Almost six years ago, I wrote a multi-article series called the Windows XP Installation Super Guide aimed at helping Windows users install, upgrade, and migrate to Windows XP, Microsoft's then-new operating system. That now-out-of-date series was well received, so I thought I would provide a similar set of articles for Windows Vista, complete with step-by-step guides, troubleshooting advice and, hopefully, answers to all of your questions about moving to Windows Vista. It's been a long six years, so let's see what's changed.

Differences between Vista and previous Windows versions

When Windows XP arrived in October 2001, it represented a truly dramatic change for most Windows users: Based on the NT kernel used by Windows 2000 and not the 16/32-bit hybrid kernel used by Windows 9x/Me, XP was internally quite different from most Windows versions then in circulation. So the upgrade path was a bit more tenuous for most users than it was for the minority running Windows 2000.

Today, of course, most Windows users are running some version of Windows XP. And that's a good thing: Because Windows Vista is essentially a newer version of Windows XP, upgrading from an existing XP-based PC to Vista is often quite straightforward. (That said, it has been six years: Unless your XP system is quite recent, I don't recommend even considering doing an in-place upgrade. We'll discuss those issues in the appropriate article in this series.)

Hardware and software compatibility

While Windows XP was compatible with over 90 percent of the then-current hardware at its launch, Windows Vista offers even better compatibility. As I wrote in an earlier showcase article, Hot or Not? Measuring the Success of Vista's First 100 Days, Vista was compatible with 96 percent of the hardware available on the market shortly after its January 2007 consumer launch. And thanks to internal instrumentation, Microsoft expects to fix many of the remaining incompatibility issues this year. Naturally, some hardware and software compatibility issues will always remain, as is the case with any new OS release. To determine which if any of your products won't work with Vista, you can download the useful Upgrade Advisor tool, which we'll discuss in detail later in this series as well.

Windows Vista hardware requirements and my recommendations

As is always the case with a new OS release, Microsoft has published minimum and recommended hardware specifications for Windows Vista. And as always, these guidelines are so unrealistic as to be humorous. You can find out about Microsoft's guidelines on its Web site, but we'll dispense with that silliness here. Instead, let's examine a more realistic set of recommendations for running Windows Vista and typical software workloads with acceptable performance:

Desktop PC

Microprocessor: Any modern dual-core AMD or Intel microprocessor
RAM: 2 GB of RAM or more, unless you're particularly undemanding
Graphics card: Any modern DirectX 9.x/10-compatible 3D card with 256 MB or more of RAM
Display: 1280 x 800 widescreen display or higher
Hard drive: 160 GB or larger SATA-based hard drive
DVD Writer

Notebook PC/Tablet PC

Microprocessor: Any modern dual-core AMD or Intel microprocessor
RAM: 2 GB of RAM or more, unless you're particularly undemanding
Graphics card: Any modern DirectX 9.x/10-compatible 3D card with 128 MB or more of RAM
Display: 1280 x 800 widescreen display or higher
Hard drive: 100 GB or larger SATA-based hard drive
DVD/CD-RW combo drive or DVD Writer

Understand that you can run Vista with less horsepower than the fictional systems listed above. However, these systems will provide the power necessary to run Vista and a standard selection of office productivity, email, Web browser, and utility applications simultaneously, which I consider the minimum for most users. Those with more pressing needs--graphics applications, games, and the like--should get the highest-end processors they can afford, as well as as much RAM as their system can handle (a bit less than 4 GB with 32-bit versions of Vista, more with 64-bit versions; see below).

The 64-bit Question

I'm often asked by readers whether they should consider installing a 64-bit (x64) version of Windows Vista. If I can quote the great (ahem) senator Ted Stevens from Alaska, my answer to this question is very simple: "No, No, No!" But seriously folks, the answer is no. And yeah, this is one of those, "if you have to ask, you aren't ready" type questions.

