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Windows 7, XP or Vista: which OS is best

Guide to choosing a Windows operating system

With three versions of Windows soon to be sharing the market, PC Advisor helps you decide which one to choose.

Windows Vista: could do better

Ah, Windows Vista, how we love you - the back of you, anyway. The tech industry was delighted to learn that Vista's replacement, Windows 7, was likely to arrive sooner rather than later - possibly even by the end of the year.

Slow startups, excessive hardware demands, the constant intervention of User Account Control (UAC), a feature that claimed to give users control but actively prevented them from using their PCs... Not to mention a tweaked interface that did nothing to assist productivity. Complaints about Vista came thick and fast.

But are we dismissing Vista too soon? Who says that Windows 7 is going to deliver anything that Vista can't already? Hasn't experience taught us that ‘new' can sometimes equate to ‘unproven'?

Performance analysis

Certainly, our initial benchmarks on the copy of Windows 7 issued to developers in late 2008 suggested Vista and its successor were roughly equal in terms of speed - although Windows 7 showed a moderate increase in startup speed.

And most of the fuss about compatibility that initially greeted Vista has long since been resolved. For those buying a brand-new PC, designed from the off to comfortably run Windows Vista, complaints have been few and far between. If you're prepared to stump up for a PC that runs off two cores, has 1GB of RAM (we'd suggest 2GB) and has at least a modicum of dedicated graphics, you shouldn't have a problem with Vista.

Drivers for Vista may not be as prevalent as for Windows XP but, as we've already established, XP is the most successful and popular OS Microsoft has ever produced. Little wonder that software and peripheral makers have made absolutely certain that their products are set up to work with XP and, in many cases, have Microsoft's digital stamp of approval to say so.

And Vista isn't actually all that different - although you wouldn't guess as much from the wails of users who decry it and champion its predecessor. Beyond the pretty (or pretty annoying) interface, it's business as usual.

The main issue when Vista launched in late 2006 and early 2007 was that graphics-cards makers hadn't readied their cards. But since we'd been sold the line that Vista was all about its ‘graphics underlay', with programs written from the ground up to take advantage of this and Direct X 10.0, this sounded like a big deal. Even this got fixed pretty quickly, while every other program or piece of hardware that's come the way of the PC Advisor Test Centre in the past two years has functioned perfectly well under Vista.

Unless you've been hanging on to a printer or scanner that you've had since the good old days of Windows 98 SE, it's unlikely that your peripherals will refuse to function under Vista. By now, drivers for almost everything have been issued and, even if the packaging doesn't say as much, you should be able to migrate from XP to Vista without needing to replace any of your other kit along the way. Give it a try and see.

The only real issues we've had with Vista not running a program lately is where the 64bit version of the OS (for which fewer programs have been designed) has not known how to proceed.

Should you come across a program or piece of hardware that doesn't work with Vista, Compatibility Mode should solve the problem. This is a useful way of smoothing things over - similar, really, to the way word processors allow you to save your text document to a format that you know you'll be able to open in, say, WordPad.

You may find that not every funky feature works quite as advertised, but you shouldn't experience a program written for Windows XP not running in Vista at all.

High prices and low specs

One widespread criticism of Vista has been its cost. In this respect we were chief among Microsoft's critics when Vista first launched, because of the massive disparity between the amount that consumers were charged in the UK and the US.

Another problem that Microsoft came up against was that machines that barely met the minimum suggested specification for Vista were sold by PC makers as ‘Vista Capable' - a situation that did nothing to endear the OS to the general public, and a strategy that seems to have been intended to keep the entry-level price point for Vista PCs low. The trouble is that such machines were able to run only Vista Home Basic or Starter Edition (the latter version was sold in developing countries, and didn't appear in the US or most of Europe).

Vista Home Basic doesn't support the Aero interface, the swooshy effect that allows you to flick through windows as though you were considering selections on a jukebox rather than trying to decide whether to update your expenses spreadsheet or complete the accompanying report. Aero was also the part of Vista that was blamed for the excessive hardware requirements. And Microsoft hardly helped matters by being deliberately vague about system requirements on its website. No wonder Vista didn't get off to a good start.

Now, however, any PC currently on sale - with the notable exception of netbooks, which are deliberately low-spec and low-cost machines - will happily run Vista. That's because tech specs have caught up with Vista, so 1GB of RAM and a 1GHz processor are now far from the cutting edge.

An Acer Vista Home Premium PC with 1GB RAM, dual-core 1.8GHz AMD Athlon processor, 160GB hard disk and DVD writer now comes in at less than £300 (£279 at eBuyer.com, since you ask), including a 19in widescreen monitor. This makes Vista a genuine budget option, even compared with netbooks.

But let's not ignore the valid criticisms of Vista we outlined at the start. While price and compatibility problems have largely been resolved, there's still the small matter of slow startups and the aggravation of UAC.
The first service pack for Vista came out in February 2008 and was widely acknowledged to improve startup speed. It's still not great, which is probably why there's been a rash of laptops and entertainment-centred PCs that claim near-instant startups as far as their Linux overlay, allowing you to access music, photos, videos and more.

NEXT PAGE: is Windows 7 the answer?

  1. Guide to choosing a Windows operating system
  2. Windows XP forever
  3. The future of Windows XP
  4. Windows Vista: could do better
  5. Is Windows 7 the answer?
  6. Windows 7: The solution?
  7. Windows 7's six editions
  8. The new battleground: netbooks
  9. Windows 7 specs checks

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