While I've been harshly critical of Microsoft's decision to split Windows Vista into far more product editions than is sane or reasonable, we can at least give the software giant credit for making Windows Vista easier to purchase than any previous Windows version. In addition to the typical retail and PC bundle versions, Vista can be acquired in a variety of other ways, including electronic distribution via Windows Marketplace and semi-legal OEM versions via online retailers. (For a sarcastic look at these and other Vista purchasing options, check out my showcase, Having Fun Purchasing Windows Vista.)

One of the nicest additions to this panoply of choices is Windows Anytime Upgrade, an online service built into Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, and Business editions, which allows you to electronically upgrade from one of those versions to a higher-end Vista version. The versions you can upgrade to, and the cost of that upgrade, will depend on the version you're starting from. Here's a chart explaining what's available, and the pricing (in the US):

Upgrade from... ...to Vista Home Premium ...to Vista Home Ultimate
Windows Vista Home Basic Yes ($79) Yes ($199)
Windows Vista Home Premium n/a Yes ($159)
Windows Vista Business n/a Yes ($139)

Pricing, as you can see, is heavily discounted over the traditional retail Upgrading packaging. If you're running Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, or Business, upgrading in this fashion is probably the way to go: The Windows Anytime Upgrade price for Vista Home Premium is $159, while the retail upgrade price for Vista Ultimate is $259. That's a $100 savings.

This feature has changed dramatically

Microsoft, sadly, has significantly detuned the capabilities of Windows Anytime Upgrade since first launching the service alongside Windows Vista in early 2007. Now, instead of allowing users to electronically purchase a new Windows Vista product key electronically, Microsoft is restricting the program to physical packaging only. You can order this package directly from Microsoft via the Windows Anytime Upgrade utility in Windows Vista, but I recommend turning instead to one of the many online retailers who offer these upgrade versions instead. (NewEgg.com and Amazon.com are two I can recommend.) You'll get the software much more quickly.

Tip: Make sure you know what you're getting, as there are different Windows Anytime Upgrade packages for each potential upgrade. That is, if you're running Windows Vista Business and would like to upgrade to Windows Vista Ultimate, make sure you're buying the Windows Anytime Upgrade version that is specific to that scenario, as other versions won't work.

What you're buying with a Windows Anytime Upgrade is a retail Vista Setup DVD (which you may or may not already own, as all retail Vista Setup DVDs are identical) and a Product Key that is specific to your upgrade type.

How it works

You can access the Windows Anytime Upgrade application from the Control Panel (it's hidden in System and Maintenance) or by typing anytime in Windows Start Menu Search. (It's also available from Welcome Center and from within the System window. Yes, Microsoft is very keen to get more of your money.)

When you click the link titled Compare the editions of Windows Vista, you're shuttled off to Internet Explorer (or your Web browser of choice), which navigates to Microsoft's Windows Anytime Upgrade Web site.

This Web site presents the various Anytime Upgrade prices as noted in the table above and a link, Compare your options, which provides a run-down of the various features in each Windows Vista product edition.

Purchasing is straightforward: You click the Buy button next to the Windows Anytime Upgrade option that's relevant to your situation (say, Business to Ultimate). Then, IE navigates to a secure e-commerce site so you can make the purchase. Then the waiting game begins. So much for the "Anytime" part of this offer.

Once your Windows Anytime Upgrade package arrives in the mail, you can upgrade from one version of Windows Vista to another just as you would if you were upgrading from Windows XP to Vista: Insert the Windows Anytime Upgrade disc into your PC's optical drive while Windows Vista is running and then run Setup (via AutoPlay or manually). The Setup routine provided by this disc is identical to that of other retail Vista Full or Upgrade Setup discs.

For some reason, upgrading from one version of Windows Vista to another takes an astonishingly long time. Be prepared to leave your PC unattended for one to two hours.

Once Setup is complete, verify that you're now running the correct product edition by visiting the System window (Start, right-click on Computer, choose Properties.)

Secret: You will have to activate Windows after any Anytime Upgrade even if the system was previously activated. But the standard 30-day grace period applies here, too. You can use the information in Delaying Product Activation later in this chapter to delay the activation up to 120 days if you'd like.

Final thoughts

Windows Anytime Upgrade is a great idea, but the removal of an electronic upgrade makes it much less attractive. That said, the original version of the service was also problematic, since it provided a new Product Key electronically, but no Setup DVD. Because many PC users just didn't have the required disc, they had to wait for Microsoft to mail them the physical media. If you don't mind ordering the Windows Anytime Upgrade disc via an online retailer, this process, while slow, works pretty well. And it's certainly preferable to the alternative of paying full price for a retail upgrade version of Vista.