Walt Mossberg

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What PC to Buy If You Are Planning On a Vista Upgrade

It’s time for my annual fall buyer’s guide to desktop computers, and this fall, I’m going to focus on what kind of PC Windows buyers should be considering if they want to run Microsoft’s next version of Windows, called Vista.

Vista, formerly known by its code name of Longhorn, is due out about a year from now, well within the lifetime of any PC you purchase today. I assume most consumers running Windows will want to upgrade to Vista. Microsoft promises a host of new features, and says Vista will be much more secure than today’s Windows XP.

There’s a catch, however. Vista is Microsoft’s biggest upgrade to Windows in a decade, and it will require much beefier and costlier hardware than Windows XP. So you will have to rethink your PC buying assumptions, starting now.

Microsoft hasn’t published final hardware requirements for Vista yet, but I have been talking to the company about them, and feel comfortable that the specs I am recommending below will allow you to upgrade to Vista with confidence. Although this is a desktop guide, most of these recommendations apply to laptops, too.

If you don’t care about Vista, and plan to stay with Windows XP for the life of your next computer, follow my last desktop buyer’s guide, which ran in April and is still valid for XP. It’s available at: http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/ptech-20050407.html.

You also won’t have to worry about Vista if you buy one of Apple Computer’s Macintosh computers, which don’t run Windows. Every mainstream consumer doing typical tasks should consider the Mac. Its operating system, called Tiger, is better and much more secure than Windows XP, and already contains most of the key features promised for Vista.

Microsoft says Vista will automatically downgrade its features to match weaker hardware. Computers with marginal specs won’t be able to take advantage of all of Vista’s capabilities, and will retain the look and feel of XP.

So, I don’t recommend buying a low-end PC this fall and winter if you expect to upgrade to Vista. The new operating system will almost certainly be crippled on such a machine, or not work at all. Expect to spend $600 or more without a monitor, for a PC that can fully run Vista.

Here’s what that machine should contain:

Memory: It’s likely Microsoft will suggest 512 megabytes of memory, or RAM, for Vista, but companies almost always understate such requirements. I strongly recommend at least one gigabyte of memory. Microsoft officials privately agree that a gigabyte would work well.

Video: The new Windows will be especially dependent on strong video. Many low-cost and midlevel PCs today use something called integrated graphics chips, which are attached to the computer’s main circuit board and don’t have their own dedicated video memory, called Video RAM, or VRAM.

To make the most of Vista, you will need to shun this design and opt for a machine with “discrete” graphics — a video card that’s separate from the main board and has its own dedicated memory. Look for at least 64 megabytes of video RAM, preferably 128 megabytes. By next fall, integrated graphics chips may be good enough for Vista, but not today.

Processor: I have always recommended avoiding spending extra dollars for the fastest processor, and that position still holds for Vista. I wouldn’t buy a computer with the cheapest or slowest processor, but a midrange Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon processor should be fine. Consider a “dual-core” processor that essentially combines two chips for added speed and power, though it’s not a Vista requirement.

Another option worth considering is a processor capable of so-called 64-bit computing. This isn’t necessary for Vista, but it’s the wave of the future, and it will be much more powerful than today’s computing, which relies on 32-bit processors. There isn’t much software yet that takes advantage of 64-bit processors, but a lot more is likely to appear in Vista’s wake. An AMD Athlon 64 would be a good bet, because it can handle both 32-bit and 64-bit software. Intel makes similar processors, which have the term “EM64T” in their names.

To take full advantage of a 64-bit processor, you should also double the computer’s memory, to two gigabytes.

Hard disk: Disk storage is already copious enough for Vista, and buying large amounts is cheap. I’d go for at least 160 gigabytes of hard-disk space, because Vista will offer easier ways to manage and create video, which eats up hard-disk capacity. Also, I’d suggest making sure the hard drive is fast. It should run at 7,200 revolutions per minute (RPM) and have a cache of two megabytes.

DVD drive: Vista will have much improved DVD recording for storing videos and for data backup. So, I suggest you get a PC with a fast, multiformat DVD recording drive.

Next year, closer to Vista’s release date that fall, Microsoft will publish more-detailed specs for Vista-capable PCs, and I will make any refinements or additions needed to this list. But, if you buy a PC now with these specs, you should be in good shape for Vista.