As I wrote in Part 2 of my Windows Vista review, Microsoft is marketing a wide variety of Vista versions. But for consumers, there are really only three viable versions: Windows Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, and Vista Ultimate. There are numerous factors to consider when it comes time for you to choose one of these versions, and I thought I'd offer some advice about picking the correct version and how to go about doing so.

Choosing a Vista version

In my opinion, anyone reading this site should skip Windows Vista Home Basic and move right to Home Premium or the more expensive Vista Ultimate. That said, Vista Home Basic is pretty inexpensive and provides most of the core Vista benefits. Besides, you may opt to purchase Vista Home Basic now and upgrade to a better version in the future (see "Moving up in the world: Upgrading your Vista edition," below). In the following tables, I compare the basic features of these three consumer-oriented Vista versions. The features listed here should help you decide which version is right for you.

Features Vista Home Basic Vista Home Premium Vista Ultimate
Retail price $99/$199 $159/$239 $259/$399
Core security features YES YES YES
End-user security features (Windows Defender, Windows Firewall, Parental Controls, etc.) YES YES YES
Basic Digital Media features (Windows Media Player, Windows Photo Gallery, etc.) YES YES YES
Enhanced Digital Media features (Media Center, DVD Maker, etc.) NO YES YES
New Windows Aero user experience NO YES YES
New Mobility features (Table PC functionality, Mobility Center, Sideshow, etc.) NO YES YES
Connect to Active Directory Domains NO NO YES
Advanced Backup and Restore features NO NO YES
BitLocker Full Disk Encryption NO NO YES
Windows Ultimate Extras NO NO YES

Note: A more comprehensive examination of the differences between each Vista version is available in my Windows Vista review.

Exceed the minimum requirements

Microsoft's minimum requirements for Windows Vista are almost humorously ludicrous, so let's pretend they're just kidding and move right along. To run Windows Vista effectively, you will want a dual-core processor (like Intel's Core Duo and Core 2 Duo or AMD's Athlon 64 X2), a minimum of 1 GB of RAM, a DVD drive, and a hardware accelerated 3D video card (which is common on virtually all PCs these days). That's the minimum, for both portable and desktop machines. My recommendation is to go with 2 GB of RAM and a dual layer DVD writer. (Yes, this applies to both portable and desktop machines.) And really, that's all there is to say on this topic. Even a mainstream two-year-old PC can easily and inexpensively be upgraded (typically with RAM, and perhaps with a low-end 3D video card) to run Vista effectively. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to scare you.

Acquiring Windows Vista

Here are the various ways in which you can acquire Vista, listed in order from best experience to worst:

1. Buy a new PC

Pros: Easiest way to ensure a clean, perfectly-working Vista install
Cons: Expensive
Notes: Belkin and other companies sell Easy Transfer cables that make it relatively painless to copy data and personalized settings from an older XP-based PC to your new Vista-based PC.

2. Buy a Windows XP and use Vista Express Upgrade to Upgrade to Vista

Pros: If you purchase an XP-based PC between October 26, 2006 and March 15, 2007, your Vista upgrade is free; certain PC makers include machine-specific drivers disks to streamline the process
Cons: In-place upgrade could be fail for minority of users, you may need to download drivers manually
Notes: Obviously, this option is available for a limited time only. Check with your PC maker to see whether they are simply going to forward you the "bare" Windows Vista DVD or if they will also include a drivers and applications update DVD (as Dell is doing) that will make sure everything works correctly after the upgrade

Learn more about Windows Vista Express Upgrade.

3. Upgrade your existing PC to Windows Vista

Pros: If it works, all of your data and applications, and most of your personalized settings, will be transmitted to the new install
Cons: In-place upgrade could be fail for minority of users, you may need to download drivers manually; Upgrade versions of Windows Vista cannot easily be used later to perform a clean install; you may need to purchase hardware upgrades such as RAM and video card
Notes: Even though Vista significantly improves the upgrade process, in-place upgrades can be dicey. If you are going to perform this sort of upgrade, be sure to thoroughly back up all of your documents and other data files (email, etc.) before upgrading. Also, be sure that your PC meets the recommended hardware configuration for running Windows Vista. The most important component is RAM: You'll want a minimum of 1 GB, but 2 GB is preferred for users running more than 2 applications at a time. You will also want a dedicated video card in order to get the full Aero experience.

4. Wipe out your existing Windows install and clean install Vista on old PC

Pros: Will result in a clean, perfectly-working Vista install
Cons: Upgrade versions of Windows Vista cannot easily be used later to perform a clean install; Full versions of Windows Vista are expensive; you may need to purchase hardware upgrades such as RAM and video card
Notes: If you have an existing PC that meets the recommended Vista hardware configuration, a clean install of Vista is the preferred method of installing the new OS, but it's also the most difficult. You will need to backup all of your documents and data files before upgrading, as they will be wiped out during the clean install process.
I will be providing full write-ups describing each of these processes in a step-by-step format in the weeks ahead.

Moving up in the world: Upgrading your Vista edition

What's amazing about Windows Vista is the vast array of purchasing and upgrade options that are now available to consumers. Think back to Windows 95: Microsoft issued two versions of the OS, one on floppy disks (!!) and one on CD-ROM. Today, things are more complex, but also more convenient. You can buy Vista on DVD in a standard retail package, in both Full and Upgrade guises, from both traditional and electronic retailers. You can download it electronically from Windows Marketplace. You can order a bare-bones OEM version (and save some money, but lose support options, documentation, and, technically, violate the law) from places like NewEgg.com. And of course, you can get it with a new PC, or get a new XP-based PC and receive a DVD in the mail later via the Windows Vista Express Upgrade program. Everywhere you turn, there's a way to buy Vista.

These options don't disappear after you buy Vista, however. That's because Microsoft has built a new feature called Windows Anytime Upgrade into Windows Vista Home Basic and Home Premium (and, as it turns out, the corporate-oriented Vista Business), allowing you to upgrade to higher-end Vista versions electronically.

If you think that you will later want features in Windows Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, and you will be getting Vista with a new PC, you will save money by buying that version at the time you purchase your PC. That's because PC makers like Dell and HP can offer you discounts on these kinds of upgrades, whereas Microsoft's prices won't fluctuate after the fact.

Final thoughts

Most consumers are going to want to purchase Windows Vista Home Premium, because that version includes amazing digital media features, the Aero user experience, and other features not present in Home Basic. If you absolutely must have it all, and can afford it, Windows Vista Ultimate is, as its name suggests, the ultimate version of Vista, and it includes features you can't find anywhere else, including the unique Windows Ultimate Extras, which could eventually prove to be quite interesting. I'm running Windows Vista Ultimate because I can, but if I were spending my own cash, I'd go with Vista Home Premium.