It's been a long wait, but Windows Vista PCs are here. We evaluated the first batch of desktop systems preloaded with Microsoft's new operating system -- and the results of our exclusive benchmark performance tests show that even sub-£600 systems can ably handle Vista. But some of the new OS's highly touted features aren't present in these first Vista desktop systems.

Vista by default?

If you're a creative planning on buying a PC after January 30, you may be destined to get Vista on your machine whether you want it or not. Of the four vendors whose systems we tested, each is taking a different approach to integrating Vista. Once the new OS ships, Dell and Gateway are switching exclusively to Vista for consumer desktops and notebooks. These two companies will also continue to sell systems running Windows XP, but only through their respective business divisions. Meanwhile, CyberPower and Shuttle will continue to offer XP as an option on their consumer systems.

We found a similar schism among some other PC vendors that we've spoken with (but whose systems were not included in this story). Polywell will be sticking with XP as the default option, installing Vista only if the customer requests it. And even then, the company will install both Vista and XP, allowing the user to choose which OS they want to boot the system into. At this writing -- before Vista's retail store launch, but after manufacturers had received the final version of the operating system -- Polywell CEO Sam Chu claims that Vista is still having compatibility problems with many applications and drivers.

Chu is not the only vendor we talked to who expressed concern over the state of readiness -- or lack thereof -- of Vista's drivers. "Right now, we're seeing some issues on the R&D side," according to Marc Diana, product marketing manager for Alienware.

The issues, he says, are related to things like graphics card drivers (our test systems with both ATI and nVidia used beta drivers during testing for this story), and software, such as that used for Blu-ray Disc playback. "If this continues post-launch, we will give our customers the option of XP. Most likely, though, [these problems] will get sorted out before launch."

Barring ongoing driver issues, Alienware plans to offer only Vista Home Premium on its consumer desktops and notebooks. However, says Diana, "We will have XP available on our workstation line, because those customers are more sensitive to the idea of switching, and some of their applications may not work on Vista. We wanted to leave the option for them."

Hewlett-Packard, on the other hand, is taking a route similar to Dell's and Gateway's. In its online store for consumer systems, HP will switch to Vista at launch. At retail, the company will let existing stock run its course; Vista will be the OS thereafter. HP will continue to offer business desktop and laptop PCs with XP Professional and Vista as options, through the end of 2007. By early 2008, though, HP expects to offer only Vista on business PCs.

Velocity Micro will switch to Vista at launch, both at retail and via its online store.

What's missing

As mentioned, these first-generation Vista desktops lack some of the components that take advantage of the interesting features in Windows Vista. For example, they don't include the ReadyDrive hybrid hard drives that will speed up disk access; notebooks with these hybrid drives will be available first, and they're not arriving until about midyear, maybe sooner. Furthermore, the desktops we looked at also lack the secondary SideShow displays that can access and show you system information. These displays may be integrated into peripherals, such as a keyboard or a remote control, or potentially even the PC's chassis itself.

Testing Vista PCs

In terms of hardware, the first six desktops we tested are identical to same-model XP PCs we've seen over the past few months, and have no specific features that take advantage of the Vista operating system. By comparison, early Vista notebooks are poised to take better advantage of the new OS.

Although the first of these systems to cross our lab bench were all desktops (Vista notebooks were not available in time for this article), major laptop makers, including Asus, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, say they will be selling Vista notebooks at the same time Vista desktops go on sale. Adding Vista to a portable can be more challenging for a vendor than adding it to a desktop PC; among other things, installing it requires testing Vista's power-management system, which will affect battery life differently than XP's implementation does.

We looked at a mix of expensive, high-performance PCs and sub-£600 value systems. The desktop makers included CyberPower (the $999 Gamer Infinity 7500); Dell (three models: the quad-core, $4,224 XPS 710; the $1,954 XPS 410; and the $979, bargain-basement C521); Gateway (the speedy $4,500 FX530XT); and Shuttle (the compact, $1,860 G2-3200).

All of them came with the Home Premium version of Vista installed, with at least 1GB of memory, and with dedicated graphics -- the minimum specifications that we found you need to run Vista effectively.

In our hands-on tests, we found that these systems were quite capable of running the advanced, more graphics-intensive features of Vista. Even the sub-$1,000 Dell C521 and CyberPower Gamer Infinity 7500 could handle features such as the new, translucent Aero Glass effects. We were also able to successfully use features such as Flip 3D (which displays your programs like a pack of cards as you switch among them).

Vista gotchas

Drivers are critical to your PC; they are the files that let your OS communicate with devices such as graphics cards, printers, or storage devices. All drivers have to be rewritten for Vista, but not all may be ready at launch, and some older peripherals may never get an updated driver.

The lack of Vista drivers for some peripherals could be a major issue for many users. For example, with the beta drivers in our tests, games ran significantly slower under Vista than under Windows XP. In earlier testing of the Dell XPS 710 running XP, this system ran at 143 frames per second in the game Far Cry at 1024 by 768 resolution. An identical system using the same settings with Vista managed a frame rate of just 108 fps -- some 24 percent slower.

