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.