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Buying Vista? Get a guarantee

It's hard to know if your PC is truly Vista-compatible, experts say. But some retailers are trying to cut the confusion.

Before spending the money for Windows Vista, set to debut this week, is there any guarantee that the software you buy will run as advertised on your PC? Not exactly, analysts say.

Microsoft does offer its , 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.

"Just because a machine came back Vista-positive, I am not ready to make the assumption that all the features of Vista will run on this machine," said Michael Cherry, lead analyst for Windows and Mobile at Directions on Microsoft. His advice: "If it says (a PC) will run Vista, you still want to think about which features are important, and in talking to a vendor, you want to get an assurance that the unit (you are buying) will, in fact, accomplish those things you want."

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 or BitLocker drive encryption--will work, Cherry said.

Customers who pay about $233 for an upgrade copy of Vista Ultimate (or about $399 for the full version), for instance, could essentially end up running the equivalent of Vista Home Basic ($100 to $199) if Vista's installation software finds that the computer doesn't have the hardware to run specific Ultimate features optimally, Cherry said.

Microsoft's list of requirements for optimally running Vista Ultimate, the fullest version, or other versions, is long and detailed.

Vista buyers who find that their computer is not completely Vista-compatible will have few options. They can choose to spend additional money on upgrades to their computer, install fewer Vista features than they paid for or purchase a new PC that is fully compatible.

Cherry recommends against modifications and says consumers should instead purchase a new machine.

Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner, agrees: "Joe Consumer is not generally equipped to upgrade an operating system. This is not a trivial matter." The market researcher estimates that roughly 40 percent of the 320 million consumer PCs worldwide running a previous version of Windows can run some version of Vista.

However, "some portion of that (percentage) will need at least memory upgrades," Silver said. Moreover, he estimates that only about 15 percent of those PCs are ready to run Vista Premium and take full advantage of the software. But it's hard to predict how each individual PC will fare during Vista installation.

"Intel-based Macs sold in the last year will probably be able to run some flavor of Vista, but Apple does not have Vista drivers yet, and they are not supporting it. We just don't know yet," he said.

And if frustrated consumers change their minds, simply returning Vista for a refund is not an option at many retailers. Most typically do not allow consumers to return opened packages when it comes to software. But Vista is unique: because many consumers may not know if their computer is completely Vista-compatible until they try to install it, some retailers are making exceptions.

Rather than offering refunds, most retailers are offering proactive services in an attempt to avoid problems.

Best Buy, which has trained 60,000 employees on Vista, will have free human and kiosk help in stores to assist users in determining what they need, according Jeff Dudash, a spokesman for the retailer. Anyone can bring their computer into a store for a free Vista evaluation from Best Buy's Geek Squad before they purchase Vista, he said. Those who don't want to schlep their computer to the store can use Geek Squad's online Vista compatibility tools, though, as mentioned, those tools have their limitations.

CompUSA has trained 10,000 of its TechPro technicians on Vista and is offering home and in-store installation services starting at $50, according to a company representative. Anyone who uses the service is guaranteed a return or refund if Vista does not run to the customer's satisfaction after making the proper upgrades, and a CompUSA TechPro will reinstall the computer's old operating system, she said. The company also plans to have employees giving free in-store demonstrations and answering questions.

Amazon.com's policy on Vista is the same as its policy for all boxed products, according to spokesman Sean Sundwall. Within 30 days, the online retailer will refund 50 percent (minus shipping costs) on software that has been opened.

"After 30 days, though, not so returnable," Sundwall said.

PCs for Everyone, which has a Vista readiness section on its Web site, has already been advising and selling hardware to customers in preparation for the release, according to Brian Corn, the company's vice president of marketing.

The company, which is both a builder of computer systems and a consumer retail store, plans to take back opened copies of Vista, as long as they are returned with the original Certificate of Authenticity sticker.

PCs for Everyone has been doing "very well" selling Vista to companies since the operating system's business launch in November, and it expects a rush during the consumer launch this week, though nothing to cause them to ramp up staff, Corn said.

"If we have a customer that buys (Vista), and it just doesn't work out for them, we are prepared to take the software. If it's opened, we're not concerned. Microsoft made it clear that they are behind us making customers happy with their experience," Corn said. "I think we are doing enough education beforehand that we are not really going to see that as a problem at all."