Windows Vista: An FAQ for Nonprofits

What to know if you're thinking about an upgrade to Microsoft's new OS

VistafaqWindows Vista, Microsoft's first new major operating system (OS) since the launch of the Windows XP line in 2001 was launched in early 2007. Vista's launch has already generated some questions about upgrading, new features, tech support, and indeed whether now is a good time to migrate your computers to this new OS.
To help you make an informed decision about Vista, we've answered a handful of questions that we think nonprofits will be most concerned with. You may even want to use our answers to assess the potential pros and cons of upgrading to Vista at your nonprofit.

What are the different versions of Vista?

Windows Vista comes in six versions, each of which has a different combination of features. As you might expect, the more expensive versions of the OS offer a proportionally larger number of features.

Vista's six editions range from a simple version optimized for less-powerful machines to a high-end version that includes every new feature introduced in the Vista line. The simplest version of Vista is called Starter, which is only available in certain developing nations and can only run a limited amount of software. The five versions available to the rest of the world — Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate — all provide security enhancements over Microsoft's previous OSs but vary in terms of their other features.

For instance, while the Home Premium version of Vista incorporates Windows Media Center functionality, which allows users to perform tasks such as burn DVDs, record TV, and organize or edit photographs, the Business version omits these features and instead includes a backup feature specifically designed for corporations and organizations. To learn more about how the different versions of Vista stack up visit Microsoft, they have published there own Vista comparison chart, though it omits information on Vista Starter and Enterprise editions.

What are some of Vista's most important new features?

All versions of Vista — including Starter — feature Microsoft's built-in firewall, which now blocks outbound traffic, theoretically preventing an attacker from taking control of your machine if he or she happens to gain access. Microsoft has also added malware protection to all versions of Vista by bundling its Windows Defender anti-spyware application with Vista. Finally, all versions of Vista include Internet Explorer version 7, which includes security features such as a filter for combating phishing scams.

If you opt for one of the pricier Vista versions, you'll notice that the OS's interface now bears a resemblance to that of a Macintosh. Dubbed Aero, this interface displays thumbnails of all open windows and allows the user to flip through them. The Home versions of Vista also now include Microsoft Media Center features, which allow users to perform tasks such as burn DVDs, record TV, and organize or edit photographs.

For a more in-depth look at Windows Vista's feature set, read PC World's article Everything You Need To Know About Windows Vista.

What are Vista's system requirements?

If your nonprofit is considering upgrading to Vista but currently uses older computers, you may be curious as to whether your machines are powerful enough to handle the new OS.To run one of the more basic versions of Windows Vista, your computers will need to be outfitted with at least an 800-MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, a CD-ROM drive, and a 20-GB hard drive (with at least 15 GB of free space). However, if your nonprofit wants to upgrade to one of the higher-end versions of Vista — such as Home Premium or Ultimate — you may need a more powerful processor, more RAM, and a fairly advanced video card.

To find out if your nonprofit's computers are currently compatible with Vista, run each machine through PC PitStop's online Vista Readiness Test (Internet Explorer required). You can also get more details on Vista system requirements at Microsoft's Windows Vista Capable and Premium Ready PCs page.

Which older Microsoft OSs can be upgraded to Vista?

According to information found at Microsoft's Upgrade Planning for Windows Vista page, your current OS and the Vista Edition you choose will determine whether you need to remove your current OS and install Vista from scratch or whether you can simply install it on top of your current OS (see "If I upgrade to Vista, will I have to perform a clean install?" below for more information).

If I upgrade to Vista, will I have to perform a clean install?

Users who are upgrading to Vista from Windows 2000 or XP Professional x64 computers have no option but to back up all their files and programs, uninstall their OS, reinstall Vista, then port all their data back to the computer.

In some cases, XP Professional, Home, Media Center, and Tablet PC users can simply pop Vista's setup disc into their computer's CD-ROM drive and install the new OS without having to purge their machines. However, depending on what version of Vista your organization has chosen, you may still have to perform a clean install.

Regardless of which situation applies to your nonprofit, PC World's Windows Vista FAQ recommends backing up your data as an important safety precaution. For more information on why and how to back up data, read TechSoup's article Backing Up Your Data.

How much does Vista cost?

How big of a dent Vista puts in your organization's budget depends on whether you're purchasing the product brand new or upgrading from a previous Microsoft OS. Vista pricing also depends on which version you choose; as you might expect, the more advanced editions of Vista carry larger price tags.

If your nonprofit is moving to a Microsoft OS for the first time, expect to pay anywhere between R1500 and R 3000 for each individual copy of Vista you're buying new. If your organization is upgrading from a version of XP or 2000, Vista costs will range between R 1000 and R2500. Organizations that plan to outfit more than 10 computers with Vista may want to look into the Enterprise Edition, which offers volume pricing rates on license keys. (Windows Vista Business Upgrade is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions for a R 75 administration fee to qualifying nonprofits through SANGOTeCH.)

If I upgrade to Vista, will I need to buy new software?

Another factor to consider when determining whether to upgrade to Vista is whether the software that's critical to your organization will run on the new operating system. While many software vendors have already released Vista-compatible versions of their products, others may still be modifying their programs to make them compliant with Vista.

Keep in mind that, in some cases, upgrading to Vista might also mean that your nonprofit will have to fork over additional money to upgrade certain applications. For example, as PC World's Windows Vista FAQ reports, it's unlikely that older versions of antivirus software will run on Vista, so your nonprofit will probably have to pay to upgrade its computers to the new version. Similarly, if your organization has implemented a custom software solution, such as a donor database, you may want to first check with the company or developer who built the application to find out if it is Vista compatible or how much any necessary improvements will cost in order to make the software run on the new OS.

To get an idea of how much of your current software will still work if you upgrade to Vista, you might find it useful to download and install the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, a small application developed by Microsoft. The Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor not only tells you whether your computer hardware is capable of running Vista, but it also tests your installed applications to find out which ones may not run properly with the new operating system.

Will Microsoft still provide support for older versions of Windows?

If you're leaning toward skipping a Vista upgrade for the time being, you may be concerned as to whether Microsoft will continue to provide official support and important security updates for its other operating systems. After a certain period of time, Microsoft typically discontinues certain support features for older operating systems.

Currently, Microsoft has discontinued all forms of support for Windows 98, ME, and NT. Windows 2000 users who pay for Microsoft's Extended Support features — including security updates — will receive support through 2010. Mainstream Support features, such as complimentary online or phone support, were discontinued in 2005.

Microsoft still offers both Mainstream and Extended Support features for all versions of XP, though the company states that Mainstream Support will end two years after the latest version of the particular OS was released. For official information on XP support, check out this Microsoft Support Lifecycle page.

If you want to learn more about the difference between Mainstream and Extended Support programs, visit this Microsoft Help and Support page and select your OS from the list. At the top of the chart that appears, click on either the link that relates to Mainstream or Extended Support.

Now that you know a little more about Windows Vista, you should have a better idea of whether your organization wants to upgrade immediately, wait a while, or stick with your current OS for as long as possible. While it can be easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest technology advances, looking before you leap can save your nonprofit a lot of money, time, and frustration in the long run.

By Brian Satterfield, TechSoup.