Hardware notebook: What I look for in a Vista PC

For most of last year, I was installing beta releases of Windows Vista practically every week. Since Vista's official release six months ago, I've had the luxury of being able to work with the same hardware and software for months, with the goal of setting up stable systems that are easy to use over the long term. Here's what I've adopted as my current specs for new desktop and notebook systems running Windows Vista.

In reviewing some old notes earlier today, I realized I’ve been living with Windows Vista and Office 2007 for more than 18 months now. In December 2005, I entered Double Beta Land, switching over to beta releases of Vista and Office 2007 as my full-time, day-in-and-day-out working environment.

For most of 2006, that meant a weekly grind of wiping systems clean and installing new Vista beta builds of widely varying quality on a wide variety of systems. I shuffled systems on and off my desktop and used different notebooks as much as possible so that I could use each one for at least a week or two and get a good feel for how it worked. That wasn't always fun, but it gave me lots of hands-on experience that I wouldn't have gotten with a single dedicated test system.

This year is different. Now that Vista and Office 2007 are both available a released products, my goal is to set up stable systems that are easy to use over the long term, where I can spend more time being productive and as little time as possible troubleshooting problems. I've been using the same desktop system since April 2, a Dell XPS 210 with an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600. It's been fast and, for the most part, trouble-free. This snapshot from Vista's Reliability Monitor tells the story pretty well:

Vista Reliability Monitor

The three rows along the bottom are completely empty, meaning this system hasn't suffered an unexplained shutdown or Blue Screen of Death in more than a month. (The three BSODs I have experienced with this PC were isolated instances, with an immediately obvious explanation and a quick fix that didn't require anything more dramatic than replacing a driver.) Those red X's on the second row represent programs that hung or crashed without affecting the operating system. Most of these application failures belong to Internet Explorer, which doesn't always take kindly to having 40 or 50 browser tabs open at once, at least on this system. (The cure is as simple as killing and restarting the Iexplore.exe process.) I'm planning a more detailed look at this system's history, as revealed by the Reliability Monitor, in a follow-up post.

I bought only one new system in the first 10 months of 2006, an Acer Tablet PC to replace my aging Toshiba Pentium III-based Tablet, which was too weak to handle Vista. For everything else, I waited until Vista and Office shipped last November. Since then, I've replaced four systems and have been watching hardware configurations and prices closely. Here's what I've adopted as my current specs for systems:

CPU - Both AMD and Intel make fine dual-core processors for desktops and notebooks. I have three systems with AMD Athlon and Turion processors, four with Intel Core 2 Duo chips, a dual-core Pentium D, and a lone single-core Pentium 4. All of them are capable of running any edition of Windows Vista. In terms of raw speed, Intel has the performance edge right now, which is why the system on my desktop is running a Core 2 Duo, as is the one that will replace it in the next couple weeks. If your budget is tight, I recommend AMD. If you can afford to spend more, the higher-end Intel chips provide much better bang for the buck. When I look at a CPU, I look at clock speed and cache. I wouldn't buy a Core 2 Duo without 4MB of Level 2 Cache, and I think quad-core systems from Intel are going to be a great value this fall.

RAM - Adding memory is the single most cost-effective upgrade you can make. That's been true for years and it's even more true in the Vista era. I've installed 1GB as the minimum RAM for every system I own or use for at least the last three years. For a new system, there simply isn't enough savings to justify settling for less than that. For a basic productivity machine running Windows XP, that's more than enough. It's plenty for Vista, too, although performance and multitasking ability really improve when you up the RAM count to 2GB. On notebooks, where memory is more expensive and sometimes harder to replace, I've found that 1.5GB is a good compromise. My main machine has 4GB, of which more than 1GB is shared with the video card.

Hard disks - For desktop machines, the relentless downward march of storage prices continues. At roughly $100, a 500GB hard drive is nearly irresistible as a replacement for a desktop system. I generally try to keep every hard drive no more than half full, which leaves plenty of room for defragmenting, caching, creating temporary files, and storing System Restore points. The latter are especially useful with Vista Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise, which allows access to the contents of a restore point through the Previous Versions feature. (With Home Basic and Home Premium editions, most of this data is backed up but unavailable.) I haven't used the Restore Previous Versions menu often, but on several occasions I've needed to recover a file that I accidentally deleted or replaced, and it's been a life-saver. On my main desktop system, for example, I've partitioned the single internal drive into a 60GB system volume (C:), a 358GB volume (E:) for user data, and a 50GB backup volume. Windows Vista Ultimate has set aside just over 53GB of the space on drive E: for System Restore points and is currently using 30GB of that space for shadow copies that date back roughly six weeks, and there's probably enough room to hold another four weeks' worth of deleted data .

Video - If you're a hardcore gamer, no video card is ever good enough, and XP is probably preferable to Vista for the time being. If you just plan to manage e-mail, browse the web, and use productivity apps, just about any current video solution will do. I've used motherboard video solutions from Intel (GMA 950) and Nvidia (GeForce 6150 LE) and both worked just fine with Vista, providing full Aero support. Because I use multiple monitors (and recommend this configuration as a great productivity booster), I need a discrete video card. I've been pleasantly surprised by the performance and reliability of the ATI X1300 card I added to my main desktop system (it's at the high end of performance in a low-profile form factor. Since June 4, when I installed ATI's 7.5 Catalyst drivers, it's been driving a 21-inch Samsung LCD at 1600 x 1200 and a widescreen Dell at 1680 x 1050. That's a lot of pixels for that poor card to push, and in some extreme conditions I notice a slowdown in performance. The card itself has 256MB of RAM onboard and uses 1278MB of shared system RAM. A video card with 512MB or more of dedicated graphics RAM would perform better, but those specs are hard to find in a low-profile card.

As for price, I go out of my way to avoid the least expensive and most expensive systems on the market. The sweet spot in terms of value is usually just below the current high end. It also helps to resign yourself to the reality that whatever you buy today will be replaced by faster, cheaper alternatives within a few weeks or months.


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