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    To upgrade, or not upgrade; that's the eternal IT question

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver September 27-October 3, 2005; issue 831

    High Tech Office column

    When's the right time to replace your computer? The mid- and late-1990s were full of technological churn.

    Many businesses followed a three-year replacement cycle, feeling that staff continuously needed new and improved hardware running new and improved software to get the job done.

    Even though the price of new computers has dropped, many businesses are upgrading less often, keeping older hardware and software on their employees' desks longer.

    I had been upgrading on a two-year cycle. After all, I need to be able to run the latest software in order to tell you whether it's worthwhile. (And yes, I pay full retail for my office hardware.)

    But I last bought a PC, a name-brand laptop, nearly three years ago. Is it time to upgrade?

    Even with the price-premium for portability, laptop prices have dropped significantly.

    In February 2003, I paid about $2,200 for an upper-mid-range model. Now laptops start around $800; $1,700 or so would buy today's equivalent.

    It's hard to compare CPUs, though. My 2002 model is powered by a 2 GHz Pentium 4.

    While it's possible to buy a P4 laptop today, a better choice would be Intel's Pentium M processor, which runs cooler with better battery life.

    It's more efficient and offers good performance at lower speeds than older models.

    But looking at the ads, it would appear that the current laptops run at slower speeds than my older model. Slower but more powerful.

    Hard drive sizes have grown: mine shipped with a 30 GB drive, while current mid-range models offer 60 GB or more.

    And while my laptop's drive spins at a leisurely (but energy saving) 4,400 rpm, many current models sport faster-spinning drives, accelerating program startup. (Still rare in laptops, better desktop models offer the new, better performing SATA hard drive technology; it's worth getting if you can.)

    And while low-end laptops now come with the same sort of CD-burning/DVD-playing combo drive that cost extra on my mid-range model, today's mid- and high-end models typically offer both CD and DVD burning.

    My laptop has a 15-inch display showing 1,400 x 1,050 pixels - a nice display.

    Current models are more likely to offer brighter, wide and narrow screens, nice for viewing DVD movies (or showing two spreadsheet pages side by side).

    Today's laptop and desktop models include USB 2, allowing much faster data transfer than the relatively pokey USB 1.1 on mine.

    And virtually all of today's models have wireless networking built-in.

    So today's notebooks promise better battery life, faster and bigger hard drives, DVD burning, faster USB, wide and bright screens and wireless networking. And a price about two-thirds of what I paid just a couple of years ago. Sounds good.

    Still, I'm hesitating.

    So far, my current model is running fine (and still has a few months left on the extended warranty).

    It's performing OK with today's software. I don't need a new laptop to get WiFi, DVD burning and fast USB.

    I just have to plug in a PC card or an external drive.

    And there's another reason to wait.

    Microsoft is promising its next Windows generation, now named Windows Vista, for some time in 2006.

    Its hardware requirements are not fixed in stone, but it's almost certain to need more and better hardware to run at its best.

    I'm probably better off holding off until I can get a "made for Vista" model in a year or so. (Mac-fans are in a similar quandary, with many unsure whether to buy now or to wait for next year's promised Intel-powered Macs.)

    Today's laptop and desktop computers are better in many ways than the models of a couple of years ago. But I'm going to wait.

    How about you?

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan