While some pundits repeat the "it's not a hardware hog, honest, trust me" mantra, the hardware requirements for Windows Vista are making a lot of people angry, and plenty of laptop owners are simply out of luck, and will be confined to run Vista in "Aero Express" mode due the "low rating" of their notebook's graphics chip and RAM.
We published a story recently titled "Vista only designed to please hardware firms", and that's what a lot of people think. Despite your - or our - feelings, the hard reality of life is that if you want to upgrade to Vista, you better get a modern video card - Microsoft recommends a 128MB Graphics card for starters, with a 256MB, DirectX 9.0 / pixelshader 2.0 card apparently being the optimal minimum to get the full Aero Glass user interface "experience" - in other words, the much-hyped transparency eye candy and the like. In case you are a WinXP SP2 and you have not seen Vista's Aero Glass, la Wikipedia has a picture over here.
Vista Aero, even on ancient 33MHz PCI bus cards
While most desktop systems nowadays have either "PCI Express" or AGP slots available for video cards, what about those users with motherboards a couple years old, with might have a fairly decent processor and bus speed but lack PCIe or AGP slots?.
You don't need to be running an ancient Pentium III to have a PCI-only motherboard, a case in point is the Supermicro P4SCA I own which is about three years old but which can run a P4 CPU at 3GHz, sports a 800MHz bus speed, yet lacks both AGP and PCIe slots, being a originally a server/workstation motherboard. One year+ old Dells also seem to be on this category, and this question has even been showing up on Vista newsgroups as well, so it's hardly an isolated case.
Clearly, video card manufacturers became aware of this sales opportunity to provide new cards to those users who are still not ready to give up their working motherboard, but for some reason want to taste the eye candy in Vista. And this brings us a new crop of "Vista Ready" PCI cards. To my surprise, when I looked around I found ATI's 9250 PCI video card sporting 256MB of memory, and I thought it would be a good choice to test Vista on my ancient test desktop. Don't do it. After checking with the firm, ATI's reply was "the 9250 is a DX8.1 card, not 9.0", and when I asked what effect it would have the reply was, "It would fall back to something that looks similar to XP". ATI's suggestion: "Diamond will probably be a better bet..."
Diamond Multimedia, PNY and others come to the rescue
The good news is that a handful of graphics card manufacturers have started offering 256MB, DirectX 9.0 video cards for this Vista upgrade market niche, hoping to capitalise on Vista fever. Yes, they even release cards in the ancient PCI bus variety. These cards are being promoted as "Vista Ready" and by that they mean that the cards allow you to run Aero Glass. Jeff Hoeft of video cards firm VisionTek is quoted on the company's web page saying, "everyone in the PC industry has been saying the standard PCI upgrade for graphics cards was dead for the last few years. In fact, what we have experienced is growing demand for PCI graphics upgrades, because the PCI card works in all PCs Past, Present and Future."
Here are a few DX9.0, PCI cards that I was able to find: first, Diamond Multimedia's Viper X1300 PCI, which features 256MB and is selling for $89.99 after a $20 rebate. Diamond's specs look strikingly similar to VisionTek's own PCI card, also named x1300 -shorely some mistake.
A review of the Visiontek card can be found over here. Interestingly, Visiontek claims being the first to market while Diamond says "our first PCI...". Both cards were released less than two months ago and whether the pair are basically the same design remains to be seen, as both use ATI's Radeon X1300 chipset.
Graphics card firm HIS announced two weeks ago its "completely silent" - in other words, sporting passive cooling - PCI card with an ATI X1300 plus 256MB of RAM over here, yet sadly at time of this writing I challenge anyone to find it for sale on any major retailer.
A lower-cost option compared to the ATI based offerings is the Geforce GX5200 from PNY, based on nVidia's chip running at 250 MHz but sporting just 128MB -the minimum recommended for Vista- but burning a much smaller hole in your pocket at $67 at the time of this writing. The PNY sports dual-head outputs and claims to be a DirectX 9.0 card as well, so it should support Aero, but I don't bet on Aero Glass support with just 128MB, it will probably depend on screen resolution. However it should be noted that the PNY card supports OpenGL 1.5 only according to the spec sheet while the Radeon X1300 ones mentioned above provide OpenGL 2.0 support. µ
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