Over at the Wall Street Journal Walt Mossberg has suggested you not buy a new Windows PC now, but rather buy an Apple box. Walt is a huge fan of Apple and I think that may have clouded his judgment as Windows buyers are different than Apple buyers and visa versa.
Hold off On Buying Apple Laptops
In general Apple products are very well built, but sometimes can still have problems; and Apple often isn’t very forthcoming on what the problem is. Right now they are having a shutdown problem with their laptop lines and have issued a firmware patch to correct it.
Now there are enough symptoms of this problem to suggest it may not actually be one thing. For instance in this article it sounds like bad memory or a bad memory controller (something I’ve been seeing a lot of on the Windows side of late). But in this other case it looks like an overheating issue.
Certainly firmware can fix a bad memory controller but all it can do in the case of overheating is to slow the processor down, which would be like GM turning off one or two cylinders to fix a reliability problem with their V8 engines. If they have a batch of bad memory, you may be able to determine which part is bad and turn it off, but I actually have never seen that done before in a PC and you would lose either speed or capacity with a patch. The right thing to do would be to replace the bad memory, but like the Sony battery issue, that could be expensive (particularly if the memory vendor couldn’t afford to fund the recall).
Now there is no doubt the problem will eventually be fixed on the line, in fact it may already be fixed on the line, but because Apple hasn’t been forthcoming on exactly what the problem, or problems are, we can’t really determine whether they are even fixable with the current laptop line. Now I’m not seeing any activity suggesting problems with the desktop Apple products but I sure wouldn’t buy a new Apple laptop until I was sure I knew what this problem was and when it would be fixed.
I’m hearing enough chatter around Apple to suggest they have something big planned at MacWorld in early January. It looks likely that this may be an early release of Leopard coupled with some Viiv related technology from Intel. Every indication is this will be an attempt to do the iPod thing again with special Apple PC hardware. If they hit, buyer’s remorse could be particularly big for those that bought Apple products in the 4th quarter. So what I suggest is take the money you would typically spend on an Apple PC, put it in the bank, then once you see what MacWorld has to offer, decide if you want the new stuff or an incredible deal on the old stuff as Apple purges inventory.
Note: I’m not saying change and buy a Windows box, I’m suggesting you hold until we know what the Apple problems are and what MacWorld is likely to bring to the table before you buy to minimize your risk.
Windows: Buy Now, Don’t Wait
With Microsoft, the information we need to make a decision is largely known and many of us have been messing with Vista for months. The latest release candidate is a good product but I’m not expecting most Windows folks to move to the platform until late 2007 or 2008. Windows XP is fine for most and will continue to be fine after Vista launches. And historically, Microsoft’s installed base moves slower than Apple’s.
But right now the vendors are hungry, very hungry and you can get a Vista upgrade for free. Think of it as an additional $200 discount on your new PC. You can then install this upgrade any time you like after Vista releases. So if you want to wait (as many will) until the second half of the year or if you want to install it on the first day you get it, you have that choice.
Once Vista ships you will need to choose which way you get your PC when you purchase it and most will be preloaded with Vista or will require you choose at first boot which OS you want and probably won’t let you change your mind later.
Now, if you don’t need a new PC, there is really no reason to suddenly panic and run out and buy one. But if you have an old box that is giving you problems, then for the next two months the best deals you are likely to get will be on the market. Granted you will want to choose a Windows Vista Ready box and compare the Vista offerings from vendors (many are completely free like Gateway’s, while some are not). You’ll also want to buy in the mid-range as both the top-end and the low-end cost machines will probably become obsolete the fastest (at the high-end, the DirectX 10 stuff hasn’t hit the market yet and the low end systems may only run Windows Vista Basic. Aero is actually worth the extra cost).
Getting Ready for Vista
I’ve now done Vista upgrades with a number of Beta and Release Candidate versions of the product. Without a doubt the best way to do the upgrade is as a new OS installation, you don’t have to format the hard drive but you will need to make sure that all viruses and non-Vista compliant utilities are off the box otherwise you will probably have installation or reliability issues. This will give you the greatest reliability, but it will also mean you’ll have to reload your applications and move the data from the backup folders Vista creates when it is installed in this way.
Keep all your software manuals in one place. Vista has a strong emulation section and much of what you have may actually run without updates, but you’ll need the software and the software keys required to install the products.
Finally, there has been a lot of bad memory floating into the market over the last year or so. If you have an XP machine that is a little flakey and it is a memory problem (almost impossible to diagnose) Vista will discover this right off. So if you are planning on buying more memory (other than as part of a system purchase) and are planning on moving to Vista early, do both at the same time so you can return the memory if it turns out to be bad (memory generally has a 15 day return warranty).
So fundamentally I disagree with Walt, for Windows this is a regular holiday season with some unique incentives and for Apple there are some risks this quarter and what appears to be a huge reason to buy in early January so I’d hold on Apple and do whatever you were already planning on doing with Windows and get a little gift for the future from Microsoft.