This old PC

Windows Vista is here. Is it time to upgrade your hardware?

By John Swenson

So you're ready to upgrade to Windows Vista and wondering if that computer of yours can run it. Join the crowd. Plenty of people are hoping to squeeze more life out of their PCs—myself included.

Are there one or two components you can upgrade that will make Windows Vista run faster and more smoothly? Or would you be better off just buying a new, more powerful PC that comes with Windows Vista already installed?

If you can afford it…

Let's cut to the chase. If you're well-heeled enough that you think little of buying a new PC, go ahead and spring for one with Windows Vista already installed. There's no better way to make sure that all the hardware in your computer is compatible with the new operating system. And any new computer that comes with Windows Vista already installed should be fast enough to run it smoothly.

Personally, I'd rather not spend money on a new computer if I can avoid it. So I'm going to help you figure out whether upgrading your existing computer to Windows Vista makes sense.

Start with Upgrade Advisor

The first step in determining if your computer is ready for Windows Vista should be to download and run Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor from the Microsoft website. It will scan your computer and tell you which components and devices you should upgrade or replace for Windows Vista, as well as alert you to any incompatible programs.

Upgrade Advisor will recommend ways to resolve these issues, offering advice on everything from adding more memory or a bigger hard disk to replacing your video card or other components. It will also help you choose the edition of Windows Vista that best fits the way you want to use your computer.

Picture of Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor
Windows Upgrade Advisor can identify hardware problems you might encounter if you install Windows Vista

Decide what kind of visual experience you want

Before you buy any new hardware, decide whether you want to experience Windows Aero, a slick new visual interface that makes Windows Vista a lot more visually appealing than anything you've seen in Windows XP. To run Aero, you'll need a video card with a fair amount of graphics horsepower. Run the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor to check if your current card has enough power to run Aero. If not, you can probably still run Windows Vista Basic, the plain-vanilla interface.

Picture of a folder with the Windows Aero interface and another folder with the Windows Vista Basic interface
Translucent windows appear only in the‍ Windows Aero interface (top), not in the‍ Windows Vista Basic interface (bottom)

I've been using Aero for a couple of months now and would find it hard to go back to the basic interface. Aero features translucent “glass” windows (so you can peek at what's underneath), glowing buttons, subtle window animations, thumbnail previews of open items on the taskbar, and Windows Flip 3D, an impressive way to preview all your open windows. Everything just looks better.

Does Aero help me write any better, or work more productively? Not really—except for Flip 3D, which does make it easier to switch between the many windows I tend to keep open at once. Does it make using my computer all day a more pleasant experience? Absolutely.

Picture of windows in Flip 3D view
Windows Aero also features Windows Flip 3D, a striking way to preview all your open windows

If you're a meat-and-potatoes kind of PC user who just wants to run Windows and doesn't care how pretty everything looks, you may be happy with the Windows Vista Basic interface. You'll be giving up translucent windows, Flip 3D, and other visual effects, but you'll still get everything that doesn't depend on Aero—for example, the improved Start menu, integrated search tools, and new folder features. Your current computer probably has all the graphics power it needs to run the basic interface if it runs Windows XP smoothly.

What do you need to run Windows Vista?

I've put together this table to show what you need to run Windows Vista, or at least what you can get by with at a minimum. I don't recommend the minimum. Windows Vista needs decent hardware to perform at its best and work that Aero magic.

Minimal
Good
Best

Memory (RAM)

512 MB

1 GB

2 GB

Processor speed

800 MHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor

1 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor

2 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor

Hard disk space

15 GB free on main disk; 40 GB total capacity

60 GB free on main disk; 120 GB total capacity

Large main hard disk with at least 60 GB free, plus second or third hard disks for extra storage and backup

Video card

Supports DirectX 9 graphics

128 MB of graphics memory; Windows Aero-capable graphics processor

256 MB of graphics memory; Windows Aero-capable graphics processor

Get a fast video card

Even if you don't care whether your PC is able to run Aero, consider replacing the video card that came with your desktop computer. Installing a new video card is one of the best and most cost-effective ways to prepare for Windows Vista.

A new video card can give your PC a huge boost for graphics-intensive tasks, such as playing 3D games, watching TV or movies on your computer, and editing digital pictures and videos. Replacing your video card is also a relatively easy task on most desktop PCs.

If you do want Aero, you'll need a fast video card. The official requirements are a bit arcane: at least 128 megabytes (MB) of graphics memory and a graphics processor that supports DirectX 9 graphics, the Windows Driver Display Model (WDDM), Pixel Shader 2.0, and 32 bits per pixel. The easiest way to check a card's Aero compatibility is to visit the manufacturer's website. Nearly all new video cards are capable of running Aero, because graphics processor chips have been improving at an amazing rate.

If your computer came with an integrated graphics processor—a less expensive type of processor that tends to have marginal performance—you'll benefit from adding a dedicated video card. Be sure to buy a card that fits the type of video card slot found on your desktop computer. Today's video cards have either a PCI Express (PCI-E) interface or Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) interface. You can't plug a PCI-Express card into an AGP slot or vice versa.

For more information, see Video cards: frequently asked questions.

Don't skimp on memory

If you're going to the trouble of adding more random access memory (RAM) to your computer, boost the total to at least 2 gigabytes (GB). Especially if you're the sort of person who keeps a dozen e-mail messages, ten browser windows, and six other programs open at once–all while instant messaging.

Because there are many different types of RAM, you'll need to find out which type to buy for your computer. Unfortunately, neither Windows XP nor Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor tells you what type of RAM is installed in your computer. Check the information that came with your computer, or open your computer and look at one of the RAM chips. The RAM type is almost always printed on the side of the chip.

Make sure you have enough hard disk space

To install Windows Vista, you need at least 15 GB of free space on your primary hard disk. Ideally, you want a lot more than that to avoid running out of room. Personally, I'd recommend a primary hard disk with at least 100 GB of total capacity.

If you need extra space to store digital pictures, videos, music, and other files, consider adding a second or even third hard disk. I added a 300-GB internal hard disk to my desktop PC to hold all of my pictures and videos, plus an even bigger external disk to back up all of those files. By not replacing my primary hard disk, I avoided having to reinstall Windows and all of my programs.

Installing an external hard disk is a snap—you plug it into a USB port and a power socket. Installing an internal hard disk requires more work, but it isn't difficult if you're comfortable opening your computer. For more information, see Install or remove a hard disk drive.

The final decision is yours

If Upgrade Advisor recommends more memory, a more powerful video card, or more hard disk space in order to run Windows Vista, should you upgrade your hardware? If you just need more memory, absolutely. If you also need a new video card, probably. These parts are easy to replace on most desktop computers, and you'll save a lot of money compared with buying a new machine.

If, however, you need both of these plus a new hard disk, DVD drive, or processor, think seriously about buying a new computer. The costs of individual parts will add up quickly, and upgrading your processor, in particular, is expensive and often difficult.

If you're still paralyzed with indecision about whether to upgrade some components or buy a new computer, you can find much more information at Microsoft's Windows Vista: Get Ready website. Whatever you do, don't wait to try Windows Vista just because you're unsure if your old PC can handle it. Either give it some new parts, or give it the boot. You'll be glad you did.

About the author

Picture of columnist John Swenson

John Swenson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In his nine years at Microsoft, he's done everything from digging up developer news for MSDN to interviewing technical leaders around the company. Previously, he was a business and technology reporter for newspapers and trade magazines.

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