Vista Hardware Assessment Tool Addresses Upgrade Dilemmas

Perhaps the most oft-asked question by consumers with regard to whether they should adopt Windows Vista is whether their six-month-old or older hardware is too obsolete for Vista to make good use of it. Users have already been told to expect to say, "Wow!" but is this necessarily a good kind of "Wow?" This morning, Microsoft released for free download the XP version of its Vista Hardware assessment tool, whose aim is to tell consumers what they may need to upgrade in order to put the best polish on those heavily anticipated exclamations.

As a "bonus," the Windows Hardware Assessment tool installs SQL Server 2005 Express, which is its database tool built on the .NET Framework. It isn't SQL Server 2005; if you've already installed that, Express will still need to be installed separately.

Of course, since you need SQLS '05 Express, you need .NET Framework 2.0, which means by the time consumers have installed the Assessment tool, they're already partway to Vista. The Assessment tool uses SQL Server Express to build a local database of systems throughout your network, scanning their capabilities remotely if necessary, so you don't have to install the tool on every system.

What's most impressive about this tool is its remote access capability. It prefers to use Active Directory to contact the installed systems in your network, but for peer-to-peer networks where no AD is installed, the tool tries using NetBIOS - not the preferred method for networking in the Windows Server era, mind you, but this tool will probably be assessing a few Windows for Workgroups networks.

One interesting problem - if you can call it that - that we observed during our tests was that the Assessment tool could not peer through an active firewall. For the tool to work properly on our test network, which included three remote computers, we would have had to have turned off our ZoneAlarm Pro firewalls - which we might do sometime if we truly feel like a downgrade.

Last year, Microsoft introduced a concept called the Windows System Performance Rating (WSPR), which is a five-point scale that characterizes the relative capability of users' computers, in a similar way that "Yellow" characterizes the US' terrorism readiness state. At that time, graphics card producer ATI (which has since been absorbed into AMD) touted the WSPR rating as essential to buyers' ability to match system hardware with the games and high-end applications they want to run in Windows. ATI's hope was that software manufacturers, especially in the gaming categories, would advertise their wares with the appropriate WSPR rating for hardware to take full advantage of them.

Since that time, Microsoft has throttled back its WSPR promotion, which during the Vista beta period seemed as though it would be one of the new operating system's defining elements. The Vista Assessment tool now outputs its results as a Word document and an Excel database (the latter of which requires Office 2007). The spreadsheet only lists the systems requiring upgrades, rather than logging the specific tests performed, which might have been more adequate.

According to the report, there are now three plateaus to which the Vista user may want to ascend: Vista Ready, which simply enables the operating system to run and to run programs; Vista Capable, which is described by Microsoft as capable of running Vista but not likely the 3D Aero environment; and Vista Premium Ready, which Microsoft describes as enabling Aero.

Windows Vista Hardware Assessment Tool reportIn our initial test, the only system the tool was able to scan without firewalls was the local one on which the tool was run: an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600-based system using a Gigabyte GA-965P-DS3 motherboard with an Intel P965 Express northbridge, 2 GB of DDR2 DRAM, and an XFX graphics card with an nVidia 7900 GT GPU and 512 MB of GDDR, a top-of-the-line Asus DRW DVD burner, and an 80 GB and 160 GB hard drive, all running Windows XP SP2.

Certainly no slouch of a system, though I was surprised to find that the Assessment tool doesn't think it's ready for prime time as far as Vista is concerned. The tool declared it "Vista Ready," though "Not Vista Capable." The graphics card was fine, though for hardware upgrade recommendations, the tool said it didn't like our hard drive capacity. Whether it tested the two drives in combination was not clear. For the full Premium experience, the tool recommended we upgrade our optical disc drive, though it did not say how or to what level.

If there was a lesson learned here, it's that Microsoft appears to be assessing a computer's relative Vista worthiness not on its ability to run applications but instead to stream video from hard drives. Streaming video is typically more data-intensive than other categories of applications. If you're an XP user, we'd like to hear what Microsoft says you need to buy, versus the level of performance you've already invested in.

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