With any modern operating system, it really is necessary to invest in a decent imaging program. An IT Professionals three 'R's, should be three 'B's - Backup,Backup,Backup! From a system image backup, restoring these systems (Vista/Win7 etc) takes 15mins as apposed to hours.
Vista SP2 is really the holy grail of places to reach from a standard Vista RTM Installation using this installation method described by Jamie (See his post the Agony of Installing Vista) But sadly, this is probably the way a typical end user would go about restoring Vista. It would have been nice to document in pictures, along with time elapsed, but you can see from the responses Jamie's post has hit a chord.
There are not many that have the patience or time and there are a lot of cravasses along the way. The end result thankfully -Vista SP2 isn't too bad and very similar to Windows 7 but by that time I can understand you probably couldn't care less.
You have to weigh up your time, with the cost of buying replacement media. If your doing it for someone else, having a replacement laptop you can lend them while you obtain the media saves you a lot of headaches (and time)
I've done it this way, but imaging/backing up along the way too (add that time in!), using either Acronis, or more recently Paragon Hard drive Manager 2010 (Excellent). As a backup takes around 10-15mins, so a backup every 1-2 hours depending on how much work has been involved. Do something wrong, its just a case of reverting to the last backup (which I've had to do many times)
A Better method would have been to obtain an upto date Iso/disk image of Windows Vista SP2 (Microsoft do provide this for a fee if you have a previous retail licence (cost of postage&packing), If you phone MS with your retail licence info, they may even offer a download link nowadays. (I find MS pretty helpful, unlike HP). Most machines don't have a retail licence but an Vendor OEM Licence, so MS will refer you to them.
Many companies such as HP (for a fee) also provide recovery disks to restore the system to Vista SP2 (with bloatware) for each make/model. HP and others expect you to create three DVD's when you first get the laptop so you never have to follow the above process.
Again - Backup before this happens!
Another method is to slipstream Service Packs into the Original Installation CD/DVDs, but if you have never done this - Microsoft don't make it an easy process for the average user, so most stick to the standard installation method and use Windows Update. With slipstreaming -the updates are merged into an image of the original disk, so when you run the installation these updates don't need to be installed via Windows Update.
For large numbers of installations - Its also possible to use Microsoft Update Server, so that Updates are stored within the company on a server and downloaded once, and distributed throughout your organisation locally, from your own server (also allows the company to pick which Windows updates are installed)
Had Jamie opted for Windows 7, the result might not have been that easy either, as the vendors such as HP don't always provide Windows 7 Drivers for vendor specific hardware. eg. fingerprint readers,card readers etc on older 'unsupported/obselete hardware'. Several months since release even Windows 7 now has a fair number of upgrades and sizeable ones at that.
Its the typical case of throwing out the old and cheaper to buy the new
It does make a case for using a good piece of imaging software, and though the usual ones are good, I recently purchased Paragon Hard Disk Manager 2010 (has both standard and professional versions). The Professional version allows for dynamic disks such as used by Windows 7, Apple Machitosh. It works perfectly with Windows 7. I recently did an installation of Windows 7, then backed it up (10 mins) and restored it in 8 minutes, when I accidently installed a Vista driver, rather than a Windows 7 driver.
Paragon Hard Disk Manager 2010 Pro is a bargain- best imaging bar none. Works perfectly with Windows, Mac, and Linux (even EXT4!), and dynamic disks. The only problem I've had with it was trying to image to a smaller disk (the size of the data on the partition was less than the size of the new partition, but the partition itself including free space was bigger), where it wouldn't do this on the fly, whereas Acronis products do. You had to resize the partition to a smaller size first then copy it.
It also will automatically find unbootable Windows Systems and correct the boot information automatically - this works too!
On a postive note... Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. Installed Ubuntu 10.04 Beta over the weekend on a HP DV Series, Paragon came in very handy moving round EXT3 and EXT4 Partitions, aswell as keeping Windows 7 intact. Backing up beforehand-always a good idea!. Ubuntu installed pretty well perfectly, one really nice touch is that you can surf the web while its installing.
One thing was the progresson bar worked perfectly upto 95%, but the last 5% took about half the time again, so don't give up at this point and think its frozen, it still working away. The boot time is phenomenal, the new layout,as is the way it offers proprietary drivers for wireless cards, nvidia cards. Actually it hardly displayed the ubuntu logo bit (mine seemed to be text at the moment, but as you don't see it , it didn't matter.
As a beta, its pretty much working fine for me except for a few cosmetic issues, still wouldn't recommend using it for anything other than checking it out - but this LTS Version (Long term support) is really promising. I'd actually say I like it better than Windows 7! New colour scheme, menus are much nicer, but I had got used to the brown.
I still prefer XP to Windows 7, but Microsoft have done miracles to turn Vista into Windows 7, and as we all have to use MS Products during a daily life, because of convention - I'm pretty glad they did.
Many will definitely start to question the logic of why everyone is still buying/using MS Products when they start to use Ubuntu 10.04.
9.10* is Ubuntu's Vista in comparison to Ubuntu 10.04 beta, which looks to be Ubuntu's 'Windows 7 RC', I mean in terms of build quality. This early beta is an extremely high standard, as was the early Windows 7 RC. In recognition, I've given the 10.04 beta a permanent partition on my laptop. *(I thought 9.10 was rushed out for Windows 7 launch)
When you compare Windows 7, Snow Leopard, and Ubuntu 10.04 - they all have their own plus points and negative ones- I don't think there has ever being a time though, before this where the choice between products was so small in terms of quality.