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Transcript

Operating System Updates

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, February 28, 2005; 2:00 PM

Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro was online to talk about his latest column, which looks at the need to update computer operating systems. He writes that older operating systems still fire up in the morning as they always did. But they show their age in other ways.

A transcript of the discussion is below:

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Rob Pegoraro: Good afternoon on this snowy day. If the white stuff is actually sticking wherever you're at (as opposed to downtown D.C.), you should be out playing in it, not reading some lame online chat. But I see plenty of people have showed up here anyway, so let's get to it...

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Snowy Falls Church, Va.: Rob, In your column yesterday, you neglected the single most important reason for not keeping that antiquated Operating System around. Security holes. I read somewhere that if you hook a freshly installed un-firewalled Windows PC to the internet, it would be infected (worms don't need any type of user interaction) and possibly connected to a botnet within a few minutes. Making it into a zombie computer to add to a hacker's arsenal of tools to do whatever they please. Probably a reason why I get so much spam from unknown machines and email addresses.

I think that was a major oversight and a disservice to imply that it was ok to run an older OS for say, general web browsing, as long as you don't need to use your computer as a media hub.

If computer that you bought 5 to 10 years ago was used to do word processing or something and never was hooked up to a network, then great. But if you even consider dialing into the internet or have gotten broadband, you'd be insane not to keep your computer up to date.

And people wonder why their computers are running so slow, or that they've had their identities stolen, or why they can't open up a web browser without getting a million pop-ups.

washingtonpost.com: Creaky Operating Systems Show Their Age

Rob Pegoraro: I've gotten a few e-mails like this. And they are all completely wrong. The safest version of Windows you can run, by a long shot, is Windows XP Service Pack 2, which includes a long list of security fixes unavailable for earlier versions.

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Austin, Texas: My wife's mother is running Mac OS 9 on a G4 Cube. When we suggested that we could help her upgrade to OS X, she responded with horror. Her OS 9 setup works well enough for her, and not even the ability to use an iSight for video iChats with her grandson was enough of an inducement to balance what she rightly suspected would be a long period of getting used to new ways of doing old things.

Rob Pegoraro: This is a different reason not to upgrade--if the computer does what you want it to do, then why bother? My mom's iMac, for example, is still running Mac OS 9.2, which is fine for what she does.

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Zanesville, Ohio: The daunting aspect to me is the migration of my data, the saved mail in cataloged mailboxes, the cataloged links in IE, and so forth.

I hope it's easier than I'd expect, but I notice that nobody advertises that it's a failsafe snap.

Rob Pegoraro: You're right, that is an issue. But there are program that can greatly ease the transition; here's our review of some of them.

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Arlington, Va.: Why shouldn't computers and operating systems be built to last? Planned obsolescence is great for selling things, but disenchants the buyers. If you are using your PC for the internet and word processing, then the extra features are as useful as adding fins to your car. Japanese carmakers made a meal out of Detroit's planned obsolescence -- I'm hoping for an anti-Gates likewise to shake up the whole software industry by offering stability and long-term quality over some temporary sexy new option.

Rob Pegoraro: Sorry, but you can't have it both ways. Either the PC industry is great because it innovates at such a ferocious pace, or it's horrible because it innovates at such a ferocious pace. It's not planned obsolescence so much as a rapid rate of evolution.

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Tucson, Ariz.: I just spent two hours on the phone with a friend who was having trouble re-installing Win98SE, so this topic seemed very familiar. It is my feeling that Windows users and Mac users have different perspectives on upgrading. Mac users feel that their system should run forever or until the hardware ceases to function as part of the intrinsic system design, while I think Windows users are skeptical about spending money on a new operating system that will require significant maintenance through the application of service packs and hotfixes that generally have a well-deserved reputation for being as much of a problem as a solution. In light of the two very different business strategies of Macintosh and Windows, are the two platforms comparable in the subject of upgrading even if the outcome (outdated systems) are the same?

I am a computer professional and I am writing this from my home installation of Win2k which I have little intention of upgrading in the immediate future.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm not so sure about the different-perspectives theory... since Apple made the switch to Mac OS X, the pressure--and, to be fair, the incentive--to upgrade has been much more sustained.

The real difference, I think, is the *ease* of upgrading. Very few Mac OS upgrades go awry, while even minor system updates can unhorse a previously functioning Windows box.

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Seaford, Del.: Mr. Pegoraro, What percentage of people, office or home, use their computer as a COMPUTER and not as a word processor, Internet search engine, or device to copy music or photographs? Also, when a new version of a program is released how much does it cost the company in lost man-hours to learn the new program? One comment on Microsoft Windows. If I made as many mistakes in my Engineering/Sales positions as Microsoft I would have been fired for every one of them. I guess accountability is not practiced in the 21st century.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't think I understand your question. A computer used as a computer? What else would you use it for but to run programs that let you create, help organize your life, gather information for you or provide some entertainment? If you can't do any of those things, why bother using a computer at all?

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Keene, N.H.: Having just read your 'Creaky Operating Systems' article, I and the many others in the 21 percent using aging systems are faced with the dilemma of what to do. Why upgrade, for instance, to either XP version, when we read that Microsoft MAY introduce a completely new system within a year or two? Also, there have been too many horror stories about upgrading to XP rather than buying a whole new computer with XP. What is your suggestion?

Rob Pegoraro: The odds of Microsoft shipping a new operating system within the next year are near zero. The odds of that happening in the next two years aren't great either.

OTOH, you do have to think about the age of your existing PC. If your machine shipped with, say, Windows ME, it probably has a small hard drive, no USB 2.0 ports and too little memory. You could fix all those things by replacing various parts, but what's the value to you of the time you'd spend tinkering like that?

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Reston, Va.: Hi Rob:

Digicam, music and home movie buff looking to make the jump to Mac. In your experience, is the 1.8 G5 iMac (with 1 MG of ram and 160MB or greater hard drive) sufficient for non-pro use of, say Photoshop Elements and video-editing apps? How about the displays? Sharp enough for these purposes? Pros/cons (besides size/price) between the 17-inch and 20-inch models? Thanks...

