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Hidden costs of Vista

Buy a PC now and you could get a free upgrade to Vista when it ships. But not every vendor is offering the same deal – and an OS upgrade can be a painful process.

This article appears in the January 07 issue of PC Advisor, onsale now in all good newsagents.

Microsoft's Express Upgrade to Windows Vista programme has been in the offing for months. In principle, it provides a coupon so that if you buy an XP PC from a participating vendor before 15 March, 2007, you'll be able to upgrade to Windows Vista for free when it becomes available.

The programme seems designed to tame ill-will between Microsoft and the vendors that hoped to sell you a Vista PC in time for the festive season. The OS (operating system) was originally due to ship to computer manufacturers months ago, with vendors expecting to have plenty of time to put Vista-enabled systems on the shelves for the traditionally strong pre-Christmas period.

But the much publicised delays to the OS have meant consumers aren't going to get their hands on Vista PCs until at least the end of January 2007. Microsoft has been forced to come up with an incentive to encourage you to upgrade your computer sooner rather than later.

But what's in it for you? Well, the coupon certainly sounds attractive: buy an XP PC now that transforms into a sleek Vista powerhouse later. And Microsoft's representations are positively glowing: "Don't wait to enjoy the benefits of owning a new PC. Buying a Premium Ready Windows Vista Capable PC means you can buy a great Windows XP computer today, with the confidence that it will easily upgrade to the Windows Vista edition of your choice."

But there are sceptics. Although our tests haven't highlighted too many problems when upgrading Windows XP machines to test versions of Vista, anyone who has upgraded Windows before will be wary of Microsoft's easy-upgrade promise.

And although the concept of the upgrade coupons is that you'll get a free version of Vista when it ships, in reality the price you'll pay depends on where you buy your PC, with various manufacturers and retailers offering different pricing structures.

Shop around

PC World, for example, is offering free Windows Vista Home Premium upgrades on all PCs and laptops priced at £399 and above. But those who buy systems for less than £399 will be offered an upgrade to Windows Vista Home Basic edition for half the recommended retail price.

HP and Dell, meanwhile, are offering those who buy an XP Media Center Edition PC a free version of Vista Home Premium when it becomes available, although customers will have to pay a shipping fee. However, a spokesperson for HP in the UK said those who buy a system with XP Home will be offered a copy of Vista Home Basic, but they'll have to pay a discounted royalty fee – the price of which has yet to be determined. In the US, HP's competitor Dell is planning to charge those that choose this option $45 (£24) plus shipping and handling.

However as we've discussed before in the pages of PCAdvisor.co.uk, Windows Vista Home Basic is regarded as the poor cousin of Windows Vista Home Premium. The differences the typical home user will notice in the capabilities of these two operating systems are far wider than those between XP Home and XP Professional. Vista Home doesn't include the snazzy Aero interface or Media Center features, for example.

Hands-on approach

Once you've done the homework on which version you want – and talked to your PC vendor to ensure that an upgrade to the version you want will be available and how much it may cost – there's a further issue that nobody is really talking about. Upgrading an operating system is not a trivial process.

If you use this coupon programme, you are committing yourself to personally upgrading your own PC. Are you up to the task? Are you ready to pay for technical assistance if necessary? And are you ready to spend the time the process will take?

Companies such as Dell and HP hope to simplify the upgrade. Both plan to provide users with informational DVDs to explain how they should replace XP with Vista, while those that come unstuck will be able to phone their PC manufacturer's technical support line. This will come at the usual charge, however. There could be complications, though, as conventional wisdom suggests the safest way to upgrade OSes is via a clean install. This will require you to reinstall all of your applications – and obtain and install drivers for everything that needs one. Which gets back to the question we raised earlier: the hardware may take the upgrade in its stride, but will you?

Those people who enjoy maintaining PCs and can't wait to buy a new system may have no problem with upgrading. But if you don't feel confident about taking on a full OS upgrade, your best bet may be to be patient and wait until Vista comes pre-installed.

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