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A Step to the Side: Computer Advice for Boomers

Today's column is going to be something different. It's going to be advice for Boomers from one of their own.

I'm a professional geek. My specialties are web development, networking, and desktop support. The Fortune 500 business I work for runs 95% Windows XP desktops, 4% Windows 2000, and 1% Linux. My desktop and laptop machines are among the latter 1%.

Many of you are in the market for a new PC. Mine is a year and a half old, a dual-core AMD with two gigs of RAM, so I'm fine for a while. I'm not a gamer, I don't create videos. My system (running Ubuntu Feisty) should be fine for years to come.

However, those of you who are buying new systems face a dilemma. Microsoft would like to see XP ride off into the sunset. It has made it clear that it feels that Vista is its future, and you, the consumer, will accept and embrace it.

My advice: Don't.

I still need to run Windows apps. I run a Windows "virtual machine." It's a fully functional Windows XP machine running within a free product called VMWare Server (available at http://www.vmware.com/). I am using the licensed copy of XP Media Edition that came with my PC. I had to make an additional phone call to Redmond to activate it, but that was no big deal.

So, within my Linux system, I run Dreamweaver (for web development), Paint Shop Pro 7, and Quicken 2006. I could probably wean myself off of the latter two apps and use free alternatives, but they run so well, what's the point? VMWare imported my existing Windows machine into a virtual one that will literally run anywhere, as long as I have access to VMWare Server or Player, both free of charge.

Why do I recommend staying away from Vista? To keep this as short as possible, let me concentrate on its hardware requirements, and why it demands so much horsepower to operate.

When I am running my Windows virtual machine with four or five apps open, and also have five more Linux apps open on my Ubuntu system, I might be using as much as 650 MB of my two gigs of RAM. That's the most I've EVER managed to use. I might as well take the extra gig out and sell it to a Vista owner.

That's because Vista can easily exceed a gig of RAM usage. Most reviewers recommend two gigs to run it, four is better. And if you're not using a dual-core or quad-core processor, fuggetaboutit. Vista will routinely max out a single-core Pentium 4 processor when the most modest programs are launched.

You see, Vista was built for its "customers." Not you, but the corporate entities of the RIAA and the MPAA. It's loaded with enough DRM (digital rights management) to choke a horse. And it requires lots of cycles of CPU time and many megabytes of RAM to function.

No, you can't turn it off. It's there because forces much wealthier than you have demanded and gotten it.

Yes, it's buggier than Florida night skies in September. But I'm not going there.

I suggest you avoid Vista because you are being forced to run a slow, cumbersome system by Microsoft's "other" customers.

Since Microsoft has agreements with all of the major PC manufacturers to pre-install their operating systems, odds are any new PC you buy will come with Vista. You can attempt to get XP installed instead, but not for much longer. Microsoft has instructed the manufacturers of hardware to concentrate on Vista drivers ONLY. That means the odds are not good that the newest video cards, printers, etc. will be XP-compatible.

However, if you're willing to learn something new, I recommend buying a bare-bones system without an operating system and installing Ubuntu Gutsy (the most cutting edge) or Ubuntu Feisty (the most reliable) on it. Tiger Direct, whom I have happily traded with for years, currently has this system, which is pretty hot, for 270 bucks. Install your downloaded Linux from a CD-ROM or DVD, and you're off.

Sure, it looks a bit different. And you'll have to paste a few error messages into Google at first. But stick with it, and experience the delightful world of free software. And you will also discover that Ubuntu is VERY well supported via various forums that Google will direct you to.

Microsoft hacked off the world a couple of years ago by installing Windows Genuine Advantage on user's computers who had elected to automatically get updates for the perennially security-challenged system. WGA does the customer no good whatsoever, but it DOES alert Microsoft to what it considers signs that the copy of Windows that the consumer is running is pirated. And if the program decides that that is the case, it gives you a limited amount of time to "make things good" before it starts shutting things down.

I don't know about you, but that seems like a pretty crappy way to treat customers, especially when WGA has proven to be notoriously unreliable. Type WGA into Google and see for yourself what sort of returns you get. And Vista is even more draconian in its treatment of customers whom it doubts to be legal. In some cases, you get THREE DAYS to fix things before features are shut off.

That's a long weekend, during which you might not even be home!

You'll never get that treatment from the Ubuntu folks. Ubuntu comes pre-installed with Firefox and Open Office, two more free products whose creators simply appreciate the fact that you choose to use them.

And if you can't do without certain Windows apps, you may be able to run them with Wine (it tricks Windows apps into thinking that they are in a Windows environment under Linux). Or, you can purchase a basic copy of XP and install it onto a VMWare virtual machine.

It will take a week before you have everything tweaked right, and you'll spend lots of time on Google. But compare that to the weeks of agony that Vista owners are experiencing. I'm willing to wager that you won't go through any more trouble than a user with a brand new Vista machine. And you will have the same wonderful, warm feeling I have, knowing that the very fact that I use free software and promote it helps its cause.

And no, I haven't mentioned buying a Mac or installing Apple's OS-X on a PC. That's because I've never done either one. But they are both excellent alternatives to putting up with Microsoft's intentions to please fat corporations at the expense of you, the consumer.

Come on, guys, we're Boomers. We never did trust the Man. Don't purchase a computer loaded with his software.

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