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

Choosing an operating system (OS) hasn't always been a difficult decision. In the past, you'd simply pick a ‘business' or ‘home' OS. Your PC would probably come with that OS preinstalled. If it was a business machine, it would almost certainly be loaded with the same OS as other PCs on the network. Unless your business was design-based, a Mac wouldn't come into the equation, while Unix and Linux were for enterprise servers and tech tinkerers.

Windows still reigns supreme, of course, but the Mac has made noticeable inroads into the PC market, while Linux has become a serious alternative for netbook owners. While Microsoft has found users resistant to Vista, XP has had seven years of bedding in and is largely regarded as a capable, stable and usable OS - so why would anyone ditch it?

This, however, ignores the fact that XP had its own detractors when it launched - in fact, Microsoft was forced to hold back on its development of a new web browser in order to address urgent concerns about XP's insecurities.

Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista, is on its way, and many of you downloaded the public beta when Microsoft made it available in January.

But there's still no official word on when it will officially launch. Rumours abound that the OS will debut in late autumn, but Microsoft is being cagey on the matter, with different spokespeople offering various timescales. Having received largely positive feedback from industry testers and the public on its beta version, Microsoft would be forgiven for launching Windows 7 as soon as it can, but we've no idea of the problems, such as compatibility issues, that the firm still needs to address.

In the meantime, and despite consumers continuing to snap up the low-cost netbooks that run on it, Microsoft is moving its ever-popular XP OS towards retirement. With the most popular version of Windows soon to exit stage left and a new pretender peeking from behind the curtain, Vista is left uncomfortably stranded centre stage. Does Vista still have time to charm us? Should we wait it out for Windows 7? Or should we revert to trusty old XP? We present the arguments for each course of action in the following pages.

NEXT PAGE: Windows XP forever

  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

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

Windows XP forever

Arguing for Windows XP as the OS of choice is the easiest task of all. It's a proven OS that has matured and had plenty of time to bed in, it's almost universally supported and it doesn't make excessive demands on your machine's CPU.

USB and plug and play are universally supported on XP machines - prior to the launch of the OS, users had to install setup drivers for many peripherals they wanted to plug in via a USB port. As a result, XP has enabled the PC to make significant strides towards becoming the digital hub that Microsoft dreamed it could be.

It was crucial to XP's success that it had a far friendlier interface than Windows 98 or any of its predecessors. Microsoft focused on ensuring you knew where everything was on your desktop, and XP was the first Windows OS the firm geared up for multitasking.

Microsoft introduced neat labelling of folders and apps in Windows 95 and refined it with Windows 98, but XP made significant improvements to the interface. It was a far more colourful OS than its predecessors, with large, helpful icons and support for ClearType to improve legibility.

It was also fast and stable, and made it easy for multiple users to share the same PC. Users could set preferences on separate desktops and switch between password-protected accounts via the Start menu.

The original release of XP had much-publicised security failings, leading Microsoft to focus all its attention on producing the security-focused update Service Pack 2 (SP2). Nonetheless, XP quickly became Microsoft's best-loved OS.

Performance analysis

XP is fast - faster than both Vista and Windows 7 when run on the levels of hardware that the latter two require. This makes sense: XP supports symmetrical multiprocessing, just like Vista and Windows 7, which means it's also capable of taking advantage of multicore processors (although not within integrated cores).

Its lighter hardware demands and ability to execute several clock cycles at once add up to extremely fast performance.

This means Windows XP die-hards may be better candidates for an upgrade to the PC than the OS. Consult the Belarc Advisor on the Crucial or Kingston Technology websites to check what RAM your machine can accept - an extra gigabyte will be the best tonic you can give your PC. It's also easy to add a Dimm (the laptop equivalent of a stick of RAM) and boost your portable performance.

You can still find processors that will run on an XP system with a fairly elderly motherboard by checking component sites such as eBuyer and Overclockers or even ebay, but upgrading the CPU on a PC that's more than three years old is unlikely to be a cost-effective option. In fact, buying a new barebones system for £200 or £300 and installing XP on that would be a better bet.

Granted, you'll need to add a two-way firewall, since XP's is outbound only. But you can be sure any third-party security software you want to run on it - or any other software, for that matter - will work quite happily.

The only applications and files that don't immediately work on XP SP2 or SP3 are some of the music and video formats that have emerged in the past few years. So if you want to play an H.264 video clip or a watch a DivX film, you'll have to re-encode it first.

For many users, the familiarity and reliability of XP is a winning combination. Chances are this is the OS that you've been using at work for the past five years, so why not use the same one for your home PCs?

