My original plan was to present some performance data in the third part of this review. There's just one problem: At least half of the games I intended to put through the benchmark paces wouldn't work correctly--or in one notable case, install at all--on Windows Vista RC1. After fretting over this for a bit, and then blowing away all of the games I did manage to install during a VMWare Workstation-induced system restore (which was causing blue screens), I decided to move on. For now.

I'll still try and present that data at a later point. In the meantime, I've got bigger fish to fry. More specifically, there are two issues I'd like to discuss in this part of the review. First, let's take a week-old look back at RC1 and see how it's held up under pressure and the passage of time. Second, I did something scary and thought you might be interested in hearing about it: I upgraded a perfectly serviceable (if dirty) Windows XP installation--complete with months and months of installed applications and data--to see what would happen. The results surprised me. And, interestingly, they have some bearing on that first issue I just mentioned as well. And you thought they were completely unrelated.

Windows Vista: The morning after

Windows Vista RC1 (and builds 5536 and 5582 before it) is so much better than previous Windows Vista builds from a software and hardware compatibility standpoint that it's almost ludicrous. That said, as I've spent more and more time with the several machines I've updated to RC1, I've begun to see a few issues that weren't obvious at first blush. You may recall the problem with SPDIF on a ThinkPad T60 that I mentioned in Part 2 of this review. That (at the time) lone hardware issue is no longer so lonely.

On a Dell Latitude D810 notebook, the sound was working just fine via the built-in speakers, but when I tried to watch a DVD movie on a flight this week, I discovered that sound output via the headphone jack wasn't working at all. And boy was that a happy moment. Fortunately, it was a short flight, and I had an iPod and a good book.

But this wasn't an isolated incident, per se: On each of the systems to which I've installed Vista, I've noticed a number of small issues like this cropping up. Some, as with the Dell D810, are hardware related. Others have to do with software. For example, on that same Dell, Cyberlink PowerDVD installed just fine but didn't run acceptably smooth to play a DVD. (Though Windows Media Player 11 had no problem playing back a DVD.)

There are also lots of applications that trigger a jarring and unwanted flip into the Windows Basic user experience. Java applications are a big problem in this regard, as is QuickTime, Virtual PC, and a host of other applications. And as mentioned above, many games wouldn't work correctly, including DOOM 3, Quake IV, and, to a lesser extent, Far Cry (though I was able to get it working after screwing around with the video settings for a while). Unreal Tournament 2004, curiously, wouldn't even install, without any explanation at all. Weird.

There are other application issues. Office 2003 works fine, for the most part, but Outlook 2003 won't remember the size of its various windows; each time you restart the application, each window returns to its default size and shape (which is, curiously, based on a percentage of the width and height of your screen). And you can't click on hyperlinks in Outlook 2003 in RC1 for some reason; you have to copy the hyperlink to the clipboard and then paste into IE or Firefox (which only works for text-based links, of course). You can see Word temporary files in the directory in which the document you're working on is saved, while you're editing. This is especially annoying if the document is on your desktop. Refresh the folder (or desktop) and, poof, they're gone. On and on it goes. Nothing major. Just a number of minor irritations.

What this all boils down to is simple. From a broad strokes perspective, Windows Vista is in good shape. The software and hardware compatibility is way, way better than it was previously, and for many people this will be a perfectly usable OS even in prerelease form. (Unless of course you want to run an x64 version of Vista for some reason.) However, most people who really use Vista, really put in to the test, will likely discover any number of small issues. I don't think many will be showstoppers, per se, but it's clear that Microsoft has its work cut out for them from a fit and finish perspective. (See my Dark Side of Windows Vista commentary for some more complaints along these lines.)

