While you will install Windows Vista in ways that are similar to previous Windows versions, under the covers, everything has changed. The DOS mode portion of Windows Setup, present even in the NT-based Windows variants such as Windows XP, is finally gone, exorcised from our lives for good. But the changes go much deeper than simple changes to Setup methodology. Microsoft has completely recast its approach for moving bits from an install medium (typically a Vista Setup DVD, but it could also be a network share or other location) to the PC's hard drive.

This has several ramifications. First, Windows Vista can be installed much more quickly than Windows XP on the same PC. In my testing, Windows Vista typically installs in about 25 minutes, less than half the time it takes to install XP.

Second, Windows Vista Setup, like Vista itself, is more modular, though you will paradoxically see fewer choices--and thus be able to make fewer customizations--if you run interactive Setup to install Vista (as most end-users will do). The modular nature of the Vista Setup routine allows enterprises to more elegantly customize their Windows Vista installs. And that means that true power users will be able to do so as well. (I should note, however, that the amazingly short time required for interactive Setup almost completely offsets any gains made by taking the time to create a custom Vista install DVD.)

Third, Windows Vista Setup no longer bulk copies a slew of files from the install medium, expands them on the fly, and then copies them to the hard drive, one at time. Instead, Microsoft has created an image-based Setup format that contains a compressed archive of a basic bootable Windows Vista system that will work on any hardware. This single file install image is copied to the hard drive in a single whack and expanded. Then, the system reboots and the particular hardware devices on your PC are detected and, if you're lucky, configured with drivers.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, Microsoft has completely changed the way it services Windows. In the past, the process of combining, or slipstreaming, service packs and hot-fixes into a Windows install were tedious and error-prone. Now, all you have to do is copy the update into an Updates folder found in the root of any Vista Setup DVD, install share, or Setup image. It's literally that simple: All future installs will automatically incorporate any updates stored in that folder.

Fifth, each Windows Vista product edition ships with the exact same DVD. This means that you could theoretically install any version of Windows Vista with, say, the install DVD you got for Windows Vista Home Premium (or any other version). So what determines the version that gets installed? It turns out that Microsoft is tying the Product ID (PID) to specific Vista product editions. So if you did purchase a retail copy of Vista Home Premium, the PID you got in the box will only unlock the Home Premium product. What this all means is that Microsoft only has to ship one Vista DVD (which contains one Vista install image) to customers, eliminating complexity.

To the typical user, none of these things may seem particularly miraculous, since the reality of interactive Setup, especially, is vaguely similar to the process you used with XP. And that's OK. At the very least, just enjoy how much simpler it is to get Windows Vista on your PC.

Understanding your installation choices

How you acquire Windows Vista play a large part in any decision about how you will actually install the operating system. At a high level, you have the following basic choices:

Clean install. With this method, you boot the PC from the Windows Vista install DVD, run interactive Setup, format the PC's hard drive, and install Windows Vista as the only OS. This is probably the rarest way to get Vista on a PC. You can use a "Full" or "Upgrade" retail version of Windows Vista to perform a clean install, though you will need "qualifying media"--typically a Windows XP or 2000 CD that proves you qualify for the Upgrade version.

Upgrade. Here, you insert the install DVD from a "Full" or "Upgrade" retail version of Windows Vista while running Windows XP and perform what's called an in-place upgrade. The Setup process is similar to that of a clean install, but most of your existing applications and all of your data files will be available and working properly once the upgrade is complete. Unfortunately, there are a number of qualifications to the upgrade process in Windows Vista. First, you can only upgrade certain versions of Windows XP to certain versions of Windows Vista. Here's a chart that explains which XP versions can be upgraded:

Windows version Vista Home Basic/N Vista Home Premium Vista Business/N Vista Ultimate
Windows XP Home Edition Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows XP Professional Edition No No Yes Yes
Windows XP Media Center Edition No Yes No Yes
Windows XP Tablet PC Edition No No Yes Yes

If aren't using one of these XP versions, you might still qualify for upgrade pricing, though you will need to perform a clean install of Windows Vista. (See my showcase, Can You Upgrade to Windows Vista?, for more information.)