Rob Pegoraro: Get the 17-incher. The 20-inch iMac isn't a good long-term purchase... that beautiful screen will be usable long after the rest of the machine has become obsolete, but you won't be able to do anything else with it. There's too much value locked away in that screen.

The specs you outlined would be more than fine for video editing.

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Milwaukee: Two questions: What Media player (Eg. Ipod) will work off windows 98se? I would also like to have the ability to play in a car that is sans tape player. Second, laptops: My daughter is looking for one. What are good sources to help in a selection of one? There really are too many options to go through. thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Unless you're going to be buying an under-$150 music player, you're going to be putting yourself through a lot of frustration. You really should buy a new computer... which won't cost much more than a new iPod itself.

If you're dead-set on keeping that 98 SE machine, you can use some third-party programs to transfer music to an iPod--see, for example, ephPod and Xplay. Some non-Apple players still come with software that runs on 98 SE.

To play music in your car stereo, you'd need an FM transmitter, either built into the player or attached to it as a third-party accessory (see, for instance, the iTrip add-on for iPods).

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Pompano Beach, Fla.: Everyone I talk to says Windows Millennium was a disaster. I found it so. Was this a MSD mistake or did many find it to this very day a stable, satisfactory OS?

Rob Pegoraro: I've never met anybody who liked Windows ME. We actually gave it a reasonably good review, and at the time I thought it was a good conclusion to the Windows 9x series of systems... but in practice, a lot of users had real issues with it that we somehow didn't see in our own testing.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: My windows 98se Dell will not take a newer version. I would have to go out and buy another system, money I don't need have right now. I do not like planned obsolescence!

Rob Pegoraro: But how long have you had that computer? Five years is an eternity in computing time--a lot of people don't keep cars that long!

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Washington, D.C.: What is the best way to update my Mac OS X laptop that I purchased two years ago? Thank you!

Rob Pegoraro: I'd say "buy a copy of Panther," but Apple's already gearing up the hype machine for the next OS X release, Tiger. That's due "in the first half of this year," Apple says, which to me is close enough that I'd wait for it to ship. Set aside some money to bump up your laptop's memory while you're at it--you need at least 512 megabytes to run Panther, and Tiger may or may not need more.

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Champaign, Ill.: I maintain 2 computers--one with Windows XP for communicating, another not connected with the outside world, where I do all my work using DOS. In 25 years I've never had a system crash on my old computer, never lost a file, never had a virus. Cannot say the same for my internet connected Windows machine, where I update virus protection daily. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: I think you are an extraordinarily dedicated individual to still be doing anything in DOS in the 21st century.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: I have had windows XP for a year. I have not yet downloaded the upgrade for it....as I heard their were some problems initially. Do you have a written info sheet on what to do before one updates XP....and do you recommend I do it? And how much time does it take? Can it run in the background while one is sending e-mails or writing word documents?
Thanks...Michael

Rob Pegoraro: Before doing any system update, you should do a complete virus scan of your system, then follow up by running two different anti-spyware packages. Start with AdAware (www.lavasoftusa.com) and then Spybot Search & Destroy (www.spybot.info). A third option is Microsoft's new Anti-Spyware utility; a beta-test preview copy is available on its site.

If those scans don't turn up any trouble, back up your personal data (just in case!) and go ahead with the update.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: This is not a question but a response as to why I keep using an old operating system. There are 3 basic reasons. (1) my old system does everything I need it to do (2) I would have to spend a $100 and 2 hours of my life to upgrade to a new system and (3) my experience has shown that I'll spend at least a couple of hours more to fix the problems caused by the new system, and there are ALWAYS problems.

My experience has been that these are minor, but annoying problems. However, there is always the risk that they will be huge problems. Why go through this aggravation for very limited benefits?

Rob Pegoraro: Well, because the benefits of going from, say, 98 SE to XP are not "very limited." I give XP a lot of crap in my column, but on a day-to-day basis it is far superior to its predecessors--it crashes a *lot* less, it has much better multimedia software, with SP2 it's more secure and it supports a much wider variety of third-party software and hardware.

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Arlington, Va.: What are the minimum requirements for upgrading to XP? I have a Dell Inspiron 8000, Pentium III (550 MZ), with 256K of RAM, running Windows ME (which I hate). I'd rather not buy a new laptop (we already have an IBook and a desktop). Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Put another 256 MB of memory in that and you should be fine. There's also an Upgrade Advisor program you can download from Microsoft to check for any potential conflicts before you pick up a copy of XP: www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/home/upgrading/advisor.mspx

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Hoffman Estates, Ill. : I'm switching from MSN dialup to Comcast broadband tomorrow. I have McAfee virus protection and Zone Alarm's free firewall. Do I need more protection for broadband?

Rob Pegoraro: No--the threat isn't that much less severe over dialup. You didn't mention any anti-spyware programs, but if you don't have one handy you should remedy that. Use that to run a scan regularly to make sure nothing's crept onto your system. .

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Philadelphia: Rob,

A Mozilla Firefox question: Is there reliable data on Firefox market penetration? Is MSoft worried?

My employer's web presence was created by a PR/design firm that is dismissive of Firefox. Their product doesn't work right unless you're using IE. Those in power here drink the Kool Aid.

Rob Pegoraro: I suggest you fire that Web-design company. IE is now officially under 90 percent, according to both WebSideStory and OneStat. So by blowing off non-IE browsers, your site is sending away at least 10 percent of your potential customers.

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New York: My IMac OS9.1 is almost 5 years old and obsolete for me. I want to buy another desktop Mac, but not spend too much. What do you recommend? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: A Mac mini will only cost $500; you can use your iMac's keyboard and mouse (or buy new ones for $40 or so). An LCD monitor will only cost $200-$300. Or you could buy an eMac, which for $800 will be much bulkier but won't require any shopping after you bring the computer home.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Why don't people update their operating systems? Especially those on their home computers? I don't know about anyone else, but the reason is simple - FEAR!

