Personal Technology

Some Basic Features You Should Demand When Buying a PC

Published on October 18, 2007
by Walt Mossberg

It’s time for my annual fall PC buyer’s guide and, surprisingly, 10 months after Microsoft’s Vista operating system emerged, Vista is still the biggest puzzle in consumers’ computer-buying decisions.

Back in January, when I reviewed the massive new operating system, which took more than five years to develop, I called it “unexciting” because many of the breakthrough features Microsoft had planned for it had been jettisoned, and most of the rest were already present in the rival Apple Macintosh operating system, OS X.

But I also said it was “worthy,” and better than prior versions of Windows, because it has a stronger security system under the hood and better integrated searching.

Over the ensuing months, however, Vista has proved to be a disappointment, even though Microsoft says it’s selling like hotcakes. Based on my own experience and on reports from readers, it’s clear that many Vista PCs start up more slowly than new PCs running its predecessor, Windows XP, or than even well-worn Macs. And there is still a significant compatibility problem: Too many software and hardware products still don’t run, or don’t run properly, with Vista.

So, if you’re shopping for a new Windows computer, one of your first decisions is whether you want to get Vista, which comes on almost all new models, or to stick with Windows XP. PC makers are still offering XP on a few new consumer PCs. For instance, Dell offers four consumer laptops and two consumer desktops that can be ordered with XP.

Buying XP will likely result in fewer frustrations in the short run. But buying Vista may be the better choice for the long run. Over time, more and more products will be released that are tailored to the new system.

Your other option is to shun the Windows dilemma and buy a Macintosh. I regard the Mac operating system as superior to Windows, and Apple embeds it in beautifully designed machines. Macs have been spared the plague of viruses and spyware that afflicts Windows, and have better built-in multimedia software.

But, if you’re thinking of buying a Mac, it makes sense to wait a few weeks or months to gauge the early reviews and user reactions to Apple’s own new version of its operating system, called Leopard, due out Oct. 26. After that date, Apple won’t build in the current version of OS X, called Tiger, on new machines.

Here are some tips if you’re shopping for a new Windows PC this fall. They apply to desktop PCs and to most mainstream laptops, though there are additional considerations, such as size and weight and battery life, for smaller laptops meant primarily for travel. As always, these recommendations are intended for average consumers doing average tasks, not for heavy gamers, video professionals, or corporate buyers.

Operating system: If you opt for Vista, the best choice for average consumers is a version called Home Premium, which includes all of the new graphics and multimedia features. Many low-end PCs have only a stripped-down version called Home Basic. Some people may need Vista Business, a version that can link to some kinds of corporate networks that the two Home varieties can’t. If your budget allows, you can get an expensive version called Ultimate that includes the features of both the Home and Business versions.

Junk software: Most Windows consumer models are stuffed with “craplets” — crippled trial versions of programs. They take up space and can slow down the machine. One way to avoid these is to buy a so-called business PC, like one of Dell’s new Vostro models. Dell also allows you to opt out of trial software, especially when ordering its pricier XPS models. Many other manufacturers make this hard or impossible, especially if you buy a PC at a retail store. But the stores may clean up a new PC for a fee.

Memory: Buy at least one gigabyte of memory for Home Basic and at least two gigabytes for all other Vista versions.

Video: Vista’s flashy graphical interface works best with a separate, or “discrete,” graphics card that has its own memory. Some “integrated” graphics systems work fine, too, but they claim some of your main memory via an approach called shared memory.

Processor: Any “dual-core” processor from Intel or AMD should be fine for Vista. Don’t worry about processor speed. Buying added memory does more for performance.

Hard drive: Don’t scrimp on storage space, unless you are absolutely certain you won’t be saving many photos, songs or videos. Even an average PC should come with 300 gigabytes of hard-disk space for a reasonable price.

Performance: If you’re shopping in a retail store, try to check the performance rating Microsoft builds into Vista. It’s available by clicking “Show more details” in Vista’s “Welcome Center” screen. If this rating is below 3.0 on a Home Premium model, avoid the computer. For best results, shoot for 3.5 or higher.

Price: You can get a bargain-basement computer for under $400. But, for a versatile Vista PC with Home Premium, two gigabytes of memory, discrete video, a large hard disk and a dual-core processor, you should expect to spend $800 or more.

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