Technology companies obscure the true costs of improvements

`Minimum requirements' often grossly deficient for computer upgrades

September 24, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Technology companies can be two-faced.

Especially when sales are slow or a holiday season is coming.

A new thing comes out and they tell us breathlessly about its features.

At the same time, they're telling stores how this new thing will demand more: memory MB, processor MHz, sound quality, printer paper, refill ink, hard drive GB, modem MBps, or all of the above. And the stores get all warm inside thinking of all the dollars headed their way as you and I buy the gear to handle the new thing.

Funny thing is, the technology companies don't mention that expected spending spree to us, the buyers, or they play down the demands, making ridiculous statements about a so-called "minimum spec" that really isn't very expensive and will work just fine.

One of the worst examples I ever saw involved inkjet printers. While printer companies were telling us about the glories of quieter, faster, more-colorful pages from cheaper printers, they were whooping it up with stores about the paper and ink these printers would consume. You and I would hear through an uncritical press about the pleasures of more dots per inch. The technology stores would hear about the pleasures of selling $1-per-page paper and $35-per-cartridge ink refills.

We hear about beautiful pages and new ink-extending print modes. Stores hear about printers hungrily gobbling paper and high-resolution photograph pages that can drink a cartridge dry.

It's cheating when companies don't admit, right up front, the real costs of a new technology.

It's a con when they sell us something that supposedly costs $X, but we discover later that we'll need to spend another $3X to really make it work.

And there's a big, two-faced moment coming our way.

Microsoft is about to introduce Windows XP, the latest version of its operating system software.

And to us, the story is "This will do a better job with digital audio and video and won't crash so often." To stores, the message is "This will drive a new upgrade cycle, making people buy a faster PC with more memory and audio/video extras."

And, you know, it's all right for both of those things to be said. They're both true. But are we all hearing the full story? Not if we're bamboozled into believing that we can get that improved audio and video and reliability without paying for the additional hardware.

`Suggested requirements'

I'm not analyzing whether Windows XP is worth buying or really provides those new features. (Let's not even get into the matter of the "reliability," as we're told to spend more money to get something we were told was part of the last Windows purchase.)

I'm just suggesting you take Microsoft's "suggested hardware requirements" with a grain of salt. No, throw out the salt entirely.

Just don't believe their recommendations. For each Windows in the past decade, I've watched people struggle to make the software work on the "minimum" hardware. And the best that can be said is that it generally will - probably, kind of, I guess so - limp along.

A less diplomatic, more cynical person than me might call these "system requirements" by another name: lies. That angry person might believe the requirements were set so low to keep from scaring people away from buying the new Windows, to snare more buyers who would later show up at stores with a haggard look, asking about memory add-ons and replacement PCs with faster chips.

When Microsoft's Web site says you need 300MHz or faster (233 required), 128MB RAM (64 minimum) and 1.5GB of drive space, I just smile.

I know that means you shouldn't bother with XP on anything less than double those numbers. I believe a practical PC for Windows XP will have at least 800MHz, 256MB and 3GB.

You have to ask yourself, is the reputed reliability and multimedia of XP worth not just the upgrade-software price, but also hardware upgrades you'll need to add? Each new Windows generally makes the processor work more, making the latest Windows on a 1GHz chip only as fast as an older Windows on a 500MHz or slower chip.

Maybe if you're hungry for power, you should first try adding a little memory to your current Windows to see how it does. That will often improve your reliability, too. Then you can sit back and let others suffer with any early Windows XP bugs.

Apple, even Linux, too

As long as we're talking "minimum" scams, Microsoft isn't the only one that stretches the truth. Apple's new OS X supposedly requires only 128MB RAM. Again, better double that estimate, and use not just one of their officially approved Macs but a recent model from the list, if you really want to "run" OS X, not just make it crawl.

The one operating system that doesn't fall entirely into this game is Linux. There are exaggerations, especially when "minimums" are stated for running a fully graphic interface such as Gnome. But the ability to run Linux as a print, file or Internet server without the full interface means you can often install the latest Linux on a pretty minimal computer. If you're considering dumping a computer that isn't up to XP or OS X, you could convert it to running the latest Linux, whether the computer is just a little shy on RAM or is years-and-years old.

In general, when anyone tells you about "minimum" computer requirements, especially with a big new program such as an operating system upgrade, you're better off doubling or tripling what they claim will work. Then you can make realistic buying decisions that won't include "Hey, this is so, so slow" or "Why won't this feature work?" or "I'm headed back to the store again, Honey, we need a memory/disk/processor upgrade."

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