Which PC Is A Windows Vista PC?

It appears that PC vendors are nearly as confused as consumers when it comes to determining what is a Vista PC. Here is the lowdown on what's out there,

February 8, 2007

10 Min Read
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Microsoft's Windows Vista has finally gotten into the marketplace, but it may take a while for the marketplace to really get into Vista. A week after Vista's commercial introduction, there is a flood of advertising, in-store displays, and Web-site promotions from PC vendors, all touting the new operating system. Much of it, however, still seems a little confused over what consumers need to know about the various versions of Vista and the hardware required to run all the features.

For example, I wandered into a local branch of office-supply giant Staples the weekend of February 3, 2007, to check out the prices on Vista upgrades and the availability of computers with Vista installed. The results were more confusing than enlightening.

Which PC Is A Vista PC?

•  Shopping For Vista PCs•  Vista Capable Vs. Premium Ready•  What Do The Stickers Mean?

The laptop displays were labeled with an "Express Upgrade" placard that told shoppers they could "buy with confidence today." Some of the laptops on display wore the "Microsoft Vista Installed" sticker; for the rest, the placard offered a chart of manufacturers' upgrade offers for each of the four consumer versions of Vista -- without explaining that some might be more appropriate than others. The best information came from a knowledgeable salesman who understood the graphics issues and handed out a copy of Microsoft brochure titled The "Wow" Starts Now that included a chart that compared the features of Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate.

This is not an unusual situation. Currently, if consumers want solid information about what hardware they need to buy to run which version of Vista, they're going to have to do some research on their own. (If they're in a hurry, they may also have to shop around -- a few days after Vista was released, at least one consumer who needed to purchase a notebook in a hurry reported that the shelves of his local retailers were stripped of Windows XP systems and that the Vista computers hadn't arrived yet.)

It's not only stores, of course. Newspaper advertising for new PCs has already begun to tout various versions of Vista, but again without spelling out why one laptop comes with Vista Home Basic and another with Vista Home Premium. (Interestingly, in the Sunday, February 4, 2007, edition of the Boston Globe, several companies advertised the complete range of Vista upgrades, but no PC seller offered a machine with Vista Ultimate installed -- Home Basic and Home Premium were the two versions available.)

And Online? No Better
The situation online isn't much better. Web sites let shoppers customize their purchase online and even pick which version of Vista they want, but may or may not provide recommendations and explanations that would guide buyers in purchasing the hardware add-ons that the "premium" versions of Vista really need to run well. Tangent, for example, put out a press release last week announcing that its "PC, workstation, server and mobile computing solutions are now shipping with Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, " but when I checked the Burlingame, CA, company's Web site, it didn't yet mention Vista.

On the other hand, Web-based seller PCs for Everyone offered a configuration application similar to HP's that included a link to a more detailed version of the Microsoft chart (with one mistake -- it erroneously omits support for Aero from the Vista Business column).

Perhaps the best job of explaining Vista's demands I found was done by the Dell Web site. A "Hardware Requirements" chart offered two columns that correspond to Microsoft's own criteria for "Vista Capable" and "Premium Ready" PCs, and added a useful third column, "Dell Recommends." Unfortunately, the chart wasn't easy to find -- it was buried under the "Windows Vista" icon that appears on the home page for each of Dell's PC product categories.

Vista Capable Vs. Premium Ready
The primary features that create the most confusion for consumers -- and the ones that seem least explained on vendor sites -- are the Vista features that have gotten the most attention: its new graphics model and flashy Aero interface. While HP's site, for example, does a good job of recommending 2GB of memory when a shopper clicks on the button to select Vista Ultimate, it doesn't attempt to explain the more complex requirements for graphics hardware that uses a WDDM driver and 128MB of memory.

Which PC Is A Vista PC?

•  Shopping For Vista PCs•  Vista Capable Vs. Premium Ready•  What Do The Stickers Mean?

Unfortunately, Microsoft itself hasn't been much help. While Microsoft created a set of designations that indicate whether a PC has Vista installed, or is capable of running some version of Vista (see sidebar, "Vista Sticker Shock"), the program's designations of "Windows Vista Capable" and "Windows Vista Premium Ready" don't provide a complete answer to crucial distinctions.

For the record, Microsoft says that a "Vista Capable" PC (that is, one that would run Vista Home Basic), should include:

  • A "modern" processor (at least 800MHz).

  • 512 MB of system memory.

  • A graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable.

"Vista Capable" PCs support the security features of Vista -- Windows Defender and Windows Firewall -- and Parental Controls, but not the advanced graphics and Aero interface features, or media and networking features. PCs with Vista Basic installed wear "Windows Vista Basic" stickers.

