Fast Forward: How to choose a computer

Apple has elected not to compete with PCs on price, so its cheapest portable option is a MacBook with no upgrades at $999.
Apple has elected not to compete with PCs on price, so its cheapest portable option is a MacBook with no upgrades at $999. (Paul Sakuma/associated Press)
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Across the universe of gadget gifts, few things can inspire more angst and buyer's remorse than home computers. Even as their prices have crumbled -- processors and memory have become so cheap that your main risk is buying more of either than you'll ever use -- these machines have remained specialized, often high-maintenance products. You cannot shop for them by price alone; buying a computer still demands a series of decisions with non-obvious answers.

For an increasing number of people, the first judgment call is the Mac-or-Windows issue.

Both Microsoft and Apple have updated their operating systems this year. Windows 7 represents a bigger improvement relative to its predecessor, the widely disliked Windows Vista, while Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard has been somewhat disappointing in practice. But the Mac's core advantages over Windows persist.

OS X's separation of the operating system and applications makes adding or removing programs drag-and-drop easy and leaves viruses fewer openings. Macs have fewer hardware-software conflicts and no "trialware" junk (among PC vendors, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba can be especially obnoxious in that respect, while Dell has shown more restraint). And Apple's stores offer a more pleasant shopping experience and better tech support than most Windows-based shops.

But because Apple chooses not to compete in the cheaper end of the market, you pay a lot more for those advantages; its lack of a netbook leaves its cheapest portable option the $999 MacBook. Macs do include features that sometimes cost extra or aren't available on PCs, such as Bluetoooth wireless and the iMac's clever, touch-sensitive "Magic Mouse," but not all users want those bonuses.

It's fair to call a Mac a luxury. It's more affordable than many other luxuries, but see what your bank account has to say first.

Decide that, then you can make the next big choice: netbook, laptop or desktop.

That first category -- ultra-light, ultra-cheap computers with small screens and no CD or DVD drive -- didn't even exist a few years ago, but now it makes up a large chunk of the market. Netbooks make the most sense as a second or third computer, unless you plan to use the machine only for light, Web-centric use.

You can expect prices from the low $200s to as much as $500. One key factor is your choice of operating system: Microsoft's Windows XP and Windows 7 Starter Edition or various releases of the open-source Linux system. The latter costs less and is far more secure, but it requires learning a new interface and new programs. (I plan to review a few Win 7 netbooks here soon.)

Another is screen size. The nine-inch displays of cheaper netbooks may tax your eyesight. Those computers, in turn, are more likely to have cramped keyboards -- avoid any that exile the right-hand Shift key to the right of the up-arrow cursor key, a layout that invites repeated typos.

Plain old laptops have become the most popular type of computer among home users. They're cheaper than ever and often include keyboards and screens as big as those once standard on desktops. But the bigger the screen and the keyboard, the higher the weight and the shorter the battery life. If you'll take a laptop farther than from a coffee table to a desk, don't buy one heavier than five pounds or with less than three hours of reported battery life.

A desktop, in turn, should cost less and allows a choice of screen and keyboard -- unless it's an all-in-one model like the iMac or HP's TouchSmart. Some buyers now opt for "small form factor" desktops that can fit underneath HDTVs to serve as a multimedia library. Most desktops also allow for semi-easy upgrades of their components, but most home users never bother.

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