How capable is a 'Vista-capable' PC?

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Redmond (WA) - Last Saturday, Microsoft initiated the first major stage of its promotional campaign for Windows Vista since its announcement of the delay of consumer editions until January. The company's intention is to help maintain steady PC sales through the holiday season, even without Vista being available through retail channels to excite shoppers. But this new campaign's success hinges on the notion that a new and separate Vista logo for Windows XP machines, promising future Vista capability, will be enough to entice customers to make the investment in a new PC.

How much of a PC will that be; and perhaps more importantly, how much confusion will yet another Windows logo program create? The existing Windows Vista logo program already spells out two tiers of minimum hardware buildouts and suggestions, the "Basic" tier of which describes systems that, as vendors understand it, earn the distinction "Vista-ready." The proper adjective for systems that qualify for the "Premium" tier has yet to be determined, though many sources we've spoken with outside Microsoft have been under the impression that it would be "Vista-compliant." (The current v. 0.8 draft specifications for the Vista logo program do not yet specify Microsoft's adjectives of choice, although they would presumably appear on the logos for which partners would qualify.)

"The Windows Vista Capable PC Program," a spokesperson for Microsoft told TG Daily late yesterday, "is a program that will provide information to customers about PCs they can buy today that will be able to run the next version of Microsoft Windows operating system. PCs with the Windows Vista Capable logo will ensure the best possible computing experience today, while helping create a seamless transition to Windows Vista."

According to Microsoft's partner program Web site, which publishes support information for OEMs, the company intends to completely roll out its "Vista Capable" logo program before the end of June. This means consumers all over North America will find XP systems bearing this logo. If one type of PC earns a "Vista Capable" logo, and another is destined to earn the "Vista Ready" logo, what's the difference between the two? Microsoft's spokesperson told us we shouldn't even be asking that question, stating, "The Windows Vista Capable program does not represent minimum hardware requirements for Windows Vista."

This may not be the same impression Microsoft's OEM partners are receiving. On the partner page describing the Vista Capable program, beneath the heading, "Technical Requirements," reads the following: "Windows Vista Capable PCs must meet all the criteria for the 'Designed for Windows XP 32-bit or 64-bit' logo. In addition, the PCs require a combination of essential hardware that will define sufficient overall Windows Vista performance - a triumvirate of CPU plus memory plus graphics. PCs should have a modern CPU which includes at least 512 megabytes of memory, and a DirectX 9 class graphics processor."

If the partner page is accurate, then there indeed are technical requirements for PCs to qualify for the Vista Capable logo, which are comprised of a few amendments (elevated here to the role of "triumvirate") to the existing requirements for the "Designed for Windows XP" logo. Up to now, consumers have been given the impression that Windows Vista will require not only more hardware horsepower than the standard PC, but substantially more, if only for users to obtain what has been described as "the full Vista experience." Microsoft's new tack, post-delay, would appear to take the opposite extreme position: that today's PCs are at least adequate for providing whatever experience consumers should expect to receive from Vista.

A lot depends on what the spokesperson meant by "seamless," when referencing "the seamless transition to Windows Vista." Some might argue that "seamless" implies the existence of only an operating system upgrade. Could a memory boost and a graphics card replacement perhaps sneak in there somewhere, and yet still hide the seam?

Here, based on drafts and other information available from Microsoft, is what clearly appears to us to be the current sets of key hardware requirements for the four classes of Windows logos that are currently under way, or are under contention:

  Designed for Windows XP Windows Vista Capable Windows Vista Ready (Basic tier) Windows Vista "Compliant" (Premium tier)
Main memory 128 MB 512 MB 512 MB (req.)
1 GB (rec.)
1 GB (req.)
2 GB (rec.)
Graphics driver support DirectX 7 DirectX 9 DirectX 9.0L (for WDDM) DirectX 9.0L w/ Pixel Shader 2.0
Dedicated graphics memory None None (req.)
64 MB
(1280 x 1024)
(rec. for Aero)
None 128 MB
(1280 x 1024)
Graphics memory bandwidth N/A 1800 MB/s
(rec. for Aero)
None 1800 MB/s

For CPU requirements, Microsoft is leaving it to the CPU manufacturers themselves to determine the minimum specifications for Vista Capable systems using their brands - this is what Microsoft means by its requirement for a "modern CPU." But for their part, the CPU manufacturers aren't making minimum requirements, but instead "recommendations," which leaves it unclear as to whether OEMs whose systems don't meet Intel's or AMD's recommendations, will still qualify for the Vista Capable logo. For desktop systems, Intel recommends, at the very least, a Pentium 4 630 CPU, which is a 3 GHz single-core model with hyperthreading, 2 MB of L2 cache, and 800 MHz system bus. (While it's at it, Intel recommends the 945G Express chipset for the motherboard.) Meanwhile, AMD's and Via's "recommendations" cover the full gamut of their current product lines.

As the hardware specification draft evolves, Microsoft's requirements for both system and graphics memory appear to be relaxed somewhat. Previously, the company has told us that 2 GB of RAM would be the optimum choice for users wishing the full Vista experience. But while the company still holds to that recommendation in principle, even the main memory requirement for the Premium tier backs down a bit, stepping down to a formula which works like this: If a builder should choose to implement main memory above 512 MB, then the operating system should be capable of allocating at least half of the memory pool over and above that 512 MB, for graphics or "other purposes." If we total up some of these "other purposes," such as SuperFetch, the 2 GB recommendation still holds, though it's not as solid as it seemed to be just a month ago.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most obvious relaxing of hardware requirements concerns graphics driver support on the Premium tier. The version 0.8 draft of the Vista Logo Requirements for Systems states only that graphics cards used in the Premium tier support DirectX 9.0L with Pixel Shader model 2.0. Last year, the company had plans to push DirectX 10 (at one time, to have been promoted to "Windows Graphics Foundation") as a Premium tier requirement, which engineers stated would enable consumers to physically and readily see the difference between a Basic system (DirectX 9.0L) and a Premium system (DirectX 10). Now, the Logo Requirements do not even mention DirectX 10 or "WGF," which could be an indication that the company wishes to leave the door open for itself to refrain from having to ship DirectX 10 in November.

What's also worth noting is that the capability for Vista Capable - and, for that matter, Vista Basic - systems to run the "Aero" 3D-rendered user interface, is clearly optional. Premium tier systems must run Aero, and must have 128 MB of dedicated graphics memory enabled, for producing 1280 x 1024 resolutions or higher (64 MB for 1024 x 768 but no higher). Even then, the system should be capable of requisitioning half of system memory above the first 512 MB, for use in graphics rendering. While Aero is extremely graphics intensive, it's becoming clear that the push to compel manufacturers to beef up their minimum requirements to support Aero, has subsided. Vista Capable systems will not have to run Aero, which means that most of the new operating system features that consumers have seen thus far, through screenshots and marketing promotions, may not be visible through new desktop or mobile computers purchased between now and January.


What's your opinion? Are you convinced that a "Vista-capable" PC can do what you expect it to do, or what you want it to do? Tell us...and perhaps, in so doing, tell Microsoft. There are

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