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News » Miscellaneous

Summer PC-Buying

Smart shoppers are stuffing cash under their mattresses until August.



The computer market has been pretty quiet for the past six months. Aside from Intel pretending to sell processors it can’t deliver, and lots of excitement surrounding wireless technologies that are years away, things have been still.

Thanks to a bevy of new operating systems and hardware technologies on the horizon, the computer scene is finally starting to get a little exciting again. (If sports writers can call the World Series exciting, I can call microprocessor production cycles exciting—at least until televised Quake3 playoffs start.) Here’s a brief guide on what to look for in a new computer, and when to buy.

Macintoshes: Grab a bargain today, or get a tougher (and more expensive) machine in six weeks. Smart Apple customers know the secret: Buy your Macintosh right around the biannual Mac expos. Apple releases a new line of computers every six months, and in the period before they are available, the old machines are discounted and phased out.

Apple is not shipping any iMacs right now, and the ones left on the shelf are available at steep discounts. Right around the corner are new iMacs, which will feature slightly faster processors, new mice that might be useful for something besides making a yo-yo, and much larger (17-inch) screens. They will also be more expensive, so decide whether you want a bargain today or a somewhat better and costlier machine tomorrow.

The most important factor in buying a Macintosh is the RAM: Macs need lots of it, at least 128 megabytes. Apple’s kick-ass new operating system—OSX, which promises to heal lepers, turn water into wine and be available next January—will probably require even more. Most iMacs come with a bundle that allows you to choose between a cheap printer, more RAM or some other accessory. Choose the RAM.

Windows computers: Wait, but don’t wait too long.

Now is a tricky time to purchase a PC. AMD and Intel are on the cusp of rolling out a whole new selection of processors.

The best of the bunch looks like AMD’s new “Thunderbird” Athlon processors, and the new “budget” Duron processors slay Intel’s current lineup of Celeron processors. In fact, the Intel Celeron processors cost about the same as equivalently clocked Pentium IIIs, and don’t offer nearly as good performance. Celerons are just a crummy deal these days. AMD’s new chips, in the meantime, will be available en masse in about four to six weeks.

Another good reason to postpone the purchase of a new PC is the new Nvidia GeForceMX graphics chip. Cards with this processor are just a sliver slower than the much more expensive, top-of-the-line GeForce2 chip. A lot of folks who just shelled out $300 for the GeForce2 are feeling pretty burned right now. Again, the GeForceMX will be available in just over a month.

Again, don’t wait too long to buy that new PC. There’s a company called Rambus that is trying to get a new type of RAM accepted as the standard for newer, faster computers. But Rambus memory is expensive—128 megabytes of conventional RAM sells for around $100, and 128mb of “high performance” Rambus RAM goes for more than $600.

Did I say high performance? Actually, systems with Rambus memory have had notorious problems, including serious bugs and lackluster performance. Unfortunately, Rambus holds some patents on conventional RAM, and has begun strong-arming memory manufacturers into paying royalties on technology used in those memory chips.

Rambus hopes the higher cost of normal SIMMs will make Rambus RAM more competitive. The theory is that if you can’t compete by having a better market, you just hold a gun to your competitor’s head. Memory prices could wind up getting very expensive very soon, which would increase the cost of both Windows and Macintosh computers.

Finally, there are two “new” versions of Windows out on the market (though neither one is exactly new). Windows 2000 is the latest iteration of Windows NT, which is the version of Windows that doesn’t crash. Unfortunately, Microsoft has chosen to market Win2K as the OS for “professional” users; in reality, the company just doesn’t want to explain to home users why their old games are incompatible with the new OS. New computer buyers will be using new hardware and new software, all of which is compatible with Windows 2000.

Windows ME (“Millennium Edition,” ugh) is really just a maintenance release of Windows 98, which in turn is just Windows 95 with some additional drivers and tweaks. It includes some nice interface enhancements that were introduced with Windows 2000, but has none of Win2K’s stability. Barring political, philosophical and religious reasons, I don’t think there’s any excuse not to get Win2K with a new computer.

So my recommendation for a Windows machine is to wait about a month for an AMD Athlon processor for high-end users, or a Duron processor for the low end, 128 megs of RAM (at least), as well as a GeForceMX video card for practically anyone. Watch the market very carefully for a spike in RAM prices, however. And for crying out loud, get Windows 2000.

Laptops: Definitely wait. In about two months, Transmeta Crusoe-powered laptops from IBM, Compaq and others are due to hit the market. If these computers live up to the hype, they will be cheaper and have astonishing battery lives. Intel and AMD are also due to release new laptop processors within this period. People who buy laptops today will risk feeling burned by the laptops available later.