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Stay Happy With XP

Forget the Vista hype: Here's how to get the most out of Windows XP.
The Software Factor

You may wonder if new software will run under XP. In a word, yes, at least for another few years. It's rare for new software to be aimed only at a new, just-shipped operating system. It's simple economics: Software makers don't want to cut down the size of their potential customer base. Even Microsoft follows this rule. Office 2007, slated to ship at about the same time as Vista, will run under XP.

That being said, you might miss out on some Vista-specific features available in new software. Office 2007 includes a common indexing engine with Vista, so searching for Office documents in Vista is better than it is in XP.

You also may ultimately face problems because your old hardware isn't powerful enough to support new software, even if XP theoretically can. Because Vista re- quires more powerful hardware than XP, new software eventually will be written to that spec, and your old machine may not support the new software unless you give it an overhaul.

Hardware makers already are salivating over the thought of a mass Vista upgrade, because so many computers will need new hardware to support the operating system. What if you want some of that cool new hardware but don't want to upgrade to Vista? Will you be able to get drivers and software to support it?

The odds are that XP drivers will be easy to find for any new hardware. That should be the case for at least several years after Vista ships. Even the high-end graphics card GeoForce Go 7800 GTX includes drivers for Windows 2000, an operating system that was introduced more than six years ago.

Cheat Sheet
You can get some of the same features of Vista for XP without paying a penny
>> The free version of the ZoneAlarm firewall, which offers two-way firewall protection, can be downloaded at www.zonealarm.com
>> Download Windows Defender, Vista's anti-spyware program, for free at informationweek.com/1099/ms_defender.htm
>> Receive free tools to fight phishing, including the Netcraft Anti-Phishing Toolbar, at www.toolbar.netcraft.com
>> As for Internet Explorer, there are a few workaround options: Switch to a safer browser, such as Firefox or Opera; download the beta of IE 7; try GreenBorder Pro, which runs IE 6 inside a safe "sandbox" so that malware can't touch your system while you surf
Network cards, monitors, printers, and most other hardware also tend to support older operating systems. Given that XP will remain the dominant operating system for several years, you can be assured that most new hardware will support XP in that time frame.

One problem you might eventually face after Vista ships is that hardware and software makers may stop supporting old versions of their products. So if you need to reinstall a piece of old hardware, you might find that the manufacturer has stopped hosting downloads of its drivers. Similarly, you may want to find older versions of software because newer versions require a more powerful PC than your own, but software makers usually don't host old downloads on their sites.

A couple of sites can help. If you need to find an old driver and it's not on the manufacturer's site, head to DriverGuide.com, which has a huge database of drivers, firmware, and support documents. There also are useful discussion boards for asking for help with old hardware. Similarly, if you're after old editions of software, go to OldVersion.com, which lets you download older versions of popular free software.

When Vista launches, expect to see and hear the usual massive hoopla paid for by Microsoft. If you don't switch, you'll certainly lose out on being part of that buzz (which may be a good thing).

Dual-Core Advantage

Beyond that, though, will you actually lose out on software or hardware capabilities? Will applications run more slowly? That depends. For now, apps running on the beta of Vista don't run any faster than they do on XP. In fact, they often run more slowly. For example, the first time you save a Microsoft Word document in the Vista beta, it saves excruciatingly slowly. Similarly, searches within Word practically creep along. Those speed issues should be solved when Vista ships, but don't expect to see a performance boost, either.

Users with dual-core PCs may notice a performance boost with Vista when they're multitasking because Vista can take advantage of dual cores to run separate processes, something XP can't do. So if you have a dual-core PC and you frequently run multiple programs simultaneously, you'll lose the performance improvement that Vista can bring. Microsoft also claims that multimedia will run better on Vista than XP because Vista can give streaming audio and video priority over other processes so they won't be interrupted. We'll have to wait for the shipping version to see whether that--and all the other claims--live up to the hype.