If you’re one of those folks who has decided to stay away from Windows Vista due to either cost or fear of the unknown, here’s your chance to experiment with Windows Vista for FREE! That’s both risk-free and free of charge!

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I’ll show you two ways that you can experiment with Windows Vista without having to purchase and install the operating system.

Windows Vista Test Drive

The first place you that can experiment with Windows Vista for free is the Windows Vista Test Drive site. This site, which is powered by Microsoft Virtual Labs and hosted by Exsilio Consulting, will allow you to take a spin with Windows Vista right from within your Web browser. The only requirements are Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher, the most current version of JavaScript, a broadband Internet connection, 1024 x 768 screen resolution, and a small ActiveX control. With this simple set of requirements, you’ll be able to connect to the site and either follow along with a set of guided exercises or just dive in and begin exploring the OS for yourself.

When you connect to the site, you’ll have the option of exploring Vista from a small business perspective with Windows Vista Business Edition or an enterprise perspective with Windows Vista Enterprise Edition. Once you choose, you’ll be prompted to sign in by entering just an e-mail address if you choose the small business perspective, or by filling in a more detailed form, if you choose the enterprise perspective. A system check will then determine your version of Internet Explorer and JavaScript and then prompt you to install the Virtual Server VRMC Advanced Control ActiveX control.

You’ll then navigate through a simple menu system and select an area or feature of interest. You can choose to view a video describing the feature or you can take a test drive. A set of instructions will guide you to the feature or you just explore at will. You can even check out the new Solitaire, if you want.

Download a virtual machine

Microsoft has created a 30-day evaluation VHD (Virtual Hard Drive) containing Windows Vista Enterprise Edition that you can download and load into either Microsoft Virtual PC or Microsoft Virtual Server. If you don’t have either of these, you can download both from the Microsoft Download Center. Just use the search term Virtual to find either of them.

Besides a Microsoft Virtual product, both of which are free as well, you’ll need to have at least 10 GB of free hard disk space and at least 2 GB of RAM. You also have to have a very fast Internet connection or a bit of time on your hands as the Vista Enterprise VHD is comprised of three very large files — two 700-MB files and one 160-MB file.

You can find the 30-day evaluation VHD on the Microsoft Download Center. Just use the search term Vista VHD. Of course in order to download it, you must register with your Windows Live ID/Hotmail account information. Then download all three files: Vista.part1.exe, Vista.part2.rar, and Vista.part3.rar.

Once you have Microsoft Virtual product installed and all three files downloaded, you can extract and load the VHD. To begin, make sure that you have all three files in the same folder. Then, double-click the executable file, and it will begin extracting and combining all three files to make the VHD file.

You can then load the VHD file into your Microsoft Virtual product and launch Vista Enterprise. For example, to load the VHD file in Virtual PC, just launch the console, click New to load the New Virtual Machine Wizard, and choose the Add An Existing Virtual Machine option. Then, locate and open the Vista.vmc file.

It’s important to keep in mind that when you first boot the Vista Enterprise virtual machine, it will need to complete the installation process. This process can take as long as 30 minutes, during which you’ll be prompted to enter your country and time-zone information and create a user name and password.

Will you take this opportunity?

If you haven’t yet experimented with Windows Vista, do you think that you will take advantage of one of these free options? If you have used one of these free options, what did you think? Was it a valuable experience?