At the risk of stating the obvious: now is not yet a good time to upgrade to Vista. That much is generally expected with a new operating system. What’s unexpected is that it’s some of the biggest partners who aren’t ready. Microsoft’s own developer tools for Vista are still in beta. Basic hardware drivers are missing. NVIDIA and ATI are missing drivers for major, current-generation video hardware. And worse, marketing materials from Microsoft and some of their larger partners are distorting the reality of the situation.

Unless you have drivers in hand for your computer, your graphics drivers, your sound hardware, and confirmed Vista-ready updates for your critical apps, I wouldn’t even bother putting Vista on a second partition. There’s just no benefit right now. (If you were a beta tester, of course, go for it — but I’d say even early adopters may want to wait another couple of weeks.) Now, you’ll hear lots of members of the PC press say “don’t upgrade; wait until you buy a new system.” That’s ridiculous. The whole advantage of the PC platform is upgrading. And the real problem is that even brand-new machines are unlikely to work, because the problem is drivers and apps — not how new your hardware is or whether it was “built for Vista.”

Based on what I’m seeing, I do think the current incompatibilities are unlikely to last long; I’ve seen some encouraging signs that people with simpler setups may be able to update in the next few weeks to two months, and, frankly, given the size of this OS, that’s not all that bad. But right now, the upgrade process is likely to be a nightmare for almost everyone. And the really frustrating thing is that the very companies claiming to be ready are often the ones who aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Operating systems are incredibly complex things. And development quickly becomes a tradeoff between new functionality and backwards compatibility; Microsoft had to break some features to improve the OS — that’s a given with them, with Apple, with Linux, with any software.

But imagine two different scenarios, if you will:

1. A new OS is released. Many drivers and apps are incompatible. You head to the vendors for your computer, your gear, and your apps to check on Vista compatibility. You find statements posted at the support sites. There are links to beta drivers for some tools, while others simply say “we don’t recommend upgrading now; we’ll have drivers soon.”

2. A new OS is released. Many drivers and apps are incompatible. You receive a barrage of press releases, email newsletters, web ads, TV ads, press events, parties, and more telling you specific products that are optimized for the new OS and touting a brave new era of compatibility. You go to their support site — once you’ve found it, because you mistakenly click on a giant banner announcing the new OS that turns out to include marketing materials instead of solid information. Not only are drivers missing, but there’s not any information on when to expect them. Searches for drivers come up blank.

Is this really a technical problem? Is it a development problem? To me, the real issue is that users haven’t been given the facts they need. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot in Vista that will be worth upgrading, eventually — maybe even in a month or two for many users. Misinformation, however, will only create unnecessary frustration and a fear of the OS itself.

“Vista Ready” May be Anything But, For Now

For instance, I’ve been testing Vista on a brand-new Alienware m5550 laptop. According to Alienware’s Vista marketing materials, pitched via email and Web last week, Alienware gives you “the Definitive Vista Experience.” I sure hope not.

Vista installation itself went quite smoothly, but without NVIDIA graphics drivers for the GeForce Go 7600 in this machine, the display defaulted to generic VGA drivers, shut down Aero, disabled all copy-protected content playback, and showed up at a non-native resolution that was barely usable. Neither Alienware nor NVIDIA currently have any mobile graphics drivers available for download. Ironically, while NVIDIA has gone to a universal driver model, they don’t allow you to use the universal driver installer with their mobile GPUs. I was only able to enable those drivers by using the hacked installer at laptopvideo2go. That works, but with bugs: the Lego Star Wars Episode II disc included in my gift bag at the Vista launch doesn’t work consistently. (Glitches are occasional, but render the game unplayable.) And because the driver installer is unsigned, Vista disables copy protected playback. Microsoft has said “most” of the copy protection in Vista already existed in XP. That may be true, but one of the new copy protection restrictions Microsoft added is the inability to play DVDs via unrecognized display drivers — a major new addition, and one that could make using alternative drivers a no-go.

Alienware doesn’t have any other drivers publicly available, either; they were able to get me some, but not all, of the drivers required for this machine. And the audio driver they did supply, which finally enabled the volume knob and headphone jack on this laptop, is still unavailable from their website.

I fully expect these issues to be resolved by updated drivers. For the record, Alienware promises drivers by the end of this week; as soon as I have them I’ll post an update, as this machine could be great for Vista. But that doesn’t change the basic problem here:

Microsoft and partners were not upfront at launch about the readiness of the OS. In a beta OS, it’s perfectly fine to expect users to hunt down drivers and hack their system. But a final-release OS with a marketing campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars — with countless more dollars spent by partners — should be another story. And it’s not okay to tell users your entire product line is compatible when there are no drivers. I wish my Alienware example were an exception; early indications are that it’s the rule; in fact, anyone with a laptop could be impacted by the lack of a significant number of public-release, non-beta graphics drivers.

There’s a simple solution that was missed here. So, you had a big marketing plan and engineering didn’t keep up. Big deal. We understand: we miss deadlines, too. Just throw us a bone. If you’re going to run the splashy marketing, put a link to the support site. Talk to your engineers. Even if you can’t get a realistic timetable for availability, put a placeholder page on your support site.

What About Music?

Unfortunately, until the basic hardware issues get sorted, it’s not really worth looking at music compatibility for a few weeks yet. But I can say this: if something isn’t officially updated for Vista, don’t assume it works. It might work beautifully — or it might not run. Case in point: in a completely unscientific test, I tried Native Instruments Massive and Ableton Live on my Alienware laptop running Vista. Massive runs perfectly in standalone mode, and even works, glitch-free and with no detectable latency, with the built-in sound card. Ableton Live, meanwhile, triggered Vista’s XP compatibility mode, disabling Aero. It then crashed as soon as I tried to do anything. The good news is, unlike XP, the crash itself was neat and tidy, and I know some Ableton users have had no trouble. But you get the idea: you’re going to want Vista updates for any major apps. SONAR 6.2 and Reason, as we’ve reported here before, are ready; FL Studio 7 should be available soon and will also be compatible. As for other software, we’re waiting on more information, and will report it — and test it, where possible — as soon as we’ve got it.

The bottom line: I’m going to keep working with Vista, because I know millions of new machines are shipping with Vista installed, and the OS is making its way around the globe. XP, Mac OS X, Linux, and the one person who logged into the forum this month on an Amiga (no joke) — all of these are viable OS choices, too. If you’ve got facts, you can make an informed decision. That’s the beautiful advantage of facts over meaningless hype.