- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

Awright, just where did the summer go? It’s the end of July, for crying out loud, and it seems that Memorial Day was only seven days ago.

Time flies, and the new school year approaches. College freshmen are getting ready for classes; so are high school students. Many of their parents are likely eyeing the anticipated Oct. 22 “general availability” date of Microsoft Corp.’s new Windows 7 operating system and hoping it won’t be a great disappointment.

This does appear to be a good time to go computer shopping. Last week, Wal-Mart Corp. announced a rather good price — $298 — on a Compaq-branded portable computer with 3 gigabytes of RAM, a 160-gigabyte hard-disc drive, a DVD-writing/reading drive and the “home” edition of Microsoft Windows Vista. The unit boasts a 15.6-inch display and a 2.10 GHz AMD Sempron SI-42 processor. It’s not a top-of-the-line portable like the gamer-friendly MainGear eX-L 18, but that computer, whose display boasts 1080p high-definition resolution, starts at $2,999 — more than 10 times the Wal-Mart price.

The Wal-Mart computer went on sale Sunday morning at 8 a.m., and supplies may well be exhausted by the time you read this. However, I suspect Wal-Mart will offer other bargain-priced models before school starts.

There are other retailers out there, of course, and I would not be surprised if Best Buy, Staples and Office Depot — to name but three — also jump on the bandwagon of selling good computers at low prices. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 26 years of closely watching the personal-computer market, there’s a wider range of machines with very good capabilities available at very reasonable prices.

The rise of “netbooks,” tinyish computers with a fair amount of power — something commented on previously in this space — is another example of how to find bargains. Sony Corp., in August, is expected to launch a $500 netbook in the high-fashion colors of “berry pink, sugar white and cocoa brown,” and the firm says its “high-resolution, 1366 x 768, LED backlit 10.1-inch ultrawide display, [will make] it easy to view two full Web pages,” although I’d have to see that one to believe it.

Regardless, Sony’s a known quantity when it comes to display quality in its portables, so this could size up to be a rather nice bargain. There are limitations and other questions: Would you need or want an external CD/DVD drive for loading software and playing movies, for example? But overall, seeing a stylish Sony portable at a relatively low price is a nice signal for a good chunk of the computer-buying public.

Of course, fans of Apple Inc.’s Macintosh computer aren’t without hope. The firm’s recent price drops on several portables, plus the $999 white plastic MacBook (available last week as a refurbished model on the https://store.apple.com Web site for $849) are very good values, in my opinion.

Although Apple now uses only Intel processors for its portables, many Windows-based manufacturers turn to Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) for processors that rival or even exceed many of their Intel counterparts, but at lower price points. This, in turn, leads to lower retail prices, and AMD has its own store at www.amd.com for those searching and shopping.

In short, there’s plenty of shopping opportunities out there — retail, online and the “big box” stores, including warehouse clubs. If you’re buying a new Windows-compatible computer, check out www.windows7.com to find out what hardware you need to be able to upgrade. On the Mac side, all new Macs should be able to handle the release later this year of “Snow Leopard,” the next version of Mac OS X.

Good hunting!

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