Hidden Costs of a Windows Vista Upgrade

The shiny, new Windows Vista beckons, and an upgrade is mighty tempting. But before you take the plunge, be aware that you may end up forking out a lot more money than just the cost of an operating system upgrade. Here are 15 reasons to upgrade and here are 6 on why you should wait on Vista.

A lot more than just cash is on the line as well, because you may also spend plenty of time upgrading your hardware to make sure it's Vista-ready. Read on before you upgrade; being forewarned is being forearmed.

The High Cost of Hardware

If you're upgrading to Windows Vista, the first cash outlay you likely face is buying more RAM for your PC. Microsoft says that you can run Windows Vista with 512 megabytes of RAM, but don't believe it. It's simply not worth running Windows Vista on a machine with less than 1 gigabyte of RAM. In fact, you'd be a lot happier with 2GB.

How much will that much RAM cost you? Figure that you can get 1GB of RAM for as low as a little over $100, while 2GB will run you $180 and up.

Even if you have enough RAM, your existing graphics card may not be up to snuff, because Vista is graphics-hungry. If you want to run its Aero environment, you'll need a good graphics card.

There are two levels of Vista hardware compatibility: "Vista Capable," and "Vista Premium Ready." Forget Vista Capable; it won't run Aero, and if you can't run Aero, you shouldn't bother upgrading to Windows Vista.

So you need a graphics card that is Vista Premium Ready. To be Premium Ready, a PC needs a graphics card with support for DirectX 9 graphics with a WDDM driver, a minimum of 128MB of graphics memory, and what's called Pixel Shader 2.0 and 32 bits per pixel. There's no room in this story to delve into each of these specs, but the key is the support for DirectX 9 graphics with a WDDM driver, and a minimum of 128MB of graphics memory. Before buying a card, check the box or the manufacturer's site, and make that it matches these specs.

How much will such a card cost? It depends on how much graphics oomph you want. You can get a graphics card that meets these specs for as low as about $60. If you want better performance, of course, you can pay more, in the $100 to $150 range. But with graphics cards, the sky is the limit, and you can spend just about as much as you want until your pocketbook screams. As a practical matter, though, only gamers need the more expensive graphics cards; you don't need them merely to run Vista.

If you don't have a DVD drive, you'll need one, because Vista installs only via DVD. These days DVD drives are cheap; you can get a reasonable one for as low as about $30 to $40.

How about your hard disk? You should have a hard drive with a least a 40GB capacity, with 15GB of free disk space. But you'll certainly want a much bigger drive than that, to leave plenty of room for files and media. So you might need to add a new hard drive. Hard drives are cheap these days; for as low as $70 or $80, you can get one with a 250GB capacity.

How much will all of this cost you? Depending on what you need to install, you can get by with as little as spending only about $60 for a new graphics card, or up to $400 or more if you need to upgrade your RAM, graphics card, and hard disk, and also have to buy a DVD drive.

What's Your Time Worth?

You'll be spending more than just money if you upgrade to Windows Vista, of course--you may spend plenty of time as well. If you need to upgrade your hardware, count in the time it takes to do the upgrade. If you only need to upgrade your RAM, and all goes well during installation, you should need to spend only about 15 minutes. On the other hand, graphics card upgrades can sometimes be tricky, as can hard disk and DVD installations. If things go badly, you can spend hours troubleshooting and listening to bad music while you're on hold on tech support lines.

Finally, consider the time you'll spend upgrading to Windows Vista itself. Microsoft has done an excellent job with the Windows Vista installation process, and it's far easier and faster than previous Windows installs. So if you're going to merely upgrade over your existing version of Windows XP, it may take as little as 40 minutes with very little intervention on your part.

You may, though, opt instead for a clean install, which means that you'll wipe your hard disk clean, and then install Windows Vista. If you do that, you'll have to copy your data somewhere, and then after Vista installs, copy it back to your PC. And you'll also have to reinstall all your applications. This can take multiple hours if your PC has an extensive set of software.

The Bottom Line

So what's the bottom line for hidden upgrade costs? If you've got a relatively new system and opt to upgrade Vista over XP instead of doing a clean install, you may get away with not having to upgrade any hardware, or just need to add some RAM or a new graphics card. That won't put much bite on your pocketbook, and you won't lose your weekends, either.

On the other hand, if you need to do heavy-duty installation work and opt for a clean install, make sure you've got plenty of time--and cash as well.

Preston Gralla is the author of Windows Vista in a Nutshell and is a frequent contributor to PC World.

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