HolidayBuyer's Guide

Week in review: Visions of Vista? Buyer beware

Microsoft's release of the consumer version of its new operating system raises the ultimate question: Was it worth the wait?

Week in review: Visions of Vista? Buyer bewareAfter many delays, Microsoft finally released the consumer version of Vista to yawns and trepidation.

The Vista launch itself was a quiet affair in a midtown Manhattan CompUSA store (the chain had organized midnight events at several of its stores), where it seemed like there were just as many reporters and camera crews as there were customers hoping to take home a copy of Vista.

Indeed, there was more to the late-night event at CompUSA than Microsoft's new operating system. The store had offered up a smattering of impressive deals on tech gear and peripherals--including Bluetooth headsets, Webcams, printers and monitors--designed to complement to the Vista launch. But it was quite clear that the majority of the people waiting in line were eager to capitalize on the slashed prices and had no real interest in Vista or Office 2007.

Microsoft may be glad to finally get Windows Vista out the door, but consider the PC industry the second-happiest bunch. After years of waiting, PC companies presented the new operating system to their customers this week. Some, like Hewlett-Packard, designed new systems specifically for the operating system, while others, like Dell, simply rolled the new software onto its existing lineup of products.

It wasn't much of a stretch for the PC community to get behind Vista. Many companies had been making plans to unveil Vista systems in the fourth quarter of last year--until last March, when Microsoft delayed release of the operating system once again.

While Vista is a leap forward in terms of security, few people who know the operating system say the advances are enough to justify an upgrade. Many say that is no reason to dump a functioning PC running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 and shell out $200 to upgrade to Vista.

"As long as XP users keep their updates current, there's generally no compelling reason to buy into the hype and purchase Vista right away," said David Milman, chief executive of Rescuecom, a computer repair and support company. "We suggest people wait until buying a new machine to get Vista, for economic and practical reasons."

While many CNET News.com readers debated the value of Vista's security, one pointed out that there is a basic security step available to all PC users.

"Regardless of what OS you're running, you're an idiot if your computer is directly connected to the Internet," wrote one reader to News.com's TalkBack forum. "You can buy a consumer hub/firewall (which will also network your home computers) for about $30, and it's more effective than any software AV/Firewall."

But beyond its improvements in security, there apparently is no guarantee that Vista will run on your PC. Microsoft offers Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor 1.0, which scans computers for Vista readiness, indicates which of four versions will adequately run and makes upgrade recommendations, should hardware need help.

CNET and other tech sites also offer free tools to analyze a PC's Vista readiness and version compatibility. Still, such tools won't absolutely certify that consumers will be able to run the version of Vista they pay for, analysts say.

Another point to consider: while Microsoft's tool, and others like it, provide a general indication of whether a computer is Vista-compatible, they do not let users probe to see if specific features--such as Vista's new graphical interface or BitLocker drive encryption--will work. Microsoft's list of requirements for optimally running Vista Ultimate, the fullest version, or other versions, is long and detailed.

Executive comings and goings
With the debut of Vista comes the departure of Microsoft's Windows chief, Jim Allchin. Vista hit store shelves on Tuesday, and one day later, Allchin, as promised, retired after 16 years with the software maker.

It's not yet clear how Allchin's latest product will affect his legacy. While early reviews of the operating system have been lukewarm, Allchin said he is confident that time will show Vista to be a significant improvement over previous versions of Windows.

A case in point: Vista's networking feature--one of Allchin's biggest gripes a year ago. Now, when users connect to a new network, they are asked if it is a home, work or public network, with the operating system automatically setting firewall and other settings based on that decision. That's a far cry from what the system offered during early testing.

Microsoft wasn't alone in losing a key and longtime executive this week. Dell announced that Kevin Rollins resigned as chief executive and that company founder Michael Dell had retaken the helm of the PC company. In addition to announcing Rollins' departure, the company said it now expects its fourth-quarter results to be below analyst expectations for both revenue and earnings per share.

Rollins' departure comes after a terrible year for the company, during which it lost its lead in PC market share to Hewlett-Packard, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation into possible accounting improprieties. Several other executives have left the company in recent months, including Chief Financial Officer Jim Schneider, who was slated to leave the company at the end of January.

Rollins came to Dell in 1996 as the operations and business expert ready to help a 31-year-old Michael Dell make his direct-mail company grow. Together, the two built a PC powerhouse that changed the industry and made billions of dollars for shareholders. But their meteoric rise to the top of the tech industry slowed dramatically in 2006, Rollins' second year as Dell's CEO.

So what happened? Dell appears to have fallen prey to a common problem for those on top: quite simply, the world changed, and Dell did not change quickly enough.

Emerging energies
A Massachusetts company next month plans to release a combination power generator and space heater, a system that can cut down on electricity bills, according to backers--at least while the heat is running.

Combined heat and power systems, already available for industry and large buildings, are designed to harvest heat that is normally wasted during the process of power generation. As fuel is burned to make electricity, the resulting heat is captured and piped through a home's existing hot-air heating system.

Climate Energy's system is designed around a Honda internal-combustion engine that burns natural gas to generate electricity. A heat exchanger feeds any captured heat to a furnace, which then distributes the hot air.

Certainly, cars are at the center of the alternative-energy movement, and a company that specializes in electric scooters and economy cars is jumping into the sports car market. Zap will try to bring an electric sports car to the market by the end of 2008. The vehicle is built around the APX, a concept car developed by England's Lotus Engineering. Lotus designed the APX to accommodate a gas-powered V6.

The design goals for the Zap-X, if met, would allow Zap to leapfrog ahead of electric-car makers Tesla Motors and Wrightspeed, in terms of how far the vehicle will go on a single charge. Zap said its car, which will sell for about $60,000, will go 350 miles before needing a recharge, significantly farther than either the Tesla Roadster or the car from Wrightspeed.

However, experts warn that it won't be easy to end our dependence on petroleum or reduce how much the world uses. The amount of energy per liter derived from petroleum is far greater than most of the alternatives, a worldwide infrastructure based on it already exists, and people tend to be lazy--seeking out alternative fuels takes some effort.

What will you fill up your car with in 5 to 10 years? It's hard to say. Several alternatives to petroleum and diesel, or ways to economize on them, have come forward in the past few years. News.com has prepared an FAQ to address each of their pluses and minuses.

Also of note
The FBI appears to have adopted an invasive Internet surveillance technique that collects far more data on innocent Americans than previously has been disclosed...eBay confirmed its decision to ban auctions for the characters, currency, weapons, attire and accounts of online games such as World of Warcraft...YouTube's CEO said the video-sharing site plans to compensate video creators.

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