Windows XP may not be as dead as you might think. The OS XP 'officially' went off the market on June 30, 2008, and larger computer vendors aren't supposed to sell new machines configured with any version of Windows except Vista ā€“ but it's surprisingly easy to get your hands on model running XP.

Many creative professionals still prefer XP over Vista -- specialized design tools from Photoshop to Maya run more smoothly on XP, possibly because developers have more experience at coding for XP, and there is a perception than Vista's visual slickness drains processing power better used by your creative applications. Here at Digital Arts, we still recommend workstation purchasers plump for the 64-bit version of Windows XP for these reasons.

Some creative tools are still largely designed for XP, including The Foundry's Nuke compositing system.

"We support XP as that's what the bulk of our customers are still running," says The Foundry's marketing manager Lucy Cooper. "We haven't 'officially' moved to supporting Vista yet, but it seems to work fine and we -- of course -- are happy to talk to anyone having problems.

"The short answer is that it makes things difficult for a small company like us, because for some time to come we will have customers on Vista and XP, and 32- and 64-bit versions of each, which multiplies the QA, testing and support overhead -- and thus in turn increases our cost of doing business."

Fortunately for XP enthusiasts and Vista vetoers, the marketplace still has a loophole or two in it. In response to pressure from customers, Microsoft has made some concessions for people who really want XP, offering a lifeline for users willing and able to wade through the company's convoluted downgrading programme. The upshot is that virtually every copy of Vista Business or Vista Ultimate Edition is sold with a license for XP, which a computer manufacturer can exercise to install XP Professional on any Vista Business or Vista Ultimate PC.

We contacted a series of workstation vendors -- both the big brands and creative specialists -- to see if workstations and pro-level laptops were available with Microsoft's older OS, and found that -- unlike the consumer market where Vista is often the only choice -- most machines aimed at professional creatives can be bought with XP.

Vendors talk XP details

Armari notes that the 'official' June 30 cutoff date applies only to the larger vendors such as Dell and HP. The company will still offer XP on workstations until January, and possibly beyond this date.

CAD2 says that it sees no problem in the availability of XP, and that "Microsoft offers a Vista Downgrade option, where you can buy a Vista licence (with any new workstation) but actually have it installed with an equivalent version of XP at no extra cost. T&Cā€™s apply but this seems to fill that void where people might think they are forced into a Vista licence."

Dell has one of the most extensive and detailed policies on Windows XP of the vendors we contacted, but getting XP preinstalled on a machine may cost you extra. The company outlines the situation in this blog posting, where the company explains that though the XP downgrade program targets corporate customers, which includes even smaller pro shops.

Though the rules are complicated, they are in line with those of most other sellers. To be eligible for an XP downgrade, you must be purchasing a Latitude laptop, an OptiPlex desktop, a Precision workstation, a Vostro laptop or desktop, an XPS 630 desktop, or an M1730 laptop. The machine must be specced to come with Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, and you can downgrade only to XP Professional. You must pay a small fee for the downgrade if you're buying a Vostro or XPS; corporate clients receive the downgrade at no charge. The program is slated to run until January 31, 2009, but Dell says that even after that it will continue to make some enterprise-level exceptions.

All of HP's business products are available for downgrading until at least July 30, 2009.

"HP has stopped selling XP only workstations, but we are still selling (and will continue to into next year) Vista downgraded to XP," says HP's workstation business manager for the UK and Ireland Sue Forkin, Workstation Business Manager, HP UK&I. "This means that XP is loaded on the system and a DVD is with the workstation, which includes Vista so that the customer can upgrade when required."

Lenovo offers a helpful Web page that outlines its downgrade policies in detail. Specifically, it notes that anyone who purchases a machine that has Vista Business or Vista Ultimate installed on it may also purchase a bootable Windows XP recovery CD until January 31, 2009. "Fees may vary."

Sony says that that two new laptop series -- the VAIO BZ and VAIO SR -- will come with an XP downgrade option, with XP preinstalled by Sony at the customer's request.