Gartner: Half of Current PCs Will Run Vista Well

By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 04-06-2006

Gartner: Half of Current PCs Will Run Vista Well

Microsoft's Windows Vista will run on just about any PC available today, but it will only show its true colors on about half of them, according to a new report from Gartner.

Whereas today's mainstream processors and hard drives offer plenty of performance and capacity to keep up with the new OS—now scheduled to arrive for large businesses in November and consumers in January 2007—IT managers and their counterparts, in addition to consumers buying PCs, should take care to specify at least 1GB of memory. If they aim to tap Vista's Aero user interface, they will need a recent graphics processor, a new report by Gartner said.

Microsoft offers some basic guidelines for Vista on its Web site. For example, it states that the OS will require a minimum of 512MB of RAM and a modern processor to run.

Microsoft is also set to roll out a "Windows Capable" program, which helps highlight PCs capable of being upgraded with the OS for consumers, in April. However, it has not yet put forth final hardware recommendations for the OS, including details on the hardware necessary to run its full Aero interface.

The dearth of information has, so far, left IT managers—as well as PC enthusiasts and other consumers—to wonder how to best configure new machines they might purchase over the balance of 2006 and into 2007. Thus Gartner stepped in with some guidelines.

What was really behind the Vista delay? Click here to read more.

"Since most organizations keep PCs for three to five years—we recommend three years for mainstream notebook users and four years for mainstream desktops. PCs purchased in 2006 will be in service well after Windows Vista ships," Gartner said in a March 28 report entitled, "Is Your PC Hardware 'Ready for Windows Vista?'"

"While nearly all PCs on the market today will run Windows Vista, we estimate that about half will not enable the user to take full advantage of the advanced Windows Aero user experience, so care must be taken to properly configure them.

"This will be important for some users, but less important for others. Organizations that plan on upgrading 2006 PCs to Windows Vista, or those that want to keep their options open, need to buy the right PCs now to reduce migration costs later," said the report.

Thus, assuming their intent is to run the OS and all of its features, IT managers and consumers must do their homework before placing orders for new PCs through at least the balance of 2006, even if they don't expect to upgrade to Vista immediately upon its release.

Indeed, most businesses will wait a year or longer before upgrading to Vista, several senior-level IT managers told eWEEK recently.

"We are particularly concerned about the increased graphics requirement, so we will need to do a fair amount of testing to ensure that it doesn't bog down the systems too much with our current hardware," said Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and an eWEEK Corporate Partner, in a recent interview.

While Microsoft is currently suggesting a minimum of 512MB, the new OS will require at least 1GB of dual-channel memory to provide its full capabilities, and in some cases should be fitted with even more, Gartner said in the report.

"New PCs should have at least 1GB RAM to prepare them for running Windows Vista. If PC virtualization will be used during the migration to run an older OS and Windows Vista on the PC simultaneously, an extra 512MB of RAM should be added," the report said.

Choosing the right graphics will require the most advanced planning, however.

Vista's most basic user interface, which is expected to be able to run on just about any PC released in the recent past, will offer a redesigned start menu and taskbar, along with tweaks to the control panel and features such as search.

Click here to read more about the six flavors of Vista.

Windows Aero, the advanced interface, adds a translucent task bar and window frames, in addition to things like real-time thumbnail previews. Under the hood, it also employs a new WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model), which promises to increase a PCs' stability.

These new features require extra graphics horsepower, which most, but not current, graphics processors can offer. Indeed, part of Vista's hardware guessing game involves determining which graphics processors will not only support WDDM, but also have the capability to show all of what Aero has to offer—assuming a buyer wants to use it. Some companies, Gartner points out, may not.

Next Page: Hardware needs for Vista still unclear

Hardware Needs for Vista

Still Unclear">

The fact that Microsoft has not yet released final specifications for Vista makes it somewhat difficult to surmise which discrete graphics processors and PC chip sets—chip sets handle Input/Output and other functions inside PCs—along with onboard graphics will present a full view of the OS.

"We have not yet finalized the minimum hardware requirements for Windows Vista," a Microsoft spokesman told eWEEK in an e-mail. "However, we are confident Windows Vista capable PCs will be able to install and run Windows Vista, and that they will provide a positive customer experience."

However, all recent discrete solutions from major graphics makers such as ATI Technologies and Nvidia, for both desktops and notebooks, are expected to be able to support Aero, Gartner said in the report.

But the majority of corporate desktops and consumer PCs now use integrated graphics chip sets. Integrated graphics tend to be a generation or more behind discrete graphics chips and don't perform as well.

Read more here about PC hardware for Vista.

Gartner, whose report focuses on businesses who have historically only used PCs with Intel hardware, recommends that companies standardize on Intel's very latest 945G desktop and 945GM mobile chip sets.

Those chip sets, which now come in mid-to-high-end PCs and notebooks, are expected to support both WDDM drivers and Aero, Gartner surmises, provided that the right type of memory is present in large enough amounts.

Gartner recommends that corporate buyers specify, at a minimum, that their desktops include the 945G chipset, a Pentium 4 processor and at least 1GB of RAM, while notebooks start with a Core Duo processor, the 945GM chip set and 1GB of RAM.

Technology-minded buyers looking for greater performance, particularly in notebooks, should look at stepping up to 2GB of RAM and a discrete graphics chip, the firm said.

Gartner said it did not address AMD-processor systems because most businesses have not yet adopted them. ATI, Nvidia and companies such as VIA Technologies all manufacture chip sets to support AMD processors, both with and without graphics built in.

The same general principals should apply to their hardware. ATI, for one, has said its Radeon XPress 200, which is popular in both desktops and notebooks for consumers and, more recently, for businesses desktops, should run Aero.

Still, "The most important part of the new graphics model for Windows Vista will be the improved stability and overall performance, not the flashy three-dimensional (3-D) look and feel," Gartner said in the report.

"Only users who require a richer graphics experience to complete their work (content creators, graphics professionals and engineers) will see a business benefit from the visual aspects of Aero."

Vista, as many analysts have stated, is far more likely to impact consumers at first. While the OS is still likely to play a role in the way IT managers outfit their PCs over the next year, not all of the PCs deployed between now and then will actually run the OS.

Because most business aren't likely to upgrade to Vista for at least 18 months, meaning that many of their 2006-era PCs will be half way or more through their life-cycles, many of their machines might not be worth upgrading, said Leslie Fiering, an analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn.

However, "Since you don't have to make a huge effort here to be Vista-ready, there's no reason not to be," she said in an interview with eWEEK. "But we don't think there's any reason to panic or fall prey to vendor hype that you've got to take extraordinary measures."

Click here to read about how corporations are preparing for Vista.

Choosing the right integrated graphics chip sets for their needs, for one, means that companies aren't likely to pay extra for machines with discrete graphics for all but their most demanding users.

"There's general consensus in the industry that the current level of integrated graphics will support the full user interface experience" of Vista, Fiering said.

"There are many reasons for buying discrete graphics. We're just saying that you don't need to run out and change your buying habits or incur additional expense to be Vista ready."

Ultimately, time will take care of most of the uncertainty of choosing hardware.

For one, Microsoft will clarify its stance. Hardware will also progress. ATI, Intel, Nvidia and VIA will all release more powerful products. Intel, for example, will roll out a new 965 chip set with a beefier graphics processor built in. The chip set will appear in desktops this year and migrate to notebooks in 2007.

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