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In The Lab
Are You Ready For Vista™?
by chris

Unless you have been living in a cave or something, you may have heard something about a new operating system from Microsoft. At the end of January, System Builder versions (for companies and individuals that assemble and build computers) and retail versions of Windows Vista™ finally hit the shelves. It would be difficult to miss all of the media hype, not only with the ongoing Vista launch, but from the many magazines, newspapers, blogs, and other sources of computer-related gossip.

An email I received from a relative asks what is probably on many of our reader's minds; she asked if I was switching to Vista, and should she and her friends switch as well? Microsoft and all of our hardware vendors that manufacture video cards, memory, hard drives, etc. would, of course, want me to answer "Yes, by all means! Vista for everyone!" A viewpoint expressed by some other people suggests that the Vista is little more than a $200 Service Pack for Windows XP. I think that the latter is an exaggeration, but my real answer is "yes, no, and maybe." There, that should narrow it right down, so let me clarify...

Yes and No: I will switch to Vista, but not on every computer and not immediately. I have a couple of laptop computers that run Windows XP or XP Tablet just fine, but they cannot be upgraded to meet the minimum hardware requirements for Vista, so they won't get it (that's my "no" answer). If you purchased a new laptop or desktop in the last year or two, it MIGHT be able to handle Vista, but you may still need to add memory or be forced to do a clean install because what you have may not support a direct upgrade to one of the Vista editions. The very minimum requirement is an 800MHz CPU, 512 MB of memory, 20 GB hard drive with 15 GB free. To be pretty and functional, you need more; check out the system requirements on Microsoft's web site.

I am working on another custom case mod now, and have already selected system components specifically with Vista in mind. Some things like memory and hard drive storage did not change from what I usually pick; I already found that having a minimum of 2GB of RAM keeps the performance up, and the cost of a 400 or 500GB drive is now where the 200-250GB drives were last year. I also broke down and spent the money for a good video card that will support DirectX 10, and although the CPU is nothing special, along with my Gigabyte motherboard, I should be able to over-clock the CPU up to something to compare to more expensive processors. Quad core processors should be showing up with some variety this year, and there is a slight chance that I could upgrade without having to start over again (that's part of my "yes" answer).

As for my current desktop system, it has enough resources and capacity to handle Vista. At least to test some of my old applications and hardware, I may install Vista in a multi-boot configuration to make sure I can run all of my older programs and can still get to things like my old SCSI flatbed scanner that has a full letter-size transparency adapter (so that's a definite "maybe").

Do I think my aunt and her friends should upgrade? It depends. My recommendation for product selection and upgrades is to identify what you want to accomplish, select the product that can meet your needs, identify the requirements for that product and work from there. In other words, are there specific features in one of the Vista editions that will fulfill some particular need? Will your current hardware support Vista's minimum requirements, or better still, meet or exceed the recommended requirements? Another consideration is what OS you want to upgrade from and what Vista edition you want to upgrade to. Even though Home Premium has Tablet and Touch Technology support, you can only upgrade to Business or Ultimate editions if you are using the Windows XP Tablet PC version. Home Premium will only perform a multi-boot or clean install, meaning you have to reinstall applications and move all of your data when done. If you are currently using XP Professional 64-bit edition or Windows 2000, you will need to do a clean install to move to any version of Vista. Windows XP Home is the only version that is wide open for upgrade to Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business or Ultimate. To determine what your options are for upgrading, check out the Vista upgrade path table.

So how can you tell if your computer is even capable of running a version of Windows Vista? First, look at Vista's system requirements and the recommendations for installing. Before Vista installs, it gives you an option to run an online compatibility check, or you can download and run it from the Microsoft Vista web site. The compatibility checker may identify hardware and software issues that you need to address before installing or upgrading to Vista. As with Windows XP, Vista prefers "signed" drivers for the hardware components it supports. If the drivers have not been tested and proven compatible, these could cause problems, not only with the proper operation of the hardware, but they can affect the system's normal operation. For reasonable performance, you should have a 1 GHz CPU and 1 GB of system memory (2 GB or more is better, although there is still a 4GB maximum limit for any of the 32-bit versions). You need a DVD drive to install Vista (although there are Home Basic and Business versions available on CD instead of DVD), and you need a minimum of 15GB of free hard drive space. For video card recommendations, try to get one that supports most of the advanced graphical and shading features (most mid-range ATI or NVIDIA are fine) and one that has no less than 64-128 MB of video memory (256-512 MB is better). Sound cards are desirable (but still listed as optional); besides, you would miss out on the explosions in the updated Mine Sweeper game!

What reasons might you have to migrate to Vista? Some very compelling reasons for businesses to consider Vista are improved security, networking, collaboration, and policy-level device control. If you are looking for specific features like Media Center for TV viewing and organizing your music, pictures and video, there is a Vista version that can do it. And if you have a notebook or Tablet PC, enhanced features are available in Home Premium, Business and Ultimate editions of Vista.

Certainly security is tighter under Vista, but Microsoft already made Security Center, Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Defender available to Windows XP users. If you use a good anti-virus and firewall, and run the system as a limited account, you have locked down many of the security vulnerabilities that Vista addresses. However, there are extra security features in Vista like changes in how user access is granted and security levels granted to different applications such as your internet browser. This approach makes it much tougher for viruses, spyware, adware and other invasive programs to easily slip into your computer without your knowledge. Obviously, Microsoft is such a huge target in terms of market segment that you can bet that the bad guys are already working to find ways around the security or to convince you to bypass it somehow.

While product titles for Windows XP "Home" and "Professional" did not suggest any specific capabilities, at least you had the idea that Windows XP "Tablet PC" version probably had some special notebook features, and Windows XP "Media Center" likely has something to do with music, video or other multimedia. What are the differences between Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate? As a quick summary, Home Basic is just that, basic.It has the new security and search features, but no backup and restore, Media Center or tablet PC features like Vista Home Premium does. At first glance, Home Basic does not seem to be missing much, there is partial support for notebook features, Windows Mail, Calendar, the gadget Sidebar and even speech recognition and support for new hardware enhancements like ReadyBoost. Home Premium adds the features mentioned above as well as the much-touted Aero desktop interface. The Business edition has enhanced security and network features, but lacks the entertainment applications of Media Center, Movie Maker, native DVD playback, and themed slide shows (Microsoft probably assumes that if you need these features for business, you probably will have other application-specific requirements as well). Windows Vista Ultimate, like its name suggests, seems to have every feature found in any of the other versions; Microsoft also has created a special WindowsUltimate.com web site to offer special add-ons and downloads available only to users with the Ultimate edition.  Your best source for a detailed list and description of features in Vista is the Microsoft Vista website.

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