When to convert from Windows XP to Vista, part 2

Every new version of Windows includes hundreds of bugs. At what point do you consider Vista sufficiently debugged that you can depend on it?

Back on September 2, I wrote about why I think someone buying a Windows computer should opt for XP rather than Vista . More and more, Microsoft customers are opting to hold off on Vista.

In April, Dell reversed reversed it's Vista-only stand and started offering Windows XP again to consumers.

Gregg Keizer of ComputerWorld reported in July about two surveys by PatchLink (now known as Lumension) of their business customers. The first survey, in December 2006, found that 43 percent of businesses were planning to move to Vista. By July of this year, a similar survey showed that 87 percent are staying with their existing version(s) of Windows.

Also in July, Ken Fisher wrote at Ars Technica about steps Microsoft was taking to make it "considerably easier and faster for OEMs to put XP on new machines..."

Another July article, this one by Edward Moltzen and Steven Burke at CRN.com, described small computer companies (VARs) that were doing tons of conversions of new PCs from Vista to XP. One company was charging from $150 to $250 for the "rip and replace" as they termed it. Another company said they were removing Vista from new PCs 99 percent of the time.

They may have to find something else to do. On September 21, Ina Fried of CNET wrote about an officially sanctioned way to "downgrade" a computer that came with Vista to run Windows XP. Ina says, "While there is always resistance by some to move to a new operating system, there appears to be particularly strong demand, especially from businesses, to stick with XP."

Note: "Downgrade" is Microsoft's term--to me it's a conversion. Whenever a new version of Windows is released, Microsoft always trashes the prior version. Stephen Manes wrote about this in his hilarious article, "Windows--New! Improved! Yada Yada Yada!," last November. They probably are already working on Vista insults in preparation of the next version of Windows.

I don't feel your pain. I have not installed Vista and won't consider it until Service Pack 2 (yes, that's a two) or 2.5 years after its release, whichever comes last. Yes, I'm a computer nerd, but that doesn't always mean focusing on the newest stuff. When it comes to operating systems especially, my focus is on using computers to get work done (hence this Defensive Computing blog).

With this in mind, I converted from Windows NT4 to Windows 2000 when Service Pack 2 for Windows 2000 came out. Likewise, SP2 was when I personally converted from using Windows 2000 to XP. I'm late to the game, but happy to have the rest of the world debug the operating system for me. I've got other things to do.

When to Convert


The operating system conversion topic is often framed wrong. To borrow from John F. Kennedy and the host of The Personal Computer Radio Show Hank Kee:

ASK NOT WHETHER YOU ARE READY FOR VISTA,
ASK IF VISTA IS READY FOR YOUR SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE

For many the answer is no, which is what the rest of this posting is about.

But what if the answer is yes? What if every software application you use will work on Vista and all your printers, cameras, PDAs and other assorted hardware are also supported? That still doesn't mean your next Windows computer should run Vista. It only leads to the next questions:

  • Do the advantages of Vista (as you see them) outweigh the conversion hassle? For one thing, the Vista user interface is not exactly like XP. It's similar, but so too is the Mac OS X and assorted versions (distro being the techie term) of Linux.
  • Every new version of Windows includes hundreds of bugs. At what point do you consider Vista sufficiently debugged that you can depend on it?

These are not easy questions, but rather than making a logical decision, some people have moved to Vista out of fear. Among them was James Fallows, who writes for The Atlantic. Back in July, he explained why he opted for Vista over XP on a newly purchased PC:

"Within the lifetime of this newest machine, I expect that I'll be forced or tempted to move to Vista, for compatibility reasons. So I'd rather start out with it installed, despite the inevitable bugs in early release, than later have to install Vista myself."

It will be a long time before anyone is forced to move off Windows XP. And when that time comes, the forcing is likely to be from your desire to run an application that works on Vista but not on XP.

And the bugs are indeed inevitable. In his case, Mr. Fallows found them intolerable and went back to XP. Your mileage may vary.

Who knows? Windows XP may end up being the QWERTY operating system. That is, despite its flaws, it may become an entrenched standard to the point that moving to something new just isn't worthwhile. Time will tell. If you continue to purchase XP, Microsoft will continue to offer it. Plain and simple. And because so many people have continued to opt for XP, it's now easier to get.

Downgrading Vista to XP


Which leads me back to Ina's article, which points out that back in June "Microsoft changed its practices to allow computer makers that sell pre-activated Vista machines to order Windows XP discs that could be included inside the box with PCs, or shipped to customers without requiring additional activation."

In other words, converting a new Vista machine to XP will be a trivial undertaking.

  • No Windows activation
  • No need to install XP
  • The necessary drivers are already included

If you buy a qualifying (more on this in a second) Vista machine from HP, Lenovo, Fujitsu, Dell or any other vendor that takes Microsoft up on their offer, then you get a Windows XP Recovery CD designed for your specific machine (the same sort of thing you would have received, or been able to make, had XP been pre-installed).

You boot from the Recovery CD and it lays down an image (think Ghost, Drive Image, True Image) of Windows XP. Vista is totally gone. But so too are any applications you may have installed after purchasing the machine. This also wipes out your data files, so the best time to convert from Vista to XP is when a machine is new.

Both Microsoft and the hardware vendors set rules for "downgrading" from Vista to XP. Microsoft's rule is that only Vista Business and Vista Ultimate can be downgraded. If you purchased a computer with a home edition of Vista, tough luck. And you can downgrade to XP Professional, but not to XP Home edition or Media Center edition.

Within these parameters, each hardware vendor gets to decide how to deal with Vista downgrades. Will it be offered on all Vista business machines or only some? Will the XP recovery CD be included in the box or not? Will it be free?

According to Ina, Fujitsu has been particularly aggressive. Last month, it started to include an XP Recovery CD in the box with all its laptops and tablets. However, when I looked for information about this today at Fujitsu.com, I came up empty. In fact, all I could find was the company touting upgrades to higher-end versions of Vista.

Tom Spring, blogging for PC World, said that "Dell, HP and Lenovo customers can request a Windows XP Pro recovery disc to be included with their purchase of a Vista machine..." If you already have a Vista business computer from these vendors, he says, you can "request an XP Pro recovery CD for between $15 and $20 by calling technical support."

When purchasing a new Vista business machine, Dell small business charges $20 to include the XP Professional recovery CD. HP's business sales staff warned that "the XP Pro recovery discs would not include a license to activate the OS," according to Spring. Still, this should be a moot point as both Dell and HP sell new computers with XP pre-installed avoiding the downgrading hassle in the first place, a fact Spring failed to mention.

Lenovo too, has always offered XP on new computers. Good thing, because the Web page describing its downgrade policy for customers with existing copies of Vista business is a bit confusing. If this excerpt makes sense to you, please leave a comment to this posting: "There will be a limit of one Windows XP Recovery CD set per customer, per serial number for each system series with preloaded software, including Windows Vista Business or Windows Vista Ultimate."

As for cost, all Lenovo says is that "Fees may vary." A reader of the PC World blog claims to be a Lenovo support tech and writes that the company charges $45 plus shipping and tax. I have not verified this.

Downside to XP


There is no question that security is not a strong point for Windows XP. However, the free DropMyRights program offers a lot of security and it's something that I think every Windows XP user should install. I blogged about it in August:

To someone focused on the latest and greatest, XP may seem ancient. To me, it's debugged.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

    Disclosure.

     

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