if you accept that annoyance – which is a one-time thing, after all, and is unlikely to affect all your programs – you will have to put up with an irritation that simply won’t go away: enhanced security.

      Okay, “enhanced security” doesn’t sound like a problem, especially with so many complaints about attacks on Windows XP – and so many fixes as a result. And in reality, the new operating system’s better security is a big plus (although you can bet that hackers are out there, even now, looking for ways around it). But Vista’s specific method of improving security is really annoying to users: anytime you do anything that might (not “will” but “might”) affect the operating system, Vista automatically dims your entire screen and brightens an alert called “User Account Control,” which requires you to confirm that you want to do what you’re doing. You cannot install anything without dealing with this warning – and since Vista does not attempt to teach you which programs are safe and which may be dangerous, you’re basically on your own to figure everything out. That will make you more aware of everything you do to change your computer, but it won’t really help you ensure that Vista remains unharmed. If you’ve become accustomed to Windows XP, with all its quirks and frequent security updates, Windows Vista will feel like a slowdown and a step back, even though it isn’t.

      It is because of Windows Vista’s hardware and software demands, and its irritating form of security enhancement, that the upgrade ranks (+++) rather than (++++). But it’s worth reiterating that the operating system itself – when preinstalled on a computer whose configuration guarantees that it will work properly – is a big improvement over Windows XP, despite the “User Account Control” annoyance. Transparency effects in Windows Vista add apparent depth to your screen; generic icons have been replaced by window previews; a delightful view called “Flip 3D” appears when you use the Windows icon and Tab keys – you see thumbnails of all open windows in an attractive layout that looks three-dimensional; you get a search form at the top of every window; “Vista Sidebar” gives you fast access to your calendar, the weather and other information; “Windows Easy Transfer” simplifies the copying of files and settings between computers; “Windows Mail” is a welcome update to Outlook Express; “Scheduled Backup” saves your data automatically; and more. For all these reasons, and others, Windows Vista surpasses Windows XP in functionality and richness of features. But that still doesn’t make upgrading a no-brainer.

      If you decide that you do want to upgrade, be sure to analyze your needs carefully before picking the form of Windows Vista you select. In addition to security and backup features and “Windows Aero,” which allows all the elegant display elements in the new system, Windows Vista Home Premium includes Windows Media Center for photos and entertainment, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Movie Maker in High Definition, and three games. Windows Vista Business drops the media, movie and DVD features and the games, but includes business-networking connectivity and the highly useful “Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore” to guard against hardware failure. If you hate to give up any of these features, you’ll need Windows Vista Ultimate, which includes them all. The best alternative now, however – while Windows Vista remains relatively new to the marketplace – may be to stick with Windows XP if you are already running it satisfactorily, learn more about Windows Vista until you need a new PC, and then get ready to enjoy this much-improved operating system without needing to go through all the potential irritations of upgrading to it on your own.

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