What’s New on Windows Vista For Hardware Enthusiasts
By Gabriel Torres on February 28, 2007
Windows Vista brings a lot of new features. Instead of describing all new features brought by this new operating system – like new programs that now come with the OS –, we will describe only those that are related to PC hardware.
Vista can be found in six different flavors: Starter (sold only pre-installed on new PCs on underdeveloped countries), Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise (sold only in high volumes to companies) and Ultimate. The difference between them is price and supported features. They can also be found in two versions, full and upgrade, which is cheaper but requires you to have an original copy of Windows XP.
In this tutorial we will be also saying on which versions each new hardware-related feature can be found – not all versions have all new features. The only version that has all new features is the very expensive Ultimate version. So, the decision regarding the version you should buy must also be based on the features you want to have and not only on pricing. For average Joe finding the correct balance between price and features is probably the highest challenge of this new version of Windows.
All Windows Vista versions (but Starter) are available in 32- and 64-bit versions, but only Ultimate edition comes with both DVDs inside the box. All other versions come just with the 32-bit DVD and you need to call Microsoft support department and ask them to send you the 64-bit DVD if you want it. We strongly encourage you doing so, since this is a right you have.
Of course you will need a CPU with 64-bit extensions in order to install this version – all new CPUs have this feature. The main difference between the 32-bit and the 64-bit versions is the total amount of RAM memory Windows can recognize. All 32-bit versions are limited to 4 GB (the exception goes to the capped Starter edition, which can only recognize up to 1 GB – when Microsoft announced this version they said it would recognize only 512 MB; they changed this probably due to the huge criticism they got), while 64-bit versions are limited to 8 GB (Home Basic), 16 GB (Home Premium) or 128+ GB (all other versions – note that Microsoft does not say exactly how much RAM memory these versions are able to recognize, they only say “128 GB and above”).
Also only Business, Enterprise and Ultimate versions can recognize more than one CPU socket. Microsoft said “socket”, so we are assuming that all versions recognize more than one CPU core.
Probably the most commented new feature on Windows Vista is its new graphic interface, called Windows Aero, available on Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate versions. Windows Aero allows elements to be drawn at higher resolutions and displays transparent windows (see Figure 1), thumbnails of the programs that are currently running when you press Alt Tab or pass your mouse on minimized programs on the task bar (see Figures 2 and 3) and Flip 3D, a 3D list of programs that are currently running when you press Windows Tab (see Figure 4).
Figure 2: Thumbnails of the programs that are running when you press Alt Tab.
So, why is Windows Aero a new hardware-related feature? Because it uses 3D processing of your video card to work. In theory this would mean that Windows Aero doesn’t work well if you have a low-end VGA. However we made some tests here with a GeForce 6200 TurboCache with 64 MB 64-bit memory – probably the most low-end PCI Express video card available today – and we thought that for the average user the Flip 3D performance was quite satisfactory. Of course the faster your video card is, the faster is the switching between applications using Flip 3D.
This new feature also has added a new feature on Windows Vista, a performance index or “Windows Experience Index”, as Microsoft calls it.
After you install Windows Vista, the operating system will measure the performance of the four main hardware components of your PC – CPU, RAM, VGA and HDD – and will assign a performance index for each component. For the VGA, Windows Vista assigns two scores, one for Windows Aero and another for gaming. The lowest of these five scores will be called “Windows Experience Index”. You can see this index by clicking on System on Control Panel (pressing Windows Pause/Break keys is a shortcut to this option), see Figure 5. If you want to see all five scores, click on Performance Information and Tools icon on Control Panel (see Figure 6).
Whenever you make hardware changes to your PC, you will have to update these indexes, by clicking “Update my score” option (see Figure 6) or the “Refresh Now” button that will appear when Windows detects that there were changes on your PC hardware – this update isn’t done automatically by Windows.