The fear of losing everything that's on the system now. The fear of losing programs, files, etc. The fear of none of your current programs working on the new operating system and having to spend hundreds of dollars (on top of the hundreds of dollars the new operating system costs!)to replace programs which still work.

And I don't care how "cheap" YOU think a new computer is, especially since I doubt sincerely whether you have to pay for your own. Considering your position with a newspaper writing a technical column, I'm sure that either the paper supplies one (or more) to you, the manufacturers supply them or you can just write the cost of a new one off as a business expense. For many of us, the cost of a new computer - especially to replace one that is still working - is NOT pocket change.

Now, to the real problem - while you asserted in your article that WindowsME would attach "almost" any USB plug-and-play device, let me tell you - it doesn't! I had to download a driver to get a "flash memory" stick to work and I have sitting next to my computer a brand new, 80 Gig hardrive which the computer refuses to operate because it keeps asking me for drivers I don't have, the manufacturer doesn't have (I spent over an hour on the phone with their technical assistance) and the manufacturer says only Microsoft would have but they charge $35/hr just to talk to you!

I find it interesting that to get the "flash memory" to work, I downloaded a driver for Windows 98SE. I tried to do the same for the hard drive but it refused to load, saying it only was for Windows 98.

Other than buying WindowsXP and taking the chance of losing everything on my hard drive, any ideas?

Rob Pegoraro: First, I *do* pay for my home computers. The Post does supply me with a laptop I use for business travel and some work from home, but the iMac upstairs is all my coin. I don't keep any review computers from manufacturers; they all go back to the PR types when I'm done trying them out. Ditto for peripherals.

Look, computers do cost hundreds of dollars. That's not cheap--but it's cheaper than a lot of other manufactured goods these days. Look at car prices. Look at what an HDTV costs. Look at all the money people spend week after week on Starbucks or cable TV or whatever. If you attach so much value to computing that you'd let loose a rant like this, then it is worth spending a little to get a machine that works.

As far as flash-memory drives go, having to install a driver, while annoying, is not the same as not being able to use it at all (what would happen if you tried plugging that keychain into a Win 95 machine).

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Denver: What Windows O.S. is the most stable now? Do the SP 1, 2 fixed all the problems?

Rob Pegoraro: Windows 2000 is about as stable as Windows XP, but with SP2 XP is less likely to run into virus/worm problems--so I give the nod to that release.

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Delmar, N.Y.: Rob, why are you saying that XP should have 512 MB memory? Microsoft says 128 is recommended for XP Home. Microsoft wouldn't deceive anyone, would they?

Rob Pegoraro: No more so than Apple, which says you can run OS X on 128 megs of memory.

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Arlington, Va.: Are you planning to profile Verizon's FIOS (fiber-to-the-home) service launch in Arlington. I know two neighbors who have tried it - both have lost voice service! I hear that Verizon is shipping an ONT that they KNOW is faulty?? Is this true?

Rob Pegoraro: We do need to review it, but I'm trying to see when it will be available to a substantial number of people.

Not to ask a dumb question, but what's an ONT?

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Bethesda, Md.: I have a desktop P3-1000 running Windows XP-Home and a P3-500 laptop running Win98SE. They are both from Dell. I'd like to upgrade my laptop to WinXP. My understanding is that a full version of WinXP gives two licenses to allow a user to install it on a desktop and a laptop. It is unclear (the folks at the Dell call center could not answer) whether or not the XP disks that came with my Desktop could be used to install and register XP on my laptop. It could allow for only a single registration. I'm afraid that installing XP and then having to uninstall it will mess up my machine. Any words of wisdom?

Rob Pegoraro: XP Home is only licensed to be installed on one PC; on your second install, you'll get a message saying that it can't be activated successfully. I've heard from people who have been able to talk their way out of this when they call up Microsoft tech support... but that is, y'know, stealing.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: I have XP. I have an Olympus digital voice recorder and download my recordings to the Olympus program on my computer. They are .dss files. I am able to convert them to .wav files within the program. However, I have no idea how to move to or access these files from another program, like Outlook or Media player 10. I get to the Olympus program, click on it and get a bunch of .dll programs etc. In earlier versions of windows, (likely 95) I seem to remember simply editing the file type extension by typing and having more control over the location of the files.

Thanks Rob, you're the only reason I visit the Washington Post.

Rob Pegoraro: Try using the find-file feature in XP to search for these files by their name. Just changing the filename extension, BTW, won't change the actual data; all you'll do by renaming a *.dss file *.wav is confuse Windows.

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Arlington, Va.: When will you review the latest iPods?

washingtonpost.com: A Surprising New Mini-Player in the Music Game (Jan. 23, 2005)

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure. There aren't any new features in this batch, so it's not like I'd have to work too hard to test them.

Wait, what am I saying? That's the *perfect* reason to review them :)

I dunno... I'll see. I may try to do some kind of comparison with other music players.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have a MAC G3 tower, an Epson stylus C84, a 17" Samsung SynchMaster 171v, I run MAC OS 9.2 and I use a dial-up connection to the internet.

I haven't upgraded to MAC OS10.3 because my G3 won't take it comfortably.

This week, however, my NEW MAC Mini is going to arrive, loaded with a SuperDrive and 1meg, of memory. and I'm getting a new combination copier/printer from Epson. AND I will finally convert to high-speed internet.

Actually, this conversion will be overkill for me, for I do no "heavy lifting" with my computer. I research subjects on language, history, music and other "liberal arts" subjects. I do NOT either send or receive hugely fat attachments. And I am patient enough to be able to have a beer and not go up the wall while my dial-up is processes whatever it is in the process of processing .

I rather dread having to port over all the stuff from my old G3 to my MAC Mini. You can probably help me with that, Rob: make suggestions about programs I can download to make the transfer easier or suggest someone who will do the transfer for me for a reasonable amount of money.

