A Vista primer for the consumer

Do you find all these blogs about Windows Vista confusing? Here are some simple guidelines for the consumer getting ready to move to Vista.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

For months you've been reading blog after blog about Vista -- most of them from people with more impressive credentials than mine telling you what they think of Microsoft's latest incarnation of Windows.

Of course, readers like you have not been hesitant to tell us what you think, either.  Many of you are Macintosh or Linux aficionados who wouldn't use a Microsoft product if Bill Gates gave it to you and delivered it to your doorstep himself.  Fine.  I appreciate the finer points of all four major operating systems and I have come to conclude that their respective market positions have far more to do with marketing decisions made by the various vendors involved than anything remotely related to the suitability of any of them over another for any particular task.  Either way, this article isn't for you. 

The geeks among you already know what's in store for you if you either upgrade to Vista or if you go out and buy a brand new high-end workstation.  But what about the consumer?  So far, I've read nothing that helps the typical Windows computer user determine if Vista is in their future. 

I qualified that because if you are using Macintosh (or UNIX/Linux) now, there is nothing about Vista which is going to make you wish you were a Windows user instead of sticking with what you use now. 

Unlike most of my colleagues, I get a kick out of seeing how littlehardware is really required to run the latest and greatest software.  Seeing as most consumers are looking for the best 'bang for the buck' instead of raw computing power, I decided to think about Vista from the consumer's perspective.

So what should the typical consumer do about Vista?

Should you move to Vista?  To tell the truth, if you are running Windows XP now and you are happy with your system, I see no compelling reason for you to move to Vista.  At least not yet.  So what if you are dissatisfied, or simply WANT TO move to Vista but have no idea how to decide which way to go?

There a two ways to go about it.  First, determine if you can use your existing hardware.  Unfortunately, Microsoft's Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor, while accurate, is not very helpful to the uninitiated.  Sure, Vista will run on my seven-year-old 866MHz Pentium III but not anywhere near well enough to justify moving from Windows XP to Vista.  (Just ask my wife!) 

Rule of thumb #1:  If your existing Windows XP computer is more than three years old, it is probably too slow to run Vista 'comfortably'.

Rule of thumb #2:  If you have to buy additional memory, a DVD-ROM drive, and a new graphics card (and perhaps a new hard drive) in addition to buying a Vista upgrade, the cost of the upgrade quickly approaches the cost of a brand-new entry-level computer with a dramatically faster processor (not to mention a full manufacturer's warranty). 

If I haven't talked you out of upgrading your existing hardware yet (because you are a geek like me, or) because you have a two-year-old 2GHz+ machine with 1GB+ of RAM, and a robust graphics card, then don't settle for less than Vista Home Premium (and, if you have the cash, seriously consider Vista Ultimate -- yes it is very pricey but two years from now, you may wish you had those Ultimate EXTRAS.) 

To those of you who are now discouraged about having to replace your old hardware to move to Vista, take heart.  It really isn't that painful.  I am writing this on a brand-new system with a 3.33MHz Intel Celeron D processor with 512MB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive.  These things are available online from a number of vendors for well under $400.  (Mine will end up costing me $330 with the rebate.) 

The Celeron D is currently at the bottom of the Intel line-up but it is plenty good enough to run Vista (even with the AERO interface turned on -- you will need Vista Home Premium to get AERO capabilities.)  There are plenty of deals available in this $300 to $400 price-range running either the Intel Celeron D or the AMD Sempron family of processors.  And, for another $50, you can kick it up to 1GB.  (Definitely money well spent.) 

You've undoubtedly heard that Vista is a resource hog.  Well, that isn't quite true -- not if you consider that many of you bought your Windows XP systems with 128MB of RAM -- and spent several times as much money for that system than you'll pay today for an entry-level Vista system with 512MB of RAM. 

Your geek friends may even tell you that Linux runs in considerably less memory.  Nevertheless, while Linux can be configured to run with less RAM than Vista, Linux vendors consistently recommend 512MB or more. 

If your budget isn't quite so lean (say $500 to $800), you can start off with 1GB of RAM, a dual-core processor, and a flat panel display for exceptional performance.  Add a second GB of RAM for around $100.  High-end systems start at $1,000 and go up from there but, for the consumer, they are probably not worth it (unless the consumer is also a serious 'gamer').

In the 'best bang for the buck' category, look for:

  • 2 GB of RAM (max).  For most consumers, 1GB is sufficient.
  • 17" flat panel display.  Larger monitors are still too costly.
  • DVD/RW drives.  They are only a few dollars more than DVD-ROM drives and give you dramatically more archival storage capacity than DVD/CDRW.

If you still have money left over, look for systems with:

  • dual-channel memory. For quicker loading of programs and retrieval of data.
  • dual-core processors. For enhanced performance at a given processor speed.

To sum things up, if you are a typical consumer on a shoestring budget, any entry-level Vista computer is a better buy than upgrading a three-year-old computer.  Entry-level systems are readily available now for $300-$400.  Mid-range systems run from $500 to $800. 

While there is, as yet, no compelling reason to move to Vista, it is not too early for the consumer to buy his first Windows Vista machine. 

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