Walt Mossberg

Advice on Shopping For a Windows PC — If You Must Buy Now

It’s time for my annual fall computer buyer’s guide, and this year my message is a little unusual. If you’re thinking of acquiring or giving a new Windows desktop or laptop computer this holiday season, don’t do it. I suggest that, if at all possible, you wait around 90 days and get that new Windows machine in February.

I advise this delay because the Windows world is on the verge of an upheaval. Microsoft is about to replace its tired, insecure Windows XP operating system with the first all-new version of Windows in more than five years. It’s called Windows Vista, and it’s likely to be more secure and easier to use. But Vista won’t be available until around Jan. 30, 2007. So, all those brand-new Windows computers you might buy this holiday season will be powered by an operating system that is on its deathbed.

Of course, you can upgrade most new Windows XP computers you buy now to Windows Vista after January. And starting today, Microsoft and PC makers are offering an Express Upgrade program that will provide copies of Vista for free, or at reduced prices, to people who buy Windows XP machines bearing a “Vista Capable” sticker from now through mid-March.

The catch is that upgrading PCs to major new operating system releases can be a tricky business. Often, it works just fine, but in many cases there are significant problems. It’s always better to buy a new PC that has been matched at the factory with the latest operating system. Waiting just another 90 days could save you a lot of upgrading aggravation.

Also, the free or discounted upgrade program will, in most cases, entitle users of the common Home edition of Windows XP to obtain only a stripped-down version of Vista called Home Basic. That version lacks many of the coolest features of the Vista user interface.

What if you want an Apple Macintosh instead? Should you wait? After all, Apple is also planning an all-new version of its operating system, to be called Leopard, in 2007. I don’t advise Mac shoppers to wait, for several reasons. First, Leopard isn’t due until spring of 2007, months after Vista. Second, Leopard won’t be as disruptive an upgrade as Vista because it is the fifth major revision of Apple’s operating system since 2001, not the first. Third, because Apple makes both the hardware and software, Mac operating system upgrades tend to be relatively easy.

Apple isn’t offering holiday buyers any discounts or free upgrades to Leopard, but the company says all of its Mac models currently being sold will work fine with the new system. The current Mac operating system, called Tiger, already contains most of the key features promised for Windows Vista. I still regard the Apple iMac as the best consumer desktop computer on the market.

But, if you want a Windows desktop or laptop and you can’t wait until February for a model that is preloaded with Vista, here are some guidelines. As always, these tips are for typical mainstream users, not hard-core gamers or people doing intensive video production.

Vista compatibility: Make sure your new PC has a sticker that says “Vista Capable.” But this sticker guarantees that it will work with only the stripped-down Home Basic version of Vista. If you want to be able to upgrade to the Home Premium version of Vista, which has the full user interface and other features, or to several other versions of Vista, look for a computer designated “Premium Ready.” Naturally, these latter machines will cost more.

Memory: Microsoft suggests 512 megabytes of memory, or RAM, for the stripped-down Vista Home Basic, and 1 gigabyte of memory for full Vista. But I strongly suggest doubling those amounts. If you want to run Vista with all its features, get 2 gigabytes of memory.

Video: Vista Home Basic can run on any graphics hardware that can support a Microsoft technology called DirectX 9. This includes many “integrated” graphics systems, which don’t use a separate video card.

Vista Home Premium and other versions will work best with a separate, or “discrete,” graphics card that has at least 128 megabytes of dedicated video memory. Microsoft says even integrated graphics systems, like Intel’s chip sets labeled 945 or higher, will also work, as long as the computers containing them are labeled “Premium Ready.”

Processor: For stripped-down Vista, a processor running at 800 megahertz or faster should be sufficient, according to Microsoft. For full Vista, the speed rises to 1 gigahertz. For anything other than stripped-down Vista, I’d strongly suggest buying a so-called dual core processor, like Intel’s Core Duo or Core 2 Duo, which pack the equivalent of two chips into one.

Hard disk: Disk storage is already copious enough for Vista, and buying large amounts is inexpensive. For stripped-down Vista, I’d go for at least 60 gigabytes of hard-disk space. For full Vista, I’d boost that to 200 gigabytes, to accommodate lots of music and video.

Price: Don’t spend extra for a slightly faster processor. Invest in more memory instead. And factor in the cost of Vista. Even the Express Upgrade program may pay only part of the cost of an upgrade, which ranges from $99 to $259, depending on the version of Vista you want.

So, wait, if you can. But, if you must buy now, don’t scrimp on the specs.

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