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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Graphically Speaking

As already noted, Vista's biggest impact is on the graphical user interface. If your objective is to simply display a Vista logo somewhere on your desktop to the envy of your friends and colleagues, you can get by with something as simple as a Radeon X800-class graphics card. In fact, for its $87 typical street price, you'll get a lot more than that -- 256MB of GDDR3 memory and Direct X 9.0. It is a "Vista-ready" graphics card.

If you're more interested in Vista's Aero Glass capabilities, start counting out $400 to $600 for a card in the nVidia GeForce 8800 GTS or GTX class. (The 8800 GTX has 640MB GDDR3 memory, while the GTX has 768MB GDDR3 memory; both are DirectX 10-compatible.) Even so, don't expect a reasonably settled Vista driver until after the OS is released to the public at large -- and an honestly good driver might not appear for a few months after that.

Somewhere in the middle of the graphics range, you'll find a class of cards into which the GeForce 7900GT and its comparative ATI Radeon-based cousins fit. With 256MB of GDDR3 and a 1,320-MHz memory clock speed, it will do just fine with Vista. The card is DirectX 9.0-compatible and supports Shader Model 3.0, which means you probably won't get the classiest Aero act you'll ever see, but you'll be well beyond the "XP with a Vista logo" look.

Although Vista supports integrated (chip-set-level) graphics, they're value options only -- typically aimed at the PC buyer looking for a box with a low three-digit price tag. For both notebooks and desktops, a graphics card with at least a discrete 256MB of memory -- not shared, not HyperMemory -- is the way to go.

Hard Drive Strategies

In the world of hard drives, bigger in capacity is better. The good news is that bigger is getting less expensive as the days go by. A 320GB hard drive can be found for under $100, and 500GB drives, once the platinum-card standard, have dropped to just below the $150 mark.

The hot setup for desktop systems, of course, is RAID, in which combining two (or more) drives can net you a single virtual volume with the total capacity of the individual drives combined. As a side benefit, drives used in a RAID array are slightly faster than their stand-alone cousins.

RAID is an old technology, originally developed for mainframes so they could use comparatively cheap PC hard drives instead of the megabuck monsters they typically addressed. As it turns out, years later, the total storage afforded by combing drives on PCs is now slightly less expensive than buying a single drive of a similar capacity.

You'll often be able to pick among several configurations, usually RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 0+1 and RAID 5. RAID 0 provides what's known as striping: Your data is written to disks alternately. This gives you a speed increase, but there's no attempt at fault tolerance. If one drive crashes, all your data is gone.

RAID 1 provides mirroring: Your data is written to one drive as your data destination and then rewritten to a second drive (mirrored) for fault tolerance. Although you're paying for two drives while only having the storage capacity of one directly available, your data is safe if either drive crashes.

RAID 0+1 wasn't part of the original RAID specifications but it provides just what its name implies: It's a striped pair of drives that's mirrored onto another striped pair, giving you speed plus fault tolerance.

RAID 5 is one of the more popular versions of the technology, but it does have a drawback. It works across several drives by striping data at the byte level while creating error-correcting code to maintain fault tolerance. If one drive dies, you can replace it with a new, blank disk, and your data can be recreated. Effectively, it's minimal waste with maximum performance and data integrity. The downside? The logic used to do the work can slow your PC's operations down. RAID 5 arrays are typically found in servers or as remote SAN or NAS configurations with their own smarts.

For your laptop, of course, you'll have just one hard drive, but you will usually have a choice of drive speed and capacity. Reject 4,800-rpm drive systems whenever possible. It's a value option to keep portable prices low, but it's not worth the trade-off in performance. In fact, a 5,400-rpm drive is acceptable only if a 7,200-rpm alternative is unavailable. Capacities as high as 300GB are in the works, and 200GB drives should already be available. Go for as much you can.

Naturally, because hard drive prices are so low, you're already considering an external drive to handle those incremental data backups that will make your life so much easier in the long run. Again, go large. External hard drives typically cost $80 to $150 more than their internal counterparts and are available in both single-drive and RAID configurations. Stick to devices that use 7,200-rpm drives, and keep in mind that an external Serial ATA drive is faster than a USB-attached drive.

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