Rob Pegoraro: No need to buy any extra software--just get an Ethernet cable (you may or may not need the crossover kind), connect the two machines, turn on file sharing on the G3 and then connect to it from the iMac. Then copy over all the files and even applications you want to run on the new machine.

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Washington, D.C.: It might amuse you to hear that my employer (the US Department of --------) is still using Windows NT as its operating system. We have no USB capability, but we're able to function surprisingly well.

Rob Pegoraro: I just hope that the Do? isn't putting NT on new machines, in which case it's wasting your and my money by paying for two licenses for each computer, and I'd want to see the responsible IT director canned.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: My question to you - "Why does the industry overprice new systems' upgrades?" - is for industry CEOs ultimately. I hope chats like this reach them. Your article notes that much of the market base for Windows or OS X has been slow to move up to newer systems. That should be a red flag to the industry, given the rapid market growth of many new products that work better, or only, on upgraded systems. Could it be that CEOs who make multi-millions a year see three figure pricing as chump change? $100-plus pricing for software ensures slow adoption as certainly as sub-$100 pricing would virtually guarantee upgrading en masse. For your readers/listeners, I pose a question: How many postpone upgrades largely because of the price tag, and would jump at the chance to keep more current with upgrades if they sold for under $100?

Rob Pegoraro: That's a reasonable question. But I think the bigger issue may be that a lot of the excitement appears to have been sucked out of computing. As you can see in some of the responses here, people think that there's no meaningful improvement in going from, say, Win 98 to XP. Yet it's not like Microsoft has gone easy on the advertising lately... I don't know what can be done about this.

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Falls Church, Va re: FIOS: The ONT is the new box Verizon has to put on the outside of your house..mine is about the size of three boxes of Kleenex. My install went fine...no voice calls lost (that I know of). Tina

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks! (Can you e-mail me more details about how the service has been working for you?)

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Washington, D.C.: Can you point me to an easy way to move my iTunes music from an old computer to a new computer. Simply copying files didn't do it.

Thanks for any light that you can shed on this.

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure what you tried to do, as I have *always* moved iTunes music by a simple file-copy procedure. Even from Mac to PC... I just transfer the files over my home network, fire up iTunes and have it scan my music folder, authenticate the PC so it will play my iTunes purchases, and I'm done.

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Stoddard, Wis.: You asked in today's column what could be the reason that people stick with obsolete operating systems and computers, rather than upgrade. I can give you a case from personal experience.

My mother is 89 years old, and has had a computer for about five years. Her first one was a Compaq Deskpro 2000, For which I paid $100. In fact, members of my family bought a dozen of these machines for $100 each. They all required modems and CD-ROM's but these were obtained without breaking the bank, so to speak. The processors were 130mb and the RAM's were 32 kb. These machines were gradually replaced over the last five years, as finances and crashes dictated. The last one to go was my mother's. She is now using an Aspire which my aunt gave her. It has a 350 mb processor and, like her previous machine, uses Win98SE, of which I have a copy. The RAM was 64mb and I upgraded it to 160mg with a 128mb RAM board. This RAM was the most expensive upgrade ($60) I have done for her. She gets $800 per month Social Security, and spends $10.95 per month for Peoplepc.com dial-up ISP. With this machine she can send and receive e-mail (to keep current on her grandchildren) and go shopping on the internet (mostly Blair.com). I think this is a good machine for her, and she would not be able to switch easily to another operating system, such as WinXP. The layout of the various systems pages and the difference in operating procedure would be beyond her! Not exactly rocket science, but it works for her! PS Her younger sister (87) was given a new computer and broadband service. She is still having trouble using the WinXP and the broadband, and in fact is now struggling with the mfgr. over a non-functioning monitor and a virus which wiped out her hard-drive files! She does not understand the necessity of a good firewall, anti-virus and spyware programs, all of which are more important than ever now that she has a broadband connection and her computer is running all day!

Rob Pegoraro: The phrase in IT departments for this kind of situation is "requirements management." Here, Stoddard has determined what people will actually use their computers for, and has found software that does that job. I didn't write Sunday's column for those folks. I wrote it for people who keep butting their heads against the limits of a Win ME or Mac OS 9, people who want to do things that their current machines won't allow.

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North San Juan, Ca.: Comment: Win98SE was the first usable version of Win95 to be released, and it works just fine. Yes, it required different drivers than win2000 XP, the NT versions, but as long as you reboot often, don't run too many programs at one, and have at least 64 megs of RAM, preferably 256 for graphics intensive, it will handle quite nicely. I dispute your notion that only 20% of the universe uses it. I suspect that world wide it is easily 60%, and locally I know it is, as I do tech support, and run into families with several OS's. The Win 98 is always there, still chugging along.

Rob Pegoraro: That 20 percent figure isn't my notion, it's IDC Research's estimate. They've been doing this survey for years and I find them a credible source. Given that it's been five years since anybody could buy a machine running Win 98 SE, I think the 20 percent figure makes complete sense.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't understand your comment on the 20-inch iMac. I've been planning and saving to make the switch from Windows to Mac, and thought the 20-inch screen looks great. I guess I've assumed the more screen the better.

What do you mean by "too much value locked away in that screen"?

Rob Pegoraro: The iMac G5, if it's like every other Windows or Mac machine made, is probably good for at least 3 years of useful life before it starts to feel slow. But unless there's a big change in how people use home computers, the odds are it won't be very useful after 5 years at most.

The monitor, however, isn't going to suffer that kind of aging. It should be usable for far longer. But once the computer integrated into it has become functionally obsolete, you can't do anything else with the monitor--you can't use it as an external display for some newer machine.

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Miami: I am using Windows 2000 in my home office and Windows XP Pro on my work PC. I find that Windows 2000, despite its age, to be much more stable and crash-free than XP. Could this be the main reason people don't switch? I just do not trust Microsoft to release a stable OS on its first -- or even second -- attempt.

