Is now the right time to buy a new PC?
April 21, 2009 8:28 AM   Subscribe

My trusty 3-year old home office PC is starting to drag a bit, so I'm thinking about replacing it. Should I bite the bullet and buy something with Vista? Go with XP, even if it means not getting the latest Intel processor? Or, should I wait until Windows 7?

A few considerations... I'm a web developer, so I'm on my PC about 10 hours a day. So, performance and reliability matter a TON.

I always have a Firefox window with 6-10 tabs, plus a few Office apps, plus Photoshop, and a few development tools. I'm not an avid gamer, but I appreciate playing the latest FPS every now and then. So, when I buy something new - I tend to buy pretty close to the high end, in terms of processor, RAM, and video card.

I'm pretty rigorous about "maintaining" my PC - (e.g., using CCleaner and Malwarebytes daily, keeping antivirus updated, etc.).

I want to keep things as simple as possible, and invest as little time as possible. So, even though many of my more tech-minded friends say, "Build a linux box", I don't have the skills or time to learn how to do that. I want something that works right out of the box. I also don't want to invest the time in building my own PC from scratch.

And as much as I appreciate Apple (I LOVE my ipod and iphone), I'm not inclined to buy a Mac, since I've got so much invested in Windows software. (I know I can run that on a Mac, but it seems like that means compromising on performance and stability.)

I'd love to buy another XP pc, but it looks like the major manufacturers aren't offering that as an option with the latest and greatest processors. I hate to spend $1,500-$2,000 buying a dated processor.

The reviews on Vista seem mixed, but I'd hate to buy a new PC and end up with performance that's no better than my 3 year old XP box.

So Should I wait until Windows 7? Or, is Vista performance not as bad as I've heard?
posted by stuehler to Technology (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
7 rocks
posted by Freedomboy at 8:37 AM on April 21, 2009

FWIW, I recently built a new system with a Core i7 processor. I'm running 32 bit XP on it for now because I had an extra license. When 7 comes out I'll switch to that in 64 bit. But XP runs great, all drivers work and my only limitation is the amount of ram. I put in 3GB (i7 uses triple channel, so 1GB x 3). I use plenty of tabs and even leave them all open when I play COD4.

Oh, and Vista isn't that bad. It just got a lot of bad press early which spiraled into an anti-Vista movement, which was really blown out of proportion. Sure, not everyone is in love with it, but it's not going to kill you.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:37 AM on April 21, 2009

I am personally waiting for 7 to come out and then I'll build a core i7 PC and run 64 bit. You can make a pretty damn decent i7 machine in your price range.

This isn't the latest and greatest but still helpful:

posted by zennoshinjou at 8:43 AM on April 21, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses!

I'd like to buy a PC with a Core i7 processor, but none of the major manufacturers seem to offer that with XP (and I don't have any licenses).

Dell sells XP with a Core2 Q9650 (12MB,3.0GHz, 1333FSB) - is that a significant step down form the i7? (It's really gotten impossible to evaluate the performance of processors these days...)

So, would I be better off with XP on the Core2 Q9650 (12MB,3.0GHz, 1333FSB), or Vista on the Core i7-920 (8MB L2 Cache, 2.66GHz)?
posted by stuehler at 8:46 AM on April 21, 2009

If you're no longer going to use your existing PC, I believe it is legal to transfer your existing XP license to your new system (and hang on to the Vista license and use it to upgrade to 7.) Then throw linux on your old system.

IANAIPA (Intellectual Property Attorney)
posted by jrishel at 8:52 AM on April 21, 2009

This seems an odd way of buying a PC. What apps do you need that run on Vista or 7?
XP is faster since it does less DRM stuff. It's also more stable since the codebase has had more testing.

As for running a spyware scanner daily - you will have almost no spyware/virus problems if you don't run as Administrator. If you run as Administrator and ever do online banking - good luck :)

Go for more cores if you multitask, and lots of ram. For you, a better screen would probably be a better use of your money.
posted by devnull at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2009

Windows Vista is just fine, don't let the bad press scare you away. I suggest springing for at least 4 gigs of RAM and getting Vista/64. The word is that Windows 7 is even better in every way, but personally I wouldn't wait.
posted by Nelson at 9:22 AM on April 21, 2009

Your question sounds like a job for Tom's Hardware. In short, it depends on your benchmark. An i7 understands an extra SSE level (4.1 maybe?) and runs as a quad core with HyperThreading, so it behaves as 8 cores. That, the absence of a Front Side Bus and and the memory handling are the key differences between a Core 2 and an i7.

