Microsoft's Vista promises to be the next big thing in Windows computing--literally. Will your PC be PC enough for Vista when it drops a few weeks from now? If not, AMD and Intel might be able to brighten your holidays. They've begun shipping a new generation of more powerful dual-core processors, forcing bone-deep price cuts on "old" dual-cores and Pentium-class chips.
Just about any new computer will run Vista Starter or Basic now. Less clear is how much PC you'll need to make the most of the new Windows. It depends on how graphical you want to be. Will you run the 3-D Aero "glass" interface? Make VoIP calls? Create a video blog? Watch TV on your PC? The extra vroom needed might still fit your budget.
The long run-up to Vista has been hard on people who sell PCs--but great for people who buy them. Sales have languished for most of the year with a corresponding buildup in chip inventories and softening in prices. Intel and AMD finally began slashing 40 percent or more off first-generation dual-core prices last quarter to make room for a new dual-core generation.
Competition being what it is, most of those savings get passed on to PC buyers as a mix of lower prices and hardware improvements. As recent corporate earning releases show, PC sellers have been giving away margin until it hurts.
But lucky for Microsoft, hardware companies are playing through the pain. It starts with Intel and AMD, who can't seem to stop one-upping each other with ever-faster and cooler chips. Intel's new Core 2 Duo family forces deep price cuts in first-generation Core Duos that haven't even had time to lose that new-chip smell. And the long-running Pentium line? That's over. AMD's new AM2 platform has a less dramatic debut--primarily, bringing DDR2 and other memory innovations to the midrange Athlon 64 X2 and top-of-the-line Athlon 64 FX-62.
State of Readiness
At first glance, Vista's hardware requirements don't sound that onerous--an 800MHz CPU for basic versions, a 1GHz engine for the Aero interface. Vendors haven't sold PCs that slow in years, although millions are still out there, doing their jobs faithfully every day. But it's not enough just to run Windows. You also need enough PC for bigger, better software versions--starting with Microsoft Office.
It's odd that clock speed is emphasized, because memory is much more important. Figure on a full gigabyte of system memory to be "Vista Ready" for Aero--and better make that DDR2 memory. Also, choose a processor with as much cache memory behind as wide a front-side bus as you can afford. Get at least 1MB of L2 cache--2MB would be better--and 4MB would put snap in your apps. And pick a graphics adapter with at least 128MB dedicated video memory.
The impact can be seen in recent performance tests where Intel's second-generation Core 2 Duo processor did 40 percent more work running at 2.66GHz than a first-generation dual core did at 3.6GHz. Either of the twin engines in Core 2 Duo can tap the full 4MB of cache they share as needed, but each first-generation dual-core engine is limited to 2MB. Core 2 Duo's engines also benefit from a one-third wider front-side bus to memory and other efficiencies in Intel's new Core microarchitecture.
But these improvements sure complicate shopping. You can depend on vendors to label which Windows XP systems they're selling today are Vista Ready or Vista Capable. But to get the most for your money, you may need to weigh two or three different options in each of the memory categories.
PC vendors have been blowing out last-generation models and filling their price points with new, more powerful configurations up and down the product line. For example, at this writing, Dell's cheapest Core 2 Duo model was packed with 1GB DDR2, 4MB L2, a 1066MHz FSB and nVidia Geforce video with 256MB. Price: $1,600--including a 20-inch flat panel!
There's just a lot more PC under the average price tag now. And Vista? Not a problem--at least, not for new PCs.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.