Rob Pegoraro: Under the hood, XP essentially is Win 2000--same basic foundation, but with better hardware and software compatibility.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Rob: Again with a dismissive comment about the cost of upgrading OS's or buying new computers? Your answer to Milwaukee, Wis, about not having the money to buy a new system was classic upper crust or techie elitism ("But how long have you had that computer? Five years is an eternity in computing time--a lot of people don't keep cars that long!"). Maybe among your circle -- in the circles most of us find ourselves, cars are kept twice that long, or as long as they can economically be kept running. Sure, rapid changes bring many more significant new capabilities to computers than to cars, and I don't argue with your point about the benefits of rapid change, but the cost of that rapid change is not as easy to dismiss as you seem to believe -- at least, not for most of us. It would just be nice if providers of hardware and software could try harder to retain bridges between tech generations to help those of us who can't simply buy up with every new upgrade -- or at least make the upgrades a bit less pricey.

Rob Pegoraro: "Upper crust"? That's a first. My car is 13 years old, so I do know what you're talking about. But the basic technology of automotive transportation hasn't budged all that much since 1992. Computers, OTOH, have--think about how many people owned digital cameras in 1998 or 1999?

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Bloomington, Minn.: Who wants to upgrade an Operating system? When I upgraded from ME to XP it was a huge hassle, which ended with reformatting the hard drive & doing a clean install of XP. Then all my current software needed updates and new drivers and some just never could be used again. And money is an issue, my last PC cost me $1700.00. I bought it just prior to XP's release and I could by a pre-release voucher for a $15.00 otherwise I would be running ME now. I think the Mac Mini points to the future - small portable and inexpensive updates of hardware and software in a single package. Plug the two together and download all your needed info from the old box to the new box via a simple user interface. Then bring the old box back to the store and receive a credit for any reusable parts. I will never pay over $1000.00 again, for a computer.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the note. The good news is, you shouldn't have to--the only reason you'd want to spend over $1,000 on a new system is if you have particular uses that justify the higher expenditure, like making home movies or whatever.

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North Bethesda, Md.: My question sounds obvious, but I've never seen the answer. I run WIN 98, and would gladly upgrade to WIN XP for IPOD, etc.

Is that easy to do, or am I better off getting a new machine. Any pitfalls/tips?

Rob Pegoraro: Sorry, but it will be easier to buy a new machine.

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Takoma Park, Md.: The main reason to upgrade your Mac operating system is so that you can get decent tech support from your friends or the guys on the support line at Verizon etc.

I just spent 15 minutes on the phone convincing a buddy that because I did not memorize the communications/network controls for OS 10.1 I couldn't help him fix an obscure problem.

You want the operating system that the person who helps you most is using.

And we won't talk about the elderly relative who wanted me to find replacement floppy drives for her Kaypro.

Rob Pegoraro: I bet that Kaypro would fetch a pretty good price on eBay these days!

BTW, I wasn't aware that Verizon had effective tech support for *any* Mac OS version. Seriously... the Mac-owning Verizon users that I've heard from have not been thrilled with the state of tech support there.

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Reston, Va.: Rob, For Silver Spring, MD:

The Setup Assistant that runs when you first start up the Mac Mini will walk you through transferring all of your files from your old Mac to your new one, via either ethernet (no crossover cable needed for a Mac Mini to anything) or firewire. Or, you can take the two machines over to one of the Apple retail stores (Montgomery Mall and Bethesda Avenue are probably the closest) and the folks at the genius bar can go through the process with you. (Tip: if you do want to go to the genius bar, go early as you need to put your name down for an appointment and it's first come first served unless you have ProCare.)

--Paul

Rob Pegoraro: Paul is an Apple employee I chat with from time to time (if I've got the right person in mind here :). One thing, though--I didn't know the Setup Assistant supported Ethernet. I've only ever seen it allow a FireWire connection, and in that case the old machine has to be running at least Mac OS X, I think.

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Baltimore: What about BIOS upgrades? I'm running Windows 2000 Professional on a generic "white box" computer I was just given the opportunity to pay $60 for a BIOS upgrade that, among other things, would increase my "plug and play" opportunities. Since I have not encountered any plug and play problems as yet (USB 2 works fine, I have no expectations of trying to use Bluetooth with this machine) is there any value to upgrading the BIOS?

Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure--for one thing, BIOS upgrades are usually free downloads from the manufacturer. If the computer does work, though, I'd be reluctant to load that update.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Everyone just loooooves Apple, but doesn't their (lawsuit-protected) Impenetrable Shroud of Secrecy regarding upcoming product releases reflect a basic disrespect of the consumer? Is it really so wrong to let your customers know that something new is on the very near horizon rather than wait until the new product is already in the stores before acknowledging its existence? If I had just bought one of the Ipod photos at $600, I would be seriously peeved.

Rob Pegoraro: I agree with Cleveland on this point. Apple is a little too fond of being able to say "surprise!" when it rolls out a new product, to the point where it leaves paying customers in the lurch. (The only safeguard you have is 10 days of price protection if you buy at Apple's own stores, or more if your credit card offers that.)

I'll throw in another example of how this secrecy can hurt Apple's business--the AirPort Express. Apple has implied, in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge way, that some sort of display and remote control will be available for this WiFi box, allowing it to be a complete wireless media receiver for your stereo. But customers deserve more clarity than that--before paying $130 for this thing, you want to know if Apple's going to complete the feature set or not.

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Tucson, Ariz.: I agree with you whole-heartedly that there are substantial benefits to upgrading from 98SE to XP, and with comments about expectations about how long a computer should last -- 3 years in my experience being about the max for a Windows machine, with the drive to upgrade mostly due to innovations in hardware and peripherals. This can be extended somewhat if you perform your own upgrades. Providing you have the expertise to do that, you will eventually wind up with a completely new computer sitting in an old case.

Why do you think it is that Windows hasn't made it easier to upgrade to a new system without losing old information? This seems to be a service provided by several manufacturers (i.e. Dell or Gateway), but is sadly lacking in the Windows OS.

