Microsoft, for the first time, is telling PC owners exactly what it'll take for them to run its forthcoming Windows Vista operating system.

As expected, the software giant on May 18 unveiled its Windows Vista Get Ready Web site, along with a set of minimum PC hardware guidelines for Vista Capable PCs — which call for at least an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a DirectX 9-capable graphics processor, but ask for more for those who seek to use all of Vista's features — and an Windows Upgrade Advisor application as part of a campaign to prepare people.

Vista, Microsoft's first major overhaul of Windows since 2001, promises numerous updates for performance, security and productivity.

Given that it's long been expected to require more powerful PC hardware than Windows XP, consumers and business IT managers have been awaiting Microsoft's recommendations as they plan for upgrading to the OS, due in early 2007, or as they evaluate the purchase of new systems.

But even though the minimum hardware specs for the OS show that Vista will run on just about any PC sold over the last few years, its most advanced features — including the three-dimensional Aero user interface — will require additional performance, causing at least some consumers and corporate IT departments to take a look under the hood before upgrading.

To that end, Microsoft released two sets of minimum hardware recommendations. In addition to delivering the Get Ready Web site and upgrade advisor application, now in beta, it issued a second set of recommendations it calls Windows Vista Premium Ready.

The software maker's Windows Vista Premium Ready PC specifications call for a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and 128MB of dedicated graphics memory, along with a fairly recent graphics processor that meets several additional specifications, so as to ensure a PC can run Aero. The machines must also have at least a 40GB hard drive or 15GB of free space and an internal or external DVD-ROM drive.

The guidelines, analysts said, give PC owners an idea of what will be needed to upgrade a PC to Vista, in addition to telling them if a PC they might be considering will run the OS out of the box.

Microsoft "doesn't want to take the steam out of hardware sales right now. So it wants to make sure that people going into stores are comfortable that hardware on sale [now] will run Vista when it comes out," said Roger Kay, president of EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass.

Meanwhile, PC owners and prospective buyers want to know "they can be comfortable that [the hardware] is spec'd to run Vista in a fashion that will satisfy them."

But, given the wide range of hardware available in the market, not every PC will be able to run Aero right out of the box. At the same time, many PCs already in place in homes and businesses won't meet Premium Ready specs either without upgrades.

Many PCs sold in the last year, for example, went out with 512MB of RAM, and so would require more memory. Others may not make the Premium Ready cut based on their graphics processors.

Microsoft has specified that Premium Ready PCs' graphics processors adhere to DirectX 9 and WDDM (its Windows display driver model format for writing drivers), along with supporting Pixel Shader 2.0 and a color depth of 32 bits per pixel.

Of all PCs in the market, high-end models purchased from the factory with discrete graphics — most desktop cards sold today come with at least 128MB of on-board memory — should be most able to leap the Premium Ready hurdles.

But, given that the bulk of PCs sold at retail and purchased by businesses use so-called integrated graphics, some PC owners — particularly those with notebooks — may run into trouble.

Integrated graphics are built into PC chip sets, chip bundles that handle the movement of data inside PCs.

Integrated graphics processors help save on costs, but they have drawbacks in that they tend to lag discrete graphics chips in performance, particularly when it comes to notebooks. Mobile chip sets tend to come out several months behind their desktop brethren.

Integrated graphics also use portions of a PC's main memory for a graphics frame buffer where discrete graphics are generally paired with their own memory.

The widespread use of integrated graphics makes Premium Ready's 1GB RAM requirement even more necessary as 128MB of that allotment will be used only for graphics.

Given their development schedules, only recent integrated graphics chip sets for desktops and notebooks are capable of meeting all of Microsoft's Premium Ready requirements, chip set makers say.

PCs based on ATI Technologies' Radeon Xpress 200 and Intel's 945, popular in consumer-oriented desktops and notebooks and among businesses, respectively, meet the minimums, their manufacturers say. But many other older chip sets do not.

Many desktops can still be made ready with discrete graphics cards. Just about any discrete graphics processor made by ATI or Nvidia over the past two or three years meets the Premium Ready requirements, the graphics chip makers said.

Notebooks, on the other hand, are generally not as upgradeable. Notebooks' discrete graphics components are generally soldered onto their motherboards and thus cannot be upgraded.

Kay estimated that a third to a half of notebooks sold right now at retail would meet Vista's basic features only. To ensure they can run Aero, notebook buyers must make sure the system they're considering meets the Premium Ready specifications, he said.

But, even if they meet the minimums, some question remain about just how well PCs with integrated graphics chip sets and 1GB of RAM will run Vista features such as Aero.

One PC industry executive, who asked not to be named, said chip sets such as ATI's Radeon XPress 200 and Intel's 945G will deliver adequate performance for business users when paired with 1GB of RAM. Of course, 2GB would deliver greater performance, the insider said.

"Is [the 945G] going to be blazing fast? No," he said. But "does a business need that? No. A mainstream, 945-based desktop is more than enough for a user in any sort of business case."

Given that, buyers who intend to use Vista for gaming, editing movies or applications such as CAD (computer-aided design) should consider not only adding a beefy graphics card, but also tacking on some extra memory, analysts say.

Gartner Group, for one, said in a March 28 report that technology-minded buyers looking for greater performance, particularly in notebooks, should look at stepping up to 2GB of RAM and a discrete graphics chip.

Microsoft, assuming that most consumers and even IT managers aren't going to want to take the time to dig into their PCs' hardware to determine their Vista readiness, will lend a hand with its Get Ready campaign.

The Get Ready site, a part of the Microsoft's site for providing information about the OS and its various versions of Vista, now offers the Upgrade Advisor beta.

The application, which site visitors can download and run on a Windows XP PC, will render advice on what a given machine might need to be ready for Vista when it arrives.

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