With Windows XP, Microsoft provided the first version of its Upgrade Advisor, a downloadable tool that allowed users to test their then-current PC, usually running a legacy Windows 9x-based operating system, to see whether the installed hardware and software would be compatible with XP. This kind of functionality is invaluable to upgraders, or those who intend to clean install or dual boot Windows on an existing PC, because you can learn ahead of time what's going to work and what isn't.

For Windows Vista, Microsoft has created a wonderful new version of this tool, and I strongly recommend it to anyone thinking of making the switch. The Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor is a free download from Microsoft.com, and the initial 1.0 version (still current as of this writing) weighs in at just 6.6 MB.

Aside from the vastly simplified new user interface, which we'll examine more closely in the step-by-step instructions below, the Vista version of Upgrade Advisor also offers an additional bit of functionality when compared to its predecessor: It can also be run directly on Windows Vista to help you determine whether your Vista-based PC is powerful and compatible enough to run a more advanced, premium, version of the OS. So for example, if you purchase a PC with Windows Vista Home Basic and want to upgrade to, say, Vista Home Premium, you can download and run this tool to determine whether your system has what it takes to handle the Aero user interface.

Also, thanks to the disparate product editions that are now available with Windows Vista, Microsoft uses the Upgrade Advisor for a bit of marketing by helping you select the Vista version that is most appropriate for your needs. And no, humorous pre-conceptions aside, it doesn't always recommend Vista Ultimate, the most expensive version.

Installing Upgrade Advisor

Once you've downloaded the Upgrade Advisor installation file, you double-click it to run Setup and install the application on your hard drive. I assume this process is simple enough for any Windows user, so I won't go into much detail about that process here. It's worth mentioning, however, that the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor is only compatible with 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista (except Vista Enterprise). That means users of 64-bit versions of Windows, like Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, cannot use this useful application. Of course, people running 64-bit Windows versions can take solace in the fact that 64-bit versions of Vista should be pretty compatible with any hardware and software that works with 64-bit versions of XP.

Tip: The Vista Upgrade Advisor requires a number of obscure optional software components in order to run correctly. If you're running XP and these software components are not present on your system, Setup will provide links for you to download them. (Vista includes all of the prerequisite software.)

Using Upgrade Installer: Step-by-step (Windows XP)

Like its predecessor, Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor is pretty straightforward, though this version is more comprehensive and provides more compatibility and upgrading information. Here's how it works in Windows XP.

 

1. Start scan

The Upgrade Advisor start page provides you with some information about the process your about to undergo, a vaguely messianic photo, and a prominent Start Scan button. Click it.

 
 

2. Scanning system

Once you click the button, Upgrade Advisor scans the hardware devices, drivers, and other software you've installed to determine if you're going to have any issues in an upgrade or clean install of the OS. Upgrade Advisor will also prepare its Vista product edition recommendation for you; while it runs the scan, you can view information about the available retail versions of Vista to determine which one you'd prefer. Click the Compare Editions, Ultimate, Home Premium, Business, and Home Basic buttons at the bottom of the window to learn more.

 
 

3. Scan complete

Now the fun begins. Once Upgrade Advisor completes the scan, it provides a See Details button for you to click and discover how well the ol' PC held up. Hold your breath.

 
 

4. The final reckoning

If your computer is Vista compatible--i.e., meets what Microsoft has specified as the minimum hardware requirements, and Upgrade Advisor hasn't found any dangerous incompatibility issues--you'll see a message titled Your computer can run Windows Vista. The tool will also make its Vista product edition recommendation. (Amazingly, on the system used for screenshots here, it chose the low-rent Home Basic version for my previous PC, which has 2 GB of RAM and runs Windows XP Home Edition.)

To find out details about the compatibility report, you can either click the blue browser-like Forward button in the upper left of the application window (which isn't particularly obvious) or click one of the buttons later in the page under the System Requirements, Devices, and Programs headings. Either way, you'll navigate to the next stage of the wizard, where you can choose between each of these sections to find out more information.

 
  System

The System section compares various hardware devices in your PC, including the CPU (microprocessor), RAM (memory), and DVD drive, against Microsoft's minimum requirements. If each of these meets the minimum, they will be listed as "No action required." The Explanation column provides more details about each hardware component.

 
  Devices

The Devices section examines various hardware devices that are connected to your PC, including audio hardware, displays, printers, video cards, networking controllers, and so on. These devices will be segregated into various sections, based on compatibility. Those devices that are Vista compatible will be listed under "No issues were detected for these devices." Those that are unknown (and thus may or may not work correctly with Vista) will be listed under a section titled "Cannot find information on these devices."

 
  Programs

The Programs section lists application programs that may have issues with Vista. In my own testing, some of these applications simply won't work in Vista, such as the XP version of TweakUI. Some are available in upgraded versions, like HP's photo and imaging software, which provides drivers and front-end software to an HP scanner I'm using. Upgrade Advisor also lists those rare applications that have obtained the Windows Vista logo and are therefore known to work properly in Vista. Note, however, that most 32-bit applications do work fine with Windows Vista already. The list of incompatible applications continues to shrink on a regular basis.

