Will lame hardware cripple Vista?

I've been reading lots of Vista articles recently -- especially those from my colleague, Ed Bott (see Ed Bott's Microsoft Report).  I was particularly intrigued by his first article in his 'mythbuster' series (Vista Mythbusters #1: It's not a hardware hog).
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

I've been reading lots of Vista articles recently -- especially those from my colleague, Ed Bott (see Ed Bott's Microsoft Report).  I was particularly intrigued by his first article in his 'mythbuster' series (Vista Mythbusters #1: It's not a hardware hog).  His very next article was entitled On the trail of the $1000 Vista PC where Ed points out that anyone can go on-line and buy a really nice Vista "Premium Ready" computer for around $630. 

I've been around Information Technology since the days when it was still called "Data Processing" and I have come to accept as an axiom that any computer that you purchase will survive no more than ONE operating system upgrade.  The second OS upgrade will simply require too much processor to run. 

While my university IT department had long-since adopted three-year life-cycles on everything computing, during the 80's and 90's many university departments with which I worked kept workstations for five years or more (and when they did buy new, it was often the least capable machine available) so I regularly challenged myself to configure the lamest system that I could in such a way that it would remain completely functional with the latest operating system.  This was fairly easy in the days of DOS but with Windows the challenge became greater and the truth of my axiom became clear. 

By the time Windows Vista ships, it will have been over five years since Windows XP was first introduced to the public.  This is an unprecedented period of time for an industry governed by Moore's law (which states that processing power doubles every 18 months.)  With this in mind, I just had to ask myself: 

On HOW LAME a machine will Vista actually run?

Ed's article was of no help.  His testbed was a two-year-old 3.2GHz system with 2GB of RAM, a Radeon 9600 graphics adapter, and a 160GB hard drive.  While Ed describes this as "mid-range" hardware -- it is still dramatically more capable than most of today's "mid-range" machines -- let alone what many of our readers are likely to have on their dining room tables.

Back in July, I had installed Vista Beta 2 (build 5483) on a one-year-old Dell Latitude D610 with 512MB of RAM and, to be truthful, I was quite unimpressed.  The first thing it did was boot up to a 504MB footprint!  And it was sluggish as hell.  Needless to say, I was disappointed.

That experience brought to mind the minimum requirements for Windows XP when it first shipped, in 2001:  A 300MHz processor and 128MB of RAM.  (It would "run" with 64MB but you had to give up functionality.) 

Anyone running Windows XP quickly learned that 300MHz was tolerable IF you kicked it up to 256MB of RAM.  Since that time, anyone who is serious about multitasking has learned that Windows XP does best with 512MB of RAM and 20GB of disk space. 

Interestingly enough, that 300MHz baseline was the typical processor speed available when Windows 98 first shipped.  (Thus, reinforcing my axiom.) 

I didn't give up.  I bought more memory and quickly discovered that Vista Beta 2 had a threshold of about 700MB and, when multitasking, quickly consumed 1.2GB of RAM.  This reinforced another old axiom of mine: 

Whatever Microsoft SAYS that you require, double it to get 'acceptable' performance, and quadruple it if you want to multitask.

I kept reading those articles though and as each new build came out, authors would assure their readers that it was so much better than Beta 2.  All the while, every time I issued a 'bug report' I got the response that the reported issue was fixed in Release Candidate 1 (RC1).  Well, I finally got a copy of Vista RC1. 

As it happens, I own a (circa 2000) Dell Dimension 4100.  It came with Windows 98se but I promptly replace that with Windows 2000 and, as soon as the (decidedly faster) Windows XP Professional came out, I upgraded to that.  So, I decided to spend last weekend setting it up to dual boot Windows XP and Vista RC1.

What a pleasant surprise! 

My Dimension 4100 is an 866MHz Pentium III with 512MB of PC133 RAM.  Needless to say, by today's standards, this workstation is truly lame.  It still runs Windows XP just great but, according to my axiom, it should not run Vista worth a damn -- despite the fact that this hardware met the MINIMUM requirements published by Microsoft (as did that 300MHz 128MB Windows 98se workstation when Windows XP first shipped).

(NOTE: 800MHz was the typical processor speed when Windows XP first shipped.)

Based upon my earlier tests with Beta 2 on the one-year-old Dell, I expected RC1 to perform about like Windows XP did on that 300MHz Pentium II.  Boy was I wrong! 

First and foremost, Vista RC1 complains not in the least about the lame hardware.  It takes a long time to boot up but hey, if you're a geek like me, your machine's always on anyway!  There is no Aero support but the test is about functionality, not about being pretty. 

Upon logging on, I did not see much of the sluggishness I expected either.  Yes, there are visual artifacts if you try to push it to its limits but it DOES NOT run out of memory.  Instead, once everything is loaded and the system has a chance to settle into a rhythm, Vista RC1 has a footprint of just under 270MB.  Exercise it a bit and it jumps into the 320MB range.  Still decent. 

I haven't yet loaded up MS Office 2003 but from what I can see, Vista will easily live up to Microsoft's promises for MINIMUM hardware. 

All that said...

I am not recommending that anyone invest $100 for an OS upgrade on a six-year-old machine! 

Can it be done?  YES -- if the hardware is already in place.  But, if you need to add memory and a larger hard drive, that is a different story.  And if you want AERO you will have to add a new graphics card.  That $100 upgrade quickly becomes a $300 upgrade and you still have a six-year-old machine with PC133 memory and plenty of systems which could fail any day. 

IMHO, a far better investment would be to wait until January and buy a brand new entry-level Vista-capable machine for $500!  Better yet, kick in another $200 and get one really nice $700 workstation that can last you another six years! 

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