Processing Vista: Is Your CPU Up To The Task?

Most of the emphasis in the scramble to adjust to these new hardware needs has centered on memory. For example, a major reason that Vista will be a pain in the bus (thank you, Microsoft, for deciding that an operating system should be an operating environment) is, of course, Aero, its hoity-toity graphical interface. As you might expect, that's going to put quite a strain on your computer's graphics subsystem. Although Vista will scale back on Aero effects if your system is too poorly equipped to use them all, are you really ready to admit that you're running a hobbled computer to anyone? It's doubtful. That means at least a new graphics card.

But wait, there's more. If your graphics memory starts to run low, Vista is designed to borrow from your system memory to fill its needs. We have all said for years how terribly wrong that is because it robs overall potential system performance -- you might also want to get yourself a bit more memory.

However, if your PC is strictly for business, or if you're more interested in grunt than glitter, you may need to start thinking about your CPU. In fact, once you've assured yourself that the rest of the components are up to the new OS, but your PC is still dragging its feet, the only place to turn is your processor.

All CPUs Are Not The Same
Swapping in a new CPU is relatively easy. (Messy, yes, especially with cleaning up the heat sink compound, but physically easy.) The difficult part is actually before the physical swap: Figuring out what you need and what your system can accept.

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If we just look over the new processors of the last five years, it's easy to see that things have changed considerably. The Pentium 4, for example, has continued to morph. First, Intel added mega amounts of L2 cache along with Hyper-Threading, a virtual multiple CPU environment that made you'd think you had multiple processors. Then it switched to actual dual cores with Hyper-Threading (in other words, two real and two virtual cores). This was followed by Core Duo chips (32-bit CPUs using earlier Pentium architecture) that no longer used Hyper-Threading. And most recently, Intel introduced the Core 2 Duo chips, the first models in Intel's 64-bit Core line, which have been closely followed by the four-core Core 2 Quad (the first shipping product is known as the Core 2 Extreme QX6700).

Luckily, despite their differences, each one of the newer processors fits in a standard Intel 775-pin CPU socket. On the other hand, despite having the same number of pins in the CPU socket, a motherboard manufactured for a bland old Pentium 4 can't actually handle a Core 2 Duo or Quad because of the technical changes in the processor that the motherboard was never designed to accommodate.

Let's not leave AMD out of the picture. Its equally ubiquitous 939-pin processor socket can also accommodate its share of improved CPUs -- both single and double core -- except when you got to the dual-core Athlon X2, which requires a BIOS upgrade (or a new motherboard ). There's also the newly released 940-pin AM2 socket, which is completely different than the old Opteron 940-pin socket because the two chips are completely different. The new AM2 chips have been built to use DDR2 memory, just the way their Intel cousins have been doing, but they needed an extra pin to do so. That 240th pin was used for an entirely different function with the Opteron.

(For more on the current onslaught of new chips, check out our Dual-Core CPU Buyer's Guide and Quad-Core Processor Forecast.) So what are you going to need when you upgrade to Vista? According to Microsoft, if you want to run Aero and the whole nine yards (as opposed to just a cut-rate version of the OS that looks a lot like XP), you're going to need at least a 1GHz processor (either 32-bit x86 or 64-bit x64, depending on which version of Vista you select.) Of course, no one mentions that a 1GHz Pentium 4 and a 1GHz Pentium D and a 1GHz Core Duo, etc., etc., all actually run at different performance levels because of their different designs. In fact, the further back you go in CPU lineage (no matter which brand), the faster the clock speed you'll need.

If, once you take a good look at your current setup, you find that you really need a new processor (and nothing under a Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, Athlon X2, or Athlon X2 AM2 will do), read on.

Finding Compatibility
How do you tell if your motherboard would be compatible with a new processor? First you need to know the name of your motherboard. If you still have the documentation that was packed with your computer, you can usually find it there. If not, it may pop up on the screen during boot. The exceptions to both of those situations are proprietary computers such as those from Gateway, Dell, Compaq, HP, and the like -- you'll need to contact those folk directly.

If neither of those options is available, you can always pop the side panel off the box and check the motherboard visually. Its name is usually silkscreened on the board in some inappropriate spot -- like between two I/O slots, forcing you to pull a card out, or near the main power connector where it's partially obscured by cables.

Once you have that information, the next step is finding out which processors your board will support. (It isn't much easier than step one.) Again, for proprietary manufacturers such as Dell, you'll have to call the company directly. For others, you can go to the motherboard manufacturer's website and look for a compatibility chart similar to the one you'll find at ASUS. It will tell you which motherboards (and versions) support which processor by BIOS or motherboard hardware revision. Scan down for your motherboard and double check.

(Here's a tip: If your motherboard maker doesn't have a compatibility list, find a company like Newegg or Tiger Direct or any other online site that sells motherboards and see if it carries yours. If it does, look through the list of supported CPUs included with the motherboard specifications. If you can't find your motherboard, well, don't buy a lottery ticket today. Your luck has run out.)

The Price Of New Tech
Got your calculator handy? If you're just going to buy a new processor, the least expensive Intel Core 2 Duo runs about $200. And the Intel Core 2 Extreme? You're going to be dropping a minimum of $950 on that one. Call your banker.

The pricing range is a little wider at AMD -- but not much. A bottom-of-the-line AMD AM2 processor sells for around $65, while top-of-the-line chips sell for around $1,000.

If you need to upgrade your motherboard to accommodate the processor (and if you're upgrading to an AM2 CPU you will, because of its new memory requirements), an adequate motherboard is about $45 and the price soars up after that (and don't forget to leave yourself around $200 or so for memory).

In any case, you won't really want adequate if you're going to take advantage of Vista's Aero, will you? So face reality. If you're upgrading your processor, your graphics card, and adding more memory -- and probably considering a new hard drive or two as well -- some soul-searching is in order. When you need to change every component inside your computer, it means you're hopelessly out of date. In the balance of technology, a situation such as that is the tipping point for your old gear to find its way to the recycling center and for you to buy a complete computer.

Doubt that? One estimate recently put a price tag of $3,000 or more on a Vista upgrade, with the bulk of that amount dedicated to hardware changes -- more than the cost of a totally new computer.

In other words, no matter how pioneering your spirit, sometimes it's better simply to start anew.