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Waiting for OS X Leopard

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 waiting for the new Mac OS, using an iPod with an old version of Windows and getting broadband in rural areas.

I am planning to replace my aging Dell desktop with one of Apple’s iMac machines. Now that Apple has announced that the new OS X Leopard will be released next spring, is it advisable to wait for Leopard’s release to buy a new iMac? Or will the current iMac be able to run Leopard when it is released?

If history is any guide, an iMac you purchase now, or in the next few months, should easily be able to handle Leopard, which is the sixth version of Apple’s Mac OS X to be released since 2001. Since Apple upgrades its operating system far more often than Microsoft does, the upgrades tend to require less of a jump in hardware capability. (Microsoft’s forthcoming new version of Windows called Vista, due in January 2007, is the first major overhaul of Windows since 2001.)

However, Apple hasn’t promised that every new feature of Leopard will run on any iMac sold now, and the company has coldly cut off users of older models in the past. So, if you can wait, do so. It’s always better to buy new machines with a new OS preinstalled, even though Apple’s OS upgrade process has generally been much quicker and more reliable than Microsoft’s. Another benefit: Apple typically charges existing users $129 for an upgraded OS, even if their machines are only, say, six months old. But new Macs next spring will include Leopard free of charge.

Even if you can’t wait until spring (you said your Dell was “aging”), consider waiting a few months to see if Apple brings out a new iMac with Intel’s latest processor, the Core 2 Duo, which is faster and more efficient than the Core Duo in current iMacs. I have no information that this will happen, but you should know by November or so.

I’ve got a new iPod I want to use with my Dell Dimension 4100 running Windows Me, but the iTunes software will apparently run only on XP or 2000. What’s my best bet for software to load files onto my iPod?

Try a product called XPlay 2, by Mediafour. It is specifically designed to work with older versions of Windows, including Windows Me. It costs $30 and can be downloaded at mediafour.com/products/xplay/. There is a free trial, but it is limited.

We live on a dirt road in rural Virginia with no cable and can’t get DSL. How can we get broadband? We would prefer not to do a satellite connection because you still need a phone modem to send material. Is there some kind of fast wireless connection we could get from our PC to our ISP? I see laptops with wireless antennas sticking out of them around here and they must transmit to somewhere.

Satellite Internet access has improved, and no longer requires a dial-up modem for the return path — in fact no use of the phone line is needed at all. Of course, as with any satellite service, your house must have a clear line of sight to the area of the sky where the particular satellite you use is situated. For more information, see www.hughesnet.com.

Another option, if you have good cellphone coverage, is a broadband cell-phone modem. It uses the cellphone network to connect you to the Internet at speeds roughly comparable with a slow home DSL line — which is still much, much faster than your current dial-up connection. This is probably what all those laptops with antennas are using.

These cellphone modems, using a technology called EVDO, are offered by Verizon and Sprint, and Cingular is slowly building a similar wireless broadband capability. For more information, see the Web sites of the phone carriers.

In some parts of the country, but not Virginia, a company called Clearwire is offering wireless broadband to rural homes.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, 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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