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Buying a PC to run Vista? Consider CPU, memory issues

Buying workstations entails tough decisions when the industry is in transition, as it is now, with the shift from 32- to 64-bit systems, as well as the upcoming release of Vista.

When the IT industry is in a transitional period, as it is today, buying workstation hardware today entails some tough decisions. The reason I call this a transitional period is because of the gradual shift going on from 32-bit to 64-bit systems, and because of release of Windows Vista, which is less than a year away.

Here are my recommendations for purchasing workstation hardware today, so that you'll be able to make the transition to Vista when it is released.

I hate to recommend a CPU type because there are such strong arguments and opinions on both sides of the fence. A lot of people are staying away from 64-bit CPUs because 64-bit operating systems require 64-bit drivers, and right now there aren't many 64-bit drivers to be found.

However, 64-bit workstations are a good investment. Right now a computer with a 64-bit Athlon processor costs about the same as one with a 32-bit CPU, but a 64-bit can run either a 32-bit or a 64-bit operating system. Even if you think you'll be running a 32-bit version of Windows XP for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to invest in workstations with 64-bit CPUs. That way you can run a 32-bit operating system today, but if you want to move to a 64-bit operating system in the future, you won't have to buy new computers.

But the decision on whether or not to buy a system with a dual-core processor is not as cut and dried.

Having a dual-core processor is like having two processors integrated into a single piece of silicon. But dual-core processors cost more than single-core processors. The price differential isn't huge, but if you have a lot of workstations to buy or if you're on a tight budget, the price difference will be an issue.

More importantly, unless you're doing some serious multitasking, Windows XP doesn't usually gain a big advantage from running on a dual-core processor. XP was designed to support multiple processors, but Microsoft created the operating system assuming that most people would use it on single-processor machines. Consequently, most of the code in XP is single-threaded.

A single thread of execution cannot be divided among multiple processors or processor cores. That's not to say that XP can't take advantage of dual-core processors. If you run multiple, high-demand applications concurrently or if you run multithreaded applications, you might see a performance gain from a dual-core processor.

Vista is a multithreaded operating system specifically designed to take advantage of dual-core processors. If you're serious about planning for the future, my advice is to start buying workstations that have dual-core, 64-bit processors that are backwards compatible with 32-bit operating systems.

Memory may be the resource that Vista is more dependent on than anything else. In early betas of Vista, a 64-bit machine with 512 MB of RAM was painfully slow. . .so slow that, for me, it was comparable to running Windows 98 SE on a 486. When I upgraded the machine to 1 GB of RAM, the machine's performance became acceptable. I had to install 2 GB of RAM before the machine's performance became what I would call good.

Vista is an absolute memory hog. Vista caches applications to help them respond more quickly, but the caching process consumes a lot of RAM. If you are buying workstations today with an eye toward an eventual upgrade to Vista, I would order them with at least 2 GB of RAM. Even if you don't end up ever deploying Vista, XP can benefit from having a couple of gigs of RAM.

For example, I've been using an application to scan in receipts in an effort to prepare them for my tax return. A 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with 1 GB of RAM became sluggish once I'd scanned about 200 receipts into the database. Adding an extra gigabyte of memory to the system greatly improved the machine's performance.

In the first of this series of articles, Purchasing workstation hardware during transitional times,I compared the transitional period the IT industry is in right now with the previous period of great transition (1994-1995). The next article in the series discusses issues related to disk space and video when it comes to buying workstation hardware.

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 and other TechTarget sites.

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