Singing the New-PC Blues

New-PC blues
Illustration: John Cuneo
It's so painful to move your life from one Windows machine to another that I tend to buy PCs only when I have to. But as I mentioned last month, Microsoft's abandonment of Windows XP sent me scrambling to find a replacement for my superannuated but still functioning subnotebook. I kept hoping that some undiscovered Web magic might somehow make the process easier this time. But, as my latest go-round shows, once you're done shopping, the Web doesn't really help you much.

Web deals aren't always best: With so many online stores refusing to publish telephone contacts, I had dropped my old habit of picking up the handset to get better deals. This time was different. When I went to configure my new Sony laptop online, I found a "Fresh Start" option that would minimize crapware and save me $25, but the only mention of XP was a little display ad with a phone number.

When I called, the salesperson explained how to get the XP "downgrade" discs: I would have to pay $100 to "upgrade" to Vista Business ("upgrade to downgrade"--that's a concept the late George Carlin would have savored). Then the rep started offering me better deals than I could find on Sony's site. First was an offer of $100 off the machine's Web-posted price. I took him up on a different deal that ended up saving me $150 on the laptop with a three-year accidental-damage warranty, provided that I also bought two accessories, including a spare battery I wanted anyway. So much for thinking that Web prices are set in stone.

Web specs aren't always right: The other accessory I ordered was a spare "compact" AC adapter that the company's Web site listed at 0.51 pounds. That's really its weight--if you don't count the quarter-pounder AC cord. And Sony's site listed my machine's built-in Webcam at 1.3 megapixels. The true count? One full megapixel less, a measly 640 by 480 dots. I knew the correct spec beforehand from reviewing a similar machine, but how are ordinary customers expected to react when they encounter avoidable mistakes like these two?

Web support isn't always supportive: Before installing XP, I made a DVD backup of the default setup in case something went amiss or--horrors!--I might want to restore Vista someday. Then I noticed that Sony recommended I create "recovery" discs via a different process. Web support was silent about the difference, so I ended up babysitting the laptop for several hours to make both. Which one might work when I need it to? My voice-of-experience bet: Neither.

Web upgrades are always tiresome: After taking a couple more hours to install XP, I wasted more time downloading and installing the inevitable updates. Next I discovered that some essential drivers were missing. Unfortunately, Sony's Web site didn't offer them until I pretended I had a different (but similar) model. Then came the finding, installation, and Web upgrading of all my old software. And after all that, I still had to fritter away more hours doping out why the new machine couldn't see the other ones on my home network and vice versa. The problem? An idiotically overprotective Norton Internet Security default configuration.

In the business world, when you get a new PC, a paid expert handles all this stuff for you. In the Mac world, you can hook two systems together and make the new one work almost exactly as the old one did in maybe half an hour. In the world of Windows "personal" computers, you get to be your own expert and waste at least a day of your personal time.

How soon might your wonderful new machine pay that back? The fourteenth of never.

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