Today is the last day that the Windows Vista Beta 2.0 that Microsoft made publicly available last month will be downloadable. In June, Microsoft invited consumers to sign up for a preview of its new OS (operating system), which is slated to launch next year as a replacement for its existing Windows XP OS.

The Windows Vista CCP (Consumer Preview Program) closed to new registrations on 30 June. Anyone who made the list has until the end of today to visit this site and download their copy. It appears Microsoft will not reopen it when Vista Release Candidate 1 arrives, but all registered CPP users will be offered RC1 as well.

Installing Windows Vista Beta 2.0

There are several ways to install and test Windows Vista (we don't recommend you try doing so as an upgrade as such things never work as well and, besides, unlike the fresh install, there's no way of reverting to XP).

The downloadable version is an ISO file, designed to be burned to a DVD and then installed from there. We recommend you download the 32bit version, even if you'll be installing it on a 64bit system (unless you have a specific need to test 64bit Vista) as you'll encounter fewer hassles this way.

The Consumer Preview Program offers Windows Vista Ultimate only. Ultimate has all the features of the other versions of Windows Vista, so you'll get to see everything. You can install it to a new partition with a dual-boot arrangement; install it on a cleanly wiped hard disk or on a virtual machine in conjunction with a virtualisation utility. Such utilities are available here.

Dual-booting with XP

Installing Vista beta software to a second partition running in Microsoft's dual-boot configuration with Windows XP gives you the most control over the Vista partition. For example, if Vista Beta 2.0's Product Activation module decides you're no longer activated, you don't have to resort to a boot disc to wipe the drive. Just boot back into Windows XP and use a decent disk utility to blow away the Vista partition and start again.

Like other versions of Windows, Vista automatically creates a boot menu where you can choose between launching Vista and your previous version of Windows each time your PC starts. All you have to do is create a new NTFS partition on your hard drive and install Vista as a new installation to that partition. We recommend you use Partition Magic.

To install Vista smartly in a new partition, you need at least 20GB of hard disk space. Create a new 15GB drive, leaving at least 5GB free for your existing Windows installation. This way you can install apps on your temporary Vista partition.

If you plan to make this a long-term Vista installation and to move data over and install Office 2007 there, make it a 20GB or 25GB Vista partition (as long as that leaves you at least 10 to 15GB of free disk space for your existing OS). Oh, and don't forget to back up all your data before going ahead and partitioning.

Once you've got a suitably partitioned drive, boot back into Windows and you should find a new drive in My Computer. Double-check you can open it. You are now ready to install Vista. Either boot to the Vista disc or insert it while your previous version of Windows is running. When the screen appears asking where you want to install Windows ensure you choose the partition matching the drive letter you’ve just created. Because that partition is empty, Vista will perform a clean installation.

Dealing with the new Boot Loader

Now we come to the first point at which you may encounter a problem (with luck, Microsoft will have addressed this issue before Vista launches, in any case). When attempting to remove a Vista beta from their systems, some people have found their computers continue to attempt to boot to Vista, after deleting the Vista partition. This results in a dead end in which no version of Windows boots.

This happens because Microsoft has significantly changed the code that handles the boot menu in Vista. Under Windows XP, this is controlled by a simple text file called boot.ini, located in the root directory. Vista ignores this file and creates its own more secure Vista boot registry database, BCD (Boot Configuration Data). However, the tool Microsoft offers for editing the BCD, bcdedit.exe, is difficult to use.

You could merely delete the C:\Boot folder that Vista installs. This is relatively easy, as long as you start by setting the Vista boot loader's BCD to default to loading your Windows XP installation. Then you can boot into Windows XP, delete your Vista partition and then reboot Windows XP. After you reboot to XP, you should be able to delete the C:\Boot folder, completing the uninstall of dual-booted Windows Vista.

Only attempt to delete the C:\Boot folder after deleting or wiping the Vista partition. Managing this process is a bit easier with a utility called VistaBootPro.

Editing the BCD is a simple process with VistaBootPro. You can install and use it from Windows XP or Vista. It is able to disable and later re-enable the BCD. Although it doesn't actually delete the Boot folder, it eliminates the problem described. The only hitch is that you have to do this after you delete Vista and before you restart your PC. Change the order and even VistaBootPro can't help you.

Microsoft is also in the process of making changes to BCD and bcedit.exe, though it's not clear what those are. For more information about BCD, click here.

Remember that your Windows XP boot.ini file must remain in place as long as XP remains on your system. It controls XP's boot, while BCD controls Vista's boot. Editing the boot.ini file will have no effect on Vista, but it does affect the way XP boots, even with Vista installed.

Installing Vista in a virtual machine

A virtual machine acts as though it were a separate PC. It has virtualised disk capacity and RAM, a share of the CPU and I/O and, naturally, its own OS. Most reduce the size of the disk space needed and expand drive space automatically as you add software and data. Most also let you manually reconfigure a virtual disk's storage capacity, RAM and other particulars.

What's especially good about virtual machines is that you can leave them running. So you could be running Windows XP and have a virtual machine window running Vista, giving you ready access to both OSs.

Virtualisation utilities are very easy to use. They don't require massive amounts of RAM or disk space and, as long as they support ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), should let you install and run Windows Vista Beta 2.0 in a virtual machine running from Windows XP. VMware Workstation 5.5 is a good choice.

VMware Workstation does a pretty good job of running Vista Beta 2.0. Some of the extras of Vista – such as the Aero graphics mode – don't seem to show up with VMware, but it works well enough in other regards.