Not all PCs will gain a full view of Windows Vista.
Microsoft Corp. has yet to finalize the minimum requirements for a PC to run its forthcoming operating system. But numerous PC industry watchers predict a dichotomy for the OS, which is due in late 2006.
Although it will be able to run on all but the most ancient machines, the OS will favor newer and relatively powerful machines when it comes to showing its true colors, analysts say.
Based on details provided by the software maker—a Microsoft representative this week suggested PC buyers who want to gain the full Windows Vista user interface experience pick up a PC with a discrete graphics card that supports its DirectX 9 graphics specification—analysts say that not all of todays hardware has the graphics chops necessary to display Windows Vistas most visually compelling feature, its new Aero Glass 3D user interface.
Thus even for PC owners who have purchased new machines in the last year, hardware upgrades of one type or another—either a new graphics card or, if a machines graphics can not be upgraded, possibly a new system—may be necessary to run Windows Vistas Aero Glass effects.
Given Microsofts suggestions, even buyers of new PCS in coming months will have to pay extra attention, and often spend extra, to ensure they choose systems with the graphical oomph necessary to run the Aero UI—if they expect to upgrade, analysts said.
“The question, now, is ultimately what will the…graphics requirements be when it ships and how many computers sold today will meet those requirements,” said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at Jupiter Research.
Of particular concern are notebook PCs, which are traditionally a step behind when it comes to graphics performance, Wilcox said.
Microsoft has said it wont issue the minimum hardware requirements for Windows Vista until next summer. However, the company has already dropped hints that analysts say suggest Windows Vistas Aero UI requires relatively high-end graphics. The operating system itself will determine which level a PC fits into by sensing its graphics capabilities, and PCs will either be deemed capable of running Aero or not. Those that are not will present a classic Windows interface, the software giant has said.
Thus PCs also fit into two basic levels of preparedness for Windows Vista. At WinHEC in April, Mark Croft, a group product manager in the Windows product management group, told PC makers that most existing mainstream processors should run Longhorn. But he drew distinctions between PCs that will be “Longhorn-ready” versus “Longhorn-capable.”
Older CPUs with 128 or 256 MB of memory and older graphics will be capable, he said.
In the interim, Microsoft is suggesting customers leave themselves room to, at a minimum, upgrade their PCs graphics.
“Windows Vista provides the best possible user experience allowed by the graphics capabilities of each computer,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said in an e-mail to Ziff Davis Internet. “As graphics support is still being finalized, customers who plan to purchase new PCs should consider specifying graphics cards with AGP or PCI Express interfaces, which are most easily upgraded. For Aero effects video graphics cards should support: DirectX 9 with an LDDM [Longhorn Display Driver Model] driver, 32 bpp [bits per pixel] color depth, and 64MB of graphics RAM.”
Graphics cards that support DirectX 9 first came out for notebook PCs earlier this year. They have been available for desktops for some time. But given that most low-end PCs and notebooks now use integrated graphics and not all of them offer AGP or PCI slots, not all PCs graphics can be upgraded. New PC buyers must also take those same issues into consideration, analysts said, making sure they either purchase hefty enough graphics to begin with, or have space to upgrade.
Whether or not a PC has so-called integrated graphics and or the means to upgrade to an add-in card will become the fault line that separates the graphical haves and have-nots, analysts say.
Most low-end to midrange desktops and notebooks make use of integrated graphics, meaning they rely on graphics processors that are parts of their chip sets. Chip sets shuttle data to points within a PC, not unlike a persons nervous system.
“If you go out and spend $500 and get a Dell special based on the [Intel] 865GV [chipset with integrated graphics] youre likely to be running in more of a legacy mode,” said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research Inc. “Quite honestly, that shouldnt be all that surprising.”
Aero probably wont run
if the graphics are integrated”>
Built-in graphics have improved in performance over time and are generally good enough for most everyday uses. But they were created mainly to help shave costs in desktops and have been adopted widely in notebooks as part of efforts to improve battery life and help save space. Given those aims, built-in graphics generally lag the performance provided by discrete graphics boards, which are inserted into more expensive desktops and notebooks.
Thus, even without the final word from Microsoft it appears that, at a minimum, a high-end graphics card will be required to show the advanced UI, according to Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.
“Often this requirement is expressed in terms of support for Microsofts DirectX. But the real issue may be: Do motherboards with integrated video chips in them have the resources for the new Longhorn Avalon [or its Windows Presentation Foundation] subsystem?” Cherry wrote. “Typically the leading edge support is in the add-in video cards, but as more and more organizations are looking at upgrading desktop computers, which could take an add-in card as an upgrade, to laptops, which really are stuck with whatever video they ship with, the problem will be if you buy a laptop today, is the built-in video adequate? Do the chips that provide this video have the resources to run Longhorn?”
Thus, to be safe, buyers interested in the full view of Windows Vista “should look for systems with external graphics chips, most of which will offer the capabilities they need,” McCarron said.
The drawback is that PC models that come from the factory with discrete graphics are generally more expensive. Forward-looking buyers should, at a minimum, ensure that a desktop they are evaluating has a free AGP or a PCI-Express slot, which can accommodate the latest graphics. Many but not all desktops that ship with integrated graphics chip sets offer the extra slot.
Notebooks will present a trickier decision. The vast majority cannot be upgraded with graphics, as most portable machines use either integrated graphics or discrete graphics chips, which are fixed on to their motherboards. Those with discrete graphics cost more, but have better graphics performance, making them more likely to be able to run Windows Vistas advanced user interface, analysts said.
Buyers should ask themselves, “How important are the new features?” McCarron said. “If they are important, then [people] need to take that into consideration and not buy the cheapest notebook they can find.”
Over time the graphics issue may work itself out.
Although discrete graphics chips always push the limits of performance, integrated graphics may eventually reach the proper level for the Windows Vistas advanced user interface. Intel, the largest seller of integrated graphics chip sets for desktops and notebooks, rolls out new chip sets roughly once per year, giving it a spin or two before Windows Vista hits the market.
Ultimately, “Its not that anythings broken,” McCarron said. Windows Vista “is much more forward-looking in terms of the capabilities it can make use of than the previous [Windows] offerings.”
It just might take a while for PC models to catch up.
Editors Note: This story was updated to correct information about graphics cards in desktop PCs and notebook PCs.