Rob Pegoraro: Data migration is one of the computer industry's most abject failings--right up there with the continued inability to bundle a simple, safe, and reliable backup mechanism.

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Santiago, Chile: I use a Mac G4 with a 533 MHz processor. Since I moved from Mac OS 10.3.3 to Mac Os 10.3.7 it takes rather long to startup (2.5 minutes or more). Also, Word 2004 does not always respond to my typing at once but often waits a second or two to display a character, even longer to paste a phrase. An expert told me this was due to the fact that my processor is too slow and that if I want to use the latest OS I ought to buy a faster CPU. What do you think?

Rob Pegoraro: That doesn't make sense, not if you saw a delay after upgrading from 10.3.3 to 10.3.7. (There is a 10.3.8 release out now, which might solve your problem.)

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Tampa, Fla.: Hello: I am one of "those" people who won't pop for a new computer. I have a Mac G-3, and it works fine for all my needs. It runs on OS 8.1. I know I can go with a higher OS than this with the G3, but how high? And where can I get the higher OS? Caveman

Rob Pegoraro: Mac OS 9.2 is probably your upper limit. You'd have to find a copy on eBay, though... I don't think Apple sells it anymore.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hello Rob, One of my friend gave me to fix his laptop which still running win98 SE. and it is very very slow. it takes literally 2 minutes to open any program. It has 4.5 GB HD and 128 mb of RAM, it may need upgrade. I have disable most of startup item in MScofig setting already, but still running very very slow. Any suggestion? Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Make sure you've got more than 10 percent of the hard drive available, and try running the EasyCleaner registry-maintenance utility we reviewed several weeks ago.

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Anonymous: I have WIN 98 ME on my home laptop, and XP on main home computer. WIN 98 ME is immune from almost all the latest viruses and is only limited by some of the gadgets/bells/ whistles that XP accommodates. I honestly don't use much of that stuff, even not at work. Again, WIN 98 ME wins hands down

Rob Pegoraro: Please point me to these viruses that only affect Win XP, not Win 98 or ME (there is no such OS as "Win 98 ME"). I'm afraid somebody has given you a false sense of security...

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Alexandria, Va.: Score one for Free/Open Source. All I do to update my Linux system is rerun emerge and the only cost is bandwidth. Until free is illegal I'm going to have an up to date system with no need to change unless word processing or web browsing requires a faster computer.

Rob Pegoraro: From the command Alexandria mentioned, I know he/she is running a Linux distribution called Gentoo, which is apparently the fastest and most difficult Linux there is--you have to compile everything you install, including the OS itself. Sorry, that's not going to be competition for Windows anytime soon.

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Beltsville, Md: Rob, one of the links in your newsletter was to an article on the NX flag in Windows XP SP2. That article lists Intel processors (520J, 530J, etc) that support the NX flag. How can I tell which processor is in my PC?

washingtonpost.com: 'No Execute' Flag Waves Off Buffer Attacks

Rob Pegoraro: You'll have to look up its specs in the manual or at its manufacturers' site.

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Falls Church, Va.: Isn't it better to buy a new computer (even if one can't afford one with all the bells and whistles) than to try and update an older machine? For example, trying to install WIN XP over WIN 98 SE in a four-year-old computer? I'd think it would be much more of a risk and a hassle trying to do that as opposed to saving up the money and getting a new computer altogether.

Rob Pegoraro: Correct, that's my judgment as well.

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Washington, D.C.: I really do not like windows xp. I have been a windows 2000 user for the past 4 years. What type of operating system would you recommend other than windows XP?

Rob Pegoraro: Linux, or Mac OS X if you don't mind buying a new computer in the bargain.

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Detroit: RE: A NEW XP system is like buying the first year "design change" in a brand new car...let them get the bugs out. I'd want a "proven" design wouldn't everyone? New bells , smoke and mirrors , I can also upgrade to, the learning curve is more self controlled under the "baby-steps" approach. The cost is a little less stinging if the product or add-on is not up to par for my use. Wouldn't someone try to download and sample what's out there?

Rob Pegoraro: Huh? It has been *four and a half years* since XP shipped! If you don't think Microsoft can get the job right in that amount of time, how can you possibly justify using any of its earlier systems, given that they were current products for much shorter periods of time?

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Taylor, Mich.: RE: What supports my 'million dollar' list of software and games....not the new XP/XP PRO-? I would buy a new system to start all over ('fresh") again with new games if I have to or have no choice. There is a balance to this shelling-out for a "promised" new platform. People resist change. Have you not felt like you must get "dug-in" ? (In culture there is: FAD, FASHION and STYLE, you will find your own style, your own classic collector's car or game.) EH?

Rob Pegoraro: Not sure I'm following this argument... my clothes, as unfashionable as they are, still keep me warm, dry, etc. Computers are tools, and the new ones do a lot more than the old ones.

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Greencastle, Pa.: Not a question, but an answer: On my home network I have three Macs: a current model eMac (1.25 Ghz, Firewire, USB 2, DVD-burner, 80 Gig hard drive), an early G3 (pizza box style), and a PowerMac 8600. I've added USB and Firewire ports to the latter two and all three have built in ethernet. I run the latest version of OS X on the eMac and the latest-possible versions of OS 9 on the other two. All the gee-whiz stuff I do on the eMac (and I do a lot of video and audio work). But simple web research, word processing, and graphics work I can do just fine under OS 9 (gotta love Graphic Converter!). You think the Mac Mini is cheap at $500 (and I agree) but I got that 8600 off of eBay for $85 -- including shipping. The money saved has gone toward buying additional external hard drives-- for video, audio, and backups. So while I have made the move to OS X and wouldn't dream of going back, OS 9 continues to do just fine for certain basic needs. And in a family of four with two teenagers, those extra computer stations take some strain off of jockeying for computer time -- something even the much-loved fast user switching feature can't accomplish.

