Digital Fever:  Vista Vision

 

By Mike Kroll

 

Unlike most other markets the world of personal computers is dominated by a single company. Microsoft is the perennial 800-pound gorilla dominating the software market in two key areas, operating systems and productivity suites. The Microsoft Windows operating system (currently Window XP to be specific) can be found on the vast majority of personal computers sold in today's retail market. Apple has a small but growing share of the market with its hardware and operating system, OS X (that is arguably better than Windows XP) and there is also a steadily growing cadre of computer users switching one of the various flavors of Linux but Microsoft earns its billions and billions by sheer dominance of the computer marketplace.

Windows XP has been around for a long time (over five years) and is now nearing retirement, increasingly susceptible to digital infections and just not as attractive as it once promised to be. Microsoft had intended to replace Windows XP before now but like every Microsoft project the follow-on version of Windows has been repeatedly delayed and its feature list pared of many of the most lauded new features. “Windows Vista” was supposed to be out before the holiday season but yet another deadline slipped in Redmond where the consumer release of Vista is set for late January or February 2007 (unless something else comes up to delay the release still further).

Retailers along with Microsoft and PC makers had hoped to be selling Windows Vista PCs throughout this Christmas season but the world's richest software company with virtually unlimited resources couldn't deliver an adequately operational copy of Windows Vista in time. The millions of PCs being purchased this holiday season will be delivered with a copy of Windows XP but many will include a certificate that can later be exchanged for an upgrade copy of Windows Vista when it is finally released. While lots of computers carry the label “Vista Capable” for many purchasers this is a meaningless assurance. The fact is while most of the bargain-priced computers that compose the bulk of holiday sales may meet Microsoft's minimum hardware requirements for Windows Vista the company has set the bar far too low to really be practical. April Fools will come earlier this year for many holiday PC shoppers.

According to Microsoft, a PC with a “modern processor” (Microsoft defined as at least an 800mhz Intel Pentium or equivalent), 512 megabytes of system memory (Ram) and a graphics processor capable of supporting DirectX 9 is the minimum to qualify for the Vista Capable logo. These computers may be able to install and run the lowest-end versions of Windows Vista, Vista Starter (targeted to third-world countries and not even supposed to be sold in the U.S.) and Vista Home Basic, but the feature sets of these two minimalist versions aren't worth the effort to upgrade from Windows XP. And users must remember that there is a big difference between being able to boot up into Windows Vista and actually being able to do anything useful.

Lots (if not most) of the computers now on sale for incredibly low prices meet the Microsoft specs for a Vista Capable logo but will deliver a very disappointing performance for their owners. If you really want to run Windows Vista you had better plan on passing by most of the low-end computers or accept the need to immediately upgrade your memory and and video capabilities before attempting to make the leap to Windows Vista. Realistic minimum specs for a computer running even Windows Vista Home Basic will be 1 gigabyte of available Ram, a “contemporary processor” (I define as at least 2.5Ghz or better Pentium 4 or AMD equivalent) and either a high-end on-board graphics processor or a 128Mb AGP video card or better. A huge component of Vista is its new eye-candy and this exacts real demands on the video capabilities of the user's PC.

Note that most value-priced computers come with an inferior Intel Celeron processor and only 512Mb of system memory with part of that memory (typically 64-128Mb) devoted to use as “shared video memory” because these PCs typically depend upon a video processor on the PCs main circuit board (“integrated video”) rather than a dedicated video card. Even worse, many if not most such PCs do not offer a video upgrade slot (AGP or PCI-Express) that would enable their owner to free up the shared memory and raise the system's video performance. Do not purchase such a PC as it is woefully inadequate for Windows Vista before you get it home. It will run Windows XP reasonably well but mere months Vista releases Microsoft will officially but prematurely declare Windows XP as terminally ill. This doesn't mean such a computer is worthless but it does mean that your future with an officially supported Microsoft operating system is limited.

As I already noted, I see no reason for anybody to consider Vista Home Basic at this point in time. For home PC users planning to move on to Windows Vista the only real choice is Vista Home Premium as this is where the useful enhanced features of Windows Vista begin to show up. Forget about running this operating system on anything short of a mid-range PC.

To use Vista Home Premium you will need a PC with a fast Pentium 4 processor or equivalent (3Ghz+) or better yet a dual-core processor from Intel or AMD. You will also need 2Gbs of system memory (that's four times the amount of Ram found in a typical PC sold today) and at least a mid-range video graphics card with upwards of 128Mb of memory (256Mb is much better) and a current video processor from ATI or Nvidia. The fancy new graphics interface of Vista Home Premium will not run on most PCs with integrated video. If you spent less than $750-800 on your new PC it is quite likely that it does not meet one or more of these minimum specifications to run Vista Home Premium. That doesn't mean you can't add additional system memory or a new video card but keep these extra costs in mind as you evaluate the real cost of upgrading your operating system.

Two other hardware considerations worth noting. Windows Vista is much larger that Windows XP. That means that installing the operating system will take up considerably more space on your hard disk but more importantly that is why Windows Vista is only distributed on DVDs. If your computer does not have a DVD player you simply will not be able to install any version of Windows Vista! Most of the computers sold today come with a CD-burner or a combination CD-burner/DVD player and higher-end systems typically include a CD/DVD-burner. A CD-burner does not play DVDs and therefore will not be able to load Windows Vista unless upgraded. As far as the size of your hard disk, most computers sold today come with 80Gb or better hard disks and available space should not be a problem unless you have already accumulated lots and lots of pictures, music or gaming software.

Assuming your computer is up to the task the final question to ask yourself is should I plan to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista? I cannot offer a one-size-fits-all answer but my advice is not to try right away. Microsoft is renown for releasing software products that are buggy as hell and I recommend never purchasing a Microsoft product until it has been out in regular use for at least six months to a year. Wait for the inevitable service pack before making the leap to Windows Vista.

But you may be just a well avoiding the Windows Vista upgrade all together. Most of the so-called improvements offered in Windows Vista are either eye candy that consumes more system resources than its worth or can be duplicated within the Windows XP environment. Microsoft has also taken their unbridled pursuit of software pirates to a new level with Windows Vista. While the copy protection scheme that was added to Windows XP with Service Pack 2 is nuisance enough with Vista Microsoft has taken copy protection to an extreme that will result in tremendous problems for many users. Yet another reason to delay any upgrade decision and consider other alternatives. I will discuss some of those alternatives in my next Digital Fever column. And before the official retail release of Windows Vista I will cover the actual upgrade process in some detail so you can determine if this is a task you want to attempt yourself.

Mike Kroll operates “Dr. Mike Computer Therapist,” a small computer repair shop in Galesburg. You can e-mail him at: Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net or stop by his shop to “Get Therapy” for your computer.