Want to test Vista risk-free? Try virtualization


Let's say that you're now convinced to take Vista for a test spin. Is it too late, now that Microsoft has closed its beta programs? Not at all. The release candidates and betas of Windows Vista, while not available from Microsoft anymore, will still work until June of 2007. Microsoft says that millions of people have downloaded and tested Vista. It's likely that some of your friends or co-workers have copies. Craigslist and eBay certainly have copies available.

Otherwise, you can wait until Jan. 30, when consumer versions of Vista will be available in stores. According to Computerworld.com's Scot Finnie, our in-house Windows Vista expert, users can install and run Vista as a virtual machine on top of, say, Windows XP for 30 days without activating Vista. But be sure you know the details of your store's return policies, such as what the time limit is and whether you'll have to pay a restocking fee.

Microsoft officially recommends that users interested in testing Vista virtually buy the Windows Vista Enterprise Edition, which grants users the right to install one copy of Vista on a physical machine and up to four times in a virtual machine on the same device for the same user. But Enterprise Edition is available only to corporate volume license customers, putting it out of reach of any hobbyist or small business owner. And postings on Microsoft's Virtual PC 2007 newsgroup seem to indicate that there's nothing technically preventing you from buying and testing other versions of Vista using Virtual PC.

A final alternative

If you're only interested in testing Vista and don't think you'd ever want to use a virtualization program to test other software, there is an easier solution, said Finnie. You can accurately test Vista -- including the Aero interface -- on your existing PC without uninstalling your current version of Windows, by creating a separate partition of about 20GB on your hard drive and installing Vista there.