Vista Will HumIf You Pay Up
PC makers would love to make you think you can run Microsoft's new Vista operating system on a $500 computer. Don't buy itthe belief or the computer. Internet forums and even some of the PC makers themselves, notably Dell, have been deluged with complaints about Vista. But in many cases the problem lies not with the operating system but with the cheap, inadequate hardware it's running on.
Vista is more demanding on hardware than the Windows XP it replaces. Vista might run on those cheaper computers, but chances are that it will be slow, dull, and disappointing. The desktop PC you need for Vista will cost more like $900 at retail, or $1,200 with a good flat-panel screen. The ideal computerwith plenty of memory, storage, and powerwould cost closer to $1,500. Add even more if you want the package to be portable in a laptop.
Many consumers, accustomed to dirt-cheap computers, are unwilling to spend that kind of money and might wait until hardware prices come down. That's the gamble that Microsoft always makes with a Windows upgrade, says Michael Cherry, a market analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "They bet that PC prices will fall quickly enough to make the new OS a success."
Meanwhile, if you want a Vista machine now, here are the add-ons you'll need to really make the system hum on that $500 desktop:
Vista Home Premium ($50). Home Basic might run OK on one of the less-expensive PCs, but it doesn't employ Vista's eye-catching look. Half the fun of the new Windows is the better looks, and they are remarkably better in more expensive versions. Plus, Premium comes with the media center software that helps in managing music, photos, and videos. Add a good TV tuner card ($150), and your PC can record HDTV. You could opt for Vista Ultimate, but that adds another $180 or so and doesn't add much for casual home users.
At least 2 gigabytes of random access memory ($150)preferably 4GB ($350). Vista needs room to flex its muscles, and RAM is not a place to cut corners. Still, at about $100 per gig, you might wait for the second 2GB as RAM prices are falling this year, after staying high in 2006. Be warned, though, that memory prices might start rising again in the fall.
A graphics card with at least 256 megabytes of memory ($100). Vista's pretty looks put a load on the graphics gear, too much so for video processors that are built into the motherboard of cheaper PCs. You don't need a high-end card unless you're an intense gamer, in which case you're already buying a $2,000 computer.
A dual-core processor ($100). After several years of not being an issue, the microprocessor makes a difference with Vista. More power is good, and the operating system can benefit from a chip with two brains, while other software is also increasingly written for multiple cores. The first quad cores are appearing, but they're overkill for consumers. Intel's chips lately have been winning in competitions for speed, but AMD's chips are less expensive and still good performers.
Final cost: about $900. Keep in mind, though, that you'll want to get another 2GB of memory sometime this summer; if you're lucky and willing to plug it in yourself, that might cost you only $100 as prices drop. So for about $1,000, you'll not only get a PC ready to run Windows Vista Home Premium but one capable of some casual video editing and other tasks that would choke a less-expensive machine.