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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Upgrading Your Operating System

So, the other day I thought to myself, "WOW!  Windows Vista sucks ass!"  I was trying to install software drivers for my cousin's new Cricket Broadband modem.  That completely sucked ass, but what was worse was that it took so long on her computer, which runs Windows Vista.  On an XP computer, as demonstrated by the representative at a Cricket Corporate office in Wheat Ridge, CO, it went and installed seamlessly (and quickly).  No problems, and we were connected right away, but NOOOOOooooo, Windows Vista had to be a pain in the ass.

Well, this got me thinking, is anyone ever ready to upgrade to a new operating system version, whether by Microsoft or another company?  When I look back on how many times I've upgraded to a new version of Windows, which were frustrating at times, I found that there were some good reasons to upgrade, and some not-so-good reasons.  Whether good or bad, the reasons usually were based on new features, improvisation on existing features, or laced with enhancements to that are supposed to make the experience that much more enjoyable.  At the time of doing these "wonderful" upgrades, I thought I was improving my computer performance, and at the same time, I was learning a new operating system.  The latter was true, but not the performance.  A lot of times, it suffered greatly.

Some people might ask, "So, what do I gain out of upgrading my computer's operating system?"  There are a lot of pros and cons to upgrading your operating system.  I want to go over some of the pros (the positive side) of upgrading your operating system first.

1) Newer Features - Sometimes an upgrade to the latest operating system will allow you to do something that you couldn't before.  An excellent example was when Microsoft went to Windows 95 from Windows 3.x.  A lot of users were pretty skeptical, and some rejected upgrading up to two years after it had been available on the market.  One of the main, and most popular, features that Windows 95 offered was a more streamlined user interface (start button, program menu, control panel, etc) which allowed the user to access programs much more efficiently, and without so much clutter to go through (i.e. program groups).

2) Upgraded Drivers - Another sticking point of upgrading has been the idea that when you upgrade, certain drivers are updated as well.  Although this didn't happen from Windows 3.x to 95, it did once Windows 98 came along, and even better was Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE for short).  Drivers for things like your mouse, keyboard, and in some cases, your sound and video card were updated with the latest (but very basic) software.  Then Windows XP came along, and all of that changed drastically.  Instead of just worrying about basics like your keyboard, mouse, and sound drivers, it also carried with it some common drivers for networking, video, sound, modem, and USB drivers (which have since become very popular in almost all peripheral devices).  Even webcams, and other drivers were now available with Windows XP, and in a lot cases, no further install was necessary, except on rare occasion where the driver CD had to be used.

3) Greater Flexibility - With each new operating system upgrade came the greater flexibility of creating multiple users on one computer system.  Although Windows 95 through Millenium Edition didn't offer much in the way of user authentication, Windows NT through 2000 did, and then Windows XP was designed as a hybrid of Windows 9x/Me and Windows NT/2k.  Since XP, a computer administrator (aka "Owner" on XP Home Edition, and I think Media Center Edition as well) could create multiple user accounts, and set their access level accordingly.  Almost all versions of Windows since XP have now incorporated a "Guest" account where someone other than the household users could log in, and have basic access to most programs.  All guest accounts (except when the administrator does something crazy and allows it) are restricted from installing and modifying programs.  This is especially useful when parents want to limit their children's activity on the computer system.  New operating systems have also meant more control on what programs are available to users.  In the case of Windows-based operating systems since XP, an Administrator/Owner can restrict what programs are available to "Limited" and/or Guest accounts, even block them as necessary.

4) Support for Compatible New Products - An upgrade to a new operating system can be frustrating, but imagine for a moment if we never got past using Windows 95.  Although patches are available, support would not exist for products using FireWire, USB, HDMI ports, DVI, etc.  And the support Windows 95 would have for those kinds of ports would be severely limited.  In fact, some of the older versions of operating systems didn't start widespread support of some of these ports until early 2001 when it became clear that USB and FireWire were not going away as some might have hoped.  A study done years ago confirmed that USB is now the most commonly used port in use today (whether on PC or MAC) versus the much older parallel and serial ports.  It's not limited to USB, FireWire or any other type of port that operating systems expand their support of new products.  It can also be for hardware upgrading reasons, including hard disk capacity upgrading, memory, CDROM/DVDROM drives, etc.  Sometimes, an operating system upgrade will allow you to use a newer product than its predecessor would have.

5) Support for newer software - It's a well known fact that in order to use some of the latest software like games, productivity software, and some security programs, you have to be running a compatible operating system with the latest security updates and service packs.  Some software programs, like one I used to do technical support for, simply won't install based on the operating system installed.  Some hardware products are like that, too, where the device or peripheral simply won't work unless you install an upgrade for the operating system, or in some cases, the device or peripheral will work, but have limited capabilities. 

Those points, in my view, are the pros to upgrading your operating system to the latest and greatest version.  There might be more reasons to upgrade, but those are the common incentives to do so.  Now, I give you the cons.

1) Too much hassle - Although most operating system upgrades are fairly easy to do, problems can arise that make even the simplest of upgrades very frustrating, and time-consuming.  There's also the problem of having to purchase a hardware upgrade such as memory or a new hard drive, because the OS upgrade requires it, or you have simply run out of room. 

2) Incompatible Software/Hardware - While most upgrades can be done with existing hardware, there might be an issue or two with what is called "legacy" hardware or software.  In other words, products and software that are considered "old" and out-dated.  A problem like this came up for me when I upgraded from Win2k to WinXP and found that my Realplayer software was not going to work on XP (this was years ago, by the way).  After downloading the new version, it worked.  However, not all solutions will work the same way.  You'll either have to contact the manufacturer or provider for help, or simply abandon the upgrade until a patch or update can resolve the conflict.  Another great example was when I had done another upgrade on a different computer system of mine, and this time it was a fresh, clean install of Windows XP, and when all was said and done, my secondary CDROM was deemed unusable by XP.  I was NOT a happy camper, but at the very least it forced me to do a hardware swap.