Are you sure you're opposed to building a rig yourself? It's not that difficult and there's plenty of guides to help. You'll save yourself some bucks too. My rig (i7, gtx260, 3GB ram) was under $1000.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:22 AM on April 21, 2009

What's your current hardware? A desktop as recent as 3 years old is pretty capable. You might well see satisfactory results just from maxing out your memory, and reinstalling your OS and apps to make sure there's no cruft.
posted by Zed at 9:29 AM on April 21, 2009

Vista x64 with over 4 GB of RAM and recent hardware rocks. That's my setup, and I have had only smooth sailing -- my experience has been much, MUCH better than with XP (and it looks nicer too!). Windows 7 will probably be even better, but you will have to wait until at least Oct 2009 unless you are willing to live with a beta version in the meantime.

In case you weren't aware, you need a 64-bit OS to take advantage of more than ~3.5 GB of RAM. And don't even think about XP x64 -- it will only bring you problems.
posted by Simon Barclay at 9:35 AM on April 21, 2009

Oh, and build your own PC or buy one from a local PC shop that will assemble it for you. It might be a little more expensive than a Dell, but you get to choose the quality of the components and you don't get crapware pre-installed.
posted by Simon Barclay at 9:38 AM on April 21, 2009

if you do buy off the shelf just google for a decrapifyer.
posted by fumbducker at 9:50 AM on April 21, 2009

Unless you are absolutely certain that you need the additional power of the i7 (and it doesn't seem like you are, because you're asking the question to begin with), I'm not sure why you'd spring for it. You're paying fairly hefty early-adopter fees for one, compared to a Core2.

You seem to have a good idea of what tasks you'll be doing on the computer; it doesn't seem like any of them are out of the Core2's league, so that's what I'd do if I were you. (I'd either buy a business/professional-oriented Core2 machine with a good motherboard and lots of expansion possibilities from a major manufacturer, or build one starting from a nice mobo and case, depending on how important the warranty and on-site service was.)

Unless you absolutely need it for some defined purpose, I don't understand why you'd pay the premium for latest-generation hardware; the gains have mostly been incremental since the transition from single to multi-core.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:53 AM on April 21, 2009

Core i7's right now are at a premium and are a waste of money considering the price/performance. Also, $1500-$2000 is way overkill for a non gaming PC (let alone a decent gaming PC).

Personally I'm a fan of buying the most bang for the buck PCs at cheap prices and upgrading more often vs shelling out a huge amount for a top of the line PC (which frankly 99% of people don't need.).

Core 2 Duos/Quads are great performers and the i7 won't get you a huge speed burst. My Q6600 system cost me $600 and I do full time development on it. I just built another Quad core AMD for under $400.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:47 AM on April 21, 2009

Vista is fine. Windows 7 is basically Vista Service Pack 2.

You'll want a 64-bit OS, for now, and for RAM upgradability. XP64 is not worth your time.

I put together a Quad Core (Q8200, 8GB RAM, 1TB, Nvidia 9600) machine last year for about $900. If you're spending over $1000 for a machine you're paying too much, no matter what the specs, unless you're a hardcore gamer.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:59 AM on April 21, 2009

First up, core 2 (or AMD phenom) vs core i7. The bang-for-buck is lower for core i7 based systems; as new hardware, there's a definite price premium. While it is faster, it's not *that* much faster. However, it is easier to build systems with more RAM (more slots) with i7 systems - and given you use photoshop a lot, that's a future upgrade option not to be sneezed at.

Gaming performance is usually held back by the graphics card, rather than minor CPU speed bumps, however dedicated gaming PCs are almost invariably noisy and overpriced. One option would to be to buy an otherwise nice core i7 system with a decent power supply, and fit a good off-the-shelf graphics card yourself, it's very straightforward.

Now, vista vs 7 vs xp. Vista isn't that bad; I've switched pretty much all my own systems to vista or windows 7 now. If you want 64-bit, to use more than 3.5GB or so of RAM, you definitely want vista 64 or 7 64. XP 64 is horrible, horrible, and to be avoided at all costs.

