Walt Mossberg

Operating Systems Offer New Choices in PC Shopping

Now that both Microsoft and Apple have finally shipped the new versions of their operating systems, Windows 7 and Snow Leopard, respectively, it’s time for my annual fall computer-buying guide.

This guide stresses laptops, which have become the prevalent choice, but most of its specs also apply to desktops. As always, it is aimed at average consumers doing typical tasks, such as Web surfing, email, social networking, word processing, photos, video and music. It doesn’t apply to businesses, hard-core gamers or serious media producers—groups that need specialized or heftier hardware.

Consumers shopping for new computers this fall have a wide variety of choices with the new operating systems pre-installed, making the machines faster and better. Windows PCs are no longer burdened with the disliked Vista OS.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Windows hardware makers and retailers generally are trying to nudge you to spend more. They are anxious to guide consumers away from the popular, but low-profit, stripped-down netbooks to somewhat larger Windows 7 laptops from which they can make more money. This larger-size category goes by a variety of names, which can be confusing.

Windows vs. Mac: The arrival of Windows 7 makes PCs from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL) and others much better choices than their Vista-equipped predecessors were. Microsoft (MSFT) has closed most of the gap with Apple’s (AAPL) Mac OS X operating system. Also, Windows PCs are often priced hundreds of dollars lower than Macs, and offer many more choices.

But Apple’s hardware is stylish and sturdy, and, in my tests, Macs usually boot faster than Windows machines. Plus, Apple’s chain of retail stores offers a better buying experience and strong post-purchase support. Also, in my view, Apple’s built-in software still has the edge. Snow Leopard is fast and reliable. And it comes with a full suite of excellent built-in programs, including email, photo and video software. Microsoft has stripped Windows 7 of such programs. Some PC makers have restored some or all of these in certain models, although I consider Apple’s counterparts better. Another huge plus: The Mac isn’t susceptible to the vast majority of viruses and spyware.

Cost: Prices on Windows PCs are creeping upward. You can buy a Windows PC for under $500, but many stores are pushing costlier models. And those $250 netbooks are much scarcer. Now, they typically run between $300 and $450. Apple has mostly stuck with its same, higher, prices, though it has boosted the specs on many models. The cheapest Mac desktop, the minimalist Mac mini, is $599. The cheapest Mac laptop, the new MacBook, is $999. The heart of Apple’s line starts at $1,199.

New category: Windows PC makers this season are pushing a category of laptop that is meant to fit between a netbook and a full-size laptop. It goes by a variety of confusing names, such as “ultrathin” or “thin and light,” though these models are often no thinner or lighter than some laptops of the past. They typically cost between $500 and $800, and often have 13-inch screens.

Memory: All Macs come with at least two gigabytes of memory, which is plenty for running Snow Leopard well. Mainstream Windows PCs have at least three gigabytes. But the cheapest Windows machines sometimes come with less. I recommend at least two gigabytes.

64-bit: PCs have long been based on something called a 32-bit architecture, but many models now use a 64-bit architecture, allowing properly written software to use more memory and run faster. If possible, buy a 64-bit computer, which is likely to dominate eventually, even though some software and add-on hardware may be incompatible at first.

Graphics: The new operating systems allow software makers to speed up some tasks by offloading them from the main processor onto the graphics chip. So, if possible, get a “discrete” graphics processor, which has its own memory. Otherwise, find a potent “integrated” graphics chip, which shares your main memory.

Processor: Mainstream Windows PCs sport fast, dual-core processors from Intel (INTC) or its rival, AMD (AMD). These pack the equivalent of two brains onto one chip. But many lower-price Windows PCs have slower processors, such as the Intel Atom, which are best suited for light duty. Apple models all use Intel’s dual-core processors, except for the highest-priced desktops, which come with quad-core chips.

Hard disks: A 250-gigabyte hard disk should be the minimum on most PCs. On a netbook, look for at least a 160-gigabyte disk. Solid-state disks are faster and use less battery power, but often add hundreds of dollars to the price tag.

Touch: Windows 7 lets you control the computer by touching the screen with your fingers, and some PC makers add their own touch-screen features. But this only works fully with newer types of touch screens, adding cost. Make sure any touch-screen model you buy has a full multitouch screen that supports all Windows 7 gestures. Apple uses the laptop touch pad, or its new mouse, as the multitouch, finger-gesture mechanism, instead of the screen.

As always, don’t buy more machine than you need.

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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