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Vista still plagued by incompatibilities

Nine months since its release, lots of hardware and software products still don't work with Microsoft's operating system, including some that are certified as Vista compatible.

If you're running Vista and you need a multifunction printer, Brother's MFC-5860CN might seem like a great choice. After all, it's proudly sold as "Certified for Windows Vista."

But don't plan on scanning any documents to turn them into digital files. The 5860CN is capable of doing that, but the optical character recognition software that comes bundled with the printer, PaperPort 9 from Nuance, isn't Vista compatible. (Brother recommends that Vista owners use Microsoft Office's Document Imaging feature.) And the printer's Internet fax option? Forget about that, too. It works with XP, but not Vista.

This kind of Vista support, says Jim McGregor, research director at market research firm In-Stat, is more like torture by small incompatibilities. And nine months after Vista's commercial release, it's not at all unusual. Major software publishers and hardware manufacturers are dragging their feet when it comes to supporting Vista, analysts say. While vendors have developed new products for Vista, many are leaving customers who purchased hardware and software before they upgraded to Vista with crippled or inoperative gear, says Chris Swenson, analyst with the NPD Group.

Photoshop users upset

Consider the plight of Adobe Photoshop CS2 users who have upgraded to Vista. That software still isn't fully compatible with the new operating system. Adobe Photoshop CS2 customers have been asking Adobe for a software compatibility upgrade without much luck, Swenson says. "If you want Vista and you use Adobe CS, you are going to have to buy the new CS3 version," Swenson says. Adobe CS3 (US$649) is the only version fully compatible with Vista. Upgrading from CS2 to CS3 costs US$200.

Adobe is developing free patches for some Adobe products (PDF) so they run smoothly. Still, the company lists over a dozen Adobe programs that it says either do not support Windows Vista or do not "officially" support Vista. Programs in either category may install on Vista, but don't work completely. Some products Adobe recommends not trying on Vista at all.

At the release of the Windows XP operating system six years ago, incompatibility issues affected consumers to a much smaller extent, Swenson says. This time around, "vendors wish they could just forget about [XP-era products]," he says.

Industry overload

The dirty secret in the computer industry is that it has become nearly impossible for companies to patch each of their products for Vista, says In-Stat's McGregor. The amount of time a product is out on the market before it's replaced by a newer model is shrinking. That means companies have many more models for which they need to write Vista drivers or patches. Add to that equation companies' desire to avoid supporting a product for a nanosecond longer than they absolutely have to, McGregor says, and you see why so many products don't work with Vista.

Intuit, for instance, certifies only QuickBooks Premier 2007 and 2008 for Vista, as the company says that it has detected some issues when running the 2004 to 2006 versions of QuickBooks under the OS. As a result, businesses that bought QuickBooks last year for around US$400 are forced to pay another US$375 to keep their books under Vista. Intuit does not supply a compatibility patch or upgrade for QuickBooks Premier--though for a limited time, when the OS first launched, the company offered special discounts for Vista-compatible versions of its software.

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When 'certified' isn't

And sometimes, as with Brother's multifunction printer, even products that are advertised as compatible with Vista just aren't. Microsoft includes Corel's video editing software Ulead VideoStudio 10 on its list of products that are "Certified for Windows Vista." The "Certified for Vista" designation is supposed to mean that the software or hardware has been tested and is 100 percent compatible with the OS.

However, Corel's support page for Ulead VideoStudio 10 outlines some advanced features that work only with XP. The company states on its site, though, that VideoStudio does qualify for the "Works with Windows Vista" designation. In marketing doublespeak, "Works with Windows Vista" means that a product isn't 100 percent compatible but may work well enough to meet your needs.

Don't blame Microsoft?

Ben Reed, product marketing manager for the Windows Vista Logo Program, says that Microsoft has worked more extensively with its hardware and software partners on ensuring Vista compatibility than it did with Windows XP. He says that over 7000 products have been certified to work with Windows Vista or have been given the "Works with Vista" logo. He points out that in May, the PD Group stated that 48 out of the top 50 consumer applications work with Vista.

Nevertheless, the compatibility problems are apparently fueling a reluctance among consumers to upgrade to Vista. This comment to PC World's community forums from user stealth694 is not unique: "Compatibility is the main problem [with Vista]. Just how compatible is Vista with Windows XP and Windows 2000 programs? Personally I am sticking with XP for at least another year to two years [to] see what happens. Vista has an aroma like [Windows] ME, and I am not interested in getting sick again."

But many software experts say consumers shouldn't be angry with Microsoft. "Microsoft did its best under incredibly difficult circumstances with Vista," says Stephen Baker, analyst with the NPD Group. "If you're going to spread blame for Vista headaches, there is enough to spread around the entire computer industry," Baker adds.

If you're considering upgrading to Vista, you should maintain a healthy amount of skepticism about the prospects of your current hardware or software continuing to work properly. Before you upgrade, study the support pages of the products you depend on, or search the Web for the name of your product and "Vista compatibility." Otherwise, your upgrade may end up feeling more like a downgrade.