Microsoft

Build a computer for a Vista 5.9 Performance Rating

How do you get Windows Vista's 5.9 performance rating without breaking the bank? Joe Rosberg went shopping and built a computer that achieved his goal. Would you do it differently?

The Vista Performance Index provides a visual and numerical representation of how well your computer might perform. Having to support users in a graphics-extensive environment, I've found it useful to help grade various computer components. It's not a coincidence to see the sluggish computers return a low performance score, 2.8 for example, and the real barn-burners consistently score at or near the 5.0 range. I realize it's not the most detailed and telling performance monitor, but it does provide a pretty good snapshot of what you might expect from your computer.

Because of a major software upgrade, I've had to recently replace quite a number of computers for my users. Their old ones just didn't have the computing horsepower to meet even the minimum software requirements, much less the recommended — which I always increase as much as realistically (and financially) possible. I wanted to get as much computing bang for the buck, so to speak, so I paid particularly close attention to how I specified my next generation of computers. I update my standard computer specification probably once a year, and it's been a while since I've last written about it, so that time has again arrived.

All (or most) of my P4 generation of computers had to be replaced, especially for the power-users who relied heavily on our graphics software. I had a scattering of Core 2 duo computers, and even a Quad Core, but not even those reached the 5.9 level on Vista's performance rating. That was my target — 5.9 — without breaking our bank.

I started with the processor and decided on the Intel Core 2 Quad, Number Q9450. It's the 2.67 GHz processor @ 1333 MHz FSB. I almost spent the extra $200 for the 2.8 GHz but suspected that those dollars could be better spent elsewhere. Of course, I could have selected a Core 2 Quad Extreme (3.2 GHz @ 1600 MHz FSB), but a $1,500 price tag put that one entirely out of reach. Besides, my target performance rating was a 5.9, and Vista can't report anything higher, so although that Extreme processor would have much greater computing power, it wouldn't necessarily show up in the rating score. I was talked out of my preference for Asus motherboards (by a sales adviser) and settled on the Gigabyte S-Series GA-EP35C-DS3R motherboard. I always consider room for growth when it comes to motherboards, and this one will somewhat allow for future expansion. If I ever want to upgrade the processor, it will support the Quad Core Extreme and the faster 1600 MHz FSB speed and it will have slots for either DDR3 or DDR2 memory, but it can't use both. The downside is that it will have a maximum capacity of only 4GB of DDR3 RAM, or 8GB of DDR2. Considering the cost of a more expandable board, however, I settled for this. Besides, I was overspecifying the amount of RAM I really needed, so it should be good for several future software releases (I hope).

Although 4GB RAM would be more than enough for my application's recommended amount, I opted to bump it up to 8GB — the DDR2 flavor.

When it came to hard drive(s), I noticed several things with my current computers. SATA drives did, in general, provide higher performance scores than IDE drives; and ones with a lot of available disk space rated higher than those with limited space (the 500GB drives rated higher than the 160GB drives). However, the Vista rating for the Disk Data Transfer Rate was less than a 5.9 on all my machines except for two. Those were the ones with two drives (400GB each) installed in a Raid 0 configuration. I therefore decided to install two 500GB SATA drives in a Raid 0 configuration. I opted for the Hitachi Deskstar model. (I've come to prefer Seagate, but there were none available at the time — and I got a pretty good deal on these Deskstar models.) Graphics was the weak link on all my existing computers. Since the Vista Performance Rating is only as high as the lowest scoring component, in almost all cases, my graphics capabilities brought it down — in some cases, as low as a 1.0, but in most cases, to the 3.0 range. The first card I tried with my prototype system was the Diamond ATI PCIe card with 1GB DDR2 - model HD3650. However, it only scored a 5.4 on the Vista Rating. I exchanged that card for the Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT with only 512MB memory — but it has the faster DDR3. I was pleasantly surprised that the card with less memory, but running at a higher speed, outperformed the one with more memory. And at a price of only $160, it seemed like a great way to go. I've always liked the Antec Sonata cases, and for my new computer specification I selected the Sonata III model. Quiet fans and a 500w power supply will do quite nicely, and it has front ports for audio, two USB devices, and an eSATA connection. I selected an inexpensive OEM 20x DVD R/W (branded Optiarc, but made by Sony). And for the first time ever, I put these together without a 3.5" floppy disk drive. If I ever need one for a BIOS upgrade or something, I have plenty of extras on the shelf.

· Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad, Number Q9450 ($300)

· Motherboard: Gigabyte S-Series GA-EP35C-DS3R ($160)

· Memory: 8GB - Two Corsair XMS2-6400 4GB Kits ($220)

· Hard Drives: Two 500GB SATA configured Raid 0 ($180)

· Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT PCIe ($160)

· Case: Antec Sonata III ($130)

· DVD: OEM brand ($40)

Total cost: $1,190

Operating System: Vista Ultimate 64-Bit. I didn't have to buy it, but add about $220 for the OEM product if you do. The same goes for an Office Suite. I currently have Microsoft Office 2007 Professional, so there was no need for me to buy that, but add another $350 to the cost of your system if you do. (Or better yet, consider the free Office Suite from OpenOffice.org — I've looked at it, and it'll do nicely for the basic stuff.) Vista Performance Rating: 5.9

There ya' go. That's my Vista 5.9 Performance system for about $1,200 (not including operating system, Office Suite, and monitor). I'm sure we'll get plenty of suggestions and ideas on how to either improve on this system or build it for less — or both!

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