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Computers Buying Guides

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Getting started

Microsoft and Apple updated their operating systems, Microsoft with Windows 7 and Apple with Snow Leopard. Windows 7 is less prone to crashing than the version it replaced, more refined, with additional features but fewer annoyances. Snow Leopard boots up faster than its predecessor, loads Web pages more quickly, and eats up less hard-drive space. Below, we'll help you to decide whether to upgrade.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of lean, mean, and green in new computers, be they Mac OS- or Windows based. You'll find space-saving profiles, more powerful and efficient chips, and environmentally friendly designs. The best computers are also security conscious, offering features designed to keep your machine and your data out of harm's reach.

Many desktop computers are still boxy and bulky but you can also choose from among slimmer models. Most major brands also offer all-in-ones, which integrate the parts of a computer into the display rather than in a separate tower.

Smaller, more efficient laptops are also available. Netbooks have 10-to-12-inch displays and weigh about 2 to 3 pounds. They aim to be your second computer, the one you use to surf the Web and check e-mail while traveling, or a child's first system. But their small size imposes tradeoffs.

Apple's introduction of the iPad has ignited interest in highly portable tablet computers with a user interface that's simpler and more intuitive than that of a conventional personal computer.

When you shop, watch out for "great deals" that may not be so great. Before you buy a bargain PC at a rock-bottom price, take a closer look, because some computer manufacturers are replacing dual-core processors with single-core Celeron and Sempron processors to reduce costs. Others are using less-powerful Atom processors in systems that otherwise look like full-blown laptops and desktops. The result, our tests show, is more sluggish performance when you try to surf media-rich websites, watch videos, or play 3D games.

The bottom line when shopping: If you're looking for a primary PC for general-purpose computing, avoid computers with single-core processors, such as some Atoms and Celerons. Also make sure you get more than 1GB of memory. Of course, if all you need is a low-cost netbook for general Web surfing and e-mail, with perhaps some word processing thrown into the mix, then an Atom-based netbook with a gigabyte or two of memory and at least a 160GB hard drive should serve you well.

Do you need a new PC?

If your old computer is sluggish, it might be time for a new PC. First try these steps to beef up its performance: Delete programs you no longer use. If that isn't enough, and the computer is no more than four years old, add 1 GB of memory. Adding memory is an inexpensive and easy way to upgrade your computer.

If you're running out of space on the hard drive, burn your old music, photos, and videos onto a CD or DVD and delete them off your hard drive. To gain a lot more storage space, consider adding a hard drive. (An external hard drive is one of the easiest computer upgrades that even a computer novice can perform.)

Once you've cleared all your old files and moved any files to an external hard drive, run the Disk Defragmenter that's bundled with Windows. That will help your hard drive access files faster.

If none of that works, and the computer is more than four years old, it's probably time to replace it. Be sure to recycle your old computer, but don't forget to wipe your hard drive first. We recommend Eraser, available free at, for Windows-based computers. Apple computers have an erase feature built in.

Windows or Macintosh?

Windows 7 is the latest iteration of Microsoft's operating system. It costs from $120 to $200 off the shelf. Eligible college students can grab an upgrade for $30 at

An Apple computer running Mac OS X is a fine alternative to Windows. Apple computers can also run Windows, but you have to purchase and install it yourself. The latest version is Snow Leopard; current Apple users can upgrade for $30. If you bought a new Mac after June 2009, you can upgrade for $10.

Should you upgrade to Windows 7?

Before you make any decisions, you should check your computer's compatibility, and that of your peripherals, with Microsoft's Upgrade Adviser.

Then, find the description of your situation below and proceed accordingly:

You're happy with your current system and OS.

Save your money, at least for now. Sure, Windows 7 has some new interface tweaks that we think are pretty cool. But any time you upgrade, there's a potential for unpredictable problems. So why mess with success? Meanwhile, always download any critical Windows updates. Make sure you're using the latest version of your browser. And if you don't have any security software running, install a free antivirus program. We recommend Avira AntiVir. Alternatively, Microsoft just released its free antivirus/antispyware software, Microsoft Security Essentials.

You're a Vista user frustrated with its performance and other shortcomings.

Get the upgrade if your system is compatible. Windows 7 is more stable than Vista and it's got a good number of ease-of-use enhancements. And as a bonus, you'll get a grip on those frustrating User Account Controls, because Windows 7 provides options for different levels of settings.

You recently bought a new computer and qualify for a free upgrade.

Get your upgrade. Most computer manufacturers are offering free Windows 7 upgrades to those who bought Vista-based computers from late June through January 2010. Be sure to register for the upgrade, and keep in mind that you might have to pay shipping and other costs to have the software sent to you. But also keep in mind that the Windows 7 upgrade option does not apply to Vista Basic-based computers.

You're an XP user.

If your computer is no more than four years old and running Windows XP, and you want to upgrade to Windows 7, run the upgrade adviser. If you're cleared for Windows 7, you can upgrade, but you'll first have to either upgrade to Vista temporarily to allow the Windows 7 upgrade or you'll have to backup and then erase the contents of your hard drive before moving to Windows 7.

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Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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