The problem is that even very high-end PCs get a low score here. To test Windows Vista we built a PC using a Core 2 Extreme QX6700 (a quad-core CPU running at 2.66 GHz), 2 GB DDR2-1066 RAM from Corsair, ASUS P5B motherboard (Intel P965 chipset), GeForce 7950 GX2 from XFX (which is factory-overclocked), Maxtor Diamond 9 Plus hard disk drive (40 GB, ATA/133) and Zalman ZM-600HP power supply. With this configuration the maximum score we got was 5.9! From the above list you see clearly that our hard disk drive was quite outdated, being the component that achieved the lowest score there.
Installing our GeForce 6200 TurboCache 64 MB 64-bit on this PC we achieved a 3.5 score for Windows Aero and it wasn’t the end of the world, like we mentioned.
So don’t be frustrated if you get a low score here. This is normal to happen even if you use high-end parts on your PC.
All Windows Vista versions (but Starter) bring an improved performance monitor compared to Windows XP. On Windows XP you could monitor CPU, memory and network utilization on Task Manager (CPU and memory on Performance tab and network on Network tab), with graphs plotted in real time. Windows Vista maintains this feature and adds disk access, plotting these four charts on a single window. This feature, called Performance Monitor (see Figure 8) can be accessed through Control Panel, Administrative Tools icon, Reliability and Performance option or by right clicking Computer icon on Start menu, choosing Manage and then clicking on Reliability and Performance option or by clicking on Resource Monitor button found on Task Manager (see Figure 7).
The reliability monitor, which can be accessed by clicking on “Reliability Monitor” option found on the left pane on the windows shown in Figure 8 is also something new on Windows Vista. This option creates a “System Stability Index” based on the number of faults your computer had so far. Vista needs you to use your computer for at least 24 hours to calculate this index.
The Reliability Monitor also logs software uninstalls and failures your system had, divided into application failures, hardware failures, Windows failures and miscellaneous failures (see these options listed in Figure 9). So through the Reliability Monitor you can investigate all failures your system had to date, helping you to solve a problem you may be experiencing with your PC.
Windows Vista provides some really interesting system, memory and network diagnostics tools.
You can also ask Reliability and Performance Monitor to check you system for errors and to generate a full report on all errors currently present on your system. If you are a PC maintenance technician, generating this report is a great item to add to a preventive maintenance script.
To generate this report, you need to click on Performance Information and Tools icon from Control Panel then click on Advanced tools item located on the left pane. On the window that will shown up, click on “Generate a system health report”. Windows will take a while to diagnose your computer and then it will show the report for your system, see Figure 10. A shortcut to this procedure is running c:windowssystem32perfmon.exe /report.
In Figure 10, you can see two of the problems found on our computer, a driver was missing for an installed device and no anti-virus software was installed.
If you want to take a look at this report later, you don’t need to re-run the report, which can take a while, as Windows has to look for errors on your PC. You can simply enter the Reliability and Performance Monitor (see previous page) and opening Reports, System, System Diagnostics on the left pane.
All Windows Vista versions (but Starter) bring also a memory diagnostics tool, which can test your RAM memory modules for physical errors. This feature is found clicking Administrative Tools icon on Control Panel, choosing “Memory Diagnostics Tool” from the window that will show up. This tool cannot be run under windows, so if you want to run it right away the system will need to reboot your computer in order to run it or you can schedule it to be run the next time you restart your computer.
Windows will ask you to run its built-in memory diagnostics tool if your computer crashes and it thinks that the cause is a faulty memory module.
All Windows Vista versions (but Starter) bring also a network diagnostics tool, which can be accessed through the new icon Networking and Sharing Center found on Control Panel (Figure 13). There you can also configure several settings for your network. For checking why your network isn’t working, click on Diagnose and repair item found on the left pane. If you pay close attention to Figure 13 you will notice that our computer is correctly connected to our local network but our network isn’t correctly connected to the Internet. This can be seen as there is a red “x” on the wire connecting the network icon to the Internet icon. After diagnosing Windows came to the conclusion that there was some error with our DNS configuration (in fact the problem was that our broadband modem was turned off).
