Windows XP, the new operating system from Microsoft, will place a lot more demands on your computer, so millions of people, especially those with computers more than two years old, may need new ones. By the time you read this, direct sellers such as Dell (DELL ) and Gateway (GTW ) should have begun shipping Windows XP desktops and laptops on customer request, though Microsoft (MSFT ) won't let them advertise until the new operating system officially goes on sale on Oct. 25. Is it time to rush out and buy?
As I explained in a recent column (Sept. 10), XP represents a major advance in stability and ease of use, especially for those whose computers run Windows 95, 98, or Me. And the older your system, the more you will gain by replacing it. (I will look at the issues posed by upgrading existing computers in an upcoming column.)
Still, the release of XP doesn't change the basic criterion for upgrading your hardware, whether or not it's adequate for XP (table): How satisfied are you with what you have? If your PC meets your needs, even if it is a five-year-old Pentium 166 running Windows 95, there's no reason to scrap it just because Microsoft has released a new operating system. On the other hand, if you are on the fence, XP gives some potent reasons for a move.
Users of older laptops running Windows 95 or 98 have the largest incentive to buy. Not only have notebook computers themselves gotten much better and cheaper in recent years but Windows XP brings big gains in usability. Many of these have been available for nearly two years in the corporate-oriented Windows 2000, but not in any consumer version.
RESTFUL SLEEP. Perhaps most important is the ability to have your laptop go into a power-saving sleep after a period of inactivity. Suspend never worked properly in any consumer version of Windows. Sometimes Windows 98 would refuse to suspend and give you no clue why. On the relatively rare occasions that XP has trouble, it usually can identify the source so you can close the offending program. More significantly, XP notebooks wake up. All too often, earlier versions forced you to reboot to keep working. A reliable ability to suspend means you will rarely need to turn your notebook off. It will resume within a few seconds of being awakened with programs and files open just as you left them.
XP also brings much more powerful and flexible networking, making it a lot easier to use a computer on both office and home networks, including dial-up Internet access. One of the relatively few areas where XP is a big advance over 2000 is its ability to sense the presence of a wireless local area network--say, in an airport lounge--and set your computer to work on it.
The case for rushing out to replace a desktop is less compelling. If you can't face one more crash or "illegal operation" error that forces you to reboot, a new XP computer should solve the problem. If you want to share a computer among family members with everyone having his or her own preferences and individual private files, XP is again the answer. And an XP box is far better suited to serve as the hub of a home network than one running Windows 95 or 98.
But there's a downside for owners of older systems. Some hardware accessories that ran under Windows 95 or 98 won't work with XP without software upgrades, which are provided by the device manufacturer and distributed by Microsoft. Companies are working to get these upgrades finished, and XP will automatically check online for new software during set-up. But if the manufacturer of your scanner has gone out of business, or if the maker of a 10-year-old printer decides not to write new software, you may be out of luck. (You can check hardware compatibility at www.microsoft.com/hcl/, but the list changes daily.)
Windows XP offers a lot of attractive new features, but I can't argue that everyone needs it right away. If you have been keeping your old system alive just waiting for XP, you'll want to jump at the first opportunity. If you have been thinking about buying a new system, XP may well give you the reason you have been looking for. But if you are happy with what you have, there's no reason to rush out and change.