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It’s official: Vista is here to stay – at least, at my home/office. Those who follow this column know that I’ve been running the new OS on one of my workstations as the primary operating system since Beta 2, but I also had the XP machine downstairs on which I did a lot of my work. That was due in part to the fact that, much as I love the Vista interface, I wasn’t able to get more than two monitors to work with it on any of my computers, whereas XP happily ran my four monitor setup.

Last week, the downstairs machine was demoted (it goes into one of the small offices upstairs to be another file server) and I got a brand new Dell XPS for the downstairs office. This is Dell’s top of the line Dimension, and it’s a monster. The photos on the Dell site don’t prepare you for the sheer size of this computer – I had to do some reconfiguring of my desk arrangement just to fit it in. If you’d like to see it, check out the photos on my blog posts of January 16 and 21.

I ordered the XPS 700 back in December, but several days after placing the order, I received an email message from Dell Small Business saying there was a supply problem with the model I ordered, and my order was being changed to a new model, the 710. The main difference was that this model’s motherboard would support Quad Core processors. Well, hey, I’m not complaining about that. Delivery date was given as 01/23 – but it showed up at my door on the 15th. Can’t complain about that, either.

I wanted a system that would last me for a while, so I went with a Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz processor and 4 GB of RAM. Normally when I buy a computer from Dell, I get minimal memory and buy additional DIMMs from Crucial to save money. In this case, it ended up costing less to get it with the full 4 GB installed from Dell. Go figure.

The case is pretty impressive; a sleek, futuristic style that sort of leans forward. When you first turn the system on, it sounds like a 747 revving up, but after it starts, it runs almost silently. Oh, and it has running lights so you can always find it in the dark. There’s a massive 750 watt power supply and enough bays for six hard drives and two optical drives. There are two x16 PCIe slots – something that’s hard to find on computers from major vendors, along with one x1, one x8 and three regular PCI slots. There are ten (count ’em: 10) USB 2.0 ports. I can throw away my USB hub! There are also two IEEE1394 (FireWire) connectors.

It came with a Geforce 7900 video card (more on that later) and a Creative X-Fi Xtreme Music sound card in addition to the integrated audio on the motherboard. There are front jacks for the headphones and microphone, which is handy. Of course, it also comes with a gigabit Ethernet adapter built in, and unlike some modern systems, also has a serial port and PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports just in case you have legacy peripherals.

The system came with a 250 GB hard disk and Windows XP installed on one huge partition. I didn’t want to upgrade or wipe out the XP installation, just in case there were any hardware compatibility issues with Vista, so the first thing I did was download the latest version of Partition Magic (8.0). Symantec, as usual, tried to drive me nuts. After I paid my money and received the serial number both on the web site and in email, when I ran the installation wizard and entered that number, I was told it wasn’t valid. However, I was given the option to continue anyway, and the program installed. The instructions also said I’d have to activate the software the first time I tried to run it, but no activation request appeared. Oh, well. PM itself worked fine and I resized the partition to half its original size and created a new one, on which I then installed Vista Ultimate RTM. The installation went much more quickly than it has on any other system, and soon I was booting into Vista.

Next came the real test: multi-monitor functionality. I opened up the case and got a look at the guts of the thing, which were also impressive (there are “inside the case” photos on the blog site, too). Putting the second video card in was simple – no screws required; you just pop back the plastic clips holding the tops of the cards, slip it in, and pop the clips back. The second card was a Geforce 5200 GS that I’d bought to try to get Vista Aero on three monitors working on my other Dell, with no luck. This time – because it has the same chipset and uses the same driver as the primary card – the third monitor worked great.

I decided before I moved the new system from the workbench to its new home under my desk, I’d add some more storage capacity. Here’s where I saved money by doing it after the fact. Adding a second 320 GB hard drive with Dell cost $170. I picked up two 320 GB drives at Fry’s for $89 each. So now I have almost a terabyte of disk space.

As with the video card, installation of the hard drives was a breeze. Dell had already run power cables and SATA cables to the three empty internal drive bays, and again, no screws were required to put the drives in place. You just slide a holder out of the bay, pop the drive into it, and slide it back in. Attach the connectors, and you’re good to go.

Well, almost. When I booted the computer and went into Vista, all the drives showed up in Disk Manager. I partitioned and formatted them, then shut down the machine and moved it to my desk. I attached all my monitors and USB devices and other peripherals, powered it up, and – nothing. Oh, the Dell boot screen came up, but no Windows. Oops. Went into the BIOS and discovered that only one hard disk was set to “on” and it wasn’t the original one on which Windows was installed. Turned them all on, and everything was back to normal.

Setting up a new primary workstation is always a fun but anxiety-ridden experience. After all, this is where I’ll “live” for many hours a day for the next year or two. It went quickly this time; software installation was fast – in part because I didn’t need to install nearly as many third party utilities since so many functionalities they provided in the past are now included in Vista. And thanks to the speed of the machine, software packages I did install went on quickly. Microsoft Office 2007 installed in a matter of minutes, far faster than on the old machine (which is, itself, pretty powerful).

Despite one minor physical setback – I twisted my back crawling around under the desk, connecting all those cables, and could barely walk for a couple of days – the experience was a rousing success, and most of the small problems with Vista that I encountered on the old machine are now gone. I’ll be having lots more to say about Vista and new applications that run on it after the official release at the end of the month.

If you’ve bought or built a new computer recently, and if you’ve installed Vista on it or on your older system, tell us about your experiences.

Deb Shinder, MVP