Tardy Vista makes it a season of PC leftovers

Plugged In

November 09, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

Normally, I don't start writing about holiday PC buying until we toss out the last Thanksgiving leftovers. But this is the strangest computer shopping season I can recall. The reason: Virtually every PC on store shelves through the holidays will be a leftover.

There's nothing wrong with leftovers from the table; some stews and soups are actually better the second time around. But we're talking about computers here, so the comparison is a bit more complicated.

Why is this a season of leftovers? Because Microsoft couldn't get Vista, the new release of the Windows operating system, out the door in time for the holiday season. It won't be available on consumer PCs until Jan. 30, the company said yesterday. But once it is released for the consumer market, retail PC makers will stop using Windows XP.

As a result, computers sold over the Christmas holidays will be the last of their line. Because Vista is a big-time system hog, the PCs that appear in the first quarter of 2007 will likely be a bit heftier, and pricier, than today's models.

So, if you're in the market for a computer this Christmas, you face the same decision as an automobile buyer in September. Should you buy one of this year's computers at a year-end discount, or wait around for '07 models and pay full price?

Before we take this metaphor too far, remember that PCs are not cars. They're a lot cheaper than cars. You can save thousands upfront if you buy a new car at the end of the model year. But spending $600 for an end-of-the-line XP system versus $800 or $900 for a new Vista PC won't improve your long-term financial position.

With that in mind, the big decision, buy-versus-wait, may depend on what you do with your computer.

For several years, PCs have had far more horsepower than the average user needs. This has been great for consumers, because their computers last longer than they used to.

If you want a PC for basic computing - Web browsing, e-mail, word processing, instant messaging, financial recordkeeping, digital photography, Powerpoint presentations and playing music or DVDs - almost any machine on the rack will do. And it will continue to do the job for years.

For a few hundred dollars more than a desktop PC, you can buy a laptop that will handle the same chores, and do it on the go.

The only occupations that require more computer horsepower are high-end gaming and serious video editing. Both have millions of devotees, but they still represent a niche market.

And, while Microsoft is replacing its six-year-old flagship operating system, Windows XP won't disappear overnight. In fact, it remains robust and reliable, particularly if you keep up with the latest security patches.

Given the cost and hassle of upgrading to a new operating system, businesses will continue to use XP for years. Heck, here at The Sun, we didn't even get around to using Windows XP until a year ago, when we replaced our ancient newsroom systems. I can't imagine we'll feel compelled to upgrade to Vista anytime soon.

Meanwhile, with hundreds of millions of people still using XP and likely to use it for years, manufacturers of printers, scanners, MP3 players and other external gadgets will be writing XP drivers for their hardware for a long time. So there's no reason to fear obsolescence.

But what if you want the latest and greatest version of the operating system? You can wait till Jan. 30 and be one of the first to buy a new Vista-based machine.

But that has its own set of problems, one of which is that it's never a good idea to be the first customer for a new high-tech anything. Generally, you want to let someone else discover the bugs, then buy the product six months later.

Or, you can try to have the best of both worlds by picking up a relatively inexpensive computer over the holidays and upgrading the operating system to Windows Vista afterward.

This is even more problematical - for a several reasons. First, you'll have to make sure that the computer you buy can handle Vista, and that means knowing a bit about the new operating system.

Windows Vista comes in two flavors for home users - Basic and Premium. Besides better protection from network hackers - a major drawing card - and some changes to the look and feel of the product, there are relatively few major differences between Vista Basic and XP. Most PCs on the market today will be able to run it.

But Vista Premium is a different story. First, it includes the multimedia features found in today's Windows Media Center Edition (including TV tuner and program recording support). Second, it juices up the system's graphics with technology that Microsoft calls Aero, and which I call Stupid Interface Tricks. These include the display of semitransparent windows that slither and jump around to no useful purpose.

But these doodads do gobble up computing horsepower. To run Vista Premium, Microsoft recommends at least a 1 gigahertz processor, a gigabyte of internal memory and a dedicated graphics adapter with at least 128 megabytes of video RAM.

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