Walt Mossberg

Annual Buying Guide: How to Ensure New PC Can Use Vista

It’s a confusing time for computer buyers, and that makes this annual spring buyer’s guide to desktop computers harder to write than usual. Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system is in its last months of primacy, yet the company still hasn’t issued final guidelines for the hardware you’ll need to run Windows Vista, its successor, which is due in January.

Meanwhile, Apple Computer is in the process of revamping its entire Macintosh line to run on Intel chips. It has now made it possible for the newest Macs to run Windows as well as the Mac OS X operating system, so you can buy one machine for both worlds.

I believe every mainstream consumer doing typical tasks should consider the Mac. Its operating system already contains most of the key features promised for Vista. However, the Mac doesn’t really need a buyer’s guide. It has only two consumer desktop models — the gorgeous iMac and the low-end Mac Mini.

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So, as I did in my last guide last fall, I’m going to direct this one at people shopping for standard Windows desktops who would like to buy one now that could be upgraded to Vista later. Despite the lack of final hardware specs for Vista, Microsoft has put out some new information, and I have been talking to sources there to glean further details. These specs also apply to laptops.

If you want a new Windows PC, my best advice is to wait until January and buy one with Vista preinstalled. If you can’t wait till then, you’ll still have a good chance of upgrading to Vista if you follow these guidelines.

There’s a problem, though. Running Vista with all its features enabled will require a major increase in hardware power, and that means a costlier PC. So Microsoft is essentially taking a two-tier approach to the hardware specs. To soothe PC makers who want to offer low price tags on some models, it is quoting lower specs that it says will allow running Vista in a sort of stripped-down mode. The company is also offering higher specs for running Vista as it was designed, with all features turned on.

The main difference between these two tiers is graphics performance and look and feel. If you have a computer with the weaker specs, Vista will still give you enhanced security and built-in desktop search. But you won’t get the dramatic new graphical look and feel that makes Vista look more like the Mac OS. Your computer will look like an evolved version of Windows XP, and it will probably run only the wimpiest edition of Vista, called Home Basic.

Vista performance will depend on how much memory your PC has and what sort of graphics hardware it contains. If you have enough memory and good enough graphics hardware to meet the top-tier specs, you will likely be able to run the Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Vista.

Some computers will carry “Vista Capable” stickers, and Microsoft has a Web page on Vista-capable hardware specs at www.microsoft.com/technet/windowsvista/evaluate/hardware/vistarpc.mspx. But be careful. Some “Vista-capable” machines, especially those under $600, may run Vista only in stripped-down mode.

  • Memory: Microsoft suggests 512 megabytes of memory, or RAM, for stripped-down Vista, and it will probably recommend one gigabyte of memory for full Vista. But based on experience with the company’s guidelines, I strongly suggest doubling those amounts. Even on a cheap machine, I’d get one gigabyte of memory, and if you want to run Vista with all its features, I suggest two gigabytes.
  • Video: Stripped-down Vista can run on any graphics hardware that can support what’s called SVGA, or a resolution of 800 by 600. The hardware should also support a Microsoft technology called DirectX 9. This includes many integrated graphics systems, which do away with a separate video card in favor of graphics chips bolted to the mother board.

Full Vista will be best with a separate, or “discrete,” graphics card that has at least 128 megabytes of dedicated video memory. These cards also need support for DirectX 9. In addition, however, they must also support Microsoft software called “WDDM” and “Pixel Shader 2.” If your eyes are rolling right now, don’t fret. Microsoft officials say nearly all discrete graphics cards on the market today meet these specs, as will the latest integrated graphics systems, such as Intel chip sets labeled 945 or higher.

  • Processor: For stripped-down Vista, a processor running at 800 megahertz or faster should be sufficient, according to Microsoft. For full Vista, the speed rises to one gigahertz. I’d edge higher if your budget allows, but you don’t need the fastest processor.
  • Hard disk: Disk storage is already copious enough for Vista, and buying large amounts is cheap. For stripped-down Vista, I’d go for at least 60 gigabytes of hard-disk space. For full Vista, I’d boost that to 160 gigabytes, to accommodate lots of music and video.

If you don’t care about Vista at all and just want to keep running Windows XP, you can refer to my 2005 spring buyer’s guide at: http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/ptech-20050407.html.

Either way, happy shopping.


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