Walt Mossberg

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Will Vista Be Ready for Prime Time?

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 Vista, family-tree Web sites and utilities that allow the use of Mac iPods on PCs.

You recommend waiting to buy a new PC until the new Windows Vista arrives in January. But isn’t it a bad idea to use the first version of a major new program, especially from Microsoft? Should we be concerned that Vista will be “not quite ready for prime time” even when it is released early next year?

It’s true that Microsoft has a bad record with “Version 1.0” software, and that, too often, it takes a couple of revisions for the company to get things right. Vista might follow the same pattern. But Vista has been worked on for five years, and has undergone extensive beta testing. I suspect that, if there are problems, they will mainly be with third-party companies that may not have their software and hardware updated and ready to work with Vista. This is especially true for software called “drivers,” which is needed to make various peripheral hardware, like printers, work with a new operating system.

My guess is most with common software and hardware will find that Vista will work fine. But if you are concerned about it, and you must buy a PC soon, you could always buy a Windows XP model and upgrade to Vista later. The downside of this is that upgrading can be tricky and may result in a botched installation, compared with simply buying a PC on which Vista has been installed at the factory. That’s why I suggested waiting for Vista. I will have a full review of the final version of Vista when it’s available, and will let you know then if I think it’s ready.

Do any of the family-tree Web sites or software packages allow different family members to update a common family tree? It seems they are all designed for one individual’s control and maintenance. A joint effort would enable families to eliminate or minimize redundant efforts.

The Web site ancestry.com has a feature that allows you to collaborate with others whose family trees overlap with your own — through common relatives. You can share trees, and even merge them.

I recently purchased a Windows PC to replace my iMac. I’ve learned to my horror that I can’t simply plug my Mac-formatted iPod into the PC’s iTunes software. I understand that there are some utilities out there, like XPlay 2, that will allow me to use the Mac iPod on a PC. Are there any drawbacks with these utilities? Is there an alternative?

All iPods come from the factory with their internal disk drives or memory formatted for Windows, because most iPod buyers use Windows. If a new iPod is first plugged into a Mac, however, it gets automatically formatted as a Mac drive, to make it work more efficiently. But Windows computers can’t read Mac-formatted disks — including the disks inside iPods that have been formatted for the Mac.

MediaFour’s XPlay 2 (www.mediafour.com) software for Windows solves this, and it has worked fine in my tests as a way to read a Mac-formatted iPod on a Windows PC. But it doesn’t support video, and it’s more cumbersome than iTunes. Also, you would need to use the Windows version of iTunes to buy songs from the iTunes Store. A better solution might be to just reformat your iPod for Windows, and then you can use it normally through the Windows version of iTunes, without needing XPlay or any other special software. Note that reformatting will wipe out the contents of your iPod, so it’s essential that all your music and videos be first moved to your new Windows machine and imported into iTunes there. Then, you can simply use iTunes to re-load all your stuff onto the iPod after it’s been reformatted.

To reformat your iPod, make sure the Windows version of iTunes 7.0 is installed, and then plug the iPod into the Windows PC. You should get an alert saying that “iTunes has detected a Macintosh-formatted iPod” and advising you that you must “restore this iPod before you can use it on Windows.” Click OK, and then click the “Restore” button in iTunes, which appears in the screen that is shown when you select the iPod from the list at the left.

* * *

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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