3) Intimidating New Interface - This has happened more times than I care to admit.  Imagine using Windows 95 your whole computer-driven life, and all of a sudden you are using Windows Vista.  Talk about throwing you off your whole game, right?  I mean, you spent how many years learning a new interface (from Win3.x to Win95, and now Vista), and now you have to learn where programs and utilities are located in this new version that you are unfamiliar with!  Well, it can be a little bit like that, or sometimes, much more intimidating.  A lot of users refuse to upgrade simply for this reason alone.

4) New Problems and Other Fun Adventures - Yep, we all know it's happened, and on more than one occasion.  The stories are endless with my tech support brothers and sisters.  I've even been there a few times myself, doing an upgrade, and all-of-a-sudden it brings up the BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH!!! Yeah, pretty frightening, especially when you're as clueless as I was when this message came up.  Or worse yet, you get through the entire installation, and when you go to open a program, your entire computer crashes.  Any new software, including Operating Systems have always been prone to bugs, new types of hacker attacks, vulnerabilities, critical errors, conflicts with software or hardware, and an abundance of new security threats.

5) Useless Features - Again, I've been there myself.  I've got my computer upgraded, and found a feature that looks cool, but it is ultimately useless in practice for the home environment.  This is especially true when you've done like me and bought Windows XP Professional and found all sorts of new security features, but haven't found a way to incorporate them into your use of a computer system.  Some features have proved to be fairly useless in nature.  In Windows Vista, they have a capability where you can monitor your children's online activity, and even put in protocols to limit activity.  For parents, that might be a useful item, but for me, it's just not practical in use.

6) Support Options - In recent years, consumers still on an old and outdated operating system are being shut out of support by the companies that make them.  Microsoft has been one company in particular that has been methodically ending support for older operating systems.  Most OS makers do not charge for updates, patches, etc for their software when applying them from a web-based service, but if support for an OS version is ending, that option may not be available. So, if you still have Windows 98, and run into a situation where your problem would warrant going to Microsoft Update, you might not be able to get the fix that you need.  Even calling technical support for an OS may not be an option either.  Sure, there might be someone out there willing to post a fix or patch, but as more and more people upgrade, that option may soon fade, too. 

Of course, there might be more negative considerations for upgrading an operating system, but those are pretty much the core ideas.  While this next list is not exclusive, it is a good basis to use as a sounding board, maybe with a friend, or just some items to think about when trying to determine if an upgrade to your operating system is weighing on your mind.

A) Cost - Most of us techs can agree that operating system software (whether full version or upgrade-only versions) is expensive.  It can be difficult to justify spending a couple hundred dollars for an upgrade to your OS, and even more so will it be just as hard to validate the idea of upgrading hardware to suit the new OS upgrade.

B) Benefits and Disadvantages - If you have to, write your own list of pros and cons from upgrading your operating system.  Look over its features, capabilities, and other points of interest to determine if this will be a worthwhile expenditure or if you will be wasting dollars on a product you might not even need.  There are some consumers who will buy an upgrade to an OS simply for the fact that it's new, or that the new upgrade will allow them to use the program that they've been waiting to use, but couldn't with the old operating system.

C) Learning Curve - This has been covered earlier, but a lot of consumers who upgrade their PC's OS have reported that the newer version is simply too hard to learn or that they cannot find certain tools, programs, etc on new OS.  A great idea to this is to simply use a friend's computer that has the new OS version.  See how you like it, try a few programs, tools, and other features to get a feel for what you are upgrading to.  My personal recommendation is to try a new OS version for at least a whole day or two, and in some cases up to a week, before you begin to consider upgrading your PC to the new OS version.  If you have to, try to borrow a laptop from a friend or a family member so that you can get familiar with the new OS version as much as possible.

D) Experiences - Some of the gossip about new operating system versions have originated mostly from user-generated opinions, rather than expert advice and professional reviews.  Although, choosing to upgrade your OS version is a lot like picking out a suitable physician or an auto mechanic, and just like that kind of decision, you have to do your homework and research the facts yourself.  Don't just go off what you hear from family, friends, etc.  The bigger complaints that I've seen and read about new OS versions is that there is a problem with a hardware device or peripheral, or a software program won't work, because of some sort of error, or incompatibility issue.  Majority of the time, some believe that a problem simply exists for no reason, and that there is no solution for sole reason it's a new OS version.  In my ever so humble and little opinion (for what it's worth), a good way to research is to look for forums that talk about the problem or issue.  See what other users have experienced, and what might be a suitable solution to the same problem.  On the contrary, you may not even have to worry about the problem that others face with the new OS.  For instance, user A reports that their new OS upgrade isn't allowing them to use XYZ camera, because of an error, but you don't use XYZ camera, you use ABC Camera, or you may not even be using a camera at all.

To recap, this list is NOT exclusive.  There may be other ideas to consider when trying to decide if you need to upgrade your OS version.  Personally, I'd advise to look beyond the obvious and take a fresh look at what is motivating you to upgrade.  Maybe talk with a friend or a family member to see what their motivations were to upgrade.  Try to look at the overall value of what OS you will be upgrading to, and then Focus on what needs and wants it will satisfy in both the short- and long-term.

Have a subject to discuss about computers, or computer related questions?  Email me @  I'll do my best to discuss the topic as thoroughly as possible (and as my experience and education allows) on my next blog.  Hope you've enjoyed this article.  Have a great day!