Requirements for "Premium Ready" PCs include:

  • Minimum 1GHz 32-bit or 64-bit processor.

  • Miniumum 1 GB of system memory.

  • Support for DirectX 9 graphics with a WDDM driver, Pixel Shader 2.0 and 32 bits per pixel, and 128 MB of graphics memory (either dedicated or shared -- if the graphics processor uses shared memory, then no additional graphics memory is required beyond the 1 GB system memory requirement but the diversion of memory may impact overall system performance; if the GPU uses dedicated memory then 128MB is required.)

Unfortunately, while "Premium Ready" is the clearest indicator of support for Aero and advanced media-center and networking features, there is no "Premium Ready" sticker.

Also, Microsoft's Web site notes that some product features may require advanced or additional hardware:

  • Receiving and playing TV programs requires a TV tuner card and a remote control which complies with the Windows Vista Remote Control Specification. TV playing is supported in Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate.

  • BitLocker Drive Encryption, available in Vista Ultimate (and in Vista Enterprise, sold only to corporate volume licensees), requires an integrated Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2 chip or USB 2.0 key.

  • Tablet PC support is available in Home Premium, Vista Ultimate, Vista Business, and Vista Enterprise, but the PC must meet the Tablet PC specification that includes an electromagnetic digitizer pen.

Vista isn't the first new version of Windows to push the technology envelope. But in the past, the primary determiners of whether a new version of Windows would run were memory and processor speed, both requirements that could be stated simply. (For Windows 95, for example, Microsoft recommended an Intel 80486 or compatible processor and 8Mb of RAM -- numbers that fit easily into a product description on a price tag.)

With Vista, things are more complicated. In particular, retailers are going to have to find new ways of describing graphics hardware that supports the advanced functions of Vista ("Aero-ready"?) and describes how system memory is divided up by the CPU and the graphics processor. And PC customers are going to have to learn some new questions to ask.

Vista Sticker Shock: What Do The Logos Mean?
Microsoft has tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to create programs that guide computer users toward the right version of Vista that they may want to upgrade to. These programs are also supposed to alert PC, software, and peripherals buyers as to which devices and packages will work with the version of Vista that offers the features they want to use.

Which PC Is A Vista PC?

•  Shopping For Vista PCs•  Vista Capable Vs. Premium Ready•  What Do The Stickers Mean?

The heart of the effort is a set of Vista logo stickers that are appearing on everything from PCs to keyboards to USB memory keys. However, the stickers themselves aren't very informative -- and in fact, they may make you even more confused than you were before. In order to decipher Microsoft's logo code, you've got to know what they mean and how relevant they are to what you're looking for.

Here are some explanations of the stickers and their meanings:

This sticker identifies PCs that are sold with Windows XP installed, but can be upgraded to Vista by the buyer, usually through the "Express Upgrade" program intended by Microsoft to boost PC sales during the 2006 holiday season. The upgrade program covers PCs bought between October 26, 2006 and March 15, 2007. The availability of an upgrade depends on the PC maker, and the sticker is not specific to any version of Vista. The fine print on the sticker program Web site says, in effect, that PCs wearing this logo will definitely support the Vista Basic features (see next sticker below), and may or may not support some or all of the Vista Premium features.

This sticker identifies PCs capable of supporting what Microsoft calls "the core experiences of Windows Vista, such as innovations in organizing and finding information, security, and reliability" -- the features of the Windows Vista Home Basic version.

Products with this sticker, according to Microsoft, are able to "take advantage of features in Windows Vista to deliver excellent performance, ease of use, and the best experience possible, whether you are enjoying music, photos, and videos, or communicating with friends." Translation: this PC will run Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Business, or Windows Vista Ultimate -- but some features may require additional hardware like TV tuners.

The "Certified for Windows Vista" logo is not intended for use on PCs. Rather, it is for hardware and software products that have been tested and approved by Microsoft, and is intended to build customer confidence in the product's compatibility with Vista. Criteria are different for different types of products. Software, for example, must use the MSI installer. Products that require software drivers may benefit most of all from the testing process, as approval makes the drivers eligible for distribution through Microsoft's distribution mechanisms such as Software Update.

The "Works With Windows Vista" logo gives peripheral device makers a way to hitch their wagon to the Vista star. No certification is required: Inclusion in the program is basically on the honor system until a product is demonstrated not to work with Vista, at which point Microsoft can lift the sticker. This sticker is likely to appear on keyboards and mice and headsets and USB devices that don't require drivers.

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