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Windows Vista upgrade guide, part 2: hardware

Chris Ziegler

Microsoft hasn't been shy in helping itself to generous new box-selling hardware requirements for Vista. Though the term "bloatware" comes immediately to mind, an argument could be made for a pretty stiff bump in specs -- it has been over five years since the release of its immediate predecessor, after all. Times have changed, and so have the average home and business computers. XP's run on the desktop has seen the fall of CRTs, the commoditization of broadband, and the multiplication of processor cores, just to name a choice few of the decade's sea changes in personal computing.

Sure, anyone can hit up Microsoft's Vista Upgrade Advisor to get a sense of whether their XP-based box can hack it under Vista's additional load; and yes, we all know by now that any PC with an 800MHz processor, 512MB of memory, and DirectX 9-capable graphics qualifies for the coveted "Vista Capable" designation. But what exactly is Vista doing with all that silicon? And more importantly, what does better hardware buy you? Here, we break down Vista's hardware-dependent features line by line to find out what they are, what they need, and what they mean for users so if you do want to upgrade (or buy new), you'll know exactly what to buy.

See also: Windows Vista upgrade guide - part 1: software

Tablet PC features - Yes, we know it's an obvious one, but we figured it was worth mentioning since Vista offers up some key improvements in the arena: configurable pen gestures, a new tab for pen input docked to the screen's side, and a variety of improvements to handwriting recognition, among others. By and large, a Vista capable tablets or convertible laptops are required to take advantage of the goodies, though some (like the Snipping Tool for selecting arbitrary areas of the screen) are available to all. Just remember, tablet functionality is only available Home Premium, Business editions, and Ultimate, and not Home Basic.

BitLocker - Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs, as they're more lovingly known), essentially chips capable of effectively locking down the systems in which they reside, have been kicking around in PCs for some time now -- particularly business-class ones -- and whether or not you may agree with their anti-consumer digital rights capabilities, Vista intends to take full advantage where it can. BitLocker theoretically does wonders for data security by encrypting not just individual files, but entire drives; Microsoft's advertising it primarily as an enterprise feature, but individuals with a healthy dose of paranoia (justified or otherwise) will be able to benefit just the same. A TPM 1.2-compliant module is required to partake in Business editions and Ultimate.

Aero / Aero Glass - Ahh, Aero... the 800 pound gorilla of the Vista user experience. Sure, you can use Vista without Aero (in fact, you have to with Home Basic Edition or if your system isn't up to snuff) but you don't really want to. It adds that final spit and polish -- that (ahem) "Wow" factor, if you will. With all its features enabled, Aero is responsible for a variety of nifty UI features like Flip 3D, taskbar thumbnails, and the frosted glass translucency (that's where the "Glass" part comes in) surrounding windows, the taskbar, and the Sidebar. Microsoft dictates that PCs running full-blown Aero Glass must be "Premium Ready," which (in part) requires a video card with a WDDM driver, hardware Pixel Shader 2.0 support, and 128MB of video memory; in reality, though, there's been widespread success getting it rolling on the lowly Intel GMA950, a staple integrated graphics chipset with shared memory found in many notebook computers of the past year.

SuperFetch - From the user's perspective, the fanciest thing about SuperFetch is the catchy name. In reality, SuperFetch should prefetch frequently-used programs into RAM before the user even requests them, significantly reducing load times normally associated with drive access. Sure enough, in our brief testing, Vista Ultimate happily gobbled up nearly every last byte of our 2 gigabytes of physical RAM, even when no interactive programs were running -- very un-XP behavior, indeed. The more memory you throw at 'er, the more SuperFetch benefit you'll theoretcially see, and the snappier the computer should be during normal use and frequent task-switching.

ReadyDrive - Perhaps the most interesting and promising of Vista's hardware-based performance initiatives, ReadyDrive uses hybrid hard drives. HHDs slap together a bit of Flash memory -- kind of like the thumb drive you've got in your pocket right now -- and mix it up with a traditional hard disk drive. The benefits are obvious: frequently-accessed data can reside on the Flash, saving seeks, which in turn leads to better battery life and reduced wear and tear on the drive's mechanical components. Best of all, it's faster than a traditional drive. ReadyDrive compatible drives and equipped PCs are virtually impossible to find right now, but momentum's been building for the initiative for some time; we suspect they'll be widespread within a couple years.

ReadyBoost - So is there any way to get all of ReadyDrive's chocolatey goodness right this moment without having to hold out for the proliferation of hybrid hard drives? Yeah, sort of. ReadyBoost is another way of adding some flash into the PC's performance equation, this time by simply letting Vista use a USB drive for part of its cacheing storage. Any amount of memory from about 250MB up to 4GB can be contributed to the cause, though Microsoft's set some minimum performance standards that could disqualify many slower drives in circulation. Companies like Kingston are already starting to certify drives as ReadyBoost compatible, but in reality, any drive that can sustain 2.5MB per second for 4KB random reads and 1.75MB per second for 512KB random writes will suffice. And don't bother trying to cheat with a slower drive -- there's a test.

SideShow - Outside of Vista itself, SideShow is one of Microsoft's most aggressive initiatives for 2007, spanning a variety of devices from remote controls to picture frames. The concept is simple enough: small apps ("Gadgets") run on SideShow-compatible devices, syncing periodically with their Vista-based master PCs to offer up pertinent, glanceable information, powered-down interfaces to email and media, or just about anything else you would want an auxiliary display or widget platform to do. Prime examples include program guides and music browsers on SideShow remotes, Outlook schedules and contact information on secondary laptop displays; the list goes on. Obviously, SideShow requires specialized hardware to roll, and a pretty good selection has been primed for Vista's launch; if it takes off, we'll probably see a variety of interesting applications (and a wider selection of laptops and desktops with secondary displays) down the road.

So will that ol' XP beater run Vista? If it's got 512MB of memory, yeah, it probably will. Is it a compelling upgrade on barely passable hardware? Probably not. The Premium Ready specification isn't hard to exceed by 2005 standards, and even the most inexpensive '07 box should be able to hold its own -- especially as 1 gigabyte becomes the lower threshold in all segments of the market. Over the next couple years, things should get even more interesting as Vista grows into its clothes with features like ReadyDrive and SideShow; in the meantime, we'll be passing the days amusing ourselves with Flip 3D.

So let's wrap this up by breaking it all down by the numbers, shall we? Below you'll find three separate hardware specifications: Microsoft's "Vista Capable" and "Premium Ready" recommendations, along with our slighly more aggressive ones that should provide you with a comfortable, obsolesence-resistant gaming experience.

"Vista Capable"
"Premium Ready"
Engadget recommends
Processor 800MHz "modern processor" 1GHz Core 2 Duo for 64-bit and virtualization support, AMD Athlon 64 X2 or better... if you have a Core 2 Extreme, we hate you
Memory 512MB 1GB 2GB
Video Any DX9 card
DX9, Pixel Shader 2.0, WDDM driver, 128MB video memory, 32 bits per pixel Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX, ATI Radeon X1950 or better... you want to do this right, don't you?
Hard drive No recommendation 40GB, 15GB free space RAID array for your home box, ReadyDrive-compliant hybrid for your portable
Optical drive No recommendation DVD-ROM drive Blu-ray / HD DVD with write capability
Audio No recommendation "Audio output capability" Digital output (TOSLINK, S/PDIF), 7.1 out
Monitor No recommendation No recommendation 22-inch widescreen LCD or larger

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