Walt Mossberg

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Deciding Whether to Repair a Laptop

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 a crashed laptop, the new iMacs and high-speed data networks from cellphone companies.

It’s the first week of my senior year at college and my [laptop] Windows PC just crashed and died with the blue error screen. I’ve had my laptop since freshman year, so should I bring it to Best Buy or Circuit City to see if they can replace my hard drive or should I find someone on campus who’s a computer genius? Should I get a new computer altogether?

What you need to do is get this diagnosed right away, see what’s wrong and then make a decision. It doesn’t matter if you take it to a store or to a “genius” on campus, as long as they can deduce what’s wrong. It could be a number of things, not necessarily a bad hard disk. Once you know the problem, and how serious and costly it might be to fix, then you can decide if you should buy a new PC, assuming you can afford it.

If it does turn out to be the hard disk, and you have important files on there that haven’t been backed up, you will also want to find someone who might be able to recover your files and move them to a new disk or a whole new PC.

I am switching from a Windows computer to the Apple iMac. I just read your Sept. 23, 2004, article on the iMac G5. Can I use this article as an information base for buying an iMac, or have there been important changes since then that later articles would bring me up to speed on?

While today’s iMac looks a lot like the G5 version I reviewed in 2004, there have been huge changes in the machine. Today’s version is thinner, faster and more capable, but it actually costs less in most cases. The G5 processor has been retired in favor of dual-core Intel chips. There is now a built-in camera, a remote control and built-in wireless networking. Plus, the new models can run Windows as well as the Macintosh operating system.

Wednesday, Apple announced yet another boost in features and cut in prices on the iMac. All iMacs now have Intel’s latest Core 2 Duo processors. The models with built-in 17-inch and 20-inch screens also have twice the memory, but have been cut in price to $1,199 and $1,499, respectively, from $1,299 and $1,699. And there are two new models — an entry-level 17-inch unit with slightly reduced specs for $999, and a new top-of-the-line model with a huge 24-inch screen and a better video card that goes for $1,999. I have previously called the iMac the best desktop computer on the market, and the fact that you can now get one for $999, and get another with a 24-inch screen, makes it even more attractive.

I haven’t reviewed these latest models yet. But my review of the first Intel-based iMac, from January of this year, can be found at: http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/solution-20060118.html. This column mostly focuses on the processor switch. A slightly earlier article, from late 2005, focusing more on the overall design and other hardware features, is at: http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/solution-20051130.html. Both articles are free.

In your review last week of new laptop cards that connect with high-speed data networks from cellphone companies, you compared the Verizon and Cingular networks, but left out Sprint. Why?

I received a batch of emails stating this question, mostly from Sprint employees around the country. The answer is simple: I was reviewing a new type of connection card that fits in a new, smaller slot called the ExpressCard slot, which is showing up in new laptops and which can’t accept older cards. So far, these new ExpressCard cellular modems exist for Verizon and Cingular, but not for Sprint, so Sprint was irrelevant to that particular column.

Sprint lagged behind Verizon in launching a high-speed technology called EVDO, and it is also behind Verizon in coming out with ExpressCard data cards. But it plans to move first to a new version of EVDO, called Revision A, that permits faster upload speeds, and it is likely to have an ExpressCard modem, and other types of modems, in the coming months.

* * *

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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