What you need to know about Vista

By now you should be aware there are many pluses and minuses to Vista. It’s not a slam-dunk decision, but there’s a lot to like about the new Windows. Once you decide to make the upgrade, you’ll find that you’re confronted with more than the usual number of questions to answer and details to sort through before you arrive at your Vista upgrade path.

For starters, are you buying new hardware? Or are you upgrading your existing hardware to Vista? Most of Microsoft’s system requirements should very definitely be described as minimum. I mean overly minimum. It’s even a little contradictory because the video requirement is more in keeping with advanced newer hardware, and the CPU and memory configuration is more like what you’d expect from an el cheapo PC circa 2004.

Or let us put it another way: This is the salient information you need to know about system requirements if you want to fully enable Windows Vista’s Aero user interface:

DirectX 9 (DirectX 10 preferred) 3-D graphics processing unit with a WDDM driver, 128MB graphics memory (minimum), support for “Pixel Shader 2.0,” and the ability to display a color depth of 32 bits per pixel.

Although graphics cards that share main system memory are acceptable, you will find that the best approach is 256MB of dedicated video RAM. We have seen some 64MB dedicated video RAM mobile graphics processing units that support Aero nominally, probably because they share main system memory beyond the dedicated 64MB.

The rest of Microsoft’s Vista-capable system requirements read like this:

— 1-GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
— 1GB of system memory
— 40GB of hard drive capacity with 15GB free space
— DVD-ROM drive
— Audio output capability
— Internet access capability

Our real-world experience indicates that an Intel or comparable Pentium Centrino or M 2-GHz CPU should be the minimum. You should have at least 1.5GB of RAM, and if you’re buying a new machine, get 2GB of RAM. Your hard disk should be at least a 60GB drive, and we’d recommend 25GB free to allow for new applications. Don’t forget the DVD drive. The Vista disc is a DVD, not a CD.

If at all possible, get Vista on a new machine. Our limited experience with upgrading Vista over Windows XP has been surprisingly positive. But be aware that you can’t uninstall a Vista upgrade the way you could those of previous versions of Windows. And you’ll be absolutely assured of driver support if you buy Vista pre-installed from a reputable hardware vendor.

Anyone planning an upgrade installation should review Microsoft’s Upgrade Planning for Windows Vista. There are two aspects of the term upgrade worth considering. The first is saving money on the cost of Vista. The second is something new and different. There are heavy limits on which previous versions are capable of being upgraded to four of the six main Vista versions.

So, for example, even though you can upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows Vista at the cash register, you can’t actually perform a Windows 2000 upgrade of the software. You have to clean install Vista when moving up from Windows 2000. The same is true of Windows XP Pro x64. Windows XP Home Edition can be software upgraded to any version of Vista. But the other three versions, XP Pro, XP Media Center and XP Tablet PC can upgrade only to some of the new Vista versions.

Versions and prices

In the United States, Vista will be offered in five basic editions — two aimed at businesses and three at home users. Not sure which one to choose? You’re not alone. Here’s a quick summary of the versions along with pricing information:

For businesses:

— Windows Vista Business ($299 new; $199 upgrade) supports the Aero interface and includes several features aimed at IT manageability, including Fax and Scan, wireless network provisioning, system image-based backup and recovery, and Group Policy support. In keeping with its business focus, this version lacks many digital media features.

— Windows Vista Enterprise (available only to volume licensees, pricing not released) adds advanced management features such as BitLocker drive encryption; a subsystem for Unix-based applications; and Virtual PC Express, which lets you run legacy apps on a legacy Windows operating system inside a virtual environment on Vista. Like Windows Vista Business, this version does not include Media Center or DVD-burning functions.

For home users:

— Windows Vista Home Basic (US$199 new; $99.95 upgrade) offers parental controls and not much else. This version does not support the Aero interface, and it lacks many digital media capabilities.

— Windows Vista Home Premium ($239 new; $159 upgrade) adds digital media features such as Media Center and Windows DVD Maker, as well as Tablet PC functionality and scheduled user data backup.

— Windows Vista Ultimate ($399 new; $259 upgrade) combines all the multimedia features of the home editions with the advanced file- and network-management features of the business versions. This version has it all — and it’ll cost you.

Our recommendations? Nobody should opt for Vista Home Basic. That’s especially the case if you’re buying a new PC. So long as you can afford a better PC, get a better PC — one that supports Vista Home Premium. Even in an upgrade situation, you might want to move your retail version to better hardware someday. Spend a bit more for Vista Home Premium. That will deliver the ability to run the Aero interface, support for Media Center and DVD-burning capabilities. If your hardware doesn’t support Aero, Vista degrades to the Vista Basic interface automatically. On a desktop PC, you may be able to get Aero by updating your video card.

IT organizations will make the decision about the business version that’s best for their users, and we suspect the choice will have more to do with their license agreement than the minor differences in the feature set. Any enterprise that needs BitLocker or the Virtual PC legacy app utility on employee machines will need Vista Enterprise.

What if your computer is the primary computer you use 24/7? You use it for work, you use it for entertainment, it’s your weekend shopping tool, your DVD player and the machine you give business presentations with? Well, first, we’d like to congratulate you. Because you’ve eliminated one of the biggest frustrations of computing: Where’s that file? Oh, yeah, that was on the other computer. All your data is in one place, the way it should be.

Microsoft has a version of Windows for you. It’s called Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. You’ll notice it’s not cheap. But it does everything you want, and then some.

Compatibility and timing

Microsoft has done several things to make hardware work better with Vista. One of our favorite features is the fact that it can now smartly search an entire CD, DVD or directories and subdirectories on your hard drive to find a specific driver, without your having to click into the specific folder. So you no longer have to guess or remember where that legacy hardware driver is.

On the other hand, hardware support in the on-DVD driver pack is definitely not perfect. About 70 percent of the drivers that we’ve seen Vista come up empty on are mainstream components, such as the SoundMax driver set and Linksys’s PCI Gigabit NIC. (NICs in particular should have excellent support, since you can’t get online to help yourself without them.)

Microsoft is claiming excellent hardware support; we think the company intends to rely heavily on Windows Update to deliver driver support. Because, really, it’s no better than prev



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