Graphics performance, which has long been an afterthought for most corporate PCs and many consumers, will move to the forefront with the launch of Windows Vista, Microsofts next Windows operating system.
Vista, due late next year, will offer four different themes, including the well-publicized three-dimensional Aero Glass with transparent windows.
Starting with a Classic theme, which looks like Windows XP, each will offer successively more advanced features, also call for successively more powerful graphics.
Vista is expected to measure the graphics grunt available in a PC and automatically serve up the proper UI.
But whats still unclear is where many of todays PCs will fall on the Vista interface spectrum and thus how consumers and corporate buyers who wish to gain the most advanced features can get prepared.
Indeed, many of todays PCs graphics processors, which are built into their chip sets or groups of enabling chips that help shuttle data inside a PC, are inherently unprepared, analysts say.
Designed more with costs in mind than performance, most are not expected to muster enough performance to make the cut for Aero Glass.
That means, short of a graphics upgrade, only a small number of consumer PCs and even fewer business machines purchased in the last year are likely to leap that hurdle.
That means businesses and consumers who are considering PC purchases, now, must plan accordingly if they wish to run Aero Glass.
"If you want the really sexy effects, thats not going to happen with most of the integrated graphics installed base," said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research Inc.
"If you want everything to work, youre always going to be safer buying toward the higher end."
Microsoft has yet to unveil Vistas official requirements. The company, which has said it would not finalize them until summer, has thus far recommended that customers who wish to upgrade and take full advantage of all Vista UI features purchase a machine with a discrete graphics card that supports its DirectX 9 graphics framework, Windows Display Driver Model, 32 bpp (bits per pixel) color depth, and which contains at least 64MB of graphics RAM.
It has further hinted that Vista technologies, such its Max user interface for Windows XP, should be used on PCs with at least a 2.4GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and a graphics card capable of handling its Windows Presentation Foundation.
Such a card, the company says in an online FAQ, should be "the fastest PS 2.0 [Pixel Shader 2.0] card with the most memory your bank account can afford," such as ATI Technologies Inc.s Radeon X800 or Nvidia Corp.s GeForce FX 6800.
Most discrete graphics cards available now meet those Microsoft requirements.
A Microsoft spokesperson said the hardware guidelines for Windows Vista offered by the software are unchanged.
However, analysts say the cutoff point for running Aero Glass is likely to begin with only todays latest and thus highest performance integrated graphics chip sets, including models such as ATI Technologies Inc.s Radeon XPress 200, Nvidia Corp.s nForce4 and Intel Corp.s Intel 945 Express, which arrived in desktop PCs last May and will ship for notebooks in January.
Not every company will choose to step up its hardware just to gain a flashier user interface.
For that matter, Windows Vista may not be adopted en masse until 2007 or 2008, by which time most integrated graphics processors, which are updated about once per year, should be capable of running Aero Glass.
However, given that many companies are now rolling out new PCs that they are likely to upgrade to Vista, analysts and industry executives say planning ahead is important.