The scoop on the first Vista PC tests


It’s been a long wait, but Windows Vista PCs are here. We evaluated the first batch of desktop systems preloaded with Microsoft’s new operating system — and the results of our exclusive benchmark performance tests show that even sub-US$,1000 systems can ably handle Vista. But some of the new OS’s highly touted features aren’t present in these first Vista desktop systems. (See our exclusive test results .)

Vista by default?

If you’re planning on buying a PC after January 30, you may be destined to get Vista on your machine whether you want it or not. Of the four vendors whose systems we tested, each is taking a different approach to integrating Vista. Once the new OS ships, Dell and Gateway are switching exclusively to Vista for consumer desktops and notebooks. These two companies will also continue to sell systems running Windows XP, but only through their respective business divisions. Meanwhile, CyberPower and Shuttle will continue to offer XP as an option on their consumer systems.

We found a similar schism among some other PC vendors that we’ve spoken with (but whose systems were not included in this story). Polywell will be sticking with XP as the default option, installing Vista only if the customer requests it. And even then, the company will install both Vista and XP, allowing the user to choose which OS they want to boot the system into. At this writing — before Vista’s retail store launch, but after manufacturers had received the final version of the operating system — Polywell CEO Sam Chu claims that Vista is still having compatibility problems with many applications and drivers.

Chu is not the only vendor we talked to who expressed concern over the state of readiness — or lack thereof — of Vista’s drivers. “Right now, we’re seeing some issues on the R&D side,” according to Marc Diana, product marketing manager for Alienware.

The issues, he says, are related to things like graphics card drivers (our test systems with both ATI and nVidia used beta drivers during testing for this story), and software, such as that used for Blu-ray Disc playback. “If this continues post-launch, we will give our customers the option of XP. Most likely, though, [these problems] will get sorted out before launch.”

Barring ongoing driver issues, Alienware plans to offer only Vista Home Premium on its consumer desktops and notebooks. However, says Diana, “We will have XP available on our workstation line, because those customers are more sensitive to the idea of switching, and some of their applications may not work on Vista. We wanted to leave the option for them.”

Hewlett-Packard, on the other hand, is taking a route similar to Dell’s and Gateway’s. In its online store for consumer systems, HP will switch to Vista at launch. At retail, the company will let existing stock run its course; Vista will be the OS thereafter. HP will continue to offer business desktop and laptop PCs with XP Professional and Vista as options, through the end of 2007. By early 2008, though, HP expects to offer only Vista on business PCs.

Velocity Micro will switch to Vista at launch, both at retail and via its online store.

What’s missing

As mentioned, these first-generation Vista desktops lack some of the components that take advantage of the interesting features in Windows Vista. For example, they don’t include the ReadyDrive hybrid hard drives that will speed up disk access (see ” Hard Drive Rivals Promote New Hybrid Technology ” for more information); notebooks with these hybrid drives will be available first, and they’re not arriving until about midyear, maybe sooner. Furthermore, the desktops we looked at also lack the secondary SideShow displays that can access and show you system information. These displays may be integrated into peripherals, such as a keyboard or a remote control, or potentially even the PC’s chassis itself.

Testing Vista PCs

In terms of hardware, the first six desktops we tested are identical to same-model XP PCs we’ve seen over the past few months, and have no specific features that take advantage of the Vista operating system. By comparison, early Vista notebooks are poised to take better advantage of the new OS (see ” Vista Opens New Directions for Laptop PCs “). Although the first of these systems to cross our lab bench were all desktops (Vista notebooks were not available in time for this article), major laptop makers, including Asus, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, say they will be selling Vista notebooks at the same time Vista desktops go on sale. Adding Vista to a portable can be more challenging for a vendor than adding it to a desktop PC; among other things, installing it requires testing Vista’s power-management system, which will affect battery life differently than XP’s implementation does.

We looked at a mix of expensive, high-performance PCs and sub-$1,000 value systems. The desktop makers included CyberPower (the $999 Gamer Infinity 7500); Dell (three models: the quad-core, $4,224 XPS 710; the $1,954 XPS 410; and the $979, bargain-basement C521); Gateway (the speedy $4,500 FX530XT); and Shuttle (the compact, $1,860 G2-3200).

All of them came with the Home Premium version of Vista installed, with at least 1GB of memory, and with dedicated graphics — the minimum specifications that we found you need to run Vista effectively (see ” Lab Tests: Vista’s Fast If You Have the Hardware ),” in which we tested single-core and dual-core systems running Windows Vista Ultimate Edition). In our hands-on tests, we found that these systems were quite capable of running the advanced, more graphics-intensive features of Vista. Even the sub-$1,000 Dell C521 and CyberPower Gamer Infinity 7500 could handle features such as the new, translucent Aero Glass effects. We were also able to successfully use features such as Flip 3D (which displays your programs like a pack of cards as you switch among them).

Vista gotchas

Drivers are critical to your PC; they are the files that let your OS communicate with devices such as graphics cards, printers, or storage devices. All drivers have to be rewritten for Vista, but not all may be ready at launch, and some older peripherals may never get an updated driver.

The lack of Vista drivers for some peripherals could be a major issue for many users. For example, with the beta drivers in our tests, games ran significantly slower under Vista than under Windows XP. In earlier testing of the Dell XPS 710 running XP, this system ran at 143 frames per second in the game Far Cry at 1024 by 768 resolution. An identical system using the same settings with Vista managed a frame rate of just 108 fps — some 24 percent slower.

Our other test game, Doom 3, didn’t run at all on the Vista systems that used ATI graphics cards; at this writing, ATI’s beta drivers for Vista don’t support the OpenGL graphics system that this game requires. nVidia’s beta driver, however, did support OpenGL graphics. ATI and nVidia both claim that they will have full versions of their drivers ready by the time Vista ships.

WorldBench 6 Beta

To test these new Vista systems, we used a beta version of PC World’s test suite, WorldBench 6, which has been optimized for Windows Vista. T

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