The Quick Windows Vista Guide

At the end of January 2007, Microsoft released its new Windows Vista operating system. Vista is in many ways a significant change from Windows XP. Not surprisingly, that has led to a good deal of confusion. But we can do something about that.


Vista adds a number of new features, some large and some small. The most widely-known new feature is the Aero user interface. Windows Aero adds a variety of visual effects, offloading the processing for these effects to the system's video card. It is important to note that not all versions of Vista include Windows Aero.

Security in Vista is stronger than in previous versions of Windows. This involves a number of changes. The most noticeable of these is User Account Control, which is intended to ensure users run the operating system with only the necessary privileges. This is intended to prevent many forms of social engineering attacks. Windows Vista also includes a new firewall. In the 64-bit version, access to the kernel has been clamped down.

There are quite a few other changes. Vista introduces a new driver model, which is required for the new DirectX 10 platform. It adds the Windows Sidebar, which allows users to run widgets. Searching has been improved.


Windows Vista has 6 core editions with different feature sets. Additionally, there are a number of variants of these editions.


Intended for developing countries, Starter is 32-bit only. The license terms bar users from running it on modern processors such as the Athlon 64 or 64 X2, the Core 2 Duo, or many recent Pentium 4s. It does not include Windows Aero.

Home Basic

The most stripped-down version intended for sale in major markets, Vista Home Basic is the OEMs' version of choice. Still no Windows Aero.

Home Premium

The version most home users will want, Vista Home Premium adds Windows Aero and Media Center to Home Basic's feature set. And Tablet PC bits, as well.


Targeted (naturally) at business systems, Vista Business drops the Media Center from Home Premium, but adds backup features like shadow copy. Business also supports running 2 processors (that is, two separate processors in two separate sockets - Home versions support single multicore processors) in one system, and supports more memory.


For those that must have everything, Vista Ultimate includes all of the features listed above, as well as some others such as BitLocker drive encryption.


Available only to those with a Software Assurance contract, Vista Enterprise has the same feature set as Business. The key difference is that it is available for volume licensing.


The above editions (except Starter and Enterprise) are available as Retail or OEM for System Builders licenses (OEM licenses cannot be moved between computers, and carry no support from Microsoft). Both Full and Upgrade versions are available (both versions can perform both upgrade and "clean" installations, but Upgrade requires an appropriate version of Windows already be installed).

Additionally, N, K, and KN versions of some products are available. The N versions of Home Basic and Business are intended to comply with antitrust actions by the European Union, and do not include Windows Media Player (users may install it themselves). K editions are meant to comply with antitrust concerns in Korea, and will include links to competing instant messaging products. KN editions (also Korea) strip out the media player and instant messaging entirely.

32-bit vs. 64-bit

All versions of Windows Vista except Starter (32-bit only) are available in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. In the case of Vista Ultimate, the retail package includes both a 32-bit (x86) disc and a 64-bit ("x64") disc. For Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, or Business, the retail package includes only a 32-bit disc. If you purchase any of these versions, you can request a 64-bit (x64) install disc from Microsoft, which will require an additional $10 fee.

Perhaps the most widely noted difference between the 32-bit and 64-bit editions is that the 64-bit editions require that all kernel-mode drivers be signed by their creators. 32-bit editions require higher user permissions to install such drivers, but will permit the install. 64-bit editions will refuse outright.

32-bit editions are limited to 4 GB of memory. 64-bit editions support at least 8 GB of memory (Home Basic). Microsoft provides a table of the maximum RAM for each of the 64-bit editions.

The 64-bit editions introduce a new security feature that prevents third-party applications from modifying the Windows kernel, called PatchGuard or Kernel Patch Protection. They also support the NX bit/XD bit introduced by AMD as part of the x86-64 extensions; Microsoft refers to this as Data Execution Prevention, or DEP.

Hardware compatibility

Most modern hardware from major companies already has driver support under Vista. In most cases, drivers intended for Windows XP will work fine for 32-bit Vista. As previously stated, 64-bit Vista adds the stipulation that drivers must be signed by their creator, which means some older drivers will not work on 64-bit editions.

Video cards have been a focal point, particularly because Vista's Aero interface is not supported by all video cards. Particularly, it requires support for the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) and DirectX 9. Intel, AMD/ATI, NVIDIA, and S3 maintain lists of compatible chipsets. No VIA products can currently run Aero. SiS indicates that its Mirage 3+ graphics processor is Aero-capable, but does not appear to provide a compatibility list. Any graphics product bearing the Windows Vista "Premium" logo is required by Microsoft to support Windows Aero.

Compatibility with sound cards has also been a sticking point. Vista no longer utilizes DirectSound and no longer supports hardware-accelerated effects like Creative's EAX. Drivers, especially for Creative products, have been slow in coming, and have had major bugs.

Microsoft maintains a list of lists of hardware compatibility information. If you aren't sure your system meets the requirements (or recommendations), give the Upgrade Advisor a go.


Microsoft has drawn a lot of flak over the Windows Vista license, despite the fact that the final version of the license is very similar to that of Windows XP. The most salient issues are these:

Retail licenses may be uninstalled and then reinstalled on a new machine an unlimited number of times (the original license language implied only one transfer was permitted). A retail license may only be in use on one system at any given time.

OEM licenses are legally bound to the motherboard they are first installed on. They cannot legally be moved to another system.

Starter edition is only to be sold in developing markets. It is only licensed to run on a limited set of lower-performance, older processors.

Enterprise edition is available only as part of a volume licensing agreement.

Useful links

Windows Vista Test Drive

How to Clean Install Windows Vista with Upgrade Media

Inside the Windows Vista Kernel

  • RSS feed StumbleUpon Digg Yahoo! My Web 2.0