Is it worth another go around?

Small business owners may be skeptical about upgrading to Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows 7 operating system after Vista failed to meet some expectations, but experts say the second time around may indeed be the charm.

“It’s really stable…and works really well,” said Roger Kay, founder of market research company Endpoint Technologies Associates. “A small business’ productivity will noticeably increase.”

Windows 7, which launched in October, will cost small business owners $299.99 for the full version and $199.99 for the upgrade, but analysts and some small business owners say it’s worth every penny. Whereas Vista frustrated users because of the lack of compatibility with existing applications, Windows 7’s ease of use has served to impress.

“There are so many advantages, it save us so much time,” said Elise Ambrose, president of Bethesda, Maryland-based Elite Personnel, a staffing company. Ambrose was one of a group of small-business-owner guinea pigs who received a beta version of Windows 7.

“Staffing is a very heavy labor-intensive business. It [Windows 7] saves recruiters up to an hour a day, which is a big deal,” she said.

One of the features Ambrose said saves her company time is the ability to “pin” often-used applications and documents to the task bar so that they can be accessed with one click. That saves a user the time of having to search the hard drive.

“We still have XP Pro [computers], but nobody uses them,” said Ambrose, who plans to upgrade the entire office to Windows 7. “They just go over to the Windows 7 computer. It’s much faster.”

Increasing speed and productivity was top priority for Microsoft, which had a big perception problem after the launch of Vista.

“This time we spent a lot of time listening to customers,” said Rich Reynolds, general manager in the Windows Client Group at Microsoft.

Based on focus-group feedback, the software giant learned that small businesses wanted to spend more time focusing on business – and less on technology – to be more productive and better safeguard data, which Reynolds said is what Windows 7 aims to deliver.

Reynolds said Windows 7 boots up and shuts down a lot quicker, and the OS is optimized to make a laptop battery last longer. It has an encrypted file system to better protect data and improved navigation controls, such as an integrated search that lets users search all documents on the computer based on a keyword. It also has the “Problem Steps Recorder” that records all keystrokes when a user encounters a problem, enabling the IT manager to more easily trouble shoot. Features like these, said Reynolds and analysts, can free small businesses up to focus on work.

“All of these features make it easier to find stuff and quicker to get between documents and programs,” said Kay of Endpoint Technologies.

Kay interviewed 60 small business owners who took part in Microsoft’s Windows-7 beta test and found most were pleased with the OS. He said one customer told him “when Vista came along I was really excited and when I got it I was horrified. When Windows 7 was announced I was full of dread and when it arrived I was delighted.” 

Kay said he advises small businesses to upgrade to Windows 7, since an increase in productivity also means more added to the bottom line.

But should a business owner opt to buy the software upgrade, or purchase a new computer with the software built-in?

Either way, it’s a win-win. Windows 7 actually uses less memory if the computer is more than three years old, so you don’t need a new PC. But, at the same time, these days computer prices aren’t bank-breakers, so it might be worth killing two birds with one purchase.

Businesses are taking advantage of the “amazing” prices for new PCs with Windows 7 loaded on them, said Richard Doherty, research director at Envisoneering Group. Small business owners can buy a Windows-7 Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) PC for $299, he said.