It's no coincidence that XP is the OS that Microsoft grudgingly allowed netbook makers to install on the low-power, low-spec machines. It turned out that a hardy, low-cost, lightweight laptop that dispensed with all the bells and whistles of Vista and ran the proven XP OS was exactly what consumers of all stripes wanted.

In fact, leaving aside the success of the netbook, XP SP2 continues to be the OS of choice for more than 65 percent of home PC users, according to web metrics company Net Applications.

The end is nigh

But there is one problem with Windows XP: Microsoft is determined to kill it off. After several stays of execution in which the support cycle for SP2 and SP3 was extended beyond the standard period the firm usually offers, XP is well and truly on its way out.

From 14 April, Microsoft will no longer offer mainstream support for XP, moving the OS into its ‘extended' support phase. By the end of that period, the overall lifespan of XP will be around 14 years - some four years longer than any other OS it's produced.

This means the free fixes and updates to the Microsoft Knowledgebase that you may have become accustomed to consulting will no longer be updated, and patches won't be routinely issued. Security updates will continue, but only customers who have a specific support contract with Microsoft will get other forms of update from mid-April.

NEXT PAGE: the future of Windows XP

  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

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

The future of Windows XP

This won't stop you getting your hands on XP, however - at least, not immediately. Many laptop makers have unveiled XP models in the past few months and the demand for XP netbooks shows no sign of abating.

02 has just launched a Samsung NC10 laptop running Windows XP Home, for example, and Dell has recently started selling the Mini. There are also any number of XP machines for sale at sites such as LaptopsDirect. When we checked in mid-February, they had 166 XP models listed.

It's also perfectly possible to get your hands on an XP-based desktop machine. Many online PC stores have subsections devoted to Windows XP. Some manufacturers in our PC reviews allow you to replace Vista with XP, too.

Dell, for example, offers a Vista Bonus option when you spec a PC. If you choose this, you get Windows XP Professional preinstalled and a disc containing Windows Vista so you can switch to the newer OS later.

If you're currently a disgruntled Vista user and would rather be back with XP, you could buy a new system with Vista Business or Ultimate on it, roll back your existing OS to XP (assuming you've got the necessary discs to do so), or buy a new copy of XP.

Another option is to buy a new PC with a ‘downgrade' disc, in effect giving you the means to switch allegiance from Vista to XP. (It doesn't enable you to get a cheap copy of XP on the sly and install it on another machine; you can simply dump new for old.)

Skipping a generation

Some users plan to stick with XP for now, then buy a Windows 7 PC when that OS launches. And if the support situation gets critical before Windows 7 goes on sale, there will be the option of an Express Upgrade - in essence a teaser for the new OS. While it's yet to be confirmed by Microsoft, a reputable source has suggested the upgrade may even be free.

But if you want to keep your hardware and jump to Windows 7, be aware that your machine will need the spec to match. While no final requirements have been announced for Windows 7, you can get a fair idea from the details provided by Microsoft at its beta download site.

You'll need a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of hard-disk space and, if you're likely to want to use the Aero interface, DirectX 9.0 and 128MB of dedicated graphics memory. If possible, you'll want 2GB of RAM (also now our base recommendation for Vista) and a dual- or quad-core processor - so you'll also need a motherboard that supports it.

You'll need to back up everything on your current PC before you begin the upgrade process, since only a clean install to Windows 7 will be possible. Such a step involves wiping everything from your PC and starting afresh. You'll also need to do this if you're trying out the beta for size (users who downloaded the code before the cut-off date can still do so - details at the Windows 7 microsite).

VERDICT

We like the idea of being able to sit it out on an XP machine and migrate to Windows 7 only once it's been out for a year and has bedded in. Our mantra is ‘If it ain't broke, why fix it?' - a sentiment we know many PC Advisor readers would echo.

Now Microsoft support for Windows XP is moving into its ‘extended' period, there will be only essential security updates for our favourite OS, but it's unlikely that anything will go catastrophically wrong with Windows XP this far down the line.

Until you find a compelling reason - such as the need for multicore processing and routine ability to encode and play HD video content - we suggest you do the same.

  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

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

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

Is Windows 7 the answer?

Windows 7 startups will be faster - but not by much.

UAC is also addressed in Windows 7. And so it jolly well should be. It's deservedly the most loathed aspect of Vista, with users infuriated by its insistence on asking at every turn whether you really want to continue with the action you initiated in the first place.

No wonder many simply switched it off.

