Challenging time to buy a PC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you have a newly minted high school graduate in the family - or a college student who's complaining that her hard drive is so crammed with music and video that she has no room for her junior thesis - chances are you're thinking about a new computer.

Whatever drives you toward a new PC this spring, it's an unusually challenging time to buy.

On the positive side, prices have never been lower. For that, we can thank two market forces.

The most obvious is a major battle for market share among top PC makers, particularly for laptops.

The second factor is competition between Intel and its main competitor, Advanced Micro Devices. They make almost all the microprocessors that power desktop and notebook PCs. Long an annoyance to Intel, AMD is finally making serious inroads into Intel's market with chips that perform as well or better for less money.

Add the competitive fallout from price-fixing prosecutions in the memory chip market a few years back, and the bottom line is that you can buy some heavy hardware for lightweight cash.

With the average desktop PC selling for $400 to $600 and the price of the average laptop slipping below $1,000, a computer is no longer one of those angst-ridden purchases. Or at least it shouldn't be. Unless your college student is heavily into games or video production, almost any PC will take care of his or her academic needs.

Entertainment needs are something else. Beware if your kid wants one of Microsoft's latest X-BOX video game consoles. A primo X-BOX costs more than the average computer - and the price doesn't include a screen. That says a lot about the state of the PC market today.

But even if you're buying a basic machine, you'll have to make some basic decisions.

Do you (or your student) want a desktop or laptop computer? There are compelling reasons for both. What processor should you choose? How much memory do you need? How much hard disk storage? Do you want a wide screen? A DVD-burner? A built-in TV tuner?

Ordinarily, these are straightforward questions. But the answers are more complicated this year because the computer you buy today will be considerably different from PCs on the market six or eight months from now.

In fact, the industry is headed for the most comprehensive changeover in hardware and software that I can remember.

It will start sometime this summer or early fall, when Intel replaces its aging Pentium microprocessor line and Core Duo chips (which use two less powerful processor cores to produce faster performance than a single chip) with an entirely new lineup of CPUs for desktop and laptop machines, known collectively as Core 2 Duo.

There's nothing you can do about this if you need a PC by September - and there's no reason to worry about it. Your new computer will not be obsolete. The new processors are compatible with today's Windows operating system and software. Meanwhile, any software written to take advantage of the new chips likely will be out there at the edge of the market - in high-end graphics, video processing and gaming. Folks who do these things always want an excuse to buy a new PC, anyway.

What's more problematic for the average consumer is that Microsoft will release its long-anticipated update of Windows, called Vista, in January. I say "long-anticipated" not because you've been waiting with bated breath for the Great Event, but because Microsoft has turned the announcement of Vista delays and postponements into an art form.

The timing is bad because the company can't get Vista ready to ship in time for Christmas sales. To avoid putting a damper on the selling season, Microsoft will try to persuade millions of us to buy a new PC with Windows XP and then upgrade the operating system - an operation so fraught with peril that grizzled computer veterans get queasy just thinking about it.

In fact, some market watchers are convinced Microsoft will offer free Vista upgrades to consumers who buy Windows XP computers in the last few months before Vista's release. And, as it gets closer to January, the price of Windows XP computers may drop further as retailers try to clear the shelves for the first generation of PCs loaded with Vista.

But that isn't going to help students who need a PC in September. If you're one of them - or you're paying the bills for one - make sure that whatever computer you buy is capable of running Vista.

There's one good reason to upgrade. Vista was designed from the ground up to be far more secure than Windows XP, which has been a nightmare in that regard. Those struck by viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware, adware, and zombie computer hijackers - and they number in the millions over the past five years - know how miserable life can be with a leaky operating system. If nothing else, Vista will plug those holes.

Nothing else I've seen about Vista would induce me to upgrade an existing PC, rather than wait to buy Vista installed on my next computer. But the security fixes alone make Vista worth having.

The problem is figuring out how much computer you'll need to run Vista. And that depends on which version of Vista you want to buy. In a masterpiece of marketing genius, Microsoft plans to sell three consumer versions of Vista - at different prices, of course - and two versions for corporate use. (Now that will certainly simplify things for the average user.)

The three consumer versions are called Basic, Premium and Ultimate. Basic Vista should run on most of the hardware sold over the past couple of years. But many users won't be able to take advantage of Vista's spiffy new graphics engine, code-named Aero, which comes with the Premium and Ultimate versions.

For Premium or Ultimate use, you'll need a processor that runs at one gigahertz or better, which isn't a big deal. But you'll also need a full gigabyte of internal memory and a video card that's certified for Aero and has at least 64 megabytes of dedicated video memory.

That eliminates many consumer-grade PCs sold over the past few years - and many of today's low-end computers - which use a built-in graphics adapter from Intel that shares memory with software that's running.

Does this sound like a conspiracy to get people to buy more expensive hardware with bigger markup? Hey, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. ...

All of this is, of course very confusing. Before you buy a PC today, visit Microsoft's "Get Ready" site for Vista (www.microsoft.com/windowsvista/getready/). You'll find information on finding PCs that are capable of running various versions, as well as software you can use to test your current computer for Vista-worthiness.

And with that nasty piece of caveat emptor out of the way, we'll get into the specifics of buying a PC next week.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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