So here's the deal. Microsoft plans to finalize Windows Vista's code by October 25 and ship a volume licensed version of the product (Windows Vista Enterprise) to its business customers by the end of November. It then plans to ship the other Vista product versions with both new PCs and in retail stores by the end of January 2007. The only way Microsoft can meet all of these deadlines is to fudge things a bit. My guess--and, yes, it's only a guess--is that Microsoft will do just that, and add a large number of device drivers, software compatibility shivs, and, yes, even major code updates to Windows Vista between its October RTM (release to manufacturing) date and the end of January 2007. I further guess that the company will ship these updates in the form of critical fixes and other updates that users can download from Microsoft Update. This is the software equivalent of pulling a plane away from the gate at an airport and then claiming an on-time departure: It feels deceptive, but it gets the job done. And let's face it, Microsoft isn't exactly known for subtlety or elegance, right?

Anyway, as far as RC1 goes, definitely check it out. It's so much better than Beta 2, and I still stand by my earlier statement comparing it to the quality level of Windows XP. It's really getting there. But it's not perfect. Why would it be?

Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista

One of the areas that Microsoft has asked testers to focus on with RC1 is the upgrade scenario. They'd like to see beta testers take their XP machines and upgrade them in-place to Windows Vista, and then let them know how it went.

Normally, I wouldn't get too excited about such a thing. After all, what kind of person would ruin a perfectly serviceable XP install by upgrading it? The way to go, clearly, is to install Vista by itself, or in a dual-boot situation. And when Vista is finalized, you're going to get the best experience by simply buying a new PC. This advice is as timeless as it is true. You just shouldn't upgrade from one major Windows version to another. Too many things can go wrong.

But, this is my job, right? So after spending (literally) an entire afternoon backing up and even removing some things in order to have enough free hard drive space (Vista Setup demands 15 GB of free hard drive space just to install the OS), I was ready to take my main XP desktop and sacrifice it in the name of science. Well. In the name of curiosity anyway.

I'm happy to report that it went swimmingly. Indeed, I'm writing this review right now in that very system, using the copy of Word 2003 that was installed in XP many months ago. Like most of the incredibly varied list of applications that was installed on this system, Word works just fine, for the most part. Indeed, I'm surprised by how well the whole thing went.

What it didn't do was happen quickly or painlessly. Beginning to end, the whole procedure took over 90 minutes, well more than three times the amount of time it took to perform a clean install of Windows Vista RC1 on the same PC. It refused to even install until I removed one particularly difficult application, though it curiously had little inhibition about allowing me to keep a number of other applications around, even though it knew they wouldn't work either. Here's what happened.

Prepping the PC

My XP install was full of junk. It housed master copies of my music, videos, and photos, but it was also a dumping ground for both useful and often-used applications and a weird selection of barely-used and just-there-for-testing applications. (Looking over my Program Files directory, I have to wonder why I installed so many weird utilities.) Using a nice 500 GB Western Digital My Book external hard drive, I copied (or, in some cases, moved) a bunch of files out of there just in case. Documents. Digital media files. Old email and bookmarks. A virtual machine or two. You know the drill.

Then I inserted the RC1 DVD and decided to run through the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor. I was surprised to see that it was substantially updated and changed for RC1. Now, it spends an interminable amount of time scanning your system, and it no longer asks you what tasks you'd like to perform after upgrading. Instead, it evaluates what you've got and, in my case, ended up recommending Vista Business. (Previous versions, suspiciously, always recommended Ultimate, the most expensive version.) However, you can select Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, or Ultimate and see where your PC lies.

In my case, the overall score was good. I'd need to download sound drivers from Windows Update after the initial upgrade, but that happened automatically. A few hardware devices were questionable, including a Uniden Windows Live Messenger phone (which should work fine, I'm told). But Vista would be just ducky with most of my hardware. Not that I was too surprised to hear that, but I was trying to put myself in the shoes of a novice here.

There were some dodgy software applications as well. Nero 7 Ultra Edition got the ol' heave-ho. "Before you upgrade to Windows Vista, uninstall this program," the Upgrade Advisor told me. "Reinstalling this application may not work as expected due to known compatibility issues." The Advisor also didn't like TweakUI, Windows Live OneCare, PhotoShop Elements 4.0, Steam (video games), HP Photo and Imaging 2.2 (a pathetic set of scanner utilities), the ATI Catalyst Control Center (for the video card), and the JS2EE Runtime Environment 5.0 Update 6. However, in each case, it simply noted that the applications might not work as expected. No need to get rid of them, I guess.

