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Upgrading Your PC for Vista - Beyond RAM, CPUs, and Graphics

Planning to use your PC as a multimedia powerhouse with Windows Vista? Mark Edward Soper shows you how to choose the features you need — and how to avoid common pitfalls in this article.
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Do you have a "Vista-ready" PC? The answer to that question often considers only three factors:

  • RAM: 1GB is a realistic minimum, but 2GB is much better.
  • CPU performance: Dual-core designs are good, quad-core are better, and forget about Celeron or Sempron economy models unless you’re running the bare-bones Windows Vista Home Basic edition.
  • Graphics: DirectX 9 cards with WDDM driver support are good, but DirectX 10 cards are better.

However, it takes much more to build a machine that’s really ready for Windows Vista’s multimedia, backup, and networking features, and this article will help you determine what should be on your shopping list—or your upgrade list.

Bigger, Better Hard Disks—Inside and Out

One of the big reasons to move to Windows Vista is the multimedia features available in some editions:

The problem is that multimedia creation, editing, and storage is space-hungry:

  • A typical 7MP or higher-resolution digital camera photo uses about 2MB of disk space.
  • A typical 30-minute recording of a TV show in Windows Media Center at high quality uses about 2GB of disk space.

Let’s do the math, shall we? For every 1,000 photos you store, kiss about 2GB of disk space goodbye. Shoot 10,000 photos, and more than 20GB of disk space is history. If you’re into video, it can be even worse.

Record just 20 hours of TV shows at high quality with Windows Media Center, and wave goodbye to 80GB of disk space. That’s one-quarter to one-third of the total disk space in many new desktop PCs. Notebooks feature much smaller hard disks (typical current models have 80 or 160GB drives), so your multimedia hobby could wind up devouring most of your hard disk.

So, how much internal hard disk space is enough? If you’re planning to record TV, opt for 500GB—or more. If digital photos or music’s your game, 160GB or more’s a good start. Or, consider USB (or FireWire) external hard disks:

  • USB-powered (based on 2.5-inch or smaller drive mechanisms): typical capacities from 120–250GB); these are convenient for use on notebooks and desktops, but are slower than AC-powered drives.
  • AC-powered (based on 3.5-inch drive mechanisms): typical capacities from 250GB–750GB and growing, these are less convenient than USB-powered drives, but are faster.

For extra speed, especially for video on the desktop, look for drives that support both USB 2.0 and eSATA (external SATA) ports, such as the Western Digital My Book Premium ES Edition or the Seagate FreeAgent Pro series. You can buy low-cost adapters that route motherboard-based SATA ports to the rear of your system from various vendors.

Even if you’re happy with the amount of internal primary storage you have, don’t forget about backup. Windows Vista includes effective file-based backup in all editions, and Business and Ultimate editions also include image-based backup in its Windows Backup and Restore Center. Both file and image backup programs support external hard disks.

How big a hard disk should you have for backup? You should use a backup drive at least double the capacity of your hard disk, especially if you want to store both image and file backups on the same drive.

It’s a whole lot easier to add external storage than to upgrade internal storage, but make sure you reconfigure your system to use external storage after you add it. To use any additional hard disk (internal or external) with Windows Media Center, for example, open the Tasks menu, select Settings, TV, Recorder, Recorder Storage, and select the new drive. WMC tells you the amount of recording time available at the current quality setting. To change the location for documents or other types of files to a different drive, right-click the current user’s Documents, Pictures, or Music folders, select Properties, and use the Location tab to specify the new location.

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