Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Windows Software for Business, Pleasure

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 Microsoft’s Media Center software, Apple laptops for college freshmen and computer monitors.

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.

I am considering purchasing a Dell Windows Media Center PC. Its primary use would be for entertainment, but I would also likely use it for some business use. Will a PC with Media Center run Office [and other] software like a regular XP machine?

Yes. Microsoft’s Media Center software is a special version of Windows XP. It has a remote-controllable interface that can be used for playing media from across a room. But this interface need not be used all the time. When it isn’t in use, Media Center reverts to Windows XP, Professional edition. So, Media Center computers can be used like any other XP Pro machines. They can run all Windows programs, including Microsoft Office.

By the way, this is the last year Microsoft will be selling the Media Center Edition of Windows, but the functions of Media Center aren’t being discontinued. They are being folded into some of the versions of the new Windows Vista operating system, which will be available in January.

My grandson wants an Apple laptop for college. Does it make sense to go all the way with the new MacBook Pro, or would the 12-inch PowerBook G4 likely be good enough?

The MacBook Pro is a high-end laptop that costs $2,000 and up. It’s probably overkill for a college freshman, unless he or she will be taking a heavy dose of engineering or graphics classes. For most freshmen, the 12-inch PowerBook ($1,499), or even the iBook G4 ($999) would be a fine choice. Be prepared to spend a little extra for either model, as you’ll need to buy a copy of the Mac version of Microsoft Office, which costs $150 for students.

Unfortunately, I am among the small percentage of the population that can actually perceive light fluctuations at 60 hertz — or cycles per second — the rate at which many monitors redraw their screens. This means a standard computer monitor looks like a strobe light to me, and gives me a whopping headache, if I spend a couple of hours in front of one. Is there a solution?

Yes. Most monitors offer settings that allow them to operate at higher rates — say 75 Hz — which cycle faster and thus offer less visible flickering. This setting is called the “refresh rate.” It is adjustable from both Windows and Macintosh computers. You may be able to end your problem just by changing this setting to a higher refresh rate. It’s a good idea to use the highest refresh rate that your monitor can handle.

In Windows, you can find this setting in the Display control panel, which is in the Appearance and Themes group. In the Display control panel, click on the Settings tab. Then click on Advanced, and then Monitor, to find the available refresh rates.

On a Mac, just launch System Preferences, select Displays, and Click on the Display button to see the Refresh Rate choices.

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