Walt Mossberg

Computer Buyers Have to Consider System Upgrades

If you’re shopping for a computer now, there’s an added factor to consider. Later this year, both of the major computer operating systems, Microsoft’s Windows Vista and Apple’s Mac OS X Leopard, will be replaced with major new versions: Windows 7 and Mac OS X Snow Leopard. And that affects what PC hardware you should choose.

So, in this annual spring computer buyer’s guide, I’ll pay particular attention to buying a machine for the new OS you may soon want.

This guide covers both laptops and desktops and is aimed at average users doing typical tasks. It doesn’t apply to hard-core gamers or video, audio or photo professionals.

Cost: Prices on Windows PCs have plummeted. You can buy a Windows desktop for under $300, without a monitor, and a low-end, full-size Windows laptop for around $500. If you are willing to settle for a so-called netbook — essentially just a small, cheap laptop running the aging Windows XP operating system — you can get a decent one for $350, or less. Even Apple, which has resisted this cut-rate trend, is offering modestly lower prices or higher specs for the same prices as before.

Timing: Despite the bargains, you may want to wait to buy, if you can, until the new operating systems emerge. That’s because it’s usually easier and cheaper to buy a new machine preloaded with a new OS. You don’t have to pay extra for the new OS or hassle with performing the upgrade. Neither Microsoft (MSFT) nor Apple (AAPL) has set a date for their new OS releases, but both are likely by the holiday buying season.

This is especially true if you are thinking of buying a Windows Vista machine. Vista is slow and filled with annoying nag screens. Based on my tests of its prerelease, or beta, version, Windows 7 will be a huge improvement.

Windows vs. Mac: Apple’s hardware is beautiful and durable, and its OS is faster, easier and more stable than today’s Windows. Plus, the Mac isn’t susceptible to the vast majority of malicious software. Windows 7 will narrow this gap considerably, but Snow Leopard could keep Apple ahead, depending on how it turns out.

But Apple computers cost more upfront. The cheapest Mac desktop, the bare-bones Mac Mini, costs $599. And the cheapest Mac laptop is $999. So, if price is your top priority, buy a Windows PC. If speed, ease of use and stability matter more, buy a Mac.

Upgrading: Microsoft promises that upgrading a Vista machine to Windows 7 will be a straightforward process, preserving all of your files, programs and settings.

It’s a different story for Windows XP. Upgrading from that OS will be a cumbersome, multi-step process, requiring users to offload their files, wipe out the old operating system completely, and then reload the files and reinstall their programs. This is a particular problem for buyers of netbooks, nearly all of which come with XP.

In addition, Microsoft’s version of Windows 7 for netbooks, called the Starter Edition, is crippled. It can run only three programs at any one time, and won’t allow any customization of the desktop or the use of Windows 7’s snazzy graphical features. Microsoft says netbook owners also will be able to run the main Home version of Windows 7, at extra cost, but given the weak processors and graphics chips on netbooks, the experience may not be optimal.

Apple, which doesn’t make netbooks, claims Snow Leopard will be an easy upgrade on all currently available Macs.

Memory: Neither company has released the official specs for the two new operating systems, but both are likely to require a minimum of 1 gigabyte of memory. Such specs are usually understated, so I strongly recommend 2 gigabytes, even on cheap machines.

Graphics: In the new operating systems, adequate graphics chips will be more important than ever, because the computers will offload some tasks typically performed by the main processor onto the graphics chip. So, if possible, spring for what’s called a discrete graphics processor, which has its own memory. If you can’t afford this, look for an integrated graphics chip, which shares your main memory, that’s as powerful as possible. One example is the Nvidia 9400.

Processor: Microsoft and Apple say current processors will work fine with the new operating systems. The best bet is a dual-core processor. Some bargain machines use an older single-core model, which is OK for light-duty use. Netbooks, and even some laptops and desktops, come with a much wimpier processor called the Intel (INTC) Atom, which struggles at some tasks.

Touch screens: Windows 7 will include the ability to perform many multitouch gestures on the screen. But this will require a special type of touch screen, different from the ones on most tablet PCs today. A few current models, like Hewlett-Packard’s TouchSmart desktop, support this, but not many. So, if you’d like to use multitouch on Windows 7, ask to make sure your PC can handle it.

The bottom line: Don’t buy more machine than you can afford, or need. But protect yourself by getting one that can be upgraded to the new operating systems.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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