Here's a hot Saturday night: Cancel the dinner reservations and stay home to upgrade the PC to Windows Vista. Yes, that's how I spent my weekend. And it wasn't awful, really.
Not only that, but I recommend that if you are considering a new computer -- assuming you are doing normal personal and small-business tasks on a relatively late-model machine -- upgrading is the way to go.
Why buy a new PC unless you have to?
The upgrade calculus -- in the Windows world, at least -- used to be that you bought a new machine whenever a new operating system came to market. Sure, I could run Windows XP on my Windows 2000 Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) - Get HP Inc. (HPQ) Report, but I would be nuts to actually try.
Upgrades were harrowing affairs in which existing software was rendered useless, data was lost and peripherals were simply unusable.
Why bother? Between the cost of the new Windows software and the RAM and video cards usually needed to run that software -- not to mention all the attendant hassles -- you were better off biting the bullet and buying a machine built for the new OS.
No more. Between the falling cost of processors and the aggressive new economics of the computer business, there is less reason than ever to upgrade machines along with software. Most computers will work just fine. And with the improvements in technology, upgrading an operating system is pretty much just plug and play.
It's very chic right now to bash Vista as a pointless upgrade. But I have been testing it for well over six months, and clearly, Vista offers a better user interface than XP. It provides better security, and it's easier to install software and peripherals.
With 500 million people using Windows worldwide, and XP quickly going down the
road of forced obsolescence, Vista is the future.
Any Mac users running Windows should consider an upgrade as well -- not only is Vista safer, the user interface should be a snap for
fans. It's no secret that Vista essentially apes most of the Mac OS.
Mac users just need to make sure their machines have enough processing power and memory to meet Vista requirements. (Big note: Stay away from dual-boot modes that run both Apple OS and Microsoft Vista at the same time, as it's almost certain to be slow. Instead, do a clean boot in one OS, and results should be excellent.)
So let's get on with it, shall we? Here are my hints for handling the shift from Windows XP to Vista without buying a new computer. Not only will you save some money, but afterward you can put a system-upgrade notch on your geek badge and talk some tech trash to the kids.
First of all, don't over-spec the hardware or software you need.
What will be shocking for most of us who have lived in Microsoft's one-tech-fits-all world is that Bill Gates is actually trying to serve different niches with the new Vista operating system.
Vista system requirements start at 800 MHz for the processor. (Right-click on the computer icon and select "Properties" to find out what your machine has under the hood.) With Vista, you can get by on a crusty old 800 MHz processor running 512 MB of system memory. (That's late 1990s Pentium 3 territory.) And the OS can exploit super-fast 64-bit, 1-GHz processors running 1 GB, if not more, of RAM.
But don't get sucked into the big hardware allure. Assuming you are doing basic computing, your early-millennium, 1 GHz Pentium 4 computer will work just fine -- as long as you kick in some fresh RAM and a new video card.
The eVGA GeForce 5200 or the 3DFuzion 6200, which start at about $35, or the ATI Xpert at $65 if you want to splurge, are more than enough for basic work. Crucial.com or Kingston.com are the places for memory. If you're feeling magnanimous, double that RAM minimum to 2 GB. The extra $100 you spend will be well worth it.
If you want to be extra careful, call up your original vendor.
or H-P will be more than happy to sell you RAM and video cards. I have found their prices reasonable and they know your machine, which is a nice plus.
And don't get more Vista than you need. The Home Basic upgrade starts at $99 for a perfectly fine operating system. If you want more connectivity options and media functions, spring for the $159 Home Premium edition.
But that's really all you need, unless you want more powerful features. Those are wasted on older computers, though, so don't bother.
Next, you need to prep your existing machine. This used to be the expert-only stuff of finding drivers, comparing software and sussing out dubious sites looking for bits of experience.
Now, however, Microsoft makes an excellent upgrade preparation tool, the
Vista Upgrade Advisor. Simply download and run the tool, and you get a clear, printable list of what you need to do both for hardware and software.
Just follow the instructions: Delete all the programs that won't work; follow the links to the drivers you will need to update your new equipment. Make sure all your hardware is installed and ready to go (yes, you can easily install RAM and video cards yourself).
Then clean up and organize your files into fresh directories -- upgrades are a great excuse to clean house -- and back them up in an easy-to-find spot.
A good set of fresh CDs is preferable. It's always best to have solid media backup of your most important files, both for this upgrade and in case of future emergencies.
If you want to be really safe, look for alternative upgrade tools from your computer maker. I ran my Dell upgrade application to be doubly sure.
Finally, insert the system disk and press upgrade. Don't do the "Clean Install" option unless the upgrade management software requires you to.
And that, my friends, is that.
Your new Vista operating system will install. It will offer you the chance to build your own partition, which is not a bad idea for backing up your files. Then sit back and let Vista do the work. If my experience was any indication, you will find most of your drivers will set up by themselves, as will your peripherals and other hardware.
Of course, you are still dealing with a Microsoft product. It's slow and expensive. My own upgrade took well over four hours. But I noodled around with all sorts of features that you won't have to, so it should be shorter for you. I also spent more than $700 on hardware to run about $600 worth of software -- but I do have my geek rep to protect.
Believe me when I say you can do this. And at the end of the day, you will have what amounts to a new computer for $235 for a basic machine and $450 for a decently powered unit.
That's not bad.
Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester County, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.