Walt Mossberg

Tips for Getting Past Some of the Hassles of Buying a New PC

Whew! The new Windows Vista operating system, five years in the making, is finally out and preloaded on new PCs from every major Windows computer maker. After months of uncertainty and delay, you can go forth with confidence and buy a new computer, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

So, here’s my annual spring buyer’s guide to desktop PCs. Most of what I say below also applies to laptops, although with laptops there are additional factors, such as size, weight, screen size and battery life. As always, these tips apply to mainstream users doing typical tasks, not hard-core gamers or techies.

Last fall, I advised average consumers with aging PCs to hang on until new Vista PCs emerged, rather than trying to upgrade existing models. I still believe that was the right course, because Windows upgrades are so tricky. But it turns out that even new Vista PCs have two big downsides.

First, Vista isn’t all that exciting a replacement for Windows XP. It’s much prettier and has much better searching, and Microsoft claims it has much stronger security, although you still need add-on security software.

Second, to an extent that amazes me, makers of Windows software and hardware have failed to update their products to work smoothly, or to work at all, with Vista. In my house, for example, the only built-in Vista printer driver I can find for my printer doesn’t allow the two-sided printing I can do with Windows XP and Apple Macintosh computers.

So, if you desperately need a new Windows PC, be prepared to be underwhelmed and to be frustrated by incompatible software and hardware. And if you’re not desperate, you might wait another six months or so for the software and hardware to catch up — and for Microsoft to issue some bug fixes.

Or you could buy a Mac instead. I still believe the best desktop computer on the market for mainstream, nontechnical consumers is the Apple iMac. It has gorgeous hardware and superior built-in software. Its operating system, Mac OS X, includes most of the key new features of Vista. And the iMac can even run Vista, along with its own operating system, if you need the occasional Windows program.

Apple has delayed until October the release of its new operating-system version, Leopard. But it’s almost certain that any Mac you buy now will upgrade to it smoothly. (See my Mossberg’s Mailbox for more details.) And the Mac is still largely free of the security problems that add such hassles to using a Windows PC.

But if you’re going for a Windows PC, here are my buying tips.

Vista Versions: The cheapest PCs will have only a stripped-down edition of Vista called Home Basic, which lacks Vista’s flashy new user interface. To get the full Vista experience, you’ll need more expensive machines that come with Home Premium, which also has more media features and is probably best for most average consumers.

If your company recommends it, you may need a different version of Vista called Vista Business, which lacks some of the media features, but can connect to some types of company networks that the Home versions can’t. Or you can buy a machine with the costliest version of Vista, called Ultimate, that includes all the features of the other versions. If you want to shun Vista altogether, you may still be able to find new PCs with Windows XP, though these machines may not be as secure as Vista models.

Memory: No matter what Microsoft or the PC makers say, I strongly suggest one gigabyte of memory, or RAM, for Home Basic, and two gigabytes for all other Vista versions.

Video: Vista Home Premium, Business and Ultimate will work best on machines with a separate, or “discrete,” graphics card with dedicated video memory. Some integrated graphics systems — built into the computer’s main circuitry — will also work, though they will drain some of your main memory through a scheme called shared memory.

Processor: For Home Basic, any current Intel or AMD processor in a new brand-name PC will work. For other versions, I suggest a “dual core” processor, like Intel’s Core 2 Duo, or AMD’s Athlon 64 X2, which pack the equivalent of two chips into one. Even if your processor can handle so-called 64-bit software, average users won’t find that capability useful today.

Hard drive: If you’re not much interested in video, music or photos, 80 or 100 gigabytes should be sufficient. If you are, 250 gigabytes or more is best.

Disks: Don’t buy one of the competing new high-definition disk drives, Blu-ray or HD-DVD, until the war between these competing formats is settled. Stick with plain old DVD.

Junky software: Nearly all Windows PCs are packed with “craplets” — the useless, annoying trial versions of programs. In a retail store, they may remove these for you for a small fee.

Price: You can get a bargain, brand-name desktop with Home Basic and a slow processor for under $400. But for a versatile desktop with two gigabytes of memory, discrete video, a large hard disk and a dual-core processor, you can easily spend $800 or more, without a monitor.

Just don’t buy more, or less, machine than you need.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.


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