The free windows 7 RC is about to come out, and though it is nice, there's still a number of bugs with it, especially software and driver support. It's not quite ready for prime-time just yet. In July, OEMs should start offering Microsoft's upgrade program - if you buy a vista PC, you'll be able to get a free upgrade to the equivalent windows 7 version when it launches (probably end of this year) - and you'll be able to dual-boot the windows 7 RC in the meantime.

Windows XP has been effectively withdrawn now; it's only really available for netbooks. However, Microsoft offer a downgrade program; if you buy windows vista business or ultimate, you can downgrade it to XP professional for free. You can do this through your OEM, or install XP off your own media that you get from somewhere, and ring up microsoft where they'll exchange your vista licence code for an XP one. This doesn't apply to the vista home versions though.

If you get it through the OEM, they often offer it as an 'upgrade option' for a fee on vista PCs, so you'll get official XP media and an XP install - dell certainly do this, for example.

Personally, I'd bite the bullet, get a vista 64 pc, and take advantage of 4GB RAM or higher. If you don't mind waiting a couple of months for the voucher program to start, windows 7 is already shaping up to be better than vista (and XP!), and would be a worth upgrade next year.

If you're no longer going to use your existing PC, I believe it is legal to transfer your existing XP license to your new system

This is true if you bought XP retail, i.e. as a separate more expensive boxed product (or got a student discount version through a school or the like). If it came included with your PC, you'll have the cheaper OEM version which is not transferable to a new PC (thus the sticker stuck permanently to the case). When you try to activate it on the new PC, it will likely fail, and the microsoft activation phone line will probably tell you to go away, though I have successfully talked them into activating franken-build OEM repairs with replaced motherboards.

Regardless of OS, if you do buy a major vendor PC, I too definitely recommend the free PC decrapfier. OEMS make quite a bit of money with all the trial versions of norton and the like they put on, and they can really cause some bad slowdowns on brand new PCs.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2009

If you're using a high-end XP machine from three years ago, it's almost certainly faster than a high-end machine today that's crippled by Vista. I found Vista intolerable, and I'm unconvinced that Service Pack 1 magically fixed its massive suckiness. If Windows 7 is basically Vista Service Pack 2, I'd definitely wait for the reviews from utilitarian consumers more like yourself than from the OS-tinkering enthusiasts who are already playing with it.

Can you buy another stick of RAM and then wait until Windows 7 is properly evaluated?

If Windows 7 is a hit, I'm predicting a period of excellent deals for inventory with Vista installed. If you're comfortable installing the OS yourself, you might get an excellent deal.
posted by gum at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2009

Also, a lot of vista's bad reputation is down to crappy laptops being certified for vista when they had nowhere near the grunt for it; especially intel's atrocious onboard video chips and lack of RAM. The network performance when transfering files was also subject to some truly annoying slowdowns. Lack of good drivers, especially creative and nvidia didn't help either. All the crap OEMs put on new pcs was also a factor.

Some 2 years on, vista SP1 has addressed many of the problems, SP2 due any day now should address most of the rest and the drivers are VASTLY improved. Moore's law has working it's magic too, and laptops finally ship with enough RAM, so that vista performance these days is no worse than XP in most cases, and it does have some nice features - plus of course, it's much prettier.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:32 AM on April 21, 2009

Ah, here we are, if you want XP - the dell vista business upgrade + XP downgrade option, supposedly available on all desktop PCs.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:46 AM on April 21, 2009

Vista64 SP1 is not bad at all. It should run like a dream on current high-end hardware (it does on all our newer machines at work and home).

Beware getting XP without Vista: There will be no upgrade path to Win7 from XP. Also, with >4gb of ram, it'll be a waste with XP32, and XP64 is absolutely terrible.

I won't advise getting a Mac (since the PC is cheaper and good for your purposes) but don't discount the Mac too much; you won't be compromising on performance and stability. Hell, I'm running Photoshop in Paralels on my entry-level MacBook faster and sturdier than my old PC.
posted by General Malaise at 1:18 PM on April 21, 2009

You should definitely stick with your current rig until Windows 7 comes out.

The key for now will be getting your rig in better working order with some minor investigation.

