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1/6/2006
08:13 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: 10 Critical Factors When Buying A New PC

Fred Langa outlines and explains his top decision points when purchasing new desktop hardware.

It's a new year, and for many of us, that means new hardware budgets. But buying a PC today is complicated somewhat by two major factors -- hardware standards that are changing; and the scheduled release of Microsoft's Vista operating system. Make the wrong choice, and you may find your new PC dead-ended and obsolete much sooner than it should have been. But make the right hardware choices today, and your new PC will remain useful for years to come, letting you ride out the coming changes with aplomb.

In the next few pages, we'll look at 10 major factors to consider in making a PC purchase today. Yes, the number 10 is somewhat arbitrary, but you're free to add to or delete from this list as you see fit: It's a place to start, and to help ensure that your hardware purchase decisions include some of the most important influences.

Operating System Changes Affect Your Hardware Choices
Ultimately, your choice of operating system shapes your hardware choices, and in 2006, we'll have three major variables at play: Windows "Vista" -- the successor to XP -- is slated to roll out toward the end of the year. Linux continues to make inroads as a full-fledged alternative to Windows. And Apple is beginning to migrate the Mac to a standard, Intel-based PC platform. Any or all of these could affect your choice of hardware.

Of course, any standard PC you buy today most likely will ship with XP either installed or offered as the default choice. In fact, XP will remain for sale up to the launch of Vista. But XP is already at least halfway through its planned life cycle: Full or "mainstream" support for XP is currently scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2006, meaning that warranty claims and non-charge support will end. Also, for the most part, no major new features will be added to XP after that date, except for security patches.

After Dec. 31, 2006, XP Pro will enter what Microsoft calls the "extended" support phase, which runs until Dec. 31, 2011: During that time, Microsoft will continue to offer security updates for download; and will keep self-help resources available for free via the Knowledgebase and other Microsoft.com sites; but tech support will be available only for a fee. In effect, XP Pro will go into a stable maintenance period, with little or no new features added.

And note that the above is specific to XP Pro. Although our focus here is mainly business, it's worth mentioning that XP Home currently has no planned "extended support" phase. Instead, it is scheduled to become unsupported as of Dec. 31, 2006.

Microsoft has juggled the life cycle schedules of its products many times before and no doubt will do so again. In fact, as I write this, many of the official life-cycle information pages at Microsoft.com are offline, presumably for updating. But the following pages are working as I write this, and may help if you have questions about Microsoft's product life cycles:

Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ

Support Lifecycle Index (all MS products)

XP Pro

No matter what the final life-cycle dates are, the fact is that XP is getting along in age; it's fully mainstream, and is at best entering the last half of its expected lifespan. Therefore, it'd be wise to spec any new PCs you buy now so they'll be able to work with XP's successors or alternatives.

Windows Vista, described by Microsoft here and covered thoroughly in InformationWeek and in other CMP sites and publications, is the most obvious next step to prepare for.

Microsoft says that you can ensure a reasonable level of Vista compatibility if you choose systems today that (1) explicitly state or carry a logo for "Designed for Windows XP" or "Designed for Windows XP x64 Edition;" that (2) have a medium- to higher-end CPU; that (3) have a minimum of 512MB of system RAM; and that (4) have a graphics processor that will support the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM).

We'll come back to these points later in this article, but if you want to drill deeper into Vista's likely hardware requirements, see Microsoft's general guidelines: "Which decisions to make now so that you're ready for Windows Vista". This general Google search also can help.

Besides Vista, Linux remains a strong contender as a successor or alternative operating system on the desktop. Linux's hardware requirements aren't particularly steep -- you can get good Linux performance on almost any mainstream PC -- but compatibility remains an issue. The final word on the hardware compatibility of any particular Linux distribution can be found on the vendor's Web site, but for the greatest general Linux compatibility, choose mainstream, nonproprietary, noncutting-edge components.

The soon-to-arrive Apple PCs will add an interesting twist to the PC landscape, and are worth a look if the ability to run the Mac operating system is important to you. But the new PC-based Macs will most likely run a "locked" version of the Mac operating system; one that's keyed to the specific hardware, preventing you from running the Mac operating system on anything but the official Apple-branded PC hardware. Apple's tight control of its hardware and its history of premium pricing suggests to me that these Apple PCs will not be particularly attractive as general-purpose desktops, even if you may be able to use them to dual-boot to Linux or Windows. But if you need to run the Mac operating system, they may merit consideration.

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