Why good people make bad OS choices

I was looking for a mini-notebook the other day for my mom-in-law at a Best Buy when I happened to hear a senior sales guy telling a newbie the 411 on selling PCs. "You sell them either Vista, or, if you have to, point them to the Macs because those computers work. That XP stuff is old junk and Linux doesn't work."

Oh did I have words with him! And, as I talked with him, once more I was reminded about the difference between a used car salesman and a computer salesman: the used car salesman knows when he's lying.

As our conversation continued I discovered that while he knew many people were unhappy with their Vista PC purchases -- he told me most of them complained about older software and hardware incompatibilities -- Vista was still the newest operating system so, it was, somehow, the best.

And, this mind you, was from someone who've I seen selling PCs at this particular store for more than five years. If this is what experienced sales help is like, God help poor customers who come in and just want a good computer for their money.

It wasn't that this guy was shilling for Microsoft. It was that he really didn't know any better. With help like this is it any wonder why good people make bad operating system choices?

So, since you can't depend on the help, here is my three-step guide for people who don't know a thing about computers, but want to buy a good one. Don't think for a second that this is a comprehensive guide on how to buy a PC, it's not. This is just the basics for people whose main interest is to go in to a store or Web site and get good value for their computer bucks.

1) Are the only things you do with your computer is play simple games like solitaire, mahjong, and minesweeper; browse the Web; and write e-mails, IM, and letters? Then ask for a Linux-powered mini-notebook or, as they're often called, netbook. For further information on those see Dan Nystedt's How to buy minilaptop.

For my mother-in-law, I picked her up an ASUS Eee 900A, which runs Xandros Linux for, with sales tax, just over $300. She loves it and she's been reading the Miami Herald news using Firefox and playing solitaire like a fiend for the last day and a half.

It, like any Linux system, also has the advantage that, for all practical purposes, she doesn't have to worry about viruses, malware, or keeping the programs up to date that she'd have to have on a Windows machine.

2) Do you need the above and also need a particular program, like say Quicken or Photoshop? Before rushing out to buy a computer, check to see if your program is available on a Mac or if it has a work-alike version on Linux.

For example, you can get both Quicken and Photoshop on Macs. Yes, Macs tend to cost most and sometimes there are compatibility problems. For instance, I was recently ticked off to find that Quicken for Mac can't use Quicken for Windows files. You have to go through an annoying conversion process to get the Mac version to read the Windows versions. With the exception of oddball problems like this, I've found that Macs deliver value for the money. A Mac, in my experience, is easier for most people to use.

As for Linux, oddly enough GnuCash does a better job of working with Quicken for Windows files than Quicken for Mac does. Who knew?

GIMP, the best-known of the Linux photo-manipulation programs, while good, doesn't look or feel much like Adobe Photoshop. The moral of the story is that while Linux or Mac is probably a good choice for you, you should check to make sure that your one special program, or its equivalent, will work well for you on the alternative operating system. For Macs, check at your software vendors' Web site. For Linux, look to the Open Source as Alternative site for information,

3) I use programs that are only available on Windows or I really don't want to switch.

You don't have to. Just don't make the mistake of going to Vista. I mean, come on, even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says to skip Vista.

You have two choices. First, you could buy a mini-notebook with XP Home, such as those from Acer, Asus, HP and Sylvania. Most of these also offer a Linux alternative. Or, you can order a laptop or PC from Dell, HP or any of the other major vendors with XP Professional. If you're working in a business, and I can't talk you into Linux or a Mac, you really need to order an XP Pro system. The XP Home machines are cheaper, but they won't work or play well on corporate networks.

Microsoft had planned to shut down XP Pro sales, but business computer users forced them to keep selling XP Pro.

The reason? XP works well, Vista doesn't. So, if you're a business Windows user, and you can't give it up Windows, order a PC with XP SP3 from your favorite vendor. Despite customer demand, Microsoft refuses to let XP Pro be sold pre-installed in stores.

OK, this isn't a lot of information, I know, but with this alone you're going to be a lot better off than most ordinary Joes -- or salesmen - when it comes to buying the right PC with the right operating system. Good luck and good shopping.

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