What type of virus scanner are you running? It's likely that it is a major resource hog. You should consider disabling any active scanning if you are comfortable with your ability to not get tricked into installing something virus-laden. These days, a combination of updated OS/browser and general savviness goes a long way. You could also consider running on a guest account. Also, using an online backup source like Mozy might make PC security less critical, depending on what type of financial transactions you do on the machine and how secure those sites are. Consider using Google Chrome also as a browser if you get rid of your virus scanner, as it is more secure than Firefox.

The other thing to do is Google every single process running on your machine to make sure no unnecessary software is loading. Uninstalling stuff you don't use anymore to reduce processor/memory overhang. This should be able to revitalize your machine enough to get you through the next couple of months.

Your computer was presumably adequately fast at one time, so there is no reason you can't restore that level of satisfaction.
posted by jameslavelle3 at 1:25 PM on April 21, 2009

Either wait -- not just for Win 7, but for the Core i7 mobo/s to become affordable -- or make the leap now to a Core2 or Phenom II-based system. The AMD boards are fairly attractive right now, as they appear to offer a smoother upgrade path to later processors, whereas Core2 marks the end of the line for that Intel socket. Not that CPU speed really matters for most home users these days.

Before that, though, try a fresh XP install. My 2003-vintage AMD box can't do HDTV-capacity video, which is the one reason I'm thinking of an upgrade, but otherwise clips along at a decent pace on what is, after all, a 2001 operating system. (I'm now well-versed in pruning services, doing fairly regular reinstalls, etc.)

The time you spend on building a box -- or swapping out a motherboard/CPU/RAM that fits your specs -- is likely to be no more than the time you spend searching round for a pre-built box that meets those criteria. Of course, you can always see if Local Computer Shop will order the parts and do the build for you.
posted by holgate at 2:36 PM on April 21, 2009

Just Nth ing the 'vista is fine' response (and believe me I'm anything but a MS fanboy). I got Vista Ultimate and maxed out the memory, put the UI back to 'Windows Classic' (or whatever it's called - looks like Windows 2000) and really it's hard to remember what OS you're on.

I do think the comment above about unsuitable hardware causing vista complaints is true. I also wonder whether users who were used to running as Administrator all the time in XP and didn't in Vista were then puzzled by the need to authorise some (not many) tasks in Vista. For myself I've never run as Administrator (I mean for day to day work) and so this aspect of Vista was actually superior to XP.

The really weird thing about Vista is how 'nothing' it is (I mean once you've turned off the UI nonsense) - five years of effort and 50 million lines of code and what is there ?

If you use Office and if you're planning to upgrade it as part of this move you will find the move to Office 2007 orders of magnitude more invasive (once again that's if you turn the Vista UI back to Windows Classic - can't speak for if you retain Aero or whatever).
posted by southof40 at 5:17 PM on April 21, 2009

Well, there's going to be an announcement shortly from microsoft, but there will be a new feature in windows 7 - a free virtual copy of XP hosted inside windows 7, XP Mode - that is fully integrated into the host windows 7 OS. Basically, you'll be able to run XP apps inside XP mode, launched from the start menu, running as a window alongside your windows 7 native app windows - so IE6 on XPM, next to IE8 in windows 7.

I think this could well be the killer feature over vista microsoft were needing, to get people to upgrade from XP to 7.
posted by ArkhanJG at 8:02 PM on April 24, 2009

I just got a Dell with the i7 and 64bit Vista, plus 6 gigs of ram and a new monitor (and not a shabby one at that) for $999. I do not regret my purchase. I didn't want to build a system either, and while I like OS X and use an 8 core Mac Pro at work, I couldn't justify spending two to three times as much for a comparable system at home. I'm tweaking Vista, which isn't bad at all, but I'm still planning to upgrade to win7. Vista is VERY responsive on this machine, and feels even faster than Leopard on my Mac Pro. This is with Aero-or-whatever-it-is turned on, too. Is the Dell a perfect machine? No, but it serves my purposes well. Team Fortress 2 looks and runs great, and--while I'm still taking baby steps--my virtualization performance is pretty impressive. I know I'll hit a performance wall at some point in my testing, but so far it's been a smooth experience.
posted by malaprohibita at 5:56 PM on April 26, 2009

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