Hardware notebook: What I look for in a Vista PC

Hardware notebook: What I look for in a Vista PC

Summary: 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.

SHARE:

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.

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Intel, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

50 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Vista and ATI 1300

    I too have the latest drivers for this video card and the last two updates to Vista has caused it to lose my preference settings for dual monitors. Both of the update installs required a reboot and that was when the video card was set back to its defaults.

    I am hearing that I am not alone in this. Have you experianced it Ed?
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • I have not experienced this

      Adrian says he has seen the same thing for months. I have the June 4 Catalyst 7.5 drivers and haven't seen this. I have the 7.6 driver downloaded and plan to install it Real Soon Now. I suppose I could use System Restore to undo the latest updates so it can run again, or I could just see what happens next month.
      Ed Bott
      • Pehaps its how

        I have things set up (due to office configuration I swap monitor left/right) that causes it? Hard to say.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
  • My Vista reliability info

    For those curious, here is the reliability information for my work laptop which had Vista installed on it Feb 3rd, 2007. This laptop is used 5 days a week, 8+ hours a day and is used primarily for software development but is also occasionally used on weekends and evenings as a multimedia platform. I also use Office 2007. It happily switches between wired networking in the office and wireless at home. It is put into sleep mode at least once a day when I'm traveling between home and office and gets rebooted once a month (damn patch tuesday!!).

    Application Failures: 0-5/month, usually IE7, rarely WMP11
    Hardware Failures: 0
    Windows Failures: 0
    Miscellaneous Failures: 0

    I haven't done anything to this system that a complete computer newbie couldn't do themselves. I haven't had to hunt for drivers, the performance is fine, it would be unusual if I saw the UAC prompt even once in a day (most days I never see it and when I do, it is because I'm trying to do something that [b]should[/b] require confirmation), and it has never, even once, crashed on me or failed to wake up or behaved strangely in any way.

    Nothing of what I've said above is meant to imply that Vista is better than other OSs. I run 2 Linux boxes at home and they never crash either. I'm sure there are 30 million Mac zealots just aching to say [i]but my MacBook never crashes on me, blah blah blah[/i] and I have no reason to believe they are lying. I'm simply casting my vote, alongside Ed's, that I simply can't relate to 99% of the FUD that is being thrown around about Vista (and Windows in general since XP has been rock solid for me too).

    Flame away.
    NonZealot
    • Honestly,

      I really don't think too many people care about what you have to say.

      You have ruined your reputation as a source for honesty.

      Heheh, oh wait are you doing another parody, oh ok.... ;)
      Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
  • My experience

    I, too, have found Vista to be both stable and very reliable, with the only exception being IE7. My IE7 trouble seems to have been the Yahoo toolbar, which was problematic to install and degraded performance along with occasional lock ups. Once I uninstalled the toolbar, IE7 has not given me any other problems. The interesting thing is, I ran the same toolbar with XP and IE7 with no difficulty. I will wait for Yahoo to update their toolbar and try again.
    itpro_z
  • Where's the beef?

    [i]I realized I?ve been living with Windows Vista and Office 2007 for more than 18 months now.[/i]

    How time flies when you're chasing drivers. ;)

    I still didn't see any compelling reason to upgrade that article. What are you getting for the money that you don't already have in XP? A slight improvement in the security model that may diminish over time? Even that small advantage may be offset by software compatibility issues and hardware gaffs.

    What would that reliability chart look like for XP over the same time period? It's rare to see an XP machine crash hard, not as rare as my Linux boxes, but adequate for most applications. What's the compelling reason for a business to move to Vista?

    If the best an 18 month user can say about Vista is that it stays working, then I maintain it is damned by faint praise.

    When it comes to Vista I hear lots of chainsaw...


    ...but don't see much timber.
    Chad_z
    • Answers

      "I still didn't see any compelling reason to upgrade that article."

      That's because thnat wasn't the point of that article.

      "What would that reliability chart look like for XP over the same time period?"

      A better question is "What would that reliability chart HAVE LOOKED LIKE for XP over the same time period AFTER IT WAS INTRODUCED?"

      In the first six months after XP was introduced there were lots and lots of driver issues and app compat problems. The fact that you can say now, five-plus years later, that it is reliable and stable and adequate for most applications actually serves as evidence in favor of the thesis that improvement is incremental.
      Ed Bott
  • That's poor reliability

    My Powerbook (OS X 10.4) routinely goes 60-90+ days of sleep/wake/work cycles before it needs a reboot. I can't remember the last time I had a Kernel Panic (I think that was 10.2)....

