Vista and small businesses

* Support company recommends Vista for new PCs only

The Microsoft Vista Hype Machine now runs at high gear for Vista's release on Nov. 30 for businesses with license agreements and Jan. 30 for consumers. Should you succumb and try to upgrade to Vista now? I say no, and so does HiWired, a Boston-area company specializing in small business and consumer computer support. Research firm Gartner also says wait until 2008 (nice slogan – wait 'til 08).

I'll go further: if you don't have a "gamer" PC, with lots of RAM, a fast CPU, and a specialized video board with a graphics processor, don't upgrade to Vista. Reserve Vista for new PCs only, and you'll suffer much less frustration, and save money besides.

You may disagree with me, but it's hard to disagree with statistics from the field. HiWired searched through their database of over 40,000 supported computers to see which ones had the minimum horsepower Microsoft says is required to upgrade to Vista, including hard disk space, RAM, and a speedy processor. Over 80% of their customers (small businesses up to 50 people, and consumers) don't have the hardware to run Vista Premium. That number doesn't take into account the need for a video board with plenty of memory and DirectX 9 support, because HiWired's remote inventory software can't report on video system components with enough detail. HiWired executives expect more than 90% of their customer's PCs won't run Premium Vista when video requirements are added to the equation. Oh, yes, Microsoft also says you need a DVD drive, not a CD, available to load Vista Premium.

What about basic Vista? After all, Microsoft says you need only 512MB of RAM and a medium speed processor to load Vista packages on the low end of its seven-point Vista product scale.

Good news: HiWired co-founder Michael Wexler says, "Microsoft changed the Vista beta software with Release Candidate 1, and allowed you to load Vista on older, slower machines. Before RC1, Vista wouldn't install on lower-end PCs." Bad news: "You get really bad performance."

HiWired took PCs happily running Windows XP with good performance, erased and reformatted the hard disk, and installed Vista on the completely clean PCs, rather than upgrading and leaving some pieces of the older operating system around that could compromise their tests. With XP: snappy, usable systems. With Vista: "When you take off XP Pro and install Vista, the computer is noticeably slower." This slowness comes after two or three hard hours of installing and configuring Vista, even when deployed by experienced technicians.

All upgrades are messy, but early on the mess is magnified because other software vendors haven't caught up with all the changes made by Microsoft to the new operating system. Finding drivers for sound and video support takes work. Many security software packages don't work, because Microsoft introduced PatchGuard (technically Vista Kernel Patch Protection) and changed outside developer's access to the guts of the operating system. Because of these considerations, HiWired checked Vista with all-Microsoft software. Still, the performance lagged noticeably.

HiWired's advice: if you have a computer more than 24 months old, don't even consider upgrading to Vista on that computer. If your computer is less than 18 months old, you may have a chance, at least for the basic Vista packages. My advice: save Vista for new computers only.

Since HiWired supports many consumers, they see some advantages in Vista for home media fans. Those users who have a Media Center PC today, and want to send digital photos to their televisions and digital music to their stereos will have an easier time with Vista than with their current software. But again, I've heard from several people who tried to upgrade a fairly new Media Center PC to Vista, and either couldn't do it or were unhappy with the performance. Time to budget for a new Media Center PC (these are priced like gamer PCs, so figure at least $2,000).

HiWired plans to roll out plenty of Vista information to their users and on their Web site. Their plans call for them to push Vista information out, because very few customers are asking about Vista. Those of us reading all the technical magazines and Web sites may be sick of Vista, but until the TV commercials start rolling, almost all the rest of the population remains blissfully unaware.

You can't be unaware of Vista, because you have to get ready for Vista. You can't escape Vista, either, because starting in February or so next year, most new PCs will come with Vista. Just don't ask for extra trouble by trying to upgrade. If a user demands Vista, demand they buy a new computer that comes with Vista installed. Then all you have to worry about is helping them navigate all the changes Microsoft made, and upgrading all your applications.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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