With Windows Vista finally shipping, customers who want to migrate to the new OS have choices to make. Volume-license customers, of course, should have access to Vista Enterprise Edition by the time you read this article. New PCs with Vista preinstalled and retail-boxed versions of the OS are due by late January. For those who want to purchase a PC immediately but don't want to be locked out of Vista, Microsoft and its hardware partners offer an Express Upgrade that might meet your needs. Here's what you need to know about the Windows Vista Express Upgrade.

Migration Insurance
Microsoft created the Express Upgrade in an effort to prevent PC sales from declining during the crucial 2006 holiday selling season. But because the program runs through March 15, 2007, it also provides individuals and small-business customers with a measure of insurance that they can migrate their new PCs to Vista without spending a lot more.

Here's how the program works: Customers who purchase a new Windows XP PC from a participating system builder or PC manufacturer, such as HP or Dell, can qualify for a free or low-cost upgrade to a comparable Vista product edition. However, confusion can arise because Microsoft doesn't offer the Express Upgrade directly, but in tandem with participating PC makers. Consequently, you need to ensure that the program covers the PC you buy during the qualification time period.

Qualifying Versions
The big question, of course, is which XP versions qualify for which Vista versions. Customers who purchase a PC that has Windows XP Professional Edition or XP Tablet PC Edition preinstalled will be able to get a free—or nearly free (you might have to pay a shipping and handling charge)—upgrade to Vista Business. PCs and workstations with XP Professional x64 Edition preinstalled qualify for a free or inexpensive upgrade to Vista Business 64-bit edition.

On the consumer side, PCs preinstalled with XP Media Center Edition 2005 qualify for a free or inexpensive upgrade to Vista Home Premium. Customers who purchase a PC with XP Home Edition qualify for an upgrade to Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium at a cost of 50 percent of the retail price of the Vista upgrade edition of the product. Thus, an upgrade to Vista Home Basic should cost about $49 in the United States, and Vista Home Premium should cost about $79. Because neither Vista Home Basic nor Vista Home Premium can participate in Active Directory (AD)–based domains, these versions aren't suitable for use in home-based or small businesses. (To learn more about these upgrade options, see “Windows Vista Express Upgrade,” http://www.winsupersite.com/article/showcase/windows-vista-express-upgrade.aspx.)

Another Upgrade Route
Microsoft also offers another upgrade path, though the company has yet to reveal its cost. Because every Vista product edition ships with the same installation DVD (only the product key used during setup determines which version is installed), Microsoft can support in-place upgrades from certain Vista versions to others. This feature, called Windows Anytime Upgrade, will let you, for example, electronically upgrade your copy of Vista Home Basic to Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate. You can also use this method to upgrade from Vista Home Premium or Vista Business to Vista Ultimate.

Technically, then, it will be possible to buy an XP Home Edition PC in early 2007, get an Express Upgrade to Vista Home Basic, and then use Windows Anytime Upgrade to upgrade to Vista Ultimate. The result is a PC that will be able to connect to AD-based infrastructures and access other business-oriented Vista features, such as Remote Desktop. Whether such an upgrade is financially viable remains to be seen, but what's interesting is that it's even possible.

Recommendations
Microsoft typically offers individuals a way to ensure that new PCs purchased shortly before the release of a new OS version won't quickly become outdated. Express Upgrade isn't much different than previous coupon-based programs, which is really too bad: Rather than relying on PC makers to distribute these upgrades, Microsoft should have let customers pursue other options, including downloading the Vista upgrades when they become available. The other problem is cost: Because each participating PC maker sets its own fees for Express Upgrade, some might use the program as an excuse to add to their bottom line.

My advice for individuals and small businesses is to wait for Vista-based PCs to appear in early 2007 and forgo Express Upgrade if possible. You'll get the best experience with Vista if you don't have to upgrade from XP yourself.