Hands On: The Essential Vista Upgrade Guide

Can't wait to get your hands on Windows Vista? We'll help you decide which upgrade path to take and walk you through multiple methods of installation.

Does the thought of upgrading to Windows Vista make you break out in a cold sweat? If you get the heebie-jeebies remembering the nightmares you faced when installing previous versions of Windows on your PC, fear not: Windows Vista offers a much simpler -- and much faster -- installation than previous versions of Windows.

Not that we're necessarily recommending you upgrade immediately. There are plenty of reasons to hold off, including possible incompatibilities with common applications and hardware. But we know there are folks who just can't wait, and this article is for you. We'll help you decide which upgrade method to use, and then give hands-on advice on how to do it.

There's a third path you should consider, however. Upgrading to Vista isn't necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. You can run Vista in a test environment on your machine without getting rid of Windows XP just yet. This allows you to experience all the upsides of Vista while still having XP as a backup if you run into trouble. We'll outline these steps as well.

So if you're ready to make the Vista plunge -- or at least dip your toe in the Vista waters -- read on. You'll be surprised at how simple it can be.

Should you buy a new PC or upgrade your current one?

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The first decision you'll face is whether to buy an entirely new PC with Windows Vista on it or instead upgrade your existing PC. There's no simple answer for this, of course. If you suffer from a terminal case of hardware envy, there's only one choice: Buy new, and be sure to get plenty of RAM, a sizable hard disk and a great graphics card (see "Buying a Computer for Vista ... and Beyond" for specific recommendations).

That can cost you plenty, though. So if you need to watch your wallet, it's time to assess your current system. First, check Microsoft's list of system requirements to see whether your PC can adequately run Vista. (Keep in mind that even though Microsoft says that 512MB is adequate for Windows Vista, you'll be much happier with 1GB or 2GB of RAM.) Better yet, download and run Microsoft's Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, which scans your computer, notes any hardware deficiencies and recommends the version of Vista that best matches your hardware profile.

Next, figure out the cost of upgrading your hardware. How much extra RAM will you need to add? Do you need a new graphics card or a larger hard disk? (See "Putting It All Together" for an idea of what these components cost.)

Also add in the cost of Vista itself, which is not cheap. For example, an upgrade to Home Premium will run you $159 at list price, while the Ultimate edition upgrade is $259. And it gets even more expensive if you have to buy the full version (see below) -- the Home Premium full version lists for $239, the Ultimate full version for a whopping $399. (See "Making Your Move to Vista: What You Need to Know" for a list of all Vista versions, prices and major features supported. It's also worth checking out the discounts and buying options that Microsoft is offering in an attempt to jump-start sales of Vista.)

Compare all that with the cost of a new PC. Is that price differential worth it for you or not? If you've weighed the options and decided to upgrade your existing system, keep reading -- we'll show you what to do.

Should you buy an upgrade or full version of Vista?

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If you decide to upgrade your existing PC to Windows Vista, you have two choices -- you can either buy the upgrade version of Windows Vista or instead buy the full version. Since upgrades are considerably less expensive, you'll naturally want to go that route if you can. But there are a couple caveats to consider.

First, not everyone qualifies for an upgrade. Only PCs equipped with Windows XP or Windows 2000 qualify for upgrades; users with PCs running earlier versions of Windows will have to buy the full version.

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