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The truth about Windows Vista hardware

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No doubt you've visited the Microsoft Windows Vista webpage, and possibly you've run the evaluation tool to check whether your PC is able to run the version of Vista that will fulfil all of your needs.

In which case, the odds are that you're sitting there chuffed to mint balls, happy that your 800MHz CPU, 512MB of memory and DirectX 9 graphics card mean that you're good to go, while a TV tuner card gives you full access to Windows Vista Ultimate.

Think again sucker.

These are the minimum system requirements, rather than the basis for a recommended system, and just to put things in perspective, Windows XP Pro has a minimum requirement for a 233MHz Pentium processor, 64MB of RAM and 4GB of hard drive space. Just imagine running Windows XP on that sort of hardware and then consider what Vista would be like on a system that passes the Upgrade Advisor with flying colours. Exactly.

Microsoft is fully aware of this problem so it publishes a list of hardware with a low-ish limit to reassure the public that Vista won't be a hardware hog and then it distributes a far stricter list of hardware to its OEM partners to ensure Vista will run properly on the PCs that will go on sale in the coming months.

You can get full details by downloading the Windows Logo Program Requirements Suite which has just been updated to v3.01 here where you'll also note that Microsoft still refers to Vista as Longhorn when it is talking to the trade. Version 2.xx relates to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

The 1MB self-extracting download gives you an Excel spreadsheet and three Word documents with a monumental amount of information. Vista will ship in Business, Enterprise, Home Premium, Home Basic and Ultimate versions, which broadly speaking means that a PC requires either a Basic or Premium logo. But in addition, Microsoft has sub-divided the consumer and business SKUs into Desktop, Mobile, Ultra Portable and Ultra Mobile.

Further down the page you'll see that a desktop is defined as a PC that requires AC power for continuous operation, which is sensible enough, but then you have the all-in-one, which is a "system that has a permanently attached integrated display". Where did that come from?

A mobile is what we think of as a notebook - it has a battery. An ultraportable is "a mobile system that weighs less than four pounds or 1.814kg in the standard configuration", for example, a thin and light notebook, and an ultra mobile "weighs less than 2.5 pounds or 1.134kg in the standard configuration and has a seven inch or smaller screen size".

Add in requirements, future-requirements, if-implemented and future-if-implemented and the permutations become almost limitless. There's nothing to stop Microsoft from updating WLPRS version 3.01 in the coming months and it is certain to do so once 802.11n is ratified and HD-DVD and Blu-ray become realities, so let's take a look at the key points that jump off the page at us:

  • Graphics need to support DirectX 9
  • The main graphics output on an add-in card must be digital, however integrated graphics can use analogue
  • There must be network support, either with 100Mb Ethernet or 802.11g, or both
  • In the event that 802.11a is supplied it can only be in addition to 802.11g
  • All USB ports must support USB 2.0
  • Non-business systems must support HD Audio
  • Business systems need to support HD Audio from mid-2007

None of that should cause any of us concern. USB 1.1 is dead and 802.11a is only of interest to the Americans. It's a bit galling that your Radeon X850 won't be able to run the Aero interface but the pain will pass.

In the second half of 2007 things get a bit more serious when SATA interfaces must be at least SATA 2.5, HD movies must play back smoothly and there must be support for protected video content (i.e. HDCP). However time will tell whether HDMI takes over from DVI. In From 1 June 2008, integrated graphics are required to have a digital output which seems like an enormous detail for what seems like a cheap and simple update.

Windows Vista will also support booting from flash memory, which is where things get interesting. At first Microsoft ReadyBoost will support Hybrid Hard Drives (HHD) which have a chunk of flash memory in addition to the usual cache.

In principle, there is no reason why ReadyBoost shouldn't work equally well with a plug-in flash card that sits on the motherboard alongside the system memory or in an expansion slot in your PC or notebook. The problem is that you're relying on a third party to supply memory which will likely sit in another third party's reader with - possibly - another company's controller chip. When you're talking about photos or music files this isn't too much of a problem but it's a different story when you're using the memory for system files.

In the first instance HHDs allow Seagate and other manufacturers to retain control over the memory, but obviously there is no way for the user to upgrade or replace the memory unless they add a slot on the drive. If a PC or notebook is shipped with an HHD it must have at least 50MB of Flash available for Windows. ®

High performance access to file storage

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