Improving My Vista Experience

vistaperformance I have a Dell Dimension 8400 that I purchased almost 4 years ago. Then it was the latest and greatest, one of the first to use PCI Express. Of course, computers age even faster than dogs.

I’ve since “upgraded” the OS from XP Professional to Vista Business. Unfortunately, my mouse cursor too often is the disc that is the Vista equivalent of the hourglass. Eventually this busy state ends, and I can proceed. However, frequent 30 second or so interruptions is subjectively irritating and objectively interferes with my work. I’ve tried various tweaks, like turning off the Superfetch service and modifying Indexing options. That seemed to help a bit, but not much.

Where is my hardware weak link?

My next though was brute force, upgrading hardware. To determine which hardware to upgrade, I used Vista’s Windows Experience Index tool available under Control Panel > System. Here are my scores:

Component Value Score
Processor Pentium 4 3.6GHz 4.2
RAM 2GB 5.3
Graphics Radeon X300 128MB 2.0
Gaming Graphics 895MB available (767MB shared) 3.0
Hard disk 317GB free 5.3

These scores are explained in Windows Experience Index: An In-Depth Look. Here’s a simplified explanation:

Score Description
1.0-1.9 Minimum for Vista basic features
2.0-2.9 OK for Vista basic features but not adequate for premium features (Aero)
3.0-3.9 Minimum for premium features (Aero)
4.0 ā€“ 4.9 Very good performance
5.0 ā€“ 5.9 Top end

Given my 2.0 graphics score, I turned off Aero. That helped. But still graphics is a weak link, not only on its own, but by using system RAM. Speaking of system RAM, while its 5.3 score is excellent, 2GB is really only OK for Vista.

Upgrade or not?

I only briefly considered whether it was worth upgrading a 4 year old computer rather than buying a new one. Not exactly being a spring chicken myself, I’m partial to not throwing out the old just because it’s old. Additionally, upgrading the video card and RAM is relatively inexpensive (around $200), and when done I’ll have a perfectly good machine. Also, my plan for my next computer is not an off the shelf single processor machine, but instead one I build that has a quad-core processor and uses a 64 bit OS. For backwards compatibility reasons, I’d like then to have a secondary computer with a 32 bit OS. My Dimension 8400 would fit that bill, if I can resolve its current pokey state.

Which graphics card?

That decision made, I went to Dell Replacement Spare Parts & Upgrades, entered my service tag, and viewed the available upgrades.

Dell offered a lot of choices for graphics cards. Since I wasn’t going to get another 128MB choices, I focused on the ones with 256MB or 512MB. My choices basically were:

Radeon HD 2600 XT 512 MB GDDR3
Radeon HD 2600 PRO 512 MB DDR2
Radeon X1650 Pro HDMI 256 MB
Radeon HD 2600 PRO 256 MB DDR2
Radeon HD 2400 PRO 256 MB DDR2
Radeon HD 2400 PRO OverClocked 256 MB DDR2
Radeon Xstasy X1300 256 MB DUAL LINK

Not being a gamer, my knowledge of graphics cards is about as good as my knowledge of women. OK, my knowledge of graphics cards is not that bad. Still, I needed help to wade through the choices.

I went to the AMD ATI Radeon product page. I saw a link to an Upgrade Advisor. Perfect! I clicked on it. Alas, it isn’t functional: “We are currently improving the ATI Upgrade Advisor Tool.” Oh well. I went back to the product page. The comparison tool required me to make choices on issues I understood little or not at all. I then read the descriptions for the 2400 and 2600 series. They were long on marketing mumbo jumbo (“feature-rich upgrade”, “lifelike interactivity”, “immersive realism”, etc., ad nauseam) but short on useful information.

I then went to my favorite hardware information site, Tom’s Hardware. I found an article which discussed the 2400 and 2600 series. The article reassuringly concluded:

“Are the HD 2400, 8500 and 8400 series cards good for gaming? No, but for an HTPC they would be good. Looking at the video playback CPU utilization as well as the fact they all have DX10 hardware means that they would be good for the home or office situation where an inexpensive dual monitor Vista experience is desired.

Are you looking to upgrade from a system you bought or built over three years ago? If you are like most people, these would make a great upgrade path.”

Well, at least I was reassured once I figured out the meaning of HTPC (Home Theatre PC) and DX10 (DirectX 10). I’ve got to learn the lingo better.

Based on my research, 2600 was better than 2400, 2600 XT was better than 2600 Pro, and GDDR 3 was better than DDR2. I don’t know what “better” really means as a practical matter, but the price differential was relatively low ($36). So the Radeon HD 2600 XT 512 MB GDDR3 it is!

Upgrading RAM

Upgrading RAM was easier. I have 4 slots. 2 slots were occupied, 1GB each for a total of 2GB. I have to install RAM modules in matched pairs. So the choice is 2 x 1GB vs. 2 x 512MB. Surely 4 GB of RAM is better than 3GB? However, a 32 bit OS “sees” only 3GB of RAM. Nevertheless, there is some uncertainty if the upper limit is somewhat over 3GB, and the price differential was not great, so I ordered the 2 x 1GB.

Where to buy?

For the graphics card, I went straight to the source: ATI. Its Where to Buy link, after choosing the what I wanted, eventually took me to this page, which listed Dell and other vendors, all quoting near the same $165.00 price as Dell … except Newegg, which quoted $79.99!

My prior experience with Newegg has been very positive; both their prices and service have been excellent. Nevertheless, given the large price differential, I wanted to check if I was comparing apples to apples. The Dell site (and others) quoted a manufacturer part # 900183, whereas Newegg quoted 900171. The VisionTek site was no help. I finally was able to create this comparison. Essentially no difference in features, or at this site, in price, which was reassuring. So Newegg it is!

I ordered the RAM from Crucial simply because I’ve had good prior experience with them and Dell’s RAM choices were limited and mostly out of stock.

Total cost, including shipping and tax: $175!

Will it work?

I dunno. I’ll let you know after I receive and install the graphics card and RAM.

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