November 19, 2006

Advice on Holiday PC Shopping & Vista Requirements

'Tis the season for high tech shopping. Some of us may be considering a new Windows PC (I am). Over the past 3-4 years, it was pretty easy, since Windows XP was a nice constant. This year, though, it requires a bit more thought and timing. I thought I'd share my view as I've been surveying the PC market this season.

Microsoft's new Vista OS is looming, yet there still isn't a whole lot of consumer-friendly information available. It's critically important to understand the difference between "Vista Capable" and "Premium Ready" PCs. And for the discussion of running the Vista "Home Basic" version vs. "Home Premium", I'd urge you to read WSJ's Walt Mossberg's articles of late, before they roll off his archive:

"Advice on Shopping For a Windows PC -- If You Must Buy Now" and
"Will Vista Be Ready for Prime Time?"
Also, you may not have heard of all of the Vista flavors: Per Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows, there are SEVEN, yes seven versions of Vista. Paul has done us a huge favor and provided a summary of each complete with screenshots. The page is dated Nov. 8th, 2006, which is very recent.

Over the past few weeks, I've seen a fair amount of lower end systems getting dumped at pretty low prices -- you can pick up a desktop for $400 if you're so inclined. It's easy to understand, as they aren't exactly prime candidates for running a heartier OS. Hard drives are big enough nowadays and easily replaced so as not to be a major concern. Just be aware that depending on the amount of RAM, and especially the video card and its memory (shared or dedicated), it may only be able to run Vista in its stripped down mode. This stripped down mode is being compared online as not much more than a marginal Windows XP upgrade. Why buy into a dead end, unless one is looking to ride out the end of WinXP and crossing fingers that new software releases will still be XP-compatible?

With further ado, here are my tips, and what to make of the limited information available today:

First, I agree with Walt Mossberg's advice -- wait if you can. Necessary certifications are lagging. Prices often drop during January and February after the holiday blitz. However, I have concerns with ordering a PC pre-loaded with Vista. Remember how XP was quite buggy (and I'm being kind) until SP1 came out. It's not a stretch of the imagination that the first round of Vista may include problems for the early adopters. Contrary to Walt's advice, if it were me, I'd order a PC with WinXP SP2 installed, with the free/discounted coupon to upgrade to Vista later at my option. Yes, upgrades can be problematic, but I'd want my PC stable and able to run all my stuff out of the box. It's also a good idea to put your data directory on another hard drive or partition, to leave open the option for formatting the Windows XP drive and installing Vista from scratch for a cleaner ride long-term. Or, you can explore the option to dual boot into WinXP and Vista to have your cake and eat it too. Granted, the latter takes more tech-savvy.

Certification is generally a good thing, although there's still some wiggle room as to how well a certified PC will run Vista in all categories. Only just now are we seeing a few PCs being certified as Vista Premium Ready. If you're buying a PC only rated as Vista Capable, don't get your hopes up. Again look at Microsoft's Vista hardware recommendations, Walt's advice above, and compare to your desired system's specs.

Video: Perhaps the most important distinguishing factor for your user interface. If your new PC can't run Aero, you may be missing out on the most stunning aspect of the Vista upgrade experience.

1) Beware integrated video cards and shared memory: If you're buying a new system and want to be able to run full Vista ("Premium"), especially the new Aero graphic interface, stay away from PCs with an integrated graphics card on their motherboard. Yes, I've read online that some of these may be Vista-ready, but which version? They are often lower-end video chips, and some don't even have dedicated video memory -- those have to use some of the system RAM, which can be slower than video memory and it steals memory from your OS and running programs. That's why it's called "shared memory". In this instance, sharing isn't such a good thing. The best bet, albeit more expensive, is to get a PC with a separate video card.

2) Certification: The stripped down Vista Basic just needs a video card certified to run Microsoft's DirectX 9, with "WDDM driver support recommended" per Microsoft. Many cards already do that. However, the real trick is to find a card certified for Vista Premium. Looking on the shelves of the local super electronic store, at best I could only find the markings for "Made for Vista" -- which is pretty meaningless in my opinion. It sounds so far that a video card with 128MB of dedicated memory may suffice at the lower end. However, who wants to start on the shallow end? Go for at least 256MB of onboard video memory, and again, you may be better off waiting a few months for cards certified as Vista Premium Ready with specific reference to being "Windows Aero capable" or whatever term Microsoft ultimately uses. Right now, it's still a crap shoot as the market is in transition.


Go with the latest dual-core type processors, although I'd prefer to see the various processors Vista-certified as well. Stay away from any crippled processors, such Celerons, Durons, Semprons, etc. Yes, the former are more expensive up front, but give you the best chance for running Vista well, especially the higher end versions.

Memory (RAM):

Just go with 2GB minimum, memory is cheap enough these days. Read the fine print regarding memory card sizes, pairing requirements, and maximum memory limits. For instance, two slots of 512MB to make 1GB could cost you more later -- you'd likely have to throw away the two 512MB cards to replace with 1GB or 2GB cards later. Get at least two 1GB memory cards right off the bat. If your new PC has extra memory slots, you'll have room to grow.

So that's what I've been able to divine thus far in market place. Unfortunately, I can't profess to the accuracy of the information above, as again, the market is in transition. These are my personal opinions, and others may have differing viewpoints. It's still somewhat confusing, and everyone will have to make up their own mind as to what to purchase. I also take the PC and component makers to task to provide the appropriate certifications and standing by them. Hopefully by January/February, we'll see more PCs and video cards certified as "Premium Ready" to help us make more informed and better purchasing decisions. At least now you'll know what to look for and know which questions to ask. Happy Buying!

Topic(s):   Feature Articles
Posted by Jeff Beard