Our other test game, Doom 3, didn't run at all on the Vista systems that used ATI graphics cards; at this writing, ATI's beta drivers for Vista don't support the OpenGL graphics system that this game requires. nVidia's beta driver, however, did support OpenGL graphics. ATI and nVidia both claim that they will have full versions of their drivers ready by the time Vista ships.

WorldBench 6 Beta

To test these new Vista systems, we used a beta version of PC World's test suite, WorldBench 6, which has been optimized for Windows Vista. This performance benchmark runs a variety of common tasks in several programs (such as processing a photo in Adobe Photoshop and opening a complex Web page in Firefox) and times how long these tasks take. WorldBench 6 uses, among other things, updated applications (such as Adobe Photoshop CS2), and more demanding tests employing, for example, bigger files, as on our Photoshop test. The WorldBench 6 test results can't be compared with WorldBench 5 results for our desktop PC reviews or with other tests.

The Results: Some good performers...

The top score in our evaluations went to the speedy Gateway FX530XT, which was the quickest in every test it completed; the ATI graphics card it came with, however, failed to run our Doom 3 game. Providing the Gateway's zip was an overclocked quad-core Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 processor (running at 3.2 GHz, up from the standard 2.66 GHz).
The FX530XT completed our Photoshop component in 295 seconds, while the next- fastest system (the Dell XPS 710) took 360 seconds, meaning that the Gateway was 22 percent faster. It sped through our multitasking test -- in which a video encoder and a Web browser run at the same time -- in only 211 seconds.

The speedy performance of the FX530XT is likely helped not only by the processor, but by the 4GB of fast DDR2 memory Gateway included; that's double the amount of system RAM we typically see on a power desktop.

The $4,500 FX530XT is well tricked out -- and is one of the most expensive systems we've tested recently. Its compact configuration leaves little room for expansion, though.

The Dell XPS 710, the second-best performer here, lagged the Gateway by 10 to 20 percent on most of our tests. At $4,224, it's slightly less expensive than the Gateway, and its large case provides a lot more room for expansion than does the cramped FX530XT. It was also significantly quieter: The case allows room for bigger, less noisy fans to remove heat from components like the CPU and the GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics card.

Dell's $1,954 XPS 410 proved to be a good balance of price and performance: Built around an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 dual-core processor, it ran through our Photoshop test in a reasonably quick 387 seconds, ranking third among these six systems. And its 291 seconds on our multitasking test was a little slower than the times of the more expensive models, but fast enough to prove its mettle at juggling simultaneous tasks.

Although our previous tests have shown that adding more memory to Vista systems often boosts performance, the CyberPower Gamer Infinity 7500 proves that performance is not just about memory: With its Core 2 Duo E6600 processor and 1GB of RAM, this machine was consistently faster than the Dell C521, which came with 2GB of RAM and an AMD 2.4-GHz Athlon 64 X2 4600+ processor. And despite its sub-$1,000 price, the Gamer Infinity 7500 ran only slightly more slowly than the much more costly Dell XPS 710 on a couple of tests.

The Gamer Infinity also features a large, glass-fronted case that gives it a stylish designer appearance, as well as a retro-looking analog internal temperature meter on the front; a cobalt-blue light inside shows off its innards.

... and two laggards

The $979 Dell C521 yielded the slowest performance we saw in this group. This system lagged behind the other machines in all of our tests except the Far Cry game. It took a rather lengthy 597 seconds to run the Photoshop test, or about twice as long as the Gateway model. The C521 was also very slow in multitasking, taking 359 seconds to complete a test that the XPS 710 finished in 258 seconds -- 28 percent slower. Even when compared with a more similarly equipped system, such as the CyberPower, this Dell PC was poky, requiring 148 seconds more to complete our Photoshop test.

To be fair, even running Vista, this very inexpensive machine is fast enough for general computing tasks. Gaming is a different story, though: With an ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card, it managed just 81 frames per second in Far Cry at 1024 by 768 resolution, and a marginal 25 fps in Doom 3.

The $1,860 Shuttle G2-3200 proved to be a mixed bag: This diminutive PC came in near the bottom in performance, taking a lengthy 495 seconds to complete our Photoshop test. Its other performance results were equally slow, with our multitasking test taking a protracted 325 seconds.

Although the small case means that this machine could be squeezed into tight spots, it also means it has little room for expansion: There are no vacant PCI or PCI Express card slots, and only a single vacant drive bay. Shuttle also discourages users from opening the case themselves to install upgrades.

First-generation Vista PCs: The bottom line

Our tests on these Vista-equipped systems indicate that they provide all the performance you need to run the OS with its new graphics pizzazz. As the first generation of Vista desktops, these machines don't include some of the fancy features that Vista supports (such as SideShow displays and hybrid hard drives). But they do deliver the basics today.

Less clear is just how nagging an issue the rough state of drivers may remain after launch. Graphics boards, in particular, could pose a recurring problem that cramps gaming performance early in the release cycle of both Vista and the first PCs with the OS.

For laptops, the prospects could be more interesting (see sidebar).

Test report: First Vista Desktop PC benchmarks

Quad-core PCs running Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 CPU did better on our WorldBench 6 (beta) suite than dual-core systems, and Gateway's FX530XT led the pack, excelling on all of our productivity tests. But as our gaming trials show, not all units had fully baked graphics drivers at the time of testing.