I printed the compatibility report, and saved a PDF copy, and got ready to run Setup.

Running Setup

Setup proceeds as with a clean install. You choose whether to download the latest updates, type in your Product Key, accept the EULA, and then choose an Upgrade install instead of Custom. At this point, Setup checks compatibility. The first time I ran through this, Setup then told me that I must uninstall Nero - Burning Rom. It would not allow me to continue until I did so. In fact, Setup halted right there, dead in the water.

Curious.

So, I uninstalled Nero 7. Re-ran Setup. And then waited, waited, and waited as Setup copied Windows files to the hard drive, "gathered" and expanded the files, installed features and updates, and then completed the upgrade. It took three reboots, but when it was all said and done, I was prompted to go through a series of Vista screens that are surprisingly similar (if less in number) to the screens you see in a clean install. First, you set up Windows for the country and region, time zone and currency, and keyboard type. Then you choose how to receive Automatic Updates, pick your time zone (and, blessedly, it's pre-set to the right one for a change), and click Done. Then you go through those full-screen animations where Setup gauges your system's performance, an annoyingly long process, especially when you consider it was unable to complete on this system, providing me with no performance score at all. Hey, thanks for the down time.

At last, it was time to select my logon and check out my Vista-enhanced desktop.

It's Alive: Say hello to Franken-PC

I admit it, I can be squeamish. But this wasn't too bad: Vista prompted me with the Welcome Center, the Sidebar (ugh), and the Set Network Location window, which lets you choose between Home, Work and Public location. (And, by the way, how wonderful is that little feature?). Auto-start applications like Windows Live Messenger and Steam came right up. A Windows Live OneCare error message also came right up, but that wasn't unexpected as the application is currently incompatible with Vista.

Here's what's I found interesting. While I still believe that a clean install is about a million times better than upgrading, I am forced to admit that there are actually some things that work only after an upgrade. And it's weird. For example, it's not perfect, but the Microsoft LifeCams are not currently supported by Vista and won't work properly in RC1. But if you upgrade from XP, they actually work, though they're buggy. Even Diskeeper 10, which will not install on Vista at all, ran fine after the upgrade. (Though I'm not silly enough to use it to actually defragment the disk).

Remember Unreal Tournament 2004? It wouldn't even install on RC1. But after upgrading, it not only ran, but it ran great. Full speed. Steam works fine, as does Half-Life 2. Heck, I can run it in a window and get great performance. Quake III Arena runs great. Maybe I'll eventually get that performance data after all.

I'm not too excited by the default views in Photos, Music, or Videos, but all my files made it over intact. My music all came up in Windows Media Player 11, though it took a little while to appear on the first load.

As promised, TweakUI wouldn't work. OneNote 2007 Beta 2 just crashed, but I've been told that only the Beta 2 Tech Refresh (TR), which should have already shipped, will work with RC1. (Expect it very, very soon.)

Hardware support, overall, was great. The lone exception, and let's face it, this was expected, was my network-attached Dell laser printer. It was set up with proprietary Dell software and isn't Vista compatible. But the printer is really a Lexmark, so installing it under Vista is actually pretty easy if you know what you're doing.

I will need a few days in this Franken-PC to declare it a total success. But I have to say I'm impressed. I was expecting the worst. This is not the worst. Heck, this isn't even bad.

One last factoid: When you upgrade, you get 14 days to activate. With a clean install, it's only three days.

Final thoughts

As with compatibility, the upgrade scenario appears to be another big win for Windows Vista. Granted, I've only upgraded one system. But it was a wonderfully real-world system, full of all kinds of crud. Yes, it's early yet: I will wait at least a few more days before declaring this a total victory. ("Mission accomplished," anyone?) But so far so good. Now if could I just get that performance data...