And people that buy XP-based PCs between October 26, 2006 and March 15, 2007 qualify for the Vista Express Upgrade program, where participating PC makers will ship them free or inexpensive versions of Windows Vista, which they can use to upgrade their PCs. (See my showcase, Windows Vista Express Upgrade, for more information about this program.) Check with your PC maker for details.

Second, you'll want to make sure that your existing PC has the horsepower needed to run Windows Vista. While a Celeron-based PC with 256 MB of RAM might have squeaked by for Windows XP, that's not going to cut it with Windows Vista. Microsoft's official minimum requirements for Windows Vista are so ludicrous I won't even mention them here. Suffice to say, you're going to need a PC with a minimum of 1 GB of RAM, a modern Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, or Athlon 64 X2 processor, and a mid-level graphics card in order to get the full Vista experience. And if you're into heavy multitasking, game playing, or graphics/video work, as I am, 2 GB of RAM seems to be the new sweet spot. Don't freak out over these recommendations, however. The most important consider here is RAM, and that's typically very inexpensive these days. Don't get sucked into the horror stories about Vista needing high-end video cards, either: That's hogwash. Vista's Windows Aero user interface runs just fine on virtually any video card with dedicated video RAM, and even on some low-end integrated graphics chip sets. Unless you have a low-end laptop, upgrading the video card is inexpensive and easy.

Third, though Microsoft has improved the upgrade process significantly in Windows Vista, I still don't recommend this type of installation for most users. Too much can go wrong, and you should view Vista as a chance to start fresh. If you're undaunted by this advice, at least download Microsoft's Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor tool to determine if your system has what it takes to run Windows Vista.

Dual-boot. If you're not sure how well Vista is going to work on your existing hardware, consider dual-booting between Windows Vista and your current OS. This method will provide you with a boot menu when you turn on your PC, letting you choose each time which system to use. Dual-boot is a great method of evaluating Windows Vista, but it comes with some complications. You must have an empty hard drive (or partition) to which you will install Windows Vista; you can't install two or more versions of Windows in a single partition. If you only have one partition, it's possible to resize it to accommodate the create of a new partition, but you'll need a special tool for that. What you're looking for is a non-destructive partitioning utility. I typically use PartionMagic, but there are other solutions out there as well.

Dual-booting isn't very common, but it's something you should look into, especially in the first several months of Vista's availability. You don't want to blow away your perfectly good XP install by upgrading it to Vista or performing a clean install of Vista only to discover that your favorite application or hardware device doesn't work (yet) in the new OS. Dual-booting is like an insurance policy.

Buy a new PC. Honestly, if you're looking for the best Vista experience, can your old hardware and get a new PC. Yeah, I know, that's the most expensive route. But Microsoft and its PC maker partners will spend the next months ensuring that pre-made Vista-based PCs work perfectly out of the box, and there won't be any question that anything that comes with the system works properly. (Of course, any software or hardware peripherals you add later might not work properly.) The PC buying experience will get even better as we get further into 2007 and beyond, because PC makers will begin releasing Vista-specific systems, and not the warmed-over XP machines you'll typically see in the first part of next year.

Installing Windows Vista: How Setup has changed

I will be writing up a Windows Vista Installation Super Guide in the near future that will cover the clean install, upgrade, and dual-boot processes in step-by-step detail. In the meantime, let's take a look at a typical Windows Vista install to see how it differs from Windows XP. In this example, we'll be looking at a clean install, where Windows Vista is being applied to an empty (or soon to be reformatted) hard drive.

