Limited choices for Windows XP holdouts

If you're hesitant about making the leap to Windows Vista, expect a hassle trying to find an XP computer on store shelves.
Written by Tom Krazit, Contributor
Despite words of caution from some in the tech industry that it's too early to make the switch to Microsoft's Windows Vista, many PC shoppers have no choice.

The PC industry has moved almost everything they sell to consumers--and some businesses--over to Vista, both in stores and online.

To be fair, there's a reason for it. Vista integrates new security technologies and entertainment features that were unavailable on Windows XP machines. It also makes finding a Wi-Fi connection a simpler task and makes it easier to search a PC's hard drive for a particular file or document. And PC sales did jump during the first few weeks the operating system was available to consumers.

"It's like a car dealer. They're going to blow out the '07s; they'd rather sell (customers) the '08s."
-- Samir Bhavnani,
analyst with Current Analysis

But not everyone thinks that's enough to justify an upgrade quite yet. Symantec CEO John Thompson told CNET News.com he wouldn't be upgrading anytime soon because of security concerns, and security expert Bruce Schneier wrote in Forbes that Vista's digital-rights management technology will actually slow your computer.

Add a smattering of application compatibility problems and the extra expense of ordering a system configured to handle Vista's performance demands, and there's a sense of hesitation among some consumers and businesses.

So what if your PC dies this week and you need to buy a new one, but don't want to upgrade to Vista? Good luck finding a Windows PC with XP on it at your local retail store, let alone a desktop or notebook that you actually want.

"Consumer retail is almost exclusively Vista," said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis, which tracks the U.S. retail PC market.

Options are limited
So what are your options? You could buy a PC aimed at business customers. You could buy a Vista machine, buy a boxed copy of Windows XP online, and install it on the new machine--with the added bonus of getting rid of the "crapware" that accompanies a new retail PC. Or you could go through more convoluted technical exercises such as virtualization.

And, yes, you could get a Mac, or load one of the various desktop Linux distributions onto your PC. But customers who just need to replace a basic system or add a cheap desktop for the kids--and small businesses that have standardized on Windows--will either have to add all of Vista's bells and whistles along with that system or pay an additional $100 for a boxed copy of Windows XP.

Microsoft said in a statement that it expects PC companies to keep a select number of Windows XP systems around for 12 months, and that system builders and resellers that cater to business customers will be able to offer Windows XP for 24 months. Boxed copies of Windows XP will be available through official outlets for another 12 months, Microsoft said.

But PC companies said they are making a wholesale move to Windows Vista at retail, and representatives for companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and Acer said the only systems with Windows XP in retail stores are older models; new ones are Vista systems. Many of those companies have also moved all the consumer-focused systems on their Web sites to Vista without a configuration option for Windows XP.

XP's disappearing act
At a large CompUSA in downtown San Francisco late last week, a smattering of Windows XP desktops and laptops could be found nestled among more heavily promoted Vista brethren. Nearly all the XP machines were marked down as "manager's specials," with many available only as open box or demonstration machines.

Boxed copies of XP were available, but not at the prominent Vista display that greeted visitors as they entered the store. Rather, XP copies could be found at two more distant outposts that also had additional copies of Vista.

Dell still offers Windows XP notebooks and desktops, but they can all be found under Dell's Latitude business notebook brand, with the exception of the XPS M1710 with the Blu-ray disc player.

Retailers and PC companies don't get any incentives to sell Windows XP systems, so they simply don't, Bhavnani said. "It's like a car dealer. They're going to blow out the '07s; they'd rather sell (customers) the '08s."

The trouble is that most of the hype and promotion surrounding Vista have been around the Aero graphical interface, which doesn't come on low-end PCs with Vista Basic, Bhavnani said. If a potential shopper is just looking to spend around $300 on a desktop or around $600 on a notebook, they're going to wind up with Vista Basic and lose out on the fancy new graphics.

"I don't really know why somebody would buy a Vista Basic system, unless you're a real basic user," he said. Installing Windows XP to replace Vista Basic isn't too difficult, but those cost-conscious customers might balk at the additional $100 needed for a licensed copy of Windows XP.

It could also be tricky for business customers who care more about application compatibility than graphics, which is why analysts have expected them to hold out until Vista can be tested extensively and has received an initial batch of updates. Corporate PC users depend on dozens of critical applications like VPN (virtual private network) software or 3G cellular cards for notebooks that won't necessarily work quite yet on Vista machines.

An HP representative said the company will sell Windows XP PCs through its resellers to small and medium businesses as long as Microsoft continues to license that operating system. Lenovo, which caters more to the business crowd, offers the choice of either XP or Vista on all of its Lenovo 3000 and ThinkPad machines.

It might be hard for some to avoid Vista in the short term. But in the long run--once all the application problems are worked out--most Windows users probably won't want to avoid it, Bhavnani said.

"People are going to have to have a little patience until all the applications work. It's a very short-term pain that will last people less than three months."

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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