For the uninitiated, buying a high-end Vista PC can be a daunting experience. Here's PC Advisor's plain English guide to what you should look out for, regardless of your budget.
This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents
PC Advisor's recommendation is to skip Vista's Home Basic edition and plump for either Home Premium, Ultimate or Business. Home Basic offers only a cursory step up from Windows XP Home and doesn't support the fancy graphical interface found on all the other versions of Vista. Buy Home Basic only if your computing needs are limited to word processing, email, listening to music and browsing the web. And only if you're certain you won't ever need more than these.
If your PC needs are this rudimentary, compare the price of an XP PC with a Vista alternative. Windows XP computers will be going for a song for the next few months as retailers clear their shelves. There's no sense forking out for a PC running Vista, which has moderately higher hardware specifications than XP, if you won't benefit from the latest components.
Vista offers a two-way firewall and other useful security tools, but an XP PC will serve just as well provided you add a good third-party security suite and keep the antivirus software up to date.
Home Premium is the obvious choice. It provides the full Vista experience and includes Windows Media Center. Using an Xbox 360 games console, a Microsoft Media Center Extender or other streaming device, you can even use it to share digital content around the home.
The Business version of Vista focuses on secure networking, working collaboratively with colleagues and making IT support more straightforward. Like the comparably priced Vista Home Premium, the Business edition supports touch-sensitive Tablet PCs.
The significantly more expensive Vista Ultimate offers the best of both Business and Home Premium and is pitched at users who have their own small business but also use their PC for pleasure.
There are 32- and 64bit versions of Vista. If you're assembling your own PC or upgrading one from XP, you get to choose which to install, since both are provided on the retail Vista DVD. So far, reports suggest there's little to choose between the 32- and 64bit installs, but it will become more of an issue as 64bit applications are written. Only those with a serious interest in video making, or well-heeled gamers, will require 64bit now.
A Vista PC, on the other hand, should definitely be a 64bit machine. A 64bit computer is more efficient and therefore faster. And you won't want to upgrade your hardware again any time soon. A dual-core PC is a must since it's required to operate the graphics engine, the muscle behind much of Vista as well as many of the promised future applications.
So far, Intel's 64bit Core 2 Duo chips have the edge over AMD's Athlon 64s, but given the competitiveness of the two companies, and AMD's track record for undercutting and otherwise stealing a march on Intel, we advise you to watch this space.
We advise getting a 2GB system, although those on a budget may find that 1GB of RAM will suffice. Modern motherboards can support up to 4GB, but you can upgrade at a later date. Get DDR2 (double-data rate) RAM.
A dedicated video controller means the full PC memory can be used to run applications and perform routine computing tasks; if part of this has to process the graphics, it will adversely affect overall performance (see Graphics, below).
You'll see from the reviews in the April 07 issue of PC Advisor that 500GB hard drives are now all-but standard on high-end PCs. If you're paying £500-£750 for a system, 300GB+ hard drives are a wise buy. You'd be surprised how much space the latest apps demand, and you'll quickly eat up storage once you start ripping albums, recording TV, downloading video or storing your digital photo collection on your PC.
For this reason, get a rewritable DVD drive so you can archive infrequently accessed, but hefty, items such as TV programmes and video footage from a camcorder.
Multi-format drives that can read and write to both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW discs add only a pound or two to the cost of the PC. Internal Blu-ray drives (on which you can store huge high-definition videos) are now available but are extremely expensive – prices will drop relatively soon, and you can always add an HD-DVD or Blu-ray drive at a later stage.
Along with a dual-core processor, the graphics setup is critical. This is because Vista is written around the beautiful Aero interface. And it's more than just a pretty face. Applications currently being written for Vista depend on PCs running them having strong graphics support. You'll find minimum specifications for software requiring at least 256MB, if not 512MB, video cards. You may wish to save money on the specifications of your Vista PC, but graphics isn't an area in which you should cut corners.
You may want a graphics card that supports DirectX 10.0. nVidia's are the first Vista-certified cards that conform to the standard, but the dearth of proper v10.0 games means we don't know how existing cards will fare. And the best DirectX 10.0 cards are expensive. (See www.pcadvisor.co.uk/reviews for reviews of Foxconn and BFG's cards based on nVidia's 8800 GTX and GTS DirectX 10.0 graphics chipsets). Our best advice? Get a DirectX 9.0 card with as much memory as you can, and upgrade to v10.0 once pricing falls below £200.
A dedicated sound card is not as critical as a capable graphics card, but it's something you might want if you want your music and DVDs to sound impressive. If you're buying a relatively inexpensive Vista PC you may be offered onboard audio, as this is an area in which manufacturers know they can cut costs.
Onboard audio means that processing duties are dealt with by a controller built into the motherboard, rather than by a separate hardware component. It generally puts in a good showing these days, and you can now expect six-channel sound from even a very inexpensive desktop PC.
Ideally you'll want 7.1 audio capabilities. This means sound can be processed for, and distributed to, up to seven different satellite speakers spread in an arc around your PC. A separate subwoofer provides the bass. If a 7.1 sound setup busts your budget, go for a 5.1 system, preferably with Dolby Surround Sound support and THX – a standard for home theatre that's supported by most modern games- and film-makers.
The best-known sound-card maker is Creative, which has won many plaudits for its long-established SoundBlaster product range. For the very best quality, look for cards from its high-end X-Fi range.
The Home Premium version of Vista (as well as the all-singing, all-dancing Ultimate Edition) comes with Windows Media Center. From here you can access photos, music, video, games and recorded TV. If you want to use your PC as a hard disk recorder so you can schedule TV recordings, choose a model with a remote control.
At this point, extras such as decent speakers become more important, as does a screen with a very fast refresh rate so you can enjoy smooth DVD playback and gameplay.
Expect Wi-Fi as part of your new setup – we'd be surprised to find anything less than an 802.11n wireless chip provided. This should operate with any older wireless kit you have. Ethernet provides another way of connecting to the internet and to PCs and other electronic kit. As well as being used for most broadband routers and modems, an ethernet port can be the starting point for a Powerline connection. This is a simple way of creating a network using the electrical mains.
One of Windows Vista's more useful features is ReadyBoost. This takes advantage of the flash memory on a USB 2.0 external drive and uses it to supplement the available RAM, making applications run faster. You can plug in anything from a standard flash-based USB storage key to an MP3 player such as an iPod Shuffle and, provided there's memory available on it, your Vista PC will get an immediate performance hike.
To do this you'll want at least one of your USB 2.0 ports to be accessible at the front of the PC. This applies even more if you routinely attach items such as digital cameras or MP3 players. Digital photo fans should look for memory card slots built into the PC. A FireWire connection is invaluable for fast external backups and transferring footage from a camcorder.