- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

The e-mail, which arrived unexpectedly a few days into the recent holiday shopping season, was suitably plaintive: “Have you already addressed, or do you have any thoughts on making a choice between a desktop PC and a portable? I’m torn; I like the flexibility of the portable, but my practical side likes the price of the desktop, not to mention the speed, etc. How does one decide?”

It’s a question many people will face this year. How do you make good computer choices?

Unless something unusual breaks, this year should be a relatively easy one for computer customers. Apple upgraded its operating system last fall; Microsoft’s next Windows operating system upgrade is nowhere near release. New processors appear more regularly on the market, but for the majority of us, a new CPU chip won’t make that much of a difference.

What all that means is that the “need” to upgrade is far less than it used to be. When Microsoft’s minions released Windows XP, for example, it was enough of an advance to make Windows 98 users sit up and take notice. Apple’s migration from OS 9 to OS X soon revealed itself to be important enough for a rethink by users. In both cases, however, users needed to look over their hardware capabilities and decide whether a new machine would be best for the new operating systems.

Again, this isn’t likely to be one of those years, but there’s plenty of motivation to upgrade things, if you do it intelligently.

My first recommendation is to do “simple” upgrades such as adding more RAM (prices remain low), a larger hard-disk drive (ditto) and a flat-panel display (again ditto). Because you can get more bang for your computing buck this way, it’s a wise thing to consider.

But new systems are offering more power at lower cost, certainly on the PC side. What you can get now for $500 to $1,000 in a Windows system is extremely impressive. Mac users will have to spend a bit more, but for what is delivered, new Mac systems are a good value.

The key consideration is not what something costs, but rather what you want your computing power to accomplish. If you don’t anticipate needing more than you’ve got now, the minor upgrades will restore some of yesterday’s sizzle. On the other hand, if you have new, ambitious projects in mind this year, a new computer might be your best bet.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is the unknown. You might have your work (and computing) future all mapped out, but things can change in an instant. If telecommuting becomes part of your working life, then having a more powerful system to access files and data at the office would be a plus. Is a baby on the way? Now’s the time to plan how you are going to create those DVDs of photos, videos and other precious moments. A less-powerful computer might not do the job.

So how do you make better computing decisions? You do it by thinking a bit more, researching a bit more, and trying to “future proof” your investment. That requires a greater effort than spending three minutes on a single Web site or scanning a few TV ads.

The best thing to do is to consider your needs. If you want or must have your computer with you in more than one place, a portable is the only way to go. If [low] cost is an overriding factor, then, yes, go with the desktop.

E-mail markkel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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