    It's pretty pathetic that Vista has to have a "Reliability graph" and that it still BSOD's....
    ITGuy04
    • BSOD are wonderful

      I love how mac users brings BSOD up all the time.
      for your info BSOD means a crash. in software development you are not suppose to swallow errors and just hide them you are suppose spit them out to make sure they don't go un noticed.

      It is not vista causing the blue screens it is one of the device drivers. for those who don't what device drivers is, they are programs that run in the kernel mode of the operating system and pretty much can do any damage they can. you never see Microsoft word, fire fox or IE crashing affecting your machine because those applications are user mode applications. windows and linux are open platforms with an open device driver model. It is very possible that third party developers code could be over writing some piece of memory it is not suppose to or does not do integrity checks. There is not a whole lot the operating system can do about that.
      ericsami
      • BSOD= Kernel Panic

        And I don't care what does it - neither (BSOD or KP) should happen at all.

        I'd also bet IE can cause BSOD's as it's so tightly interwoven into Windows it's not funny. I'm sure there are some pretty low leve kernel calls in IE...

        Oh, and BTW: OS X is an open platform with an open drivel model. Just ask the thousands of companies that make drivers for OSX.
        ITGuy04
        • IE cannot cause a BSOD

          Yes, BSODs shouldn't happen. When they do, it's an indication that you are running code that was badly written and improperly tested. I have only ever seen this happen on Vista with an unsigned driver.

          And were you trying to make a little joke when you said OS X has an "open drivel model"?

          'Cause that's pretty funny.
          Ed Bott
        • Just ask the thousands of companies that make drivers for OSX

          hmmmmm that is one of the biggest jokes i've seen on these forums oh wait your talking about printers. L.O.L
          SO.CAL Guy
  • Reliability great, Trust not so great...

    I'm really pleased that Vista seems to be proving the reliability claims made by Microsoft. I think that starting with Windows 2000, Microsoft has been getting better at producing a fairly reliable OS. My XP machines don't crash often if at all and I expect even more from Vista. I've used and supported DOS, Windows NT/2000, OS/2, Netware and SCO UNIX. I am an MCSE and will continue to upgrade my certifications because I like to eat. I'm also UNIX certified and professionally support HP-UX, Soloaris and Linux as well. So I have a pretty well rounded level of experience in OS's.

    The reason I run Linux at home and at work when given the choice is not only for reliability, which I do get. I just don't trust Microsoft anymore. It would be fair to say I haven't trusted them for about 5 or 6 years now. We all know about the WGA and past and future plans to further restrict our use of the OS and applications and media used under the OS. Microsoft has not hidden their agenda if you pay any attention at all. However, we continue to be presented with proof that Microsoft is not content with these restrictions. They are now and have been secretly collecting information on it's users for who know's what purpose. If you go to news.softpedia.com and search on "WGA, Vista, harvesting" you'll get plenty to think about.

    These are the reasons why I use Linux, OpenOffice, Firefox, Helix and other opensource apps. They are open to scrutiny and I'm not locked into any way of doing things or required to relinquish control of my information or my rights as the creator of my data.

    Bottom line - I just don't trust Microsoft. I haven't in a long time and I can now do something about it.

    Just my two cents.
    gigglypuff
    • You think that's scary

      try this link...

      http://www.saveourcivilliberties.org/en/2004/09/682.shtml

      Quite a bit to think about...
      Kid Icarus-21097050858087920245213802267493
      • Not enough tinfoil

        Seriously, if I took a Hummer to Costco and filled it full of jumbo boxes of Reynolds Wrap I would not have enough tinfoil to protect me from this level of paranoia.

        I'd like to think that this is a clever parody, but it looks instead like the work of one of those guys who used to handwrite little 5000 word notes and post them on telephone poles in my neighborhood. Back in those days, I blamed it on too many psychedelics. I don't know what this guy's excuse is.
        Ed Bott
        • Stop it Ed

          You are killing me!!!! :)
          NonZealot
          • Then you may thank me

            For not quoting the opening lines of this rant/rave:

            "Context, context, context. I was sick hearing that phrase from Egyptologists in regards to my research on the Great Pyramid."

            I swear I am not making this up.
            Ed Bott
      • Wow!

        You may say, "Quite a bit to think about...". I'd say quite a lot to laugh at. Just read what he says about Microsoft Works - what a fruitcake!
        RocketEater
    • And YOU don't need to trust them.

      Experienced users will buy what they want for whatever reason they want. Fine. Microsoft isn't trying to sell you. They are selling a computer ans an appliance. Their customers know next to nothing about computers and they provide a pretty reliable product for those customers.

      Microsoft is collecting the same information about their customers as your local grocer is collecting about their customers! They sign you up for a discount card in exchange for the opportinuty to sell your buying habits to marketers and manufacturers.

      It's no different.
      M Wagner