Travel Tech 101



February 15, 2007 -- By now you've been subjected to more than two weeks of a huge promotional campaign aimed at convincing you to purchase Microsoft's new Windows Vista, the operating system that's replacing the ubiquitous Windows XP.

Vista was five years in development, involved thousands of employees and cost $6 billion to get to market. It may very well be Microsoft's last major operating system upgrade for years since computer users will be relying more on Web browsers and online computing in the future. For now, however, Vista is critically important to the computer industry as well as computer users. It's the fuel that generates Microsoft's profits as well as those of the PC industry at large.

With that much at stake, you can understand why Microsoft is spending millions to convince us to upgrade now or run out and buy a new computer with Vista pre-installed. But is that good advice?

Vista comes in four versions for individual use: Home Basic ($200 for a new version and $100 for the upgrade), Business ($300 and $200), Home Premium ($240 and $160) and Ultimate ($400 and $260).

With so many variations, Microsoft isn't making it easy for us. You should avoid the Basic edition, which omits many of the new features. But after that, it gets complicated. For example, you can only use the upgrade versions of Vista to install on a computer using an existing version of Windows XP. But some of Vista's new features, such as sleep and resume on notebooks, work better with a clean install. Another quirk: the Business version can be used to upgrade a tablet computer, but the Home Premium version can be used only to do a fresh install on a tablet.

I've tested the pre-released Vista for several weeks on an HP dv5000 notebook computer that I upgraded from XP. I also installed the Ultimate version on a Lenovo X60 tablet notebook. Installation went smoothly on both, taking about an hour for each.

The most noticeable improvement is Vista's new look. Screens are more attractive and more modern and the menus are more informative. The improvements are accomplished largely through the use of softer colors, 3-D effects, new fonts, shading, semi-transparent windows and animation. Some will compare Vista's appearance to the current Macintosh operating system, but Vista is more colorful and has some cool rollover and animation effects.

Notable features: Move your mouse over the 3-D folders and you can see what's inside without opening them. You can view all of your open windows as a vertical 3-D stack of pages and select one of them to open. These visual effects, referred to as Aero, require computers with more memory and advanced graphics. And Aero is not available on the Basic Edition.

Vista also addresses many of the security issues that plagued XP. While much is done through its new underlying design, that alone can't prevent us from mistakenly opening a dangerous attachment or installing some nefarious software. So Vista requires us to confirm many of the activities we ask it to do. Not just obvious security-related activities, but nearly everything you do. I found the frequency of these requests to be really annoying and I think many Vista users will opt to reduce the security interruptions by turning down the User Account Controls.

One of the best features of Vista is its instant search capability, which lets you quickly find anything on your computer by typing a string of text. It works much like Spotlight on the Mac and lets you find any E-mail or file in seconds. It's a real time-saver.

Other notable Vista additions include a photo organizer, extensive parental controls and "gadgets," a clone of Apple's widgets. The gadgets display the weather, a calendar, a calculator and other items in tiny windows at the side of the screen.

Overall I found Vista to be the best Windows yet. It's polished, good looking and is almost fun to use--after it's installed, that is.

So, again, the pivotal question: Should you upgrade to Vista now?

I recommend waiting a few months. Vista requires new drivers to work with your printers, data cards, software utilities and internal hardware. Some drivers are still in development, so you might find that something won't work after upgrading. In my case, a Sierra Wireless EVDO data card had no Vista driver available and could not be used. (Before you try to upgrade, surf here to preview any problems with Vista on your existing system.)

I also found the HP notebook to run sluggishly with its 1 GB memory. I recommend at least 2 GB of memory. I had no problems running my software, mostly Microsoft applications, but some have reported problems running Quickbooks 2006, iTunes and other software.

Also, you may want wait until you need a new computer. You'll skirt a lot of compatibility issues if you purchase a new PC with Vista pre-installed. In my case, I'm not planning to upgrade my primary PC, a Sony Vaio TX notebook, until it supports my data card and Microsoft has had a chance to respond to the inevitable early bugs.

After all, what's a few more months after five years?

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 2007 by San Diego Transcript. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.