 
  Task List

The Task List section provides a handy set of to-do lists that includes detailed system information, and lists of things to do before installing Vista and things to do after installing Vista, the latter of which might include finding updates for those incompatible applications mentioned in Programs.

5. Now what?

If Upgrade Advisor didn't find any serious or non-obvious issues, then you're good to go. I assume that does happen occasionally, but for the rest of us, Upgrade Advisor is really only a starting point. Fortunately, this useful tool will usually supply all the hints we need. The post-scan screen is the most important: This will tell us in whether the PC, as-is, can run Vista or not. If it can, you can move on to the next step, determining which drivers and applications you may need to upgrade.

To discover incompatible devices, examine the Devices view described above. Microsoft recommends that you go to the device maker's Web site or Windows Marketplace for information about any incompatible or unknown devices. I'm pretty sure only they first half of that makes any sense, as Windows Marketplace is devoid of this kind of information. Oftentimes, device makers will provide drivers on their Web sites long before Microsoft finds out about them. These drivers are of varying quality, but if the choice is between something critical working and the risk of issues, most people will at least attempt to install the driver to see how it goes.

The Programs list will often require more work. On my example XP Home Edition-based PC, Upgrade Advisor identified five programs that might have issues under Vista. Here's how they break down:

Tweak UI (Microsoft) - Upgrade Advisor notes that this utility "might have minor compatibility issues" on Visa, but my understanding is that it will not work at all. There is a small chance that you could upgrade an XP system with Tweak UI to Vista and it would still work (I have not tried this), but this is an example of a legacy application for which you will likely need to find a replacement.

HP Photo and Imaging 2.2 - Scanjet 3970 Series (Hewlett-Packard) - Upgrade Advisor notes that this program, too, "might have minor compatibility issues" on Visa. This is an understatement, as this version of the software won't work at all on Vista. However, the tool also provides a link to HP's site. Here, you can download the latest version of this software, which is indeed Vista compatible.

ATI Catalyst Control Center 1.2.2451 (ATI) - Ditto, and again we get a handy Web link that will provide access to the latest version of this software, which is Vista compatible.

Messenger 4.7 (Microsoft) - Again, we're told that this program "might" have compatibility issues. However, Messenger 4.7 is quite outdated. The latest version, Windows Live Messenger 8.x, is Vista-compatible. In this case, no Web link is given, which his curious given that Messenger is a Microsoft application. You'd have to know to look for the latest version, but it's out there.

Adobe Reader 7.0.8 (Adobe) - Same as above. The latest version of Adobe Reader, at the time the test was run, was 8.1. This version is, to my knowledge, completely compatible with Vista. However, as with Messenger, you'd need to know to manually visit the Adobe site to find this product and download the new version.

Using Upgrade Installer (Windows Vista)

While running Upgrade Advisor under Windows Vista will provide a similar experience as under XP, your goals are generally different: In this case, you are already running Vista, and you will have a handle on which devices and software applications are compatible with the system. (Each Vista version has the same hardware and software compatibility.) No, the goal here is to determine whether your current system can run a higher-end version of Vista.

Upgrade Advisor can only measure the differences between the mainstream, 32-bit, retail versions of Vista that are sold in the United States. These versions include Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. They do not include Vista Starter, Home Basic N, Business N, or Enterprise. And they do not include any 64-bit version of Vista.

Running Upgrade Advisor on Vista is identical to doing so in XP. When the scan is complete, Upgrade Advisor will again make a recommendation about which Vista version is right for your PC. In my test case, I ran Upgrade Advisor on a Vista Home Basic-based ThinkPad notebook computer and the tool recommended Home Premium, noting that my hardware likely supported this version fully. However, it did find three potential issues, noted in the System portion of its report:

1. While the system includes a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, Microsoft recommends a DVD-RW drive, because of the multimedia nature of Windows Vista Home Premium. This, however, is completely optional.

2. Upgrade Advisor noted that the system does not support Windows Aero and recommended a video card upgrade, which is actually impossible on this particular laptop. This system can, however, utilize the Windows Vista Standard UI, which is pretty close to Aero.

3. Upgrade Advisor recommended that I upgrade the RAM in this laptop beyond the current allotment of 512 MB. This is excellent advice: 512 MB is the minimum recommended by Microsoft, but I wouldn't use Vista in a PC with less than 2 GB of RAM, personally.

Not surprisingly, Upgrade Advisor found no incompatible hardware. Presumably, you would have rectified any hardware issues before running this tool or upgrading, but the compatibility profile is the same for all Vista versions.

Upgrade Advisor did find a few ThinkPad-oriented utilities that might need to be upgraded after the upgrade. That's highly unlikely: If they work in Vista Home Basic, they'll work fine in Vista Home Premium or Ultimate too.

Final thoughts

As with its predecessor, Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor is a critical and useful tool, one that any XP user (or low-end Vista user) should run before attempting a Vista upgrade. Like all software tools, it's not perfect: You'll get false positives and it will occasionally miss an incompatible device or software application. But minor faults aside, Upgrade Advisor is a heck of a lot better than going in blind.

Next up, we'll look at performing a clean install of Windows Vista, where you install the new OS on a new PC or on a used PC that you will be wiping out. Part 3 of this Vista Install Super Guide will be available by Friday, July 6, 2007.