Amidst delays and some initially negative buzz, Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Vista, is on its way to a store shelf near you come January 30. Though it was already released to businesses that had volume license agreements with Microsoft in November last year, this will be its first worldwide release. It's the first major upgrade to the Windows OS since Windows XP back in 2001.

When I began researching Windows Vista, I discovered that my limited computer knowledge kept me from fully comprehending the pros and cons. Most of the articles I found were geared more toward tech-savvy, computer experts eager to test out the new product.

So I contacted several tech pros to break down the information into user-friendly terms that can be applied to the way entrepreneurs and small-business owners do business. My team of technical gurus includes Preston Gralla, author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell, and Singu Srinivas and Michael Wexler, co-founders of HiWired, a services and support company for small businesses and consumers.

Understanding Windows Vista
So what sets Windows Vista apart from its predecessors? For starters, it boasts a higher-level of security, a more sophisticated interface, better search tools and improved network and wireless capabilities.

The team of technicians at HiWired found that overall, they like the new look and feel of Vista. They spoke highly of its consumer-oriented security, which includes such features as parental controls that make it a safer OS for the family, which is extremely nice if you have a home office. Gralla agreed that the security features are critical. "As a small-business owner," he says, "you're on your own to a great extent. So security is really important, and Vista's is built into the guts of the operating system itself."

Gralla was particularly impressed by the security surrounding Internet Explorer on Windows Vista, pointing out that extra protection was built into it in the form of a phishing filter. When you come across a scam website, the new system will most likely be able to identify it and warn you before you proceed with your transaction.

The security features also help create a safer network for your company. "Windows Vista is extremely good if you're setting up wireless networks," Gralla says. "You can do it far easier than any system before, and you can do it more securely. If mobile computing is vital to your business, Gralla points out that Vista laptop users on the go will have a safer connection to multiple networks when using their laptops at cafes, airports or other network hotspots.

Vista's new search feature is also a positive change from Window's XP: It'll save you a lot of time and effort when trying to locate lost files. "The search is now built directly into the operating system at every level, and it's extremely easy to find anything--it happens lightening fast," Gralla says.

There are definitely some pros for Windows Vista, but what about the cons? While the increased security sounds great in theory, what about the recent rumors about hackers trying to break down Vista's barriers? Based on Microsoft's questionable history of hackers being able to break into its operating systems, Wexler says he's almost certain Vista will be no different. Though Vista was built to be more secure than XP and other previous versions of Windows, it will always be vulnerable to attack.

Making the Upgrade
Before you consider upgrading to Vista, Srinivas recommends asking yourself whether you have the right hardware and a configuration that will allow it. Surprisingly, Srinivas claims that only a relatively small percentage of the population will be able to immediately answer yes. (Srinivas says that only about 20 percent of HiWired's clients have the key elements needed to install Vista and operate it effectively.) Wexler recommends checking Microsoft's specific guidelines for the minimum requirements needed to run the new operating system before you purchase it.

When HiWired's seasoned technicians attempted to upgrade from XP Pro to Vista, they spent as much as six hours getting it configured. Wexler and Srinivas recommend that if you do decide to upgrade your current machine to Vista, the best way to do it is to erase everything on your PC and start from scratch.

According to Gralla, there's really no clear-cut answer as to whether you should upgrade. It really comes down to whether your company would benefit from Vista's key components, such as the increased security, improved search options and new networking features. "Look at how much it'll cost to upgrade the hardware," Gralla suggests, "then decide if it's worth it to get that extra bit of security and easier networking."

If you do decide Vista's features are worth the upgrade, the next step is to choose the right version. Microsoft offers four versions: Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business and Ultimate. How do you know which is right for you? Check out our Windows Vista Upgrade Guide for a quick-hitting look at all the key points and a comparison between Vista and XP.

The Bottom Line
If you're unsure about upgrading, Gralla suggests testing the waters by upgrading just one computer in your office as your test machine. Then see how it works over a period of time--if you like what you see, expand it to the other computers in your office.

Wexler says he and Srinivas are telling most of their customers to skip the upgrade and stick with their XP machine for now. Then, when they're ready to upgrade in a year or so, they can buy a fully loaded Vista machine. "By that point," Wexler says, "they'll be on the second or third patch of Vista and you'll get a new Vista machine that's even better than today's Vista machine."

But what about Wexler's customers who need to upgrade now? Wexler's pretty adamant about his response: "We say absolutely get a Vista PC."

Down to the Details
We asked our Vista experts to name the best version of Vista for the following group of entrepreneurs:

  • 1- to 2-Person Office: Either Ultimate or Business. If the small office doesn't have a need for the most stringent security, the Business edition will suffice. However, if the company is dealing with sensitive records or patient data, for example, Ultimate's Bitlocker will provide the higher level of security necessary. Do keep in mind, however, that the Business edition doesn't include the Windows Media Center, so if photos and entertainment are important to your business, you may want to upgrade to Ultimate.
  • Laptop Users: Ultimate. Since laptops are more likely to be stolen, the Ultimate version is best because of its security features. And since many laptops perform double duty for both work and entertainment purposes, Ultimate's additional multimedia capabilities would be a nice perk.
  • 10-or-More-Person Office: Either Ultimate or Business. If the company has more than 10 employees, it may be eligible to enter into a multi-volume licensing agreement with Microsoft and receive the Enterprise version of Vista. This version has special features that would most likely overwhelm a small business but could benefit a larger company.

Windows Vista vs. Windows XP
So what exactly are the differences between Vista and XP? Read on as we break down the facts.

 

Go Vista! Stick with XP
Vista has superior security features and account protection. Vista's improved security features could also be seen as a con since Vista repeatedly asks users for input when performing routine tasks. If users see this as a nuisance, they could turn the feature off entirely and reduce the security of Vista. The average user could also be tempted to enable things that shouldn't be enabled and vice-versa. Vista's security enhancements also make it more difficult to run some forms of software.

Vista boasts a more sophisticated interface and enhanced search tools. The interface includes Live Taskbar Thumbnails that allow you to mouse-over a taskbar button and see a live preview of the application window, in addition to Sidebar gadgets that display important information.

XP has a more familiar, well-known interface that users have become accustomed to.

Vista offers improved networking and wireless capabilities.

Vista requires more up-to-date (read: expensive) hardware than XP, including a processor with a speed of 800 MHz or better, 512MB of system memory and a graphics processor that's DirectX 9 capable.

Vista's multimedia and entertainment support are a step above XP.

Though Vista has an improved media center, it's only built into the Home Premium and Ultimate editions.