When the IT industry is in a transitional period, at it is today, with the release of Windows Vista less than a year away, buying workstation hardware today entails some tough decisions.
By now you've probably heard about Aero, Vista's GUI. Since Windows 3.1, Windows has been designed so that the desktop is composed of overlaid bitmap images. Aero mostly does away with the bitmap imaging and instead renders the desktop using vector graphics. As you might imagine, rendering the Windows desktop in real time consumes a lot of video memory and a lot of processing power.
In my experience working with Vista so far, a PCI Express video card with 256 MB of RAM does a great job of running Aero. If you're buying workstations today, even with an eye toward the future, you don't need to worry about video just yet, unless you happen to need a high-end video card or unless the computer you're buying comes with a high-end video card anyway.
The reason why you need not worry about the video requirement yet is because video cards can be added on at any time. Right now, a basic 3D graphics card with 256 MB of RAM and a dedicated processor will cost you anywhere from $100 to about $500, depending on how fast it is. But by the time Vista hits store shelves, there will be such a demand for high-end video cards that there will likely be bargains available.
Another reason why I recommend waiting on a video card unless you absolutely need one now is because a card with 256 MB of RAM does a great job of running Aero, but graphically intensive applications, such as games or CAD programs, could benefit from additional memory. During my most recent visit to an electronics store, I didn't see any graphics cards with more than 256 MB of RAM (although some may exist), but I'd be willing to bet that some will be available by the year-end.
Good news: When it comes to preparing for Vista, hard disk space isn't an issue. Sure, Vista consumes a lot of disk space, but with the capacity of hard drives shipping with PCs these days, disk space shouldn't be a consideration. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know exactly how much disk space Vista consumes, but I do know that current beta of Vista and the current beta of Office 12 are loaded onto one of my test machines, and collectively, they consume about 11 GB of disk space.
Actually, I will give one bit of advice regarding hard disk selection: Purchase workstations with SATA hard drives. SATA drives work well with Windows XP, but Vista is going to be specifically optimized to take advantage of SATA drives.
In my first article on this topic, I compared the transitional period the IT industry is in right now with the previous period of great transition, in 1994-95. The next article looked at issues related to your choice of CPU and memory when it comes to buying workstation hardware if you're thinking about upgrading to Vista at some point. One final thought: If you want to go hog wild with your hardware, Vista will definitely help you to make the most of it, but I attempted to make my recommendations so that they would allow you to see a benefit today, and not just in the future.
Fast Guide: Purchasing hardware for Vista
Tip 1: Purchasing workstation hardware during transitional times
Tip 2: Buying a PC to run Vista? Consider CPU, memory issues
Tip 3: Buying a PC? Consider CPU, video, disk space issues related to Vista
About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. He writes regularly for SearchWinSystems.com and other TechTarget sites.
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