Microsoft recently announced system requirements and recommendations for Windows Vista, and they're going to surprise a lot of people. Here's what you need to know about Vista system requirements.

Bare Bones System Requirements


Microsoft's minimum requirements for Vista Home Basic—the basic version—read like PC vendor advertisements from six years ago: You'll need an 800MHz or faster 32-bit (x86 platform) or 64-bit (x64 platform) microprocessor, 512MB of RAM, a 20GB hard disk with at least 15GB of free disk space, and a CD-ROM drive.

It's important to understand what this hardware configuration buys you. Vista Home Basic—and Vista Home Basic N, the European Union (EU) version—doesn't support the gorgeous Windows Aero UI (previously referred to as Aero Glass). Thus, the minimum requirements don't specify the type of video card that's required to access the Aero interface. Instead, Vista Home Basic supports the Windows Classic and Vista Basic UIs that will work with virtually any video solution, and the Vista Standard UI that visually resembles the Windows Basic UI but includes the low-level desktop composition technologies Microsoft developed for Aero. Windows Vista Standard UI provides a more reliable and better-performing desktop experience than the Windows Vista Basic UI, but it'll require a 3-D video card that supports Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 standard. Most video solutions available today—including many integrated video chipsets—support this standard.

Vista Home Premium, Vista Business (and EU's Vista Business N version), Vista Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate will require a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, an Aero-capable video card (i.e., a video card or integrated chipset that supports Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 standard), a 40GB hard disk with 15GB free disk space, and a DVD drive.

Microsoft's Recommendations for Improved Performance


To get the best visual and performance experience in Vista, Microsoft recommends that you use a dedicated graphics card that supports Pixel Shader 2.0 technology (a new technology targeted at game developers and animators) and includes a new Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver. But remember that most 3-D video cards sold today by major vendors such as ATI and NVIDIA support these technologies. There's even one integrated graphics chipset—the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950—that fully supports Vista's Aero UI, so even some low-end notebooks and Tablet PCs will provide an amazing experience. Microsoft also recommends installing a compatible audio sound card, preferably one with multichannel sound output.

Realistic Minimum Requirements?


Microsoft's system recommendations for Vista seem inadequate. Users attempting to run Vista on an 800MHz PC with 512MB of RAM probably won't have a positive experience. Although many corporations will want to migrate to Vista on their existing hardware, the best and probably most cost-effective solution is to purchase new hardware. The most future-proof solutions will include 64-bit multicore microprocessors from AMD or Intel; currently, AMD's designs are more efficient and have better performance. That means you're going to want an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core Processor for Desktop or Intel Pentium D-class processor for a desktop machine, or an AMD Turion 64 X2 Mobile Technology processor for notebooks and Tablet PCs. (Intel's Core Duo and Core 2 Duo chips also perform well and generally get great battery life, but these chips are 32-bit only.)

For memory, don't consider anything less than 1GB for information workers, especially if their PCs will be using integrated graphics that steal RAM from the system. With Windows XP, the more RAM the better: Vista will use everything you throw at it, which dynamically alters its memory footprint according to the system's capabilities. Content creators, engineers, and other power users will also need more RAM. If the 4GB limit imposed by x32 PCs is a problem, consider one of the Vista x64 versions (available to all Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, Vista Enterprise, and Vista Ultimate users). These 64-bit systems can access as much as 128GB of RAM, depending on the version (Vista Home Basic can access 8GB of RAM; Vista Home Premium supports as much as 16GB of RAM).

Which graphics card should you purchase? Unless you're using PCs that include Intel's GMA 950 integrated graphics chipset, you'll want to purchase an Aero-capable, dedicated graphics card with 64MB or more of onboard RAM. How much video RAM you'll need depends on your users' display screen resolutions. For displays with a 1024 x 768 resolution you'll need 64MB of video RAM, 1920 x 1200 resolution will require 128MB, and even-higher-resolution displays require at least 256MB of video RAM. These figures shouldn't seem daunting: Most modern graphics cards include at least 128MB of dedicated RAM.

If you think you'll want to take advantage of Vista's BitLocker full-disk encryption and boot integrity feature, the most secure version of this solution requires a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 1.2 chip on the motherboard. BitLocker, incidentally, is available only for the Vista Enterprise version that's running the Software Assurance Maintenance option and the retail Vista Ultimate version.

Recommendations


Now that Vista Beta 2 is widely available, it's time to start evaluating the system. The features your users will need and how they'll be using their systems are the factors that will help you decide which hardware configurations you'll need to run Vista most efficiently. Vista is going to be a huge and disruptive upgrade because it has many new features and changes, so it's never too early to begin planning. Understanding the hardware requirements and recommendations can only help.