Buying a New PC? Not So Fast

Upgrading to Microsoft's coming XP system will be such a challenge that it makes more sense to wait until new computers come with it

There are many reasons for the current slump in personal computer sales, but one of the most important is the lack of software that gives us a compelling reason to replace our machines. The good news, for both computer shoppers and manufacturers, is that an important change is on the horizon. The bad news? It won't happen until the end of the year, so you may want to refrain from buying a new machine.

Microsoft Corp.'s Windows XP, which is just entering its final stage of large-scale field testing, is the most important consumer software product to appear since the Windows 95 operating system. XP replaces the shaky DOS foundation of Windows 95, 98, and ME with the much more stable and secure platform of Windows NT and 2000, which were designed primarily for corporate use. And based on early looks at test versions, Microsoft (MSFT ) appears to have done a good job of taming the robust but hard-to-configure NT for consumer use.

The prospect of waiting for XP poses a difficult choice for anyone in the market for a new computer. Nearly all consumer PCs sold today are outfitted with Windows ME, the last gasp of the Windows 95 line. While ME adds some features to Windows 98--especially in the handling of digital pictures and music--it doesn't fix 98's fundamental instability. In a few areas, particularly its ability to handle multiple network configurations--say, for home and office--ME is less capable than the older version. Businesses can still buy PCs with Windows 98 installed, but Microsoft has eliminated most retail sales of the software.

For some buyers, especially those who use their computers mainly for business, Windows 2000 is a good alternative. Suffice it to say that I have worked on Windows 2000 computers for weeks without rebooting them, and laptops suspend and resume reliably. But while it's much easier to set up than earlier versions of Windows NT, 2000 still takes more work than many people might want to do. Furthermore, 2000 doesn't run some software, especially games, and it won't work with nearly as many hardware accessories as 98 or ME. Finally, 2000 isn't offered as an option on most computers aimed at consumers, such as the Compaq Presario 5000 series.

It seems reasonable to buy a new computer with Windows ME and move to XP when it's available. But I don't recommend it. Why? The upgrade will be challenging. Even moving from Windows 95 to 98 was often difficult, and going from ME to XP will be a much bigger transition.

One issue is the special software components, called drivers, that control hardware. They may have to be replaced, and this often requires detailed knowledge to pull off. Another likely problem: One of XP's attractive features is the way it sets up accounts for everyone who uses the computer and allows easy switching among users. All individuals get their own preferences and can access only their own files. This arrangement is a big change from the Windows 95 family, where all users have access to any file. In XP, as with 2000, each individual has a separate My Documents folder, and the actual files are hidden in directories that are hard to find unless you know where to look. This makes moving the right files to the right places after an upgrade a challenge.

SHORTER WAIT. Macintosh users, too, may face a tough time upgrading to the new Mac OS X, which is a radical departure from 15 years of Mac software. But at least they don't face the same wait. OS X, which I will review in an upcoming issue, was scheduled to go on sale in retail stores on Mar. 24 and will be installed on all new Macs beginning this summer.

So what's a would-be PC buyer to do? If you need only software and hardware that can run with 2000 (Tech & You, June 5, 2000) ask for that system. You will get a solid, crash-resistant operating system sooner rather than later. And when XP comes out, upgrading should be simple because it has so much in common with 2000.

What if you don't feel like tackling 2000? Microsoft and battered computer makers will hate me for saying this, but I suggest that you make your old computer last nine more months or so until XP is ready. It's risky to judge a new operating system this early, but based on what I have seen of XP and the proven solid performance of 2000, it looks like the wait will be worth it.


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