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Your next PC: thinking beyond the desktop

Woody LeonhardBy Woody Leonhard

With Black Friday a fading memory and Cyber Monday deals still fresh on the Web, visions of a new PC may be dancing in your head.

But before you go out hunting for that shiny new Win7 machine, take a deep breath, sit back, and consider these tips on buying a PC.

The first and most important tip? Ask yourself whether you need another Windows-based desktop — there are some excellent alternatives. In fact, for home computing, Windows is becoming less and less relevant. More of the services and applications we use are on the Web than in our PCs. And there are now many ways to work on the Web that are cheaper, easier, or just more fun than sitting at a desk and staring into a PC screen.

Think mobility for future personal computing

If you are replacing a desktop with another desktop, you should seriously think about going portable. Laptops are more expensive, feature for feature, but any additional cost is more than made up for with convenience. Many businesses, including Windows Secrets, are migrating to notebooks on the desk. The only PC users who still need a desktop are those who regularly upgrade their systems with new components.

One component you might ditch with your next computer is the keyboard. Take, for example, Apple’s iPad — or if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Windows user, one of the iPad-like tablets that are starting to appear. No, the iPad won’t replace a desktop PC if you’re typically pounding away on a keyboard, but some would find that its greatest redeeming value. For surfing the Web, watching videos, and updating photos and Facebook, the $500 to $829 for an iPad is relatively cheap. And it might keep you happy with that aging desktop for another year or so.

If you’ve decided that upgrading your current desktop PC is no longer cost-effective, think again. To dredge up a well-worn mantra, “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.” You’ll save money and the environment. Over the years, I’ve upgraded dozens of PCs, always wiping the hard drive in the process and starting with fresh software installs — and in every case, I’ve ended up with a downright decent machine. The trick is to bump the main memory up to at least 2GB and install a fast video card with at least 512MB of on-board video memory. You can do both for about $100.

Check your peripherals for a good Win7 match

Before you put that old machine out to pasture — destined for the kids or donated to your favorite charity, no doubt — check to see whether all your peripherals will work with a new Win7 system. Most older printers and external drives play nicely with Microsoft’s newest OS, but many scanners don’t. Other types of peripherals such as older audio cards can be problematic, too.

To ensure that your old peripherals will plug-and-play with Win7, download the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor (site) and install it on your current PC. Turn on all your peripherals, run Advisor, and then read the report it generates of potential Win7 upgrade problems.

With an all-clear from Upgrade Advisor, you can assume your peripherals will work smoothly with your new machine. But if Advisor gets cranky about a particular piece of hardware, you have two choices: plan on replacing the peripheral or keep the old PC around to run that problematic peripheral. Sometimes that’s the easiest and cheapest solution.

Don’t overspend for computing performance

So you know that you want a Windows 7 PC, and you’re not constrained by your current array of peripherals. Good news. Time to start looking around.

No doubt you’re expecting me to give you a bit of blazing insight about dual-core vs. quad-core CPUs, i3 vs. i7 processors, system bus speeds, L2 cache sizes, hard-drive rotation rates, or USB 2 vs. 3. But you’re out of luck. Here’s a fact: unless you’re a hard-core gamer or you routinely edit huge media files, none of that horsepower stuff makes much difference — especially as we move more of our computing to the Web.

When I want to consider real-world performance, I check out the Windows Experience Index (see Figure 1). I wrote about WEI in my March 5, 2009, Woody’s Windows column, and WEI hasn’t changed much since that article was published. But in one respect, Microsoft did clean up its act: it changed the bogus method used to calculate hard-disk subscores.

Windows 7 WEI

Figure 1. The Windows Experience Index isn’t a definitive measure of PC performance, but it’s good enough.

WEI scores five performance categories — Processor, Memory (RAM), Graphics, Gaming graphics, and Primary hard disk — using an index ranging from 1.0 to about 8.0. (As PCs get faster, the top number will rise.) WEI then takes the lowest number produced by these categories to display a single, overall Base score. (For more on WEI, see the Microsoft Help & How-to article, “What is the Windows Experience Index?”)

As I explain in my March 5 article, the scores are jiggered in strange ways but the net effect is a reasonably accurate, overall assessment of a PC’s speed. In my experience (I’m not a gamer), the processor and graphics scores correlate pretty well with my impression of a system’s performance. I don’t think the gaming graphics and hard-disk scores mean much, and memory isn’t a concern if you have 2GB or more installed.

You can see the WEI on any Windows 7 PC by clicking Control Panel and System and Security; then, under the System heading, click Check the Windows Experience Index. To evaluate a system you can’t get your hands on, look up WEIs for many system components on the Minpaso site.

Here’s a truth about WEI scores. With rare exceptions, machines whose WEI scores differ by one point or fewer will have no discernible speed difference — none at all. In my experience, a two-point difference canbe felt in daily computing use.

Bottom line: Using WEI to gauge speed, you can avoid buying a PC costing hundreds of bucks more for little gain in performance.

Making the important Windows 7 decisions

Although system speed should be part of your purchasing calculations, it’s not the most important part. Usability is key.

Choosing the appropriate version of Windows 7 is easy. If you’re going to connect to your company’s big network, you need Win7 Pro. In all other cases, Windows 7 Home Premium has everything you need. (For more on this, see my July 16, 2009, Top Story.)

Confused about 32-bit vs. 64-bit Win7? That’s easily answered, too. When you run the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, it will tell you whether you have peripherals that won’t work with 64-bit Windows 7. If so, stick with the 32-bit version. Otherwise, I recommend installing 64-bit Win7. Why? The price of memory is falling fast. You may want 4GB of memory some day, and that requires 64 bits.

You should also consider what applications you will run on your new PC. Do you really need Office? And so, what about Outlook? You can save considerable money by purchasing Office 2010 Home & Student, which does not include Outlook.

Many new PCs still come packed with free trial versions of antivirus software and dozens of other products. Ask the PC vendor whether you can pay a little extra to have your system shipped without that garbage — it’ll save you the time and effort of removing it.

But the most important decision for a new PC is choosing the right components outside the box — the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Make sure you bang on the keyboard (especially if you’re buying a laptop) because the feel and placement of the keys vary widely. And the same manufacturer may ship a dozen different keyboards.

If possible, view new monitors under all sorts of lighting conditions and for as long as you can. Your best alternative is to check side-by-side monitor reviews online. Your eyes will thank you.

One final bit of advice: If you don’t have a fast Internet connection, forget the new computer and invest in more bandwidth. That may mean switching Internet service providers or paying more for an enhanced account. The joy of a fast computer fades. But having a fast Internet connection will serve you well — now and far into the future.