Now that Windows Vista has been released, PC resellers are falling over themselves to sell the first systems with the OS preinstalled. Many have offered Vista as a free upgrade from Windows XP, redeemable through a voucher scheme once 30 January 2007 passes, but it's preferable to have Vista running from day one.
One side effect of this Vista frenzy is the redrawing of the boundaries that define entry-level, mid-range and high-end PCs. What was a high-end XP machine becomes a more midrange Vista system, because the OS gobbles up a lot more resources than its predecessors.
Vista's main victim is your memory. 2GB of RAM would provide a computing experience totally free of disk swapping under normal XP use, but this is not the case under Vista.
The OS uses up roughly 800MB, and then - once a few applications, browser windows, and a system tray with a few background applications are present - the familiar disk crunching will make a comeback.
This is relevant to the Zoostorm, since the specification list includes a Core 2 E6400 CPU, 2GB DDR2 RAM, and an Nvidia 7600GT, running Windows Vista Home Premium. If this PC were running XP, performance would be flying, but an experience index rating of 4.1 in Vista points to a more sedate operating speed.
Nevertheless, Vista runs Aero in all its glory on the Zoostorm, thanks to the 7600GT GPU. This graphics card is by no longer top of the line for gamers and is no longer our midrange performance champion, but most titles will still run with detail turned up, although perhaps not the maximum settings with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering as high as they can go.
It is still the weakest point in the Zoostorm's feature list, if you consider better performing options available at similar price points. Still, once it becomes a bit long in the tooth, there is always the option of upgrading later. Benchmarking Vista is still a tricky task.
Many benchmarks don't run at all, while other benchmarks such as 3DMark06 and the Sandra suite run fine, albeit after patches.
Currently, the biggest reason for performance discrepancies between XP and Vista is maturity of drivers, especially Nvidia's Forceware driver. This means we should expect performance to improve over time as new drivers get released.
With 3DMark06, we ended up with a pretty good score of 3,057 - beating many other machines with the same graphics card - although every test had slight rendering glitches. Thankfully, installation of some beta Vista Forceware drivers completely solved the issue, and gave us a small framerate increase too.
The Zoostorm may not be an all-out performance champion, but it isn't priced as such. A few corners have been cut to make the machine more affordable and it does show if you're looking for it. The motherboard is based on the VIA P4M890 chipset, which is not the performance champion that other boards based on Intel's pricier 965/975 chipsets are, and lacks HD audio support.
Likewise, the 533MHz DDR2 is not the speediest memory available, but under Vista, capacity is a more important factor, and putting 2GB in the Zoostorm was wise.
The rest of the package makes this PC even better value. Bundling a 19in AOC monitor with the tower means the end-user experience is further enhanced. Granted, this is hardly top of the line, but you get plenty of desktop real estate and it's totally sufficient for a versatile mid-range PC.
You also get a TV capture/tuner card, but don't expect HD input, or even composite, since the only connector provided is the lowest quality RF type. If you want to perform really high-end tasks, this PC will stand up for itself, but you would be better off looking at something more specialised. For everyday use, at a pound short of £800, the Zoostorm is pricier than XP-based mid-range PCs.
That isn't because of the extra cost of Vista, but simply the greater hardware demands of the OS. DDR2 memory is much pricier than its equivalent sticks of DDR1 and this is the only option to run a Core 2 Duo.
Compared side by side with more expensive mid-range machines, it's hard not to recommend this computer as one of the best choices for a family PC.
It will play current games fine, offers plenty of disk capacity, there are nice extras included, and, most importantly, it does justice to Microsoft's new OS.