UAC is there for a reason: to prevent you from installing a dodgy app or performing an ill-advised action that will be detrimental to your PC. But if you're determined to do so, you can switch it off. Select Start, Control Panel, User Accounts, ‘Turn User Account Control on or off'. Select Continue at the UAC prompt and, on the next screen, untick ‘Use User Account Control (UAC) to help protect your computer'. Click ok and reboot.

It's not ideal limiting UAC to on or off, though; switching it off leaves no failsafe. Windows 7 offers far more control over UAC.

If you need a new PC and think Windows 7 is likely to be the OS you pick, you may not need to wait until the official launch. Microsoft is said be planning to offer an Express Upgrade path to Windows 7. This means you can buy a new PC or laptop in the few months before Windows 7 comes out, experience the ‘pleasure' of using Windows Vista for a couple of months and, once you tire of those UAC prompts, switch to the new OS. There will be a discount for doing this, and it may even be free.

VERDICT

So would we buy a Vista PC? Yes, we would. For all its criticisms, Vista is a perfectly usable OS. Its detractors continue to shout and scream, but a fair proportion of those haven't actually used it.

We're largely happy with Vista and, if you're in the market for a new PC, we see no reason not to recommend it. It's secure, stable and runs well on today's dual-core processors. We still prefer XP, mind.

NEXT PAGE: Windows 7 - the solution?

  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

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

Windows 7: The solution?

Anticipation is building over the launch of Windows 7. Even with a beta build out in the wild, however, it's too early to say whether it's going to be an XP killer or simply a marginally improved version of Vista.

So far, we've been able to benchmark this first build and glean some nuggets from Microsoft about its general strategy in developing Windows 7.

Performance analysis

First, it seems Windows 7 is faster than XP - a feat Vista wasn't able to achieve. This means there's immediately a compelling reason to choose Windows 7, particularly if you're currently struggling with Vista.

Windows 7 has a simpler interface, with just a Start button at the bottom left and no Sidebar filled with gadgets that need to update themselves. Microsoft apparently dumped the Sidebar to claw back valuable screen space - a vital consideration if the OS is to gain popularity on systems with smaller screens, such as netbooks. Gadgets are still available by right-clicking the desktop and dragging them to a location of your choice.

Unlike either XP or Vista, Windows 7 allows you to easily rearrange the items that are grouped along the bottom of the screen. You aren't stuck with folders and files stacked in a particular way. An enlarged strip replaces the Taskbar XP users are accustomed to, and this is filled with icons relating to apps you've recently accessed and tools you commonly use. It's now much more like the Dock in Mac OS.

Microsoft seems to have worked hard to make Windows 7 more straightforward to use than Vista. Fancy ideas such as the resource-intensive Aero interface are absent (you can reinstate this if you wish), and Microsoft has kept preloaded apps to a minimum.

You have the option to install tools that allow you to manage your photos and your email, but they aren't preloaded by default. Listed under Windows Live Essentials in the Control Panel, you'll find items such as the parental-controls feature, the movie maker and the photo gallery, as well as email and blogging tools.

Share and share alike

Another useful difference in Windows 7 is the ease with which media such as music and photos can be shared. A password is used to control access to all items on the home network - now known as a Homegroup.

Printers, as well as content, can be accessed using a Homegroup, and Windows 7 allows administrators to specify who can access what on which PC within the group. A Homegroup is not simply a new name for a home network, however, as it can contain only Windows 7 devices.

The other change to Windows that will make a big difference to everyday use is that UAC has been toned down. Rather than a straight choice between being prompted to confirm your every action or to switch off the feature completely, you're now able to specify when Windows should alert you about a possibly harmful action.

Windows 7 also makes better sense of what's running on your PC, alerting you via its Program Compatibility Wizard if an application needs updating or isn't certified for use with the OS. Instead of simply whining that Microsoft hasn't certified it, it offers to find a solution, or try and run the program anyway. Given the OS's similarity to Vista, most programs should run without a problem.

We welcome the new ability to recognise and distinguish between devices you plug in. XP was always let down by its unhelpful lettering convention for attached peripherals, which forced you to work out which letter had been assigned to your flash drive, MP3 player or camera memory card before you could safely remove it. Windows 7 displays an icon-based map of what's attached and what it can see on your network or Homegroup.

NEXT PAGE: Windows 7's six editions

  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

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

Windows 7's six editions

If you thought Vista's multiple versions were confusing, prepare to be bamboozled all over again by Windows 7. Microsoft has said it will offer six versions of the OS, although the choice for most people will simply be between Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Home Premium.

