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Vista: Upgrade??r Trade Up?


TECH & YOU PODCAST

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After all the hype and delays, Windows Vista is finally here. Should you rush out and buy a copy when upgrade versions go on sale on Jan. 30? Probably not, given the odds against a satisfactory upgrade experience. But I'd certainly consider speeding up the purchase of a new computer when pcs loaded with Vista become available in a few more weeks.

The marketing barrage that Microsoft (MSFT) has prepared will focus on Vista's new look--the first major design overhaul for Windows in more than a decade. Many of the concepts come from Apple Computer's (AAPL) Mac OS X, but Vista pushes the visual effects much further. Photorealism replaces the garish cartoonishness of Windows XP for everything from program icons to file folders. To cut the confusion that can occur when you have lots of windows open, a thumbnail image pops up when you run your mouse over the program's task-bar icon. Folders look like actual manila folders and show a glimpse of what's inside: a bit of album art for a music folder, a slice of one of your pictures for a photo folder.

All this eye candy is nice, but it's not going to make it any easier to draft a business plan or a budget. And it does come at a price. As is the case with the new version of Microsoft Office, which I wrote about last week, novelty breeds confusion. There are many new ways to display the contents of file windows, for example, including stacking folders that are sorted by size. You won't find the "select all" command on the Edit menu--because the menus have been banished. On the other hand, hitting control-A will still select all the contents of a window, and you can find ways to do everything else you need to do, too. It just takes time to figure it out.

THE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGES IN VISTA are hidden. Microsoft has made some fundamental alterations to fix Windows' notoriously leaky security, as I'll explain next week. But there are other substantive changes that are both visible and useful.

The ability to find things is paramount. Like the Mac's Spotlight search, the new Windows search is accurate and fast. In the best Windows tradition, there are three ways to seek things out, each producing slightly different results. Each window has a search box, and when you enter a search term, Vista brings up matches found in that window's folders. A search box on the start menu searches the entire computer, including program files. And a separate search application lets you specify the scope of desktop search.

The big question is when and how you should move to Vista. Upgrade today? Or just wait and buy an all-new Vista computer down the road?

When Windows XP came out in 2001, I urged people to move quickly to get rid of the hopelessly unreliable Windows 98 and the even worse Windows Me. That meant upgrading to XP, and like all earlier Windows upgrades, the process was as much fun as a root canal. XP, on the other hand, is good enough that you may just want to make do, for now. Based on the troubles I've had in tests, I'd warn against upgrading if you have old accessories, such as printers, or if you run any custom or obscure business software.

If you decide to upgrade anyway, make sure your existing computer has the horsepower to do Vista justice. Any system older than six months or a year may be trouble. Functions could feel sticky or sluggish, and if the graphics on your PC aren't up to snuff, you'll lose the fancy visual effects. You'll need at least a gigabyte of memory. And don't try to pinch pennies. There's a Home Basic version of Vista for $100, but it lacks many features, including the new graphic design; you want the $140 Home Premium.

The big risk of upgrading is that you'll get all the confusion of Vista and the looks of XP. With a new made-for-Vista computer, at least you'll know that everything will work. And Vista is a big step forward; in time, you'll want it.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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