Rob Pegoraro: Interesting example. But do you really find you can do that much on the Web in OS 9? You're stuck between IE, which doesn't block pop-ups but does work reliably and display most sites properly, and old versions of Mozilla that fit in poorly with the Mac OS and have their compatibility issues (same goes for Opera 6).

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Rob Pegoraro: Running out of time here, but I'm going to try to get through as many of these comments as I can...

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Reston, Va.: More of an answer; many seniors use Win 95 and 98 because their kids upgraded and gave the parents the old computer. They lack the tech skills to upgrade, and struggle along with the old one because it still works and changing over all the programs terrifies them. Also they seldom use the digital toys younger people use, and don't think they need a new computer, the old one works. I teach seniors to use computers--Reston is pretty high tech, and many are very skilled. But I suspect many older folks are holding on to those older OS's like their '97 Buick.

Rob Pegoraro: thanks for the comment

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Minneapolis: I'm 45 years old. My kids are almost all out of High School and I'm finding a renewed interest in an old love of mine, namely my music. I have been slowly rebuilding a long neglected music collection mostly via iTunes. My reluctance to embrace any of this technology whole heartedly is two fold. 1. It changes so fast will my investment be soon outdated and will I be forced to once again update and reinvest more money just to keep it functional. 2. It's expensive! I can't spend $500.00 on digital downloads only to have to replace them 5 years later because the format is antiquated and the new hardware won't play it. As a consumer, I want some reassurances.

Rob Pegoraro: I think w/ iTunes purchases, you are safe--Apple is in this market for the looonnnnnggg term.

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Ames, Iowa: I have one question and complaint about Windows XP. I wonder if the 'send error report' function of XP is sending any information about my computer that I would rather Microsoft not see, such as directory listings, internet cookies etc, that is unrelated to the program that crashed. Do you know if Microsoft has commented on this? I prefer XP's lack of blue screening and ease of hardware installation compared to Win98 and Win95, but I don't how I will feel about it if I find out Microsoft is invading my privacy.

Rob Pegoraro: The report-a-problem issue should only send info about the exact error--what sort of problem Windows saw, the last instruction it received from the malfunctioning program. It's possible that your own data could be in that last memory buffer, but if you're worried about that you can decline to send the error report. (The default choice in that dialog is "Don't Send.")

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Delmar, N.Y.: Rob, if I cannot increase the memory on my ThinkPad from 256 megs to 512 (and I can't on this 4 year-old laptop) do you think I should skip trying to upgrade from 98SE to XP Home?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, just save up for a new laptop.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Another response as to why people have older systems. Right now I have XP on my home laptop, ME on my home desktop, and NT on one office laptop and 98 on my other office laptop. There was not the money to upgrade my home desktop after sinking megabucks into my home laptop. I have no control over what my company uses. When I bought my home laptop it came with XP and I loaded the new Service Pack 2 without much difficulty, but only because I waited about a month and a half after its release to make the jump. But I can tell you that there are quirks to each one of these operating systems and trying to remember what they are as you work with each one drives you crazy!

Rob Pegoraro: If you're stuck with NT at work, you have my deepest sympathy...

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South Fla.: Hi Rob, I would ask your thoughts on alternative OSes, mainly various flavors of linux or unix, but I know they are probably still relegated to "niche" status... hopefully that'll change in the future. What are your thoughts on Linspire (nee Lindows)? I've thought about giving it a try but wonder if there's a benefit to it over my current linux machine. Thank you

Rob Pegoraro: Linux is coming on pretty strong--has been for a while, but in the last year or two you've been able to buy preinstalled Linux PCs from places like Wal-Mart's online store. The quality of individual Linux programs is also way up. What the Linux community does need to work on most of all is installing third-party programs--if you have to chase down library files to fix dependencies or go to the command line to get an install to work, that's not going to grab many Windows users.

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Terry, Mt.: I was wondering why you guys who write in the post think we need new systems. Windows 98 SE works good. I know the OP system fine - why would I change? All I do is read the post emails keeping me up to date and do some email, also read a few yahoo groups. Why would a guy 65 and half switch to a new OP system? Makes no sense to me. When I was your age, I had to have a new car all the time -- now mine is 15 yrs old and runs good. Please tell me why you think we need a new system?? Thanks keep up the good reading. Love your column, Jimmy

Rob Pegoraro: Please have another look at what I wrote in my column:

"If your machine is among that contingent and you find that it performs its assigned tasks properly, there's no problem -- for you, the software is old but not obsolete."

My point is not that people should upgrade mindlessly--it's that people should not stick with an old operating system if they find that it keeps them from doing things they want. That does not seem to be the case for you.

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JKB in Arlington: Not to bash the Mac Mini, I think it is a great machine, but the features that it touts as far as transferring files and settings are also available in Windows XP machines. This isn't anything new. In fact Windows XP machines pretty much do it all for you. People also should realize that you can purchase a comparable Windows XP machine that includes a Monitor, Keyboard, & Mouse for almost the same price as the Mac Mini which doesn't include those necessary items. Windows machines have long been the affordable computer option, but for some reason Mac's are all of a sudden gaining fame for what is probably their 1st and ONLY affordable computer.

washingtonpost.com: Modest Mini Can Put Macs in Hands of the Masses (Jan. 30, 2005)

Rob Pegoraro: First, transferring files and settings between Windows machines is *nowhere* near as easy as between Macs. (You can also move applications wholesale from one Mac to another with a simple file copy, which is not even possible in Windows.)

Second, the point of the Mac mini isn't that it's cheaper than any Windows machine. It's not. IT is, however, only slightly more expensive, instead of costing hundreds of dollars more. That's a big change from Apple's recent practice.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Rob, Yes, I am ready to upgrade (i.e. buy a new laptop). I can well afford the $1K purchase price. But the thing that is holding me back is the fear and uncertainty surrounding the migration of the many dozens of installed programs on the current machine. Same comment concerns my desktop. I'm running XP Pro SP2, but on a 1 GHz Celeron that really ought to be replaced. I'd like more HD capacity, USB 2.0 and don't need, but could use more speed. But here it is a matter of not dozens but over a hundred applications that I don't use every day but am loath to lose forever. If the industry has come up with a decent migration tool, I certainly haven't heard of it and I am sure I am not the only one with this problem. I have a Dr's appt. today or I would love to be in on your live chat. I hope you have a solution to suggest or describe.