Microsoft's general manager for Windows, Mike Ybarra, has said that each version of Windows 7 will be a ‘superset' of another - in much the same way that Windows Media Center Edition and Windows Tablet PC Edition were supersets of Windows XP Home Pro and Windows XP Business respectively. However, in contrast to XP, if you start off with a business version of Windows 7 and decide you'd like the home entertainment elements provided by Windows Media Player, you can get them; you don't forfeit anything by choosing one avenue rather than another.

Microsoft describes Home Premium as the natural choice for consumers. "It gives them a full-function PC experience and a visually rich environment in everything from the way they experience entertainment to the way they connect their devices," Microsoft proclaims on its press site.

The firm says Windows 7 Professional, meanwhile, is designed for use in small and medium-sized businesses and will be a natural progression from Windows Vista Business. However, Microsoft also suggests that this version of the OS will be suitable for home users who have some business demands, citing the example of "an IT-managed or business environment where security and productivity are critical".

This suggests the home-user version won't be all that smart at security - but we could be reading too much between the lines. Perhaps Microsoft is just trying to drum up customers for the Business version.

There will be four other editions: Enterprise, the version big businesses are encouraged to choose; Home Basic, to be offered only in emerging markets where PC specs are likely to be lower; Starter, available worldwide as a preinstalled OS on particular types of hardware; and Ultimate.

Both the Enterprise and Ultimate versions will include the BitLocker security tool, but Microsoft has said it has no plans to offer Ultimate Extra applications with Windows 7 - something it announced for Vista Ultimate but failed to make much of. Instead, Ultimate will simply be the version of Windows 7 for technology enthusiasts who want it all.

See also: Windows 7 video guide

Which version is right for you?

Despite Microsoft's assurances that there are only two real versions of Windows 7 to worry about, you'll want to know how all six differ. As with Vista, we'd caution you against Home Basic, even if you're attacted by the low price. Starter Edition, meanwhile, sounds as though it will be a suitable replacement for Windows XP Home on netbooks and machines with limited specifications.

Windows 7 Starter Edition will primarily be targeted at emerging markets. It will not support the Aero interface and will be able to run only three applications simultaneously. However, it will have the large docked items arrayed along the improved Taskbar, and this will be customisable. You'll also be able to include a Starter Edition PC or laptop in a Homegroup for media and resource sharing.

For most consumers, Home Premium will be the best choice of Windows 7 edition. It will support proper networking, rather than simply allowing you to join a Homegroup. It will support the Aero interface, so you can flick between different screens depending on the sort of tasks you're currently performing, and will allow you to run numerous apps at once, complete with live updates. Microsoft won't limit the number of apps that can run simultaneously; instead, the processor and available memory will govern this.

Touchscreen applications will be usable with Windows 7 Home Premium, at which point those enlarged icons at the bottom of the screen will come into their own. You'll be able to select an item with your finger and flick it up to the top of the desktop to open it to full-screen - far less fiddly than the minimise/maximise options in XP and Vista. Having introduced touch-sensitive support, it makes sense that Microsoft has boosted the handwriting-recognition features for Home Premium users too.

Our understanding, however, is that the multitouch features of this version of Windows 7 won't carry through to the Professional Edition - a contrast with Windows XP, which had a dedicated Tablet PC Edition aimed at the education market as well as being primed for creative, legal and industrial applications.

Business users plumping for Windows 7 Professional will be able to join managed office networks regulated by their domain and physical location, will be able to automatically back up over a network and be able to print securely over it. Encryption will also be offered as part of the OS.

The top-end versions of Windows 7 will be the Enterprise and Ultimate versions. These will include the core elements of the other flavours of Windows 7, but also include BitLocker hardware encryption. The Enterprise edition will offer DirectAccess remote access features and will enable network administrators to restrict client PCs' ability to install applications using a feature known as AppLocker.

Since Microsoft has yet to do more than tease potential customers with the public beta download and hasn't announced a precise timescale for launch, we can only speculate about Windows 7's price tag. However, Microsoft has indicated it's likely to be in line with current pricing for Vista.

NEXT PAGE: netbooks, the next battle ground

  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

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

The new battleground: netbooks

Windows 7 may be an obvious successor on the desktop, but its role in portable computing is less certain. XP-based netbooks have proved a runaway success, so Microsoft needs to work hard to lure fans of smaller, cheaper laptops to buy its shiny new OS.

In April 2008, the official cut-off date for XP-based netbooks was extended to mid-2010. While rumours abound that Windows 7's launch will be earlier than originally suggested, Microsoft hasn't announced revised plans for XP to stop being sold. In September 2008 Microsoft set a cut-off date of 31 January 2009 for the sale of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions.

