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Some IT shops have reported having a difficult time upgrading to Windows Vista. To help you out, we’ve compiled this brief list of best practices for planning your upgrade. If you know what to expect and plan wisely, you can minimize any problems that might occur.
Should you perform in-place upgrades of your Windows XP computers, or should you wipe them clean and install Vista from scratch? Or should you recycle or donate your old computers and buy brand-new Vista-capable machines? Obviously, budget is a consideration, but be sure to weigh the cost in time and effort that upgrading or reinstalling your existing machines will involve. And don’t dump your old computers in a landfill — we’ve got enough lead and mercury in the environment already, and lots of less-fortunate people would still find your old computers useful.
If you’re going to reinstall or upgrade your existing machines, back up your systems and scan them for malware before you begin. And make sure you verify that they’ll run Vista properly. If you only have a few machines, you can use the Vista Upgrade Advisor, a free, downloadable Web application that helps you determine if a computer is ready for Vista and which Vista features will work on it. If your setup is more complicated, with lots of computers on your network and with Microsoft Office, Active Directory and other programs, try the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit. MAP is an inventory, assessment and reporting tool that analyzes your hardware, devices and software and provides you with recommendations on what can be migrated and how you can do so. Whichever assessment tool you use, your existing hardware should have at least 2 gigabytes of RAM before you consider running Vista on it.
Mobile users might benefit the most from having their computers upgraded to Vista or replaced with new Vista-capable notebooks. That’s because BitLocker offers an essential layer of data security in a world in which notebooks are frequently stolen. On the other hand, notebook batteries tend to have a hard time with Vista, because the operating system does a lot of self-maintenance even when it’s idle. My advice is to shell out the bucks if you have them and buy Vista preinstalled on Vista-certified notebooks; I’ve heard way too many upgrade horror stories to feel comfortable upgrading a notebook to Vista.
Before you open your wallet, take a hard look at the features each edition of Vista offers. For example, Windows Media Center is present in Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate, but isn’t in Vista Basic or Vista Business. And Remote Desktop Connection is there in the Business and Ultimate, but not in the Basic or Premium editions. To find out which features are in the various retail editions of Vista, see www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/editions/choose.mspx. And for information on Vista Enterprise and how to obtain it, see www.microsoft.com/licensing/sa/benefits/vista/faq.mspx. Vista Upgrade Advisor, which I mentioned previously, can also help you identify which edition of Vista meets your needs. And if you decide later that you selected the wrong edition, you can upgrade to another with Windows Anytime Upgrade, available on every Vista edition except Enterprise. Specifically, you can upgrade Home Basic to Home Premium or Ultimate; Home Premium to Ultimate; and Business to Ultimate. You can’t upgrade any retail edition of Vista to Enterprise, however, and you can’t upgrade Enterprise to Ultimate.
If you decide to perform in-place upgrades or reinstalls of existing hardware, upgrade the BIOS on your machines to the latest version available. More upgrade failures are caused by BIOS problems than any other issue, and the last thing you want to experience is a Blue Screen Of Death (BSOD) during your installation. And even if you purchased brand-new Vista-certified computers, make sure, before you hand them over to your users, that you check the manufacturer’s Web site for an updated BIOS for the machines.
Before you move to Vista, make sure updated drivers are available for your peripherals and other devices. Otherwise, your users could find themselves with computers whose smart card readers won’t let them log in, whose sound cards make annoying noises or whose printers and scanners won’t work. When Vista first came out, many users complained that their peripherals didn’t work. Microsoft told them to complain to the manufacturers of those devices. Users did so and were surprised that many manufacturers said they weren’t going to provide Vista drivers for older devices. Well, many of those device manufacturers have since recanted, and if you check their Web sites, there’s a good chance you’ll find either a Vista driver or workaround instructions for your device.
Check with your vendors to make sure their applications work with Vista before you upgrade. This can be a big issue, especially with custom-developed applications that may simply need to be rewritten to work with Vista. Some application vendors advise turning off User Account Control (UAC) to get their applications to run properly on Vista. Don’t do it — UAC is there for a reason, and turning it off will probably cause more app compatibility issues than it will solve. Complain to your software vendor instead. Service Pack 1 is out now, so it’s had lots of time to get its application to work properly with Vista.
If you decide not to do in-place upgrades and plan to use wipe/install or replace-new instead, get familiar with Microsoft’s migration and deployment tools, as they can make your job a lot easier. Learn how to use Windows Easy Transfer to move files and settings from your old computer to your new one. If you’ve only got a few computers to migrate, Easy Transfer might be just the ticket — see Microsoft Knowledge Base article KB 928634 for instructions.
If you’re going to deploy Vista to dozens or even hundreds of new or wiped computers, you’ll want to use the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT). It is an integrated set of tools and documentation that greatly simplifies the process of deploying Vista onto bare-metal hardware. By using it with User State Migration Tool (USMT) 3.0, you can capture user files and settings from your existing computers, deploy Vista and migrate user files and settings — with the entire process being automated using answer files and scripts. Of course, it’s not quite that simple — you’ll need to play around with MDT and USMT first to get the hang of things, but once you’ve got your head around these tools, you’ll never want to look back. Your starting point for this journey of learning is the Microsoft Desktop Deployment TechCenter on Microsoft TechNet.
Mitch Tulloch is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and lead author of the Windows Vista Resource Kit from Microsoft Press. Contact him through his website: www.mtit.com.