By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website
Microsoft promises to wow people who are upgrading from Windows XP to its new operating system, but with the joys of Windows Vista comes plenty of pain.
I know, I know, I'm a sucker for technology.
The shiny new Vista disk was sitting on my desk, and I just couldn't resist giving it a try.
Even though I fell for Vista's promise - more security and certainly much more fun than tired old Windows XP - I tried not to be stupid.
I knew my four-year-old PC might have trouble coping with Vista, not least because of its wheezing graphics card.
When I bought it, my Dell Dimension 8200 was fairly state-of-the-art (a few stats for the experts: Pentium 4 processor running at 2GHz, 384MB of RAM, a 64MB graphics card, and a Creative SB Live audio card).
Since then I had added memory (to 768MB), a second hard disk, extra USB ports and a Wifi card.
A blunt message
But this was probably not enough, so I downloaded Microsoft's Vista Upgrade Advisor.
Out with the old, in with the new computer memory
Microsoft's message was blunt but useful: Yes, my computer could happily run Vista, but it would need a few crutches and new body parts. Step-by-step instructions told me how to avoid problems:
It turned out to be tricky to find the right graphics card. Most shopping websites were useless in providing information on Vista compatibility.
- Get a new graphics card with at least 128MB memory;
- download new software for the Linksys Wifi network card, to sync my PDA with Outlook and to make good use of my multimedia keyboard;
- download the latest version of my Kaspersky Antivirus software.
- With a few minor exceptions, the rest of my set-up was given a clean bill of health, including my webcam and printer.
At least a dozen times, I discovered in the small print on manufacturers' websites that there were no Vista drivers for that particular piece of hardware. I finally settled on a Nvidia GeForce 6200 with 256MB memory.
Now here is the dirty little secret of all the expensive PC helpers out there. Upgrading hardware is really easy.
As long as you make sure the new hardware fits into the slots that come with your computer and does not overburden its power supply, it's usually just a case of carefully lifting out the old and slotting in the new piece of kit.
Do check the manual, though, to see whether you need to install the driver software for your new equipment before or after putting it in.
If you are still worried, go online. You can find plenty of videos and manuals providing step-by-step guides on how to do it.
Then I followed the task list drawn up by Microsoft. The Upgrade Advisor even provided direct links for downloading new drivers and other software.
Taking one more precaution, I made a full back-up of all my documents to an external hard drive.
A good start
Finally I was ready to go.
I had read somewhere that a Vista installation would take 20 minutes. Not if you upgrade from XP.
After three-and-a-half hours of churning, at long last the Vista logo filled my screen.
It was the beginning of a day of anguish.
At first sight, everything had worked fine: All user accounts, complete with documents and software, were present and accounted for.
Vista looked slick. Its user interface was clear and set-up seemingly easy. The XP gobbledegook had disappeared from dialogue boxes.
Installing the new wifi driver and anti-virus software was a cinch.
Software worked straight away - whether it was Microsoft Office, Firefox or my very old copy of Photoshop Elements.
Feel the pain
But soon the problems began to mount:
- Where was the internet? I could see my router, but nothing beyond - even after a full day of tinkering with various network wizards. My BBC laptop proved that this was not a problem with my router or ISP.
- Why did my Philips webcam refuse to work? The Upgrade Advisor had explicitly said it would.
- What hardware was responsible for the three driver errors flagged up by Vista? One seemed to be the sound card - oh yes, why did I have no sound? But which mysterious "PCI input device" was lacking a driver? And what was the "unknown device" flagged up by Vista?
- Why did I get a "disk is full" error message every time I tried to install my keyboard's new Intellitype software? Why did Vista refuse to uninstall the XP-version of Intellitype?
- I knew that Apple had failed to make iTunes Vista-ready, so I didn't even try.
- But why did Microsoft's successor of Activesync, called Windows Mobile Device Center, refuse to hook up Outlook to my trusty old Pocket PC?
Fiddling around with Vista's settings, I soon found myself deep below its slick interface.
And the deeper I got, the more the look and jargon of dialogue boxes took me back into the world of XP.
The Vista interface is slick and easy to use
It took me one day to get online. The detail is tedious and highly technical: reinstalling drivers and router firmware didn't work, but after many trial and error tweaks to Vista's TCP/IP settings, I had internet access.
