This week, readers want to either upgrade or downgrade from Windows Vista, and find plenty of company in corporate America; a small-business owner wants to know if an IT maintenance contract is worth the money; and a reader offers tips on using a VCR with a digital-TV converter box.

Q: I have a Lenovo Y430 laptop and I installed Windows 7 Release Candidate on it about a month ago. It works great and hasn't given me any problems.

But this installation wiped out the previous Vista Premium that came with the laptop. Can I use the Windows 7 upgrade option, since I still have a Vista product key but not the OS installed?

I wasn't given any OS disks when I bought the computer from Circuit City, and Lenovo won't give them to me, so I can't re-install Vista.

Is there any option for me, or am I stuck buying a full version of Windows 7 when it comes out?

A: Unfortunately there is no upgrade path to Windows 7 from a test version. Windows 7 Upgrade checks for an existing paid version of Windows before it will install, and the old, free Vista Release Candidate doesn't qualify.

Luckily, your Lenovo system came with a feature called the OneKey Rescue System. The question is whether that feature survived the installation of Windows 7.

If it did, follow the instructions in your user's manual to restore your laptop to its out-of-the-box, pristine state. You'll be looking to start One Key Rescue from a power-off state.

Make sure you save any data that's important to you before attempting the OneKey Rescue.

The main limitation of a OneKey Rescue is that it can't recover from a hard disk crash — since the hidden recovery partition is usually unreadable, and the main partition can't be restored even if the recovery partition is readable.

For this reason, Lenovo usually bundles a "System Recovery" disk with the hardware. It may not be a Microsoft-branded "Windows Vista Home Premium" DVD, but it still contains a copy of the OS, and it has all the necessary drivers.

If you really didn't get one with your system, you should be able to buy one from Lenovo — if you ask for it specifically. Use it to restore your system if OneKey Rescue doesn't work.

With your IdeaPad restored, the Windows 7 upgrade should work just fine.

The Abominable Vista

Q: I have Vista Home Premium (64-bit) and have trouble opening ZIP files that I've downloaded to use for making slideshows. I use FreeZip but several of the files can't be unzipped. Is there an unzip program that can open all these files?

Or can I install Windows XP over Vista without losing files and programs and totally messing up my computer? I would love to get rid of Vista — it's an abomination

A: Installing XP over Vista will be problematic unless you purchased a downgrade-to-XP option when you purchased your system.

This is because it's getting harder and harder to buy the retail version of XP. Microsoft isn't selling it anymore, to the public or to resellers. You might be able to score one off eBay, but let the buyer beware.

If you do find a copy — and you will need the full version, not an upgrade, as explained in the answer to the previous question — make sure that XP drivers are available for your system. This is not a given, especially if your hardware has a "Designed for Windows Vista" sticker attached.

And yes, you will lose your files and programs, so make a backup of the files, and make sure your programs are downward-compatible, as you'll be reinstalling them.

With respect to the ZIP problem, it's really hard to beat the venerable, old WinZIP program, now in its twelfth edition. They want about $30 for it at www.winzip.com.

For sheer cuteness, it's hard to beat ALZip, by ESTSoft. All of the icons are little cartoon eggs. The idea was a ZIP utility for folks who don't speak English (or English speakers who don't speak nerdspeak,) the symbolism being that a ZIP file is like an egg, which must be cracked open to get to the egg-y goodness on the inside.

The only downside is that after installation, new folders will be named after some random variety of bird, instead of "New Folder." My last new folder was named "ostrich."

Go to www.altools.com. ALZip used to be free, but their licensing terms changed last fall, and I think they're now asking about $30 U.S. You can pay in equivalent euros or Australian/Canadian dollars, if you prefer.

Windows XP Deathwatch, Mk. VI

Not a question, actually. But after two Windows 7 questions, I will note (with some amusement) the Reuters article last week that indicates that six in 10 companies plan to skip Windows 7, at least until the end of next year.

More than 80 percent of those delaying adoption cited either "lack of time and resources" or "concern about compatibility ... with existing applications" — the latter despite Windows 7's announced capability of running XP in a "virtual" machine, given a suitable CPU.

See http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSTRE56C0NC20090713 for details.

Are Service Contracts Worth the Money?

Q: I own a small business and recently started using a third-party company to keep our computers running. They seem to know what they're doing, but they are suggesting a maintenance contract. What is your opinion? Are maintenance contracts worth the expense?

A: Until the end of last year, I was a licensee of one of the geeks-in-little-cars companies, and have proposed the very type of maintenance contract you are considering. Keeping that disclaimer in firmly in mind, I would say that yes — they can be worth the money, in many cases.

The main disadvantage to a maintenance contract is that they tend to cost a bit more, over time, than simply paying for equipment and repairs on an as-needed basis.

Is the additional expense worth it?

Depends on your individual situation. The main advantage to a service/maintenance contract is that it removes the peaks and valleys from your IT expenses. Basically, it "flatlines" your IT costs, and makes the budget exercise simple.

You can probably negotiate for remote support. When your primary geek isn't available, other geeks in the organization take responsibility for your problem, and solve it either over a network connection or in person.

I would be wary of sole proprietors — not because they aren't just as skilled and capable as an organization but rather, as my friend Steve (a programmer out of Long Beach, Calif.) puts it, "Trucks happen." If one does, you're out the money and stuck looking for a new geek.

If you play your cards right, your maintenance provider will have an in-place agreement with a leasing company — which means that much of the cost of maintenance can be rolled into the equipment lease.

Your fixed monthly maintenance payment would then result in state-of-the-art equipment, replaced every three to five years, with parts covered by the manufacturer, labor and support included in the maintenance/lease cost and 24/7 availability.

Not a bad deal, if you can find it.

Feedback

Charlie in the U.K. writes:

In your column of July 7, you say "At least we don't live in England. They're about to replace the FM radio signal with a digital signal that will make every car radio in the country obsolete."

You've jumped the gun on this, to be honest. The government has suggested this happen by 2015, assuming that 50 percent of radio listening is done via digital means by then. It's not enshrined in law yet, only a recommendation in a report.

There is still to be a debate on this, and I expect that there'll be a lot of discussion over the amount of waste that'll be generated by everyone having to throw out their old radios (you can't just stick an adapter box onto them as you can for digital TV), the increase in energy consumption that the digital receivers will cause, etc.

Duly noted, and thanks for being a loyal reader!

John in Tennessee writes:

I was just reading your daily article today mentioning the problem with the VCR not being able to record. I have one that works OK with an annoying shortfall.

I feed the antenna through a digital converter, then into a VCR and finally into the TV. I am able to record with no problem.

The shortfall comes from only being able to "automatically" record one channel a day because the digital converter is not programmable. I also use DVRs to do my recording to make up for the shortfall.

You've hit the nail right on the head, John. That is the major "annoying shortfall."

With the old analog signal, you could program the VCR to select both channel and recording start/stop time.

Now you can only control start/stop time, and you have to remember to set the converter box to the right channel before you leave the house.

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