Hardware Considerations for Windows Vista

by [Published on 30 March 2006 / Last Updated on 30 March 2006]

The general consensus regarding Windows Vista is that you are going to have to buy a new computer in order to run it. I have bought three brand new, relatively high end computers for the purposes of beta testing Vista. Of the three, Vista would not even install on two of them, and ran sluggishly on the third. In this article, I will tell you what I have learned about Vista’s hardware requirements through my first hand experiences.

If you do a Google search for the terms Windows Vista and Hardware, there is no telling what you are going to find. Right now the Internet is chocked full of various rumors regarding the hardware requirements for Windows Vista. As you might expect, the information on some of these sites tends to be accurate, while the information on many other sites appears to be hear say or just a wild guess. Being that I am actively involved in the Windows Vista beta program, I thought that I should share with you my own experiences regarding Windows Vista’s hardware needs.

Microsoft’s Recommendations

Before I give you my opinions and recommendations regarding the hardware that is appropriate for Vista, I wanted to give you Microsoft’s recommendations. At this point in time, Microsoft has yet to nail down firm hardware requirements or recommendations for Vista. The currently posted recommendations are:

  • CPU – PC systems should have a modern CPU
  • RAM – PC systems should have 512 MB of memory or more
  • GPU – PC systems should have a graphics processor that will support Windows Driver Display Model (WDDM)

Those particular specs are found at: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/windowsvista/evaluate/hardware/vistarpc.mspx. As you can see, Microsoft does not make any indication of what they consider to be a modern CPU. Instead, they just provide a link to Intel’s and AMD’s Web site.

Microsoft does give us a recommendation for the amount of RAM that the system should contain. I will talk about this a little bit more later on. For now I want to move on to the GPU requirement. GPU might be a new term for some of you. GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit, and for all practical purposes refers to the computer’s video card.

Again, Microsoft does not provide any specific recommendations for video hardware, but they do provide links to ATI’s and NVIDIA’s Web sites, and these companies list video cards that are suitable for Windows Vista.

My Recommendations

Now that I have talked about Microsoft’s hardware recommendations for Windows Vista, I want to talk about my own experiences and what you can realistically expect from Vista unless there are some major changes between now and the time that the operating system is ultimately released.

Memory

I want to start out by talking about memory because this is the one resource that Vista seems to be more dependant on than anything else. As you will recall from earlier, Microsoft recommends 512 MB for running Vista. When I was first invited to beta test Vista, I bought three brand new computers for the sole purpose of running Vista. Two of these machines featured dual core, 64-bit processors, 250 GB SATA hard drives, a video card with 256 MB of RAM, and 1 GB of system RAM. I also purchased a third machine that had the same specs, but did not have a dual core processor, and only had 512 MB of RAM.

To make a long story short, when I installed Vista on the machine with the single core processor, Windows ran extremely slowly. If I clicked on the Control Panel icon for example, it would take a full 30 to 40 seconds before the Control Panel would open. This was on a brand new machine running a clean install of Vista with no applications.

Ultimately, Vista proved to be too slow to even test. I thought that perhaps the performance problems might be unique to the 64-bit version of Vista, so I installed the 32-bit version, and had the same results.

To make a long story short, I was eventually able to solve the problem by installing more RAM into the machine. I was able to achieve adequate performance by increasing the memory to 1 GB. I was not able to achieve what I would consider to be good performance until I upgraded my video card, but I will talk more about that later on.

CPU

In the section above, I talked about Vista’s performance on a single core, 64-bit processor. However, I didn’t mention how Vista performed on my two dual core systems. The reason for that is that I have yet to even be able to get Vista to install on these two computers. Supposedly this issue will be resolved in the next build though.

Although the current beta won’t install on a dual core, 64-bit processor (at least not for me anyway), I still recommend investing in dual core machines if you are thinking of running Vista when it is released.  The reason for this is because when Microsoft created Windows XP, they did so under the assumption that most people would run it on a machine with a single processor. Even though Windows XP supports machines with multiple processors, you really only see a benefit if you are running multi-threaded applications.

Vista is different though. Vista is designed in such a way that the operating system itself can realize a real performance gain from having multiple processors or a dual core processor.

Hard Disk

The hard disk is actually a very minor consideration in comparison to the rest of the hardware on your system. The drive’s capacity isn’t really an issue because right now the average size of a new hard disk is about 250 GB. In comparison, the current build of Vista only consumes about 12 GB of hard disk space.

One thing that I can tell you though is that if you have a choice between an IDE and a SATA drive, you should go with SATA. I don’t really know any details, but I have been told that Vista is optimized for SATA drives.

GPU

The Graphics card is one area in which Vista really benefits from having some high end hardware. As you probably know, previous versions of Windows basically drew the desktop using bitmap images. The same basic technique has been used since at least Windows 3.1. Vista breaks the mold though. Now, instead of simply placing bitmaps on the screen, Vista renders the desktop using vector graphics. This new graphics engine is called Aero.

It has been my experience that Aero works pretty well with 256 MB of video memory. I suspect that it could probably benefit from having even more memory though, especially when it comes to playing video games or working in multi monitor configurations. If your machine doesn’t have that much video memory and a new graphics card isn’t in the budget, there is some good news though. Aero is designed in a way that allows you to disable some of the features that require the most memory, allowing Vista to run on machines with less than optimal graphics hardware.

There is one other interesting note regarding graphics hardware. The machine that I am running Vista on has an integrated ATI video display. In spite of the fact that this display adapter included 256 MB of video memory, the computer’s performance was still sluggish. I wanted to see what kind of difference a dedicated video adapter would make, so I installed a comparable ATI video adapter with 256 MB of RAM. The only real difference between the two adapters was that this one ran on the PCI Express bus rather than being integrated into the system board.

Although my newly installed hardware was relatively low end, it made a huge difference in my computer’s performance. I suspect that the reason for this is because the video adapter had its own dedicated processor and did not have to burden the computer’s CPU with graphical processing tasks.

Conclusion

Vista’s release is still almost a year away, and Vista is currently still in the first beta. That means that anything that I have told you could potentially change by the time that the software is actually released. Pending no major changes to the code though, I feel confident in the hardware recommendations that I have given you.

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