So when all is said and done, is Vista worth your dosh?
Well, it's a massive improvement over Windows XP. Going back to using XP after using Vista for a few weeks or months feels flat, unintuitive and rather bland. It's true that there aren't really many 'showstopping' features in Vista that compel you to upgrade - it's not like the difference moving from Windows 98 to XP. But there are enough incremental upgrades, tweaks and fixes in Vista to make it feel like a new OS. As, obviously, it should.
The new Glass interface does look pretty natty. It's far more pleasant to work with than XP, but it does have a downside. The amount of shininess everywhere can make things look a little busy, and at times you feel, metaphorically, like the sunshine is scuppering your view of the road. There is a new navbar, with a breadcrumbs kind of feel, and the Up button so frequently used, previously, disappears.
The new Start menu splits opinion, with some saying it tries to fit too much into too small a space and others overjoyed at not having to mouse halfway across the screen just to launch a programme. The Search function on the Start menu does make finding programmes a bit easier, but it does rely on you knowing what you're after, rather than browsing.
Let's look at performance. As with the upgrade from 98 / ME to XP, performance is going to take a hit in a like-for-like scenario. As we showed with our initial tests, general workloads can be an average of 10% slower, with the final number dependant on what exactly it is you are doing. The good news is that, on a remotely enthusiast-spec PC, the actual OS will feel no slower than XP, and you certainly won't notice any kind of slow-down whilst doing Office chores, internet, email etc.
The performance hit, we'd certainly argue, is well worth it for the upgrade in functionality - worries about Vista being a crazy resource hog, induced by a sluggish beta - have turned out to be unfounded. One thing to consider is that performance should improve over time, as and when better, performance optimised drivers turn up.
The jury is still out on whether or not Vista is more secure than XP, and whether it will leave the general population less liable to be blown apart by viruses and malware. Ultimately, security is something that is proven by the test of time, and we will come to see whether or not Microsoft has delivered over the next year or two,
The driver set that ships with the operating system is pretty impressive, and assuming you're not using some cronky old bag of bolts, you should find the upgrade a fairly simple process. If you have some very exotic hardware, you may want to consider either seeing if the manufacturer has drivers available for Vista or even switching out that component for something a little more compatible. The good news is that most enthusiasts will be using fairly set combinations of video card, sound card, motherboard and drives, and these classic gamer combos should have very little problem with the Vista transition.
There is, of course, controversy about the hardware requirements for next-gen optical DRM - the HDCP graphics card and monitor, for one. Has Microsoft sold us out by refusing to fight back against such onerous restrictions? Maybe, but that's going beyond shooting the messenger, it's asking the messenger to negotiate with your enemy, too. If you don't agree with the DRM on next-gen media, just don't use it - the answer is as simple as that.
Vista is one heck of an expensive operating system - if you buy at retail prices. The full version of Vista Ultimate is knocking on £350 and that is a heck of a lot of cash for an OS upgrade. At that price, it's hard to recommend it - at least, until DirectX 10 games really start kicking off. However, the OEM versions of the software - as low as £115 for Ultimate and £75 for Home Premium - are a steal, and you should definitely pick up Vista as your next upgrade. The extra functionality, the fantastic facelift and the ever-present hope of better security and coding make this an OS revision not to miss.
Without considering the gaming advantages of Vista, it's clear to us that the new MS OS is worth the asking price - providing you can pick up an OEM copy. Full-version Vista is best saved for a) those who don't mind forking out over hundreds while only getting Home Premium and b) those who buy with new systems.
Whether you choose 64-bit or 32-bit Vista will ultimately come down to how far ahead you want to push. Yes, 64-bit is more secure and is a 'cleaner' operating system, with less backwards compatibility and more headroom for the future - especially if you're using more modern hardware. However, 32-bit is the smoother upgrade for most people, and is probably the one we would recommend to almost everyone.
When DirectX 10 games start arriving, the avid PC gamer isn't going to have a choice about upgrading. But, until then, get a disc and start the installation - you'll never go back to bland old XP again.
What do these scores mean?
Microsoft Windows Vista