Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

The Practical Case Against File Sharing

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about getting viruses from file-swapping services, other options beyond dial-up Internet access, and buying a Mac desktop computer.

If you have a question, send it to me at mossberg@wsj.com, and I may select it to be answered here in Mossberg’s Mailbox.

Are there problems with using file-swapping sites like Kazaa, as long as you have a good antivirus protection program? I don’t mind paying for individual songs, but other sites like iTunes or Rhapsody often don’t have the songs I want.

Yes, there are problems. The first are the ethical and legal issues arising from obtaining somebody else’s copyrighted intellectual property without paying for it, from a person who isn’t licensed or authorized to distribute it. The other sites you mention, iTunes and Rhapsody, are legally licensed to distribute music. Kazaa and its ilk aren’t, nor are the people who make music available through them. Your argument is like rationalizing buying stolen TVs because your local Best Buy didn’t have the model you wanted.

If your conscience can get past that, there are practical issues. These sites are major transmitters not only of viruses, but of spyware, which your antivirus program can’t stop. Even if your PC has a full, up-to-date security suite, with antispyware software, you are asking for trouble by downloading from “file swapping” sites. Many of the people I hear from who have had to take drastic, costly steps to save heavily infected PCs attribute their problems to the fact that their kids were frequenting file-sharing sites.

I currently have dial-up access to the Internet, which is slow. I pay a total of $35-$40 a month for the Internet service itself, plus a dedicated phone line. I see ads that claim I can give up this dial-up service and the extra phone line and somehow get higher-speed Internet access for less. Is this true? I do not have a cellphone or wireless service into my house, though I do have cable TV.

You can definitely save a lot of money on your Internet service, and drastically increase speed at the same time. And you don’t need cellphone or wireless service at all. They are irrelevant. Your choices are DSL from your phone company, or cable-modem service from your cable TV provider. Either will give you a high-speed broadband connection that is much, much faster than your current dial-up service — without tying up your phone line. You can go down to a single phone line for making voice calls.

DSL tends to be a lot cheaper, so I recommend DSL if you want to save money. And, while the low-priced DSL service is a lot slower than a cable modem, it is much cheaper and still is roughly 15 times as fast as your current connection.

Verizon offers a low-end DSL service for $14.95 a month, with the first month free. It’s much faster than what you have now, and you wouldn’t need the second phone line. Other companies may have similar offers. But you should go to your phone company’s DSL Web site first to see if your house qualifies for DSL. Not all homes do; it depends on how far you live from the nearest phone company facility.

I am a Windows user who wants to switch to Mac, and I have found two options suitable for me. The first option is to buy the $1,299 iMac G5. And the second option is to buy the Mac mini with the 1.42 GHz processor, 1 GB of memory and a 100 GB hard drive.

It all depends on what you do on your computer and on what your plans are. The mini, configured as you specify, will cost you $500 less than the iMac. But it is less powerful and less full-featured than the iMac. And it lacks a monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers, all of which come with the iMac. If you have all of these on your Windows PC, and like them, and don’t plan to keep the Windows PC, you can switch them over to the mini. But you’ll still have to buy a peripheral called a USB hub, because the mini has too few ports. If you want to preserve your Windows machine, you’ll have to buy new peripherals, or a gadget called a KVM that allows the mini and your Windows machine to share the peripherals.

The iMac G5, in my view, is the best consumer desktop on the market, and the $1,299 model has just been upgraded, without a price increase. So, if your computing needs are modest, your budget is limited and you’re ready and willing to switch over your Windows peripherals, the mini would be a better bargain. But the iMac is the better computer.

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Because of the volume of e-mail I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by e-mail, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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