A statement given to PC Advisor from Microsoft's Redmond headquarters in mid-February suggested it's sticking to its guns and allowing OEMs to build and sell XP PCs only with licences they have already bought.

The statement revealed that Microsoft "is making accommodations through a flexible inventory programme that will allow distributors to take delivery and receive orders after the end-of-sales deadline for Windows XP this winter."

The accommodations in question seem to relate to how these licences are bought, rather than affecting when Microsoft would stop selling them.

"The 31 January 2009 deadline we announced back in September 2008 represented the date when authorised OEM distributors could place their final Windows XP order," Microsoft added. "However, OEM distributors could and can still ship to exhaust their Windows XP product inventory. This change also provides for system builders, as they obtain their XP products through a distributor."

Another unconfirmed rumour is that Microsoft will launch a cut-down version of Windows 7 for netbooks, ensuring both cost and system requirements are kept low.

See also: Windows 7 video guide

Microsoft's big comeback

The desktop will be the main battleground for Windows 7. In the US, Mac OS X is now the platform of choice for 10 percent of users, with the UK and Europe not far off this figure. While that leaves Microsoft a healthy majority, it can't afford to get it wrong again.

Happily for Microsoft, a side effect of the disappointment some consumers have experienced with Vista is that there's a great deal of interest in its replacement. The beta version of Windows 7 immediately caught the public's attention, prompting Microsoft to extend the original two-week download window so more of us could give it a try.

It's largely gone down well. The damage Vista did to Microsoft's reputation shouldn't be underestimated, but with Windows 7 it seems to have got more right than wrong. Even so, downgrade rights for Windows 7 users who want to be able to use XP instead have already been mooted. Since XP will almost certainly be difficult to get hold of when Windows 7 launches, it's hard to see how this could be feasible.

The other issue for Microsoft is dealing with a vocal minority of Vista users who are highly aggrieved by the existing OS and believe they should be given its replacement for free. Forum users and commenters on PC Advisor's website have discussed this issue at length, while one disgruntled US customer has gone so far as to seek a refund from Microsoft for the $59 she had to stump up for her XP downgrade disc.

Gartner analyst Michael Silver has described such rights for Windows 7 as "essential". Microsoft has yet to declare whether it will continue to allow customers to install XP on new PCs once Windows 7 launches. The current line, announced in April 2008, is that netbooks with Windows XP preinstalled will continue to be available until mid-2010, but this broad agreement was made before Microsoft began to bring forward the likely launch date for Windows 7.

NEXT PAGE: specs checks and verdict

  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

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

Windows 7 specs checks

Assuming you like the sound of Windows 7, will your PC be able to run it, or will you need to budget for a new one? The system requirements for Windows 7 are around the same as those of the machines in our current Top 5 £501-£750 PCs chart (see page 134). In other words, you'll need a dual-core processor running at 1GHz or faster, but you won't need to fork out for the latest and greatest machine on the market.

To be sure your hardware will be able to cope with Windows 7, it's worth testing your PC with the Performance Monitor applet on the PC Advisor website. If you haven't already done so, you'll need to register at pcadvisor.co.uk/account/register. You need to be logged in to activate the Performance Monitor tool. If you're already a registered user on our website, log in as usual, then go to your user profile and tick the box to allow the applet to run on your machine.

Given that Microsoft made a bit of a mess of letting customers know whether their PCs would be able to run Vista, it's sensible to check your PC's capabilities. If you're a Vista user, there's a built-in tool in the OS that can assess how well your machine is running in comparison with others. Head to Vista's Control Panel and click Windows Experience Index to check whether any item is hampering your system; the feedback shouldn't be treated as gospel, but it's fairly certain that the same elements will also prove to be a bottleneck in Windows 7.

See also: Windows 7 video guide

VERDICT

For desktop PC users, the choice of Windows 7 is almost a given. You can opt for Vista in the meantime, either within the Express Upgrade period in the run-up to Windows 7's launch or earlier. The system requirements are less exacting than for Vista, so having a sufficiently powerful PC shouldn't be an issue unless you intend to leap from XP to Windows 7 - nonetheless, we urge you to verify whether your machine will make the grade by testing it with the PC Performance tool on our website, as mentioned previously.

Laptop users who've discovered the joy of low-power portable computing on the dependable XP Home platform don't have such a clear-cut choice, but if the rumoured netbook version of Windows 7 becomes a reality, they should also find a relatively lean and stable OS to enjoy.

  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