Once online, Creative's website told me that my sound card was a write-off. No Vista support would be forthcoming.
Grudgingly I ordered a new one. After installing it, the hardware error messages disappeared; the three different errors flagged up by Vista were all triggered by my old sound card.
I also realised that my computer really needed more memory. Annoyingly, my Dell uses an unusual flavour of memory, called RDRAM, which is rare nowadays.
Two lost and one successful eBay auctions later, I installed one extra gigabyte of memory.
So far the upgrade to Vista had cost me about £130.
Not cheap, but probably fair value, as it will have extended the life-cycle of my PC by about two years.
Bearing a grudge against Philips, Dell and Microsoft
But a few problems refuse to go away and are both expensive and aggravating.
VISTA PC SPECIFICATIONS
DirectX9 capable graphics processor
128Mb graphics memory
40Gb hard drive
My Philips ToUCam still doesn't work, and plenty of angry forum debates are testament to the distinct lack of Vista support provided by Philips.
Even worse, Vista still refuses to talk to my Dell Axim X5 Pocket PC, which is a mere three-and-a-half years old.
I like my PDA. It saved my bacon when my laptop died on a reporting trip. Over five days, I filed 14 stories using the Axim and its foldable keyboard.
I don't want to buy a new one - at least, not until I find an affordable smart phone that is both slim and has a slide-out keyboard (what's on the market right now is too bulky for my taste).
But my Axim uses the Pocket PC 2002 operating system, and Microsoft has decided that Vista will work only with Pocket PC 2003 and higher.
A top Microsoft executive, who does not want to be quoted by name, tells me that "the refresh rate on [mobile] devices is typically 18 months, from our research - hence the view that most Pocket PC 2002 devices would no longer be in use.
"Our view (which may be incorrect) is that those people using the latest Desktop [operating system] would potentially also be using later devices as well."
Well, I have a surprise for Microsoft: They are wrong, not least judging from the discussions on various forums I've been to while hunting for a solution.
While Microsoft leaves me out in the cold, Dell is no help either.
Delving into a Dell support forum, I realise the company practises tough love. Very briefly, a couple of years ago, Dell offered X5 customers an upgrade to Pocket PC 2003. Not anymore.
So I can either throw away my Axim and invest another £200 or £300 (for a PDA and webcam), or roll back to XP and wave Vista goodbye.
To Vista or not to Vista
I find myself caught in the Vista trap. Quite apart from the pain of having to reinstall XP, I do like Vista.
It's slick, it's fast, it is very user-friendly. I like its applications - for example, Windows Picture Gallery, which could become a serious competitor to my favourite image browser, Faststone.
However, there are still plenty of wrinkles. The Windows "sidebar" may look nicer than Google desktop, but it crashes regularly and infuriates me because its "gadgets" can not be customised.
I've had two Vista crashes so far - not a blue but a black screen - and that really shouldn't happen. I can't even remember my last XP crash.
And everywhere I look, there are blogs and forums full of people who have problems with software drivers and suffer the poor customer support of the hundreds of hardware and software vendors that make up the Windows ecosystem.
So would I do it again?
The answer is no. Do what I originally had planned to do. Wait for half a year until the driver issues are settled and then buy a new PC.
Once that's in place, you can upgrade and tinker with your old machine, to give to your parents or children.
You will probably enjoy Vista, but there's little reason to do it the hard way.
Update 20 March 2007:
- After four different attempts to solve the problem with my keyboard's Intellitype software, a Microsoft engineer sorted the issue by crawling for 75 minutes through my Registry Editor.
- Last night I finally found a driver in an arcane corner of the Philips support website that I could force to work under Vista; the driver installation did not work out of the box, though, and I had to jump through several hoops to force its installation; Philips now say they hope to release a set of Vista drivers in April
- I've given up on the crash-prone, resource-hogging Windows sidebar, and I'm back with the Google desktop sidebar.
- Vista still refuses to speak to my handheld computer, and Microsoft says that this won't change; I now use the Windows XP computer at work to maintain and sync my calendar and address book, which is a huge inconvenience.
- Many thanks to all the readers who wrote in with tips and shared their Vista stories - much appreciated.