With Vista generally perceived as the be-all and end-all of modern computing, the world is clamouring to know if its machines will hack the pace.
And the answer appears to be yes - as long as your PC is blessed with a modern CPU, anything that ran Windows XP SP2 has a fighting chance of getting Vista up and running. But Evesham, here extracting one of its first Vista machines from the labs, shows that newcomers and upgraders will be able to enjoy the full gamut of Vista's features for a reasonable price.
The system itself is possibly a shred more powerful than you could expect for the money. Understandably the low-end case houses a lower-end Core 2 Duo and just 1GB of RAM, but the 250GB hard drive and the bundled 19in widescreen display are certainly good starter components. There's a TV tuner installed, meaning you'll be able to get the most out of Media Center (installed with Vista Premium), and with TV-out built in to the graphics card this has potential as a quiet, unassuming under-TV box.
Vista performance, we're happy to report, is as strong as you could hope for in an £800 machine. Aero is present in all its luminescent glory, and any worries that this system has been rendered sluggish by any skimping of the system specs quickly dissolve into nothing. The big test, of course, is how well the same machine would perform with XP installed.
Evesham was kind enough to supply us with a pair of installed hard drives for the same machine - one running an up-to-the-minute build of Vista, and one running Evesham's standard XP Media Center setup.
Big changes in Vista's architecture means it's currently incompatible with traditional benchmarks like SYSmark, but certain alternatives were available on both platforms. SuperPI, set to calculate 32 million digits of Pi, is a good indicator of the processor overheads of each OS, and we selected Doom 3 as a reliable gaming benchmark.
Before we analyse the results, let us consider more existential qualities. There's a huge difference, for example, in terms of feel. Even MCE, with its shiny window decorations, seems dated and bland, like the dressed up Windows 95 successor it really is. Vista is sharp and responsive, and its contemporary looks reflect its cutting-edge position well.
Part of this sharpness must be due to the muscly 7600 graphics card, which is well balanced in terms of price and performance, and perfectly suited to a starter Vista system. It might not be much cop in a couple of years time - and with only 256MB of RAM on board, it may be outdated sooner than you think - but Vista's new-found affinity with 3D hardware means it does make a difference.
Sadly, at least in the current climate, the results don't match up to the potential. In our benchmark tests, Doom 3 seemed locked to a maximum of 30fps, a disappointing score. We're inclined towards this being a result of early drivers, though. Running in XP compatibility mode seems to add a few fps more, but the frame rate limit still remains.
SuperPi, affected by Vista's extra memory overheads, takes nearly four minutes longer to reach the 32 million place mark. Even Sandra's Processor multimedia tests suffered when taken to Vista, though they did prove that the gap between standard Vista performance and XP compatible performance is slim.
We should probably stress, however, that these benchmark results are very likely to change. Soon. Moving to Vista right now is a fool's errand, but as more formalised Vista drivers are released, the sluggishness we're currently getting should evaporate. But notice the trepidation, too. There are no guarantees - things could get even worse. If you're definitely after raw power, stick to XP like glue for now. Take the upgrade voucher and bide your time.