The Fast Forward column in the Nov. 20 Business section incorrectly said that some Dell computers do not come with anti-virus software. The company says all consumer models include 90 days of anti-virus protection, even those identified on its Web site as coming with "no security subscription." (Published 12/23/2005)
Shopping for a computer would be easy, if it weren't for that whole Windows-versus-Mac thing.
Fortunately, that may be a simpler choice than you think -- and making that call first can greatly simplify the rest of your home-computer shopping.
Apple is making a strong pitch these days. The price to switch can be little more than $500, the cost of the Mac mini. That and other Macs ship with an outstanding set of multimedia programs -- iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD -- and continue to be free of viruses, spyware, browser hijackings and many other Windows diseases.
Meanwhile, Windows XP, despite a stream of patches from Microsoft, remains a shaky structure that many users struggle to maintain. When even playing a CD can get a computer infected (as buyers of Sony's "copy-protected" CDs have found), things need to change. But XP's replacement, Windows Vista, won't arrive until the fall of next year and possibly later.
The choice between these systems is often phrased as "why get a Mac instead of a PC?" But given Windows' painful history of insecurity and dysfunctionality, it's worth flipping that around: Why not use the safer, more reliable system?
"Because everybody uses Windows" is neither relevant nor true. There are other possible reasons, but you need to decide if they matter.
One is software: While you can find at least one Mac application in pretty much any category of software, the selection of Windows programs is dramatically superior in a few categories (most obviously, games).
The Windows market also offers a far wider variety of computers. Apple makes some fantastic machines, but its lineup skips categories that you might like. For example, it doesn't offer ultralight or big-but-cheap "desktop replacement" laptops, and its cheapest desktop runs about $100 to $200 more than the starter PCs of other firms.
Whether you shop for a Windows or a Mac machine, it's hard to find one unfit for garden-variety home computing. Just avoid low-end PCs with just 256 megabytes of memory -- 512 is more realistic -- and cheap Windows laptops without WiFi wireless networking. If the laptop will leave home with any regularity, you should also make sure it doesn't weigh over six pounds.
Uses beyond basic Internet access, however, carry more demanding requirements. A large collection of digital music and photos will require 80 or more gigabytes of hard drive space; a DVD-recorder drive, preferably "dual-layer," can help back up those files. (Hewlett-Packard's "Lightscribe" technology, which lets a CD or DVD burner print a disc's label, is a useful extra that other companies ought to look into.)
Digital photographers will also appreciate machines with slots for cameras' memory cards, although many printers also include these adapters.
Video editing needs still more disk space -- figure on 160 gigabytes as a minimum -- as well as a faster processor. (Little else on a home computer is likely to stress any chip.)
Anybody likely to accumulate such gadgets as MP3 players and handheld organizers will appreciate a computer with more USB 2.0 (and, to a lesser extent, FireWire) ports. Bluetooth wireless can also link some of these devices.
Game players require one other feature: a non-integrated graphics card with 256 megabytes of memory. (That alone rules out most affordable desktops and laptops; an Xbox or PlayStation can look awfully cheap next to a gaming PC.)
A possible upgrade to Windows Vista is the last thing to consider. This new system may need a full gigabyte of memory, plus an upgraded graphics card capable of displaying a slick new interface. Microsoft hasn't released official requirements yet, but it suggests getting a card with 64 megabytes of memory and support for its DirectX 9 software.
Apple has its own transition coming -- it will start using Intel processors next year -- but these new models won't run more Mac programs than today's. Video editing, however, may go much faster on an Intel Mac, and these computers should also be able to run Windows as well as OS X.
Where most Apple buyers only need to choose between the Mac mini, the iBook and the iMac, Windows shoppers face a lineup of seemingly lookalike PCs. One way to narrow that selection is to reject computers that exhibit the most obvious cost-cutting measures. The PC's mouse, for instance, should use a no-cleaning-needed optical sensor, not a rolling ball, and the warranty should be a year, not 90 days.
The software bundles on new PCs ought to be another way to distinguish one model from another, but they are almost all junk. These sets of software are embarrassingly obsolete -- try to find a PC that includes the current release of Quicken or Microsoft Money -- and routinely lack a full set of programs to edit Microsoft Office files. The only bundle-ware of any real value is an anti-virus utility. Compaq, eMachines, H-P and Sony provide Symantec's Norton software, while Gateway includes McAfee's lesser program. (Shamefully, some Dells don't include any anti-virus software.)
Many gaps in a software bundle can be remedied with free downloads, such as the OpenOffice productivity suite, Apple's iTunes music program and Google's Picasa photo organizer, but in some cases you'll need to pay for software.
Any home-computer buyer should also set aside $50 or $60 to cover a couple of easily overlooked but valuable extras. One is a USB memory key or thumb drive to transfer data between computers, the floppy disk of this decade. The other, for anyone with a desktop machine, is an uninterruptible power supply to ensure that you won't lose data the next time the lights flicker or blink.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.