Windows Vista will also let you know if something is wrong with your hard disk drive before a more serious error occurs, allowing you to backup all your data before your HDD burns (this feature, however, isn’t available on the capped Starter edition).
This new Windows version also has an icon called Problem Reports and Solutions on Control Panel, which allows you to take a look at all errors that occurred on your PC and what Microsoft suggested to fix these errors, if they were sent to them.
Microsoft improved Windows loading time by introducing a new operating mode, called sleep mode. What appears to be a shutdown button on the Start menu is in fact a sleep button (it is dark orange, see Figure 15), which does not turn off your PC, but puts it under sleep mode. When you turn on your PC again it will take just a few seconds for it to load Windows. The side effect is that your PC will be exactly like you left it – the same programs and documents will be open. We made a test with our PC and it took less than 12 seconds to restore our desktop. In fact it could be faster than that, but we were using a CRT monitor, which delays a couple of seconds to warm up and start showing any image.
Figure 15: Sleep button.
Options to save energy will also put your computer to sleep if you don’t use it for a while. The default settings for our Windows Vista Ultimate were to put our PC to sleep after one hour without using it. You can change this configuration at Control Panel, Power Options icon.
But pay attention because if you push the on/off switch located on your PC case to turn off your computer, it will really turn it off, not putting your PC into sleep state.
Here we want to explain in details how this sleep mode works.
If you are a laptop user you may be already familiar with the hibernate state. Under this state all the contents of the RAM memory is stored in a file on the hard disk drive and then the system is turned off. When you turn on your laptop again, the contents of the RAM memory is restored from the hard disk drive file and you have your computer just like you left it before putting it into hibernate state.
Sleep mode, on the other hand, turns off all components of your computer but the RAM memory. The memory is still fed by the power supply, even though the power supply appears to be turned off. This is possible because one of the power supply outputs, called standby power (or +5VSB) is always turned on, even if your power supply is apparently turned off.
So when in sleep mode your computer appears to be turned off but its power supply is still feeding your RAM memory. When you press the on/off switch on your computer case, the power supply is turned back on and all other components are turned on again. You enter Windows directly because Windows, your programs and your documents were already in the RAM memory.
There is just one problem with sleep state. If you really turn your computer off – i.e., remove your power supply from the power grid – the contents of your RAM memory will be lost and the next time you turn on your computer you will have to load the operating system all over again. So if you want to keep you PC in sleep state, do not remove the power supply cord from the wall, do not turn off the power supply main on/off switch (some power supplies have this switch, which is located on the rear side of the computer) and do not turn off your UPS, voltage regulator or surge suppressor if you are using one.
Also, since you always have the chance of losing the contents of your RAM memory as someone may turn off your computer without knowing it, only enter sleep state after saving all files you were working on.
Hard disk drive is one of the main bottlenecks on system performance. This happens because the hard disk drive is a mechanical system, being far slower than the RAM memory. That is why if you put more memory on your system it will be faster: fewer accesses to the hard disk drive will be required.
ReadyBoost technology addresses this issue. ReadyBoost allows you to use any piece of flash memory from any size – including pen drives and even memory card from digital cameras – as a disk cache. Cache is a system that stores recently or most frequently accessed data in a faster memory. Thus ReadyBoost improves system performance by storing the hard disk drive most frequently accessed data in the flash memory. So if the required data is already in the flash memory, the system doesn’t need to grab data directly from the hard disk drive, improving the system performance – accessing the flash drive is a lot faster than accessing the hard disk drive.
Since nowadays it is really easy to find pen drives at 1 GB and beyond at very affordable prices, it is an interesting option to buy a pen drive just for use it as a disk cache on your PC – i.e., it is a very cheap way to improve your system performance.
