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The Chicago Tribune James Coates Computers column
[August 15, 2006]

The Chicago Tribune James Coates Computers column

(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Aug. 15--Q. I need advice on buying a new computer, so I'll tell you what I have and what I want for a replacement. I use a Windows 98-based HP Pavilion desktop, with the following components: 64 megabytes of RAM, 500-megaHertz chip speed; a CD writer, a 13-gigabyte hard drive, and a 56-kilobit dialup modem. The machine has become too slow no matter what how many things I do to speed it up.

The new machine must be fast; it must work with Microsoft Word and Excel, burn CDs, connect with two printers -- one for daily black-and-white printing and one for color pictures. I do not play video games.

Here is a computer that interests me and I'd like advice about it:

Dell RE510 Series Pentium D Processor Dual Core Technology (2.66-gHz chip speed). It has 1 gigabyte of DDR2 SDRAM at 533 mHz, Windows XP Home Edition, 80-gigabyte hard drive, single drive 48x CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo, 17-inch analog flat panel monitor and a 128-megabyte PCI Express x16 AT Radeon x300 graphics card.

In your opinion, am I heading in the right direction with my selection? Perhaps just getting DSL access installed in my house and keeping my current PC is sufficient to satisfy my requirements.

-- Volk Schmidt

A. In many ways I am tempted to tell you to just stick with that old reliable and pokey Windows 98 dinosaur and try hooking it up to DSL for the near term, Mr. S. It's dicey deciding on new Windows computers now because early next year Microsoft will finally release the new Vista operating system, designed to follow Windows XP, including the version on the new machine you are eying.

Microsoft will move heaven and earth trying to make it easy to upgrade machines such as that new Dell to Windows Vista. Upgrades may be done over broadband Internet connections, easier by far than past Windows upgrades. But even if Vista is available via broadband download, it will be far simpler to just buy new computers with Vista already installed on them.

That said, I note that you got by with Windows 98 for more than seven years when the rest of us moved on to Windows ME and then Windows XP in its Home, Professional and Media Center versions. When you see what a comparative howler the new machine will be compared with your current dinosaur, you should be happy as a clam for years to come just as you mostly were sticking with Windows 98.

The Dell you describe has only one big shortcoming: It lacks a DVD burner, which is a common way to keep prices down on budget offerings. But even if you just nibble at the Internet with that new machine, you're going to wind up with files far too large for mere CDs. Also, it is much nicer to get a 19-inch flat panel monitor, but you probably won't notice any problem, given seven years in front of a cathode ray tube display.

Otherwise, you've got a great machine for your stated purpose, and with that PCI Express ATI video card, it would even be pretty nifty playing those games that you emphasized you don't want or need.

Q. My Dell once-fast Inspiron 8600 laptop has gotten a case of major slowdown. It seems that when initially booted up, everything is fine and normal. Then over a period of hours, it slows to about a quarter of its operating speed without having opened any memory hungry software.

However, when I go to shut down and reboot to get back up to speed, I notice in the shut-down procedure at least 10 software programs are closing, programs I don't recognize or never loaded.

-- Lawrence Sperling

A. A tool called msconfig can show some of this background stuff, and you can find it by clicking on Start and then Run, and then typing in "msconfig" (without the quote marks) and Enter. A Startup tab will list many of the programs running in the background and you can use the check boxes to stop them. But an awful lot of stuff remains hidden in the huge Windows registry and in other spots. You can find this stuff using a free utility called Startup List from Merijn at (Notice that "merijn" has only one "i.")

You will be flabbergasted at the amount of software that invisibly runs as one uses a computer over time. The Startup List tool detects hundreds of these on any computer and offers to remove offenders. Be particularly wary with items in your computer's system registry where they are given a "Run:" command. StartList shows programs that are the offenders and zaps these memory gobblers nicely.

Got a question on personal technology? Send a note to Jim Coates at [email protected]. Questions can be answered only through this column.

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