What it boils down to is compatibility. While Windows Vista is the first mainstream 64-bit operating system to come out of Redmond, offering functional parity with 32-bit versions and even a few advantages (see my Vista Feature Focus showcase, 64-Bit (x64) Support for more information), these products are still a compromise. Certain 32-bit applications simply won't install or run correctly on the x64 versions of Vista. Certain hardware simply isn't supported with compatible 64-bit drivers. And in both cases, especially with legacy software and devices, that compatibility may never arrive.

Here's why: Microsoft took the opportunity to drop support for certain legacy technologies in the 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. It did so to make the system more future-proof and maintainable, as in the case of 16-bit MS-DOS and Windows application support. Microsoft also made certain things mandatory in 64-bit Vista versions that are optional on the 32-bit side, like signed drivers or, for now, the Kernel Patch Protection feature that prevents security products from working as well as they did in previous Windows versions. Finally, some of the companies that make these legacy products are simply gone, kaput. So we're never going to see 64-bit drivers or software compatibility updates for certain products.

In the end, this technological line in the sand is a good thing for Windows. As the 64-bit versions of the product become mainstream over time, as they will, Microsoft can proceed with a more modern version of the OS that drops some legacy deadwood and is more secure by default. It will do so at the expense of some backwards compatibility, but that's a fair tradeoff.

It may not, however, be a fair tradeoff for you today. For this reason, most Vista users today will want to install a 32-bit version of the product. And that won't be difficult, as all retail versions of the OS (except for Vista Ultimate) ship only with 32-bit installers in the box. And most PC makers are still offering just 32-bit versions preinstalled with new machines, unless of course you're shopping for a specialty workstation, in which case you might see 64-bit as an option. But again, people who shop for such machines know what they're getting into and might have good reasons to go 64-bit now. Most of us do not.

Personally, I'm sticking with 32-bit for the foreseeable future and I will do so until the compatibility issues with the software and hardware I use are gone. I suggest you do the same, but I'll still cover 64-bit issues in this Super Guide just in case. After all, things change, and I do expect 64-bit to become the mainstream Windows version in the years ahead.

Ways of installing Windows Vista

Microsoft has dramatically expanded the ways in which you can acquire and install Windows Vista on a PC, and I'll try to cover the obvious scenarios in this series. The best way to get Vista, as was the case with XP, is to purchase a new PC, especially if you can find a PC maker, like Dell, that is willing to sell you a PC devoid of most of the so-called crap-ware (or "bundleware") that bogs down so many new machines. As you might expect, this is indeed the way that most people acquire new Windows versions: I'm told that almost 95 percent of all Windows licenses sold at retail are bundled with new PCs. But I'm guessing that the typical SuperSite reader is more inclined to do his or her own thing. And that means installing Vista on a PC yourself, be it a clean install, an upgrade, or a dual-boot. And for people who do choose to go the new PC route, there are various migration issues to be resolved. There are a lot of options available to potential Vista users.

Here are the issues I intend to cover in this Installation Super Guide as I plow through the various Vista install choices between now the end of 2007:

Using the Upgrade Advisor
Installing Windows Vista: Clean install
Installing Windows Vista: Dual boot
Installing Windows Vista: Upgrade from Windows XP
Installing Windows Vista: Upgrade from Windows Vista (In-place, Anytime Upgrade)
Automating a Windows Vista Installation
Migrating to Windows Vista
Installing Windows Vista on a Mac
Virtualizing Windows Vista
Post-install troubleshooting

Is there an installation issue you'd like to see address? Drop me a note at thurrott@windowsitpro.com. My goal is to make this the authoritative guide to installing Windows Vista, so your input is critical and very much desired. In the future, I envision adding sections on upgrading to Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) and slipstreaming hot-fixes in the future.

Let's get started

Next up, we'll look at how you can prepare for Windows Vista by using Microsoft's Upgrade Advisor tool, which examines your current PC's hardware and software configuration and points out any issues you might have upgrading or migrating.