Enabling and configuring ReadyBoost is really easy. When you insert a pen drive or a memory card to your PC Windows asks if you want to configure ReadyBoost on that device (see Figure 16). If you missed this screen, you can simply go to Computer, right click on the device you want to enable ReadyBoost, choose Properties from the menu that will show up and then clicking on ReadyBoost tab (see Figure 17).
The configuration is really easy: just select “Use this device” and the how much space you will allow ReadyBoost to use.
This technology allowed hard disk drive manufacturers to create hybrid disks soldering flash memories directly on the HDD printed circuit board to be used as disk cache. That is why you should see “Vista-Optimized” or “ReadyDrive” hard disk drivers emerging on the market on the months to come. ReadyDrive is the name given to ReadyBoost technology when used with such hard disk drives. When installed on Windows Vista these drives are faster than similar hard disk drives without this technology.
ReadyDrive is supported by all Vista versions, while ReadyBoost is supported by all versions but Starter.
BitLocker allows you to encrypt all the contents of a hard disk drive partition, making it almost impossible to someone to access your data if your computer or hard disk drive is stolen. This feature is only available on Enterprise and Ultimate versions of Windows Vista.
In order to work, your computer needs to have a module called TPM (Trusted Platform Module) installed on its motherboard, which usually doesn’t come with the board. In Figure 18, you can see a TPM header on a motherboard that allows the installation of this module.
If you use a TPM module version 1.2 or greater, the encryption key will be stored on the TPM module itself. If it is below version 1.2, you will need to store the encryption key on a pen drive.
BitLocker can be enabled on the BitLocker Drive Encryption icon on Control Panel. Besides the TPM module, BitLocker has other requirements.
You hard disk drive must have at least two partitions, one for storing Windows and programs and the other for installing boot information, and both partitions must be formatted using NTFS. Only the partition where Windows is installed will be encrypted. So you must not use a different partition to store your sensitive data. Files stored on other partitions may be individually encrypted with Encryption File System (EFS), just like it happens on Windows XP.
If the computer BIOS is changed, if the hard disk drive is installed on a different computer or if the boot device is changed, BitLocker will lock the hard disk drive, and you will only be able to access its data if you enter a special recovery password. If you forget this password or simply forget to create one when setting up BitLocker say goodbye to your data, as you won’t be able to access them.
As for Encryption File System (ECS), it is an option available on Business and Ultimate version of Windows Vista, allowing you to encrypt individual files or folders. This isn’t a new feature of Windows Vista, since Windows XP has this feature as well (if you use NTFS file system). It is available by right clicking a file or folder and choosing Properties on the menu that will shown up and then clicking on Advanced button (present on General tab) and then checking “Encrypt contents to secure data”. With this box checked it is not possible to open the files or folders on a different computer (this statement isn’t 100% true – if you have the key and the certificate used to encrypt the files and folders you can open them on another PC). The problem, though, is that if the file is saved on your hard disk drive and you didn’t set a password on your computer, people will still be able to open the file on your computer if they steal your PC. This option is interesting to secure files stored on removable media, as the files can only be opened on your computer.
Other Vista versions can open encrypted files with ECS using Cypher.exe utility, if you have both the key and the certificate used to encrypt the files.
We’ve just presented the main hardware-related new features we think are interesting mentioning in more detail. There are several other new hardware-related features, like:
Some old options have now new names. For instance “My Computer” is now simply called “Computer”, “ScanDisk” is now called “Check Disk”, “System Restore” is now called “System Protection” on Advanced options of Control Panel’s System icon – but on the help files and on the Start menu it is still referred as “System Restore”, which can confuse some users – and “Dr. Watson” was replaced by “Problem Reports and Solutions”.
As we mentioned earlier, the goal of this tutorial was to present only new hardware-related features of Windows Vista. If you want to learn about all new features brought by this new Windows version, take a look at Microsoft’s website.