Buying a Computer for Vista ... and Beyond

With careful planning, you can buy PCs that will both support Windows Vista and last well beyond today's standard life span

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So, now that you're back at square one, trying to decide what your hardware configuration should be, what do you do? Obviously, you keep reading.

Starting at the Core

Let's start by tossing out all of the processor choices that include single-core CPUs -- even those with hyperthreading, which let you pretend you have a two-core model. Although single-cores are getting cheaper as they're being pushed aside, don't succumb to the temptation. They'll carry the weight right now, but not in a year or two.

It would also be wise to ignore the quad cores for at least the next six months to a year. Wide-eyed gamers with slack jaws and spasmodic thumbs are always waiting to dip into the bleeding edge. More often than not, there's no need for it until well after the fact, when software finally acknowledges the hardware's existence. It hasn't happened yet for the quads.

Last caveat: You might still be able to find some AMD dual-core (X2) 939-pin processors. Don't go looking for them, and ignore them if you happen upon them. The AM2 versions (a 940-pin model, socket "AM2" device that supports DDR2 memory) are current.

As for dual core in general, both Intel and AMD are touting performance-per-watt as the benchmark of a great CPU. Balderdash. Short pipelines, large L1 cache and a quick clock speed make fast processors. Stay as much above 2 GHz as your budget will allow. For example, the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800 (with AM2 socket) or Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, both clocked at 2.4 GHz, would make excellent choices.

You could jump up to Intel's Extreme or AMD's FX versions, but unless you're doing mega graphics manipulation or video processing as more than a hobby, it's a bit overindulgent. On the other end, processors closer to 2 GHz will get the job done, but you might start to feel the drag in 10 to 14 months as software catches up to the hardware.

(For details about all the desktop processors available today from AMD and Intel, see our CPU Buyer's Guide.)

If you're talking laptops, you may naturally have to make some adjustments to the suggested processor specification. We are often willing to give up performance for longer operating time before the battery goes dead, and that means slower CPU clock speeds. Even so, try to stay at least 10% to 15% above Microsoft's suggested minimums -- and don't forget to factor in any clock speed fallback that might occur as a result of power management. If your unit lowers processor speed to conserve power when it doesn't think you're running a demanding application, you could find yourself slipping below Microsoft's recommended minimum.

Tanks Full of Memories

Forget about 512MB of memory. It may sound like we're going out on a limb here, but we'd suggest a 1GB minimum for notebooks and 2GB for desktops. If you're doing real work with your laptop (using it as a desktop replacement that you transit between home and work, for example), then shoot for 2GB right off the bat, especially if it has an integrated (chip set) graphics solution that shares system memory.

Why the severe departure from Microsoft's recommendation? Memory is one of the more critical system factors. Everything uses it. With Vista bulking up on security, all of the optional memory-resident software that you might have installed on XP is no longer optional. Also, as application software begins to more fully utilize multiple cores, the demand on memory will increase.

This is important, because when Windows finds itself low on system memory, it starts using your hard drive in its place. You never, ever want to give Windows the opportunity to go to your hard drive except when your application needs to write or retrieve data. The performance drop when polling into and out of memory to and from a hard drive is immense -- and the default hard drives found in most portable computers are even slower than those of their desktop counterparts.

Both AMD's AM2 processors and Intel's CPUs now use DDR2 memory, so that's a no-brainer. What no one will probably explain to you is that "dual-channel" memory is a faster way to go. This simply means that whatever final amount of memory you select, it should be in multiples of two. For example, a 1GB choice would be composed of two 512MB sticks, 2GB could be either two 1GB sticks or four 512MB sticks, and so on.

You'll also see bandwidth ratings attached to memory (PC-4200, 533-MHz bus; PC-5300, 667-MHz bus; and so on). The larger the number, the higher the bandwidth. Your computer vendor will recommend the correct bandwidth for the PC you're buying. It's matched to the motherboard in the system. Circumventing the recommendation adds nothing.

Higher-bandwidth memory is most often associated with higher-performance computers or processors used with high-demand applications such as video, large-scale graphics editing or gaming. You'll pay extra for it, and if you don't need it, you're wasting your money.

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