Windows Vista, like XP, comes on a bootable optical disk, though Vista is available on DVD-only, whereas XP was available only on CD. On first boot, the Windows Pre-installation Environment (WinPE) will load into RAM and provide a basic GUI for the first phase of Setup (Figure). In Windows XP, the first phase of Setup was a text-based MS-DOS-like environment.

After ensuring that the language, time and currency formats, and keyboard or input methods are correct, you can advance to the Install Now screen (Figure), where you can choose to proceed with Vista Setup or launch Vista's extensive new recovery tools. Then, you enter your Product Key, which, as noted above, is used to determine which Vista version gets installed. Fun fact: You can choose not to enter a Product Key if you'd like. You'll then be prompted with a list of Vista product editions that you can install and evaluate for 30 days (Figure). After that, you'll need to enter the Product Key you received or reinstall.

Then, you agree to the EULA (End User License Agreement) and progress to a screen that lets you choose between Upgrade and Custom (Advanced), the latter of which is used for clean installs (Figure). The Upgrade option will be unavailable unless you run Setup from within a valid version of Windows XP.

In the next phase of Setup, you choose the partition to which to install Windows Vista (Figure). If you are installing Vista to a previously-used hard drive, you can use the Drive options (advanced) option to format the drive, which is recommended.

Now, Windows Setup copies the Vista install image to your PC, expands it, and installs Windows (Figure). After a reboot, you'll see the newly-installed hard drive-based Setup routine take over (Figure) and then complete installation (Figure). This is the lengthy part of Vista Setup, but its' hands-off too: It should take about 15 to 20 minutes. One more reboot and you're ready to enter a few bits of information and access the Vista desktop for the first time.

Note that this preceding portion of Windows Vista Setup is quite different from that of XP. In XP Setup, the text-mode Setup phase would install files and then reboot into a GUI-mode portion of Setup that would install more files and then make you go through a series of steps in which you entered your name, PID, computer name, Administrator password, the date and time, and some network settings. Many of these configuration options are not available in Vista Setup at all, and others have moved around so that you're not forced to babysit Setup for the entire process. For example, Vista Setup no longer asks you for an Administrator password or workgroup/domain name.

Anyway, after the second reboot, you'll see a wizard that will walk you through the final Setup process. In the first screen, you will enter a single user name (compared to five that XP Setup allowed) and an optional password (Figure). You can also configure a picture for your user account (XP supplied a random picture automatically), though you only have 8 to choose from (you can change it later and access more choices).

In the next screen, you enter a PC name (Named [Username]-PC by default) and choose from a limited selection of five desktop backgrounds (you can change this later as well; Vista includes an incredible collection of high-quality wallpaper to choose from). (Figure) Then, you configure Automatic Updates (Figure) and the date and time (Figure). Finally, you tell Setup whether the network to which the machine is connected is a home, work, or public network, a nice change to plain English descriptions (Figure).

After a cute thank you from Microsoft, Vista will rate your system's performance, during which time you'll have to wait through a boring series of promotional screens (Figure). When this annoying and unnecessary process is complete, you'll be presented with the Vista Welcome Screen (Figure), from which you can logon to your new system.

While Vista's Setup process is much simpler and less time consuming than previous Windows Setup routines, it also skimps in a few areas to achieve these goals, so you'll need to perform some post-Setup tasks, such as configuring other user accounts, changing to the correct workgroup or domain, and so on. Fortunately, Vista provides a handy Welcome Center that provides links to necessary post-install tasks, and you should see Automatic Updates kick in immediately and download any needed updates, including updated device drivers.

Final thoughts

I'll provide more comprehensive coverage of Windows Vista's installation options in the days ahead, and look out for my Windows IT Pro Magazine cover story about Windows Vista's deployment tools, which make deploying Windows Vista to multiple PCs in a business easier than ever. Regardless of your needs, Windows Vista is simpler to set up than ever before, and these improvements should benefit users of all kinds. This is one area in which Windows Vista is significantly improved over its predecessors.