Vista drives a hardware shake-up

When Vista and its server version, Longhorn, finally arrive, they will herald a change in basic hardware requirements, especially for desktop systems


When Vista and its server version, Longhorn, finally arrive, they will herald a change in basic hardware requirements, especially for desktop systems

The anticipated arrival of Windows Vista and the server version, Longhorn, next year will bring big changes to today’s hardware.

One of the main changes will be the basic requirements for desktop systems. Microsoft has released details of the minimum and optimum requirements for running Vista.

At the top end, to run Vista in all its glory, with much publicised Aero graphics, a system will need a 32-bit or 64-bit processor running at 1GHz backed up by 1Gbyte of system memory. Given Windows’ history of upping the minimum processor rate and memory requirements, this is not so surprising. But it is the new specification for graphics that is causing concern.

To run the new interface, with its Aero Glass effects and Rolodex-like Flip 3D feature for selecting applications, a computer will need a high-end graphics processor with 128Mbytes of onboard memory to support a normal LCD screen resolution of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels.

One caveat is that although some lower-end cards will be able to handle the graphics requirement, they are unsuitable because they use system memory. As a result, a Microsoft-specified PC with 1Gbyte would be reduced in memory size and speed because of this.

The good news is that accepting Microsoft’s basic Windows Vista configuration will mean that a PC with a processor running at 800MHz with only 512Mbytes of memory and a DirectX 9 compatible graphics chip can be used.

It means sacrificing some of Vista’s advanced features but it will give acceptable results while ensuring cross-enterprise conformity and extending the life of hardware that cannot be upgraded, such as laptops.

The net effect will be that new hardware will be manufactured to the higher Vista specifications and the move towards incorporating video chips on the motherboard may be treated with more caution. There is even a possibility that this will be extended to laptops, but it will be down to user pressure rather than any concerted lead from the manufacturers.

Kenny Ferguson, desktop brand manager at PC maker Lenovo, says, “The graphics issue is getting a lot of emphasis and it will be down to user savvy in what to look for that will decide.”

Ferguson expects end-users to still look at chipsets, resolution and support when deciding what to buy but companies will tend to go for higher-end laptops when Vista’s successor becomes imminent.

“It is slightly easier on the desktop,” he says. “The PC Express bus and video cards mean that graphics requirements are not such an issue.”

How Vista will change the personal computer will be down to how readily third parties take up the new operating system’s features.

Take Sideshow. This feature provides a new extension for Windows that allows Gadgets to be created to take information automatically from the PC’s software suites, such as Microsoft Outlook, or using internet links.

Using a simple Windows CE driver, a low-powered secondary screen can be built into the lid of a laptop to display details of meetings, e-mails, or even the latest weather predictions. Because the system is effectively a simple PDA, vital information can be accessed without having to power up the laptop or carry a secondary  device such as a PDA.

That is the theory but whether it will become a reality depends on third parties and their inventiveness. The increasing functionality of mobile phones means that Sideshow can be emulated on a phone so it may end up as an element of consumer devices around the home.

Chris Ingle, group consultant for research company IDC’s systems group, says, “I do not see anything in Vista itself that is particularly a great improvement over XP until third-party software suppliers start writing for the graphics system and those kind of things.

“It will take a while for the benefits of that to become apparent. I think in terms of reliability and storage systems there will be improvements, but they are not the reasons why customers buy operating systems.”

On the storage front, Samsung is testing its Hybrid Disc Drive (HDD), which incorporates up to 1Gbyte of flash memory as a buffer within a conventional disc drive. This will improve start-up times for booting up a PC and improve battery life by reducing hard-disc access times.

The drive can be used to store the computer’s memory status when Vista is in hibernation mode, preserving the running applications for when the PC is switched on again. When the PC is turned back on, it boots up much faster from a Hybrid Disc Drive than when it hibernates to a mechanical drive.

In use, disc writes are stored in the buffer and then flushed to disc in a few seconds every 10 to 20 minutes. This means the drive is not constantly running and draining power.

Samsung demonstrated a prototype drive with 128Mbytes and 256Mbytes of flash memory at Microsoft’s WinHEC event in Seattle in June. The company claims that the drives extend battery life by up to 10%, equating to 20 to 30 minutes of extra time. Prices have yet to be decided but Samsung says there will be little or no cost premium.

Samsung is also involved in producing mini-tablet PCs, built according to Microsoft’s Origami specification. These are more like notepads than the clipboard-sized first release of tablets. They are also lighter and easier to carry around.

One feature of Vista that may help improve the market is improved character recognition and the ability to teach the system your specific writing habits. The original character recognition system was inflexible and unsuitable for the target audience of note-takers, although it was perfectly adequate for filling in forms.

Few professionals who take minutes of meetings write them out in longhand and the ability to teach the system individual characters or even shorthand will be a welcome addition – if laborious during the initial teaching period.

Longhorn, the server version of Vista, still known only by its production codename, will not arrive until later in 2007 and will contain many of Vista’s features. Microsoft will release versions of Longhorn to run on 32-bit and 64-bit x86 processors and to use multicore or multiprocessor systems.

Where Longhorn is concerned, Bill Gates announced at WinHEC that the next version of Windows Exchange would be 64-bit only, so users planning Windows server upgrades need to bear this in mind for future application upgrades.

Gates also said that the Exchange decision would influence other products too because Microsoft sees the server future as a 64-bit world.

The main way that servers will be changed is through the inclusion of virtualisation software with 64-bit Longhorn. This will encourage users to test-drive the idea of effectively turning a single computer into several computers sharing a single housing. The industry is so convinced that virtualisation is the way ahead that Intel and AMD are encapsulating virtualisation extensions in their chips.

AMD’s hardware virtualisation is called Pacifica for its Athlon and Opteron 64-bit dual-core chips, and Vanderpool is Intel’s interpretation for its x86 and Itanium processors. Both technologies aim to manage the technicalities of running several virtualised environments on a single machine or multicore chip, but they are not compatible.

Pacifica does the same job as Vanderpool but incorporates a memory controller on the chip to partition memory whereas Intel does it in software. Each virtual machine needs its own discrete memory so the system does not crash if one of the virtualised machines hits a problem. AMD adds to this a device exclusion vector to control
peripheral hardware access.

Brian Gammage, research vice-president at Gartner, says, “Hardware virtualisation support is the most significant addition to the Intel-compatible x86 PC processor architecture in more than 20 years, and will permanently change the way that PC software relates to PC hardware.”

Although most PC virtualisation is currently hosted, the advent of hardware virtualisation support is expected to move the market toward hypervisor-enabled virtualisation, according to Gammage. The hypervisor acts as management middleware that fits between the hardware and the operating system.

However, take-up of this technology will not be rapid. Gammage says, “Even assuming rapid proliferation of hardware virtualisation support across suppliers’ PC portfolios, only 75% of PCs in use will have this technology by 2010.”

With great power comes great responsiveness, and the network traffic generated by servers is increasing. Multi-gigabit networks can deal with this but current network interface cards are passive and rely on using the central processor or the host. Longhorn supports a new network card that resembles a graphic card by carrying its own processor to offload the work from the server.

Many of the changes that both the desktop and server versions of Vista possess will be invisible to the user but the power of these machines will be greatly enhanced. Next year will be the time to see how effectively it all works together.

Read more on PC hardware