The best alternative to Windows Vista may be something you already own: Windows XP. Microsoft will continue to support XP at least through 2008, when it will release a major security update for XP, Service Pack 3. And don't be surprised if support is stretched well into 2009, since the response to Vista has been underwhelming and there's a tremendous demand for continuance of XP. There's no reason not to buy Vista with a new PC, particularly if you're a gamer or performance freak. But there's no reason to rush, either, if you're mostly Web browsing, e-mailing, printing photos and writing the occasional memo. Your current XP installation just needs a tune-up and minor upgrade with ad-ins that mimic Vista functions.
Perform a clean install of XP, ideally on a new hard drive. Spyware, viruses, rootkits, bogus registry entries, software you should have thrown out, damaged files, old copies of old copies, even problematic networking settings - all conspire to slow down your computer.
Yes, you can correct most of these problems by hand or with various programs, but it's often easier to start over. I have some hints on the piecemeal approach on my Web page at dolinar.com, and you'll find more if you browse around the Net. But a clean install is better. I'm always astonished at how much better a PC runs when I do this.
First: Delete the programs and files you don't regularly use. (Try an old favorite of mine, ToniArts EasyCleaner 2.0, to get rid of duplicate files: personal.inet.fi/busi ness/toniarts/ecleane.htm)
Then use XP's File and Settings Transfer Wizard (Start/Accessories/System Tools/Files and Settings Transfer Wizard) to back up all your relevant files. Pay particular attention to your address book and favorites. The safest method is to save files across a network to another computer, although the Wizard also has options for removable disks and even your hard drive.
If you have particularly valuable files - think photos - copy them off separately to a CD or DVD and verify the copy by looking through it. Don't trust automatic software for something this important.
Since hard drives are cheap (I just picked up a 250-gigabyte model for $69, a small price to pay for another two years with a PC), it pays to buy a new one for the new install and to keep your old one intact as a security blanket until you've "migrated." If you use your old drive to store the transfer files, you can restore from it. With a laptop, installing a new hard drive is a lot tougher - you might want to get a cheap USB hard drive to store your transfer files.
Now comes the real pain: PCs usually come with a system restore disk that is an image of Windows plus whatever free software was included. Generally this will wipe your drive and rebuild your PC to its original software. At that point, you need to download various updates (in Explorer, see Tools/Windows Update.) This isn't something to put off, because most updates relate to security.
Just getting Windows up to snuff kills most of a day by the time you've sorted out hard drive installation and downloaded all these files. (Hint: Read the instructions and look up how to set the new drive as "master" and the old one as "slave." Hint Two (for advanced users): Do a Google of "Slipstreaming XP" and you'll find out how to consolidate [your old XP] with SP2 and other security updates - a real timesaver if you need to reinstall again.
If you've reinstalled XP recently, you'll note that one tremendous advantage of Vista is that it is a complete product [with little updating required]. I saved a couple of hours over an XP reinstall, even if it did kill my sound card.
Once you have XP up and running again, it's time to Vistafy it. A lot of the technology developed for Vista is available for XP as well.
Security is your first priority, since you want to keep that clean new XP copy healthy. Download Windows Defender (mi crosoft.com/athome/security/spy ware/software/default.mspx), Microsoft's anti-spyware solution, along with a decent antivirus package. I use Alwil's Avast! (avast.com/eng/avast_4_home.html), which is free for home use.
The next worthy Vista component you should add is Windows Live Mail (get.live.com/betas/maildesk top_betas), a long-overdue update to Outlook Express. It will, of course, import your mail and address books when you install it.
Live Mail's main new feature, however, is an excellent and flexible spam filter that quickly sorts incoming mail into legitimate inbox and junk categories. You can set it to keep all your mail, reject only the most obvious spam, or nail all the spam, most likely along with some real mail. However, it is quite easy to go through the list of new junk mail and restore the "oopsies."