GVL

Rob Pegoraro: There is none. Windows, by design, mingles system and application files in a way that makes the kind of orderly transfer you want impossible. That's only doable on a Mac, and even then a few applications have to be reinstalled instead of just copied.

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Anonymous: What's on ESPN.com's home page that's causing Firefox to completely bomb out, closing all its windows & tabs?

Rob Pegoraro: Dunno, as I've had no such problem with ESPN.com, which I read about every day (now that the Nats' spring training is on :)

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Washington, D.C.: I have an older printer and Windows XP computer. I'd like to replace the parallel cable between the two with a bluetooth connection (or some other wireless solution). Is it practical to buy a bluetooth USB device for my XP desktop and a bluetooth receiver for the printer, or do you think I'd be better off getting a new printer?

Rob Pegoraro: Unless the old printer is a laser model (those last forever, and new models don't offer that much better output), junk it. Inkjets have advanced enormously since the days they all shipped with parallel ports.

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Albany, N.Y.: Rob;: Your columns have been a real help to me. It was from you that I learned about Firefox. Thanks! Yesterday you commented that upgrading to XP should be accompanied by 512 MB of memory. That's way more than Windows suggests. I have a four-year old ThinkPad running fine with 98SE, with 256 memory (its maximum configuration) and a Celeron 600 chip. I have about 7+ gigs of free memory. I purchased the XP Home upgrade last week and was ready to go until I read your advice. I thought the upgrade would a cheap way to "freshen up" the laptop, which I use mainly for surfing, email, and some photo fun (with Picasa, which is GREAT.) Should I return the XP upgrade to Staples?

Rob Pegoraro: No, just buy the extra memory. 256 megs should cost $50 or less.

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Hamden, Conn.: I have a perfectly functional setup using a Power Mac 7300/200 with OS9.1, but now I need OS X to run one new Win98 only application with Virtual PC. I have a scanner, a laser printer, a zip drive and an external hard drive on a SCSI chain. I have a beautiful 17" Sony monitor and ADB keyboard and trackball.

Question: How do I upgrade my OS and CPU without junking all my peripherals?

Rob Pegoraro: You kinda can't keep the computer. Look, that 7300 is a seven- or eight-year-old machine. That's like driving around in a 40-year-old car, but without the coolness factor. Buy a new machine, then budget for some USB adapters for your old ADB and SCSI hardware.

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Washington, D.C.: We have reached the point in America where home computers are just another appliance which most households own-- like a VCR or microwave. The average consumer is used to buying such items and using them for years or even decades until they finally breakdown. Periodic updates and rapid obsolescence are not welcomed or even expected. Software companies are very sensitive about protecting and licensing their products, do they plan to start offering automatic upgrades to consumers who have bought an operating system? Or at least selling them with expiration dates so consumers may gauge just how much use they will get out of a system? Perhaps we could buy a renewable subscription to Windows rather than just buying whatever comes installed on computers this year?

Rob Pegoraro: That--subscriptions--is exactly how some commercial Linux distributions are sold.

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Sharon, Pa.: Can an old Apple Performa 460 monitor be used with the new Mac Mini? Adapter?

Rob Pegoraro: Should be as long as it has a VGA plug.

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Fairlington, Va.: Look, I basically like your columns a lot. But a recent throw-away comment really ticked me off. You essentially approved of the Recording Industry's campaign to sue kids and create dummy files of fake songs for downloads (perhaps with spyware attached)?

How can you defend these cretins? I'm NOT arguing illegal downloading is ok, but contrary to popular belief, all studies done by people not hired by the RIAA prove that downloading has done very little to impact overall CD sales. Other factors, including poor quality and artificially maintained high price, are more important.

So, no, I don't think suing a whole bunch of kids is ok. And I don't think spyware or viruses is a good solution either.

The solution is already here. Shops like iTunes should be cheaper, but overall they've proved their value. The RIAA ought to figure out a way to make tunes cheaper than 99 cents a song, and then it the future will be even brighter.

And YOU should not be supporting their efforts to do otherwise.

Sorry for the rant.

Rob Pegoraro: I don't remember this "recent throw-away" comment. I do, in fact, approve of the RIAA suing people who engage in mass, indiscriminate redistribution of files online, and wrote an entire column saying as much. The RIAA is merely taking actions it's entitled to under current law, which I think is far superior to it demanding special rights in the form of ne legislation. I think suing kids is stupid PR and ethically unsound, but that's the chance the RIAA has to take when filing "John Doe" lawsuits.

I also don't have a problem with the RIAA seeding non-spyware dummy files on peer-to-peer networks. That's a perfectly legal way for it to defend its business interests.

The flip side of this coin--as I wrote in that column about the first RIAA lawsuits--has to be making legal music downloads cheap and easy. Things have gotten a lot better than they were in 2000 or 2001, but the work is far from done here.

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Washington, DC: I think the point of the frustration you're seeing with upgrades is that unless the PC industry makes this process smoother for the end user somehow, the PC will eventually be abandoned as "too much trouble" by people who don't do much more with it than use the Internet. This is especially true with smaller and cheaper devices getting more powerful by the day.

At the IT shop where I work, we have gotten to the point of treating the PC as disposable; if the OS gets too gummed up to work reliably, we just reinstall or replace, since we don't have the resources to troubleshoot Windows all day long. It's unfortunate that home users can't easily do the same thing.

Rob Pegoraro: I'm going to let D.C. close it out here with that excellent point. Thanks for giving me more than my quota of thought-provoking questions... I'm sure I'll revisit this topic in my next newsletter.


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