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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
To upgrade or not to upgrade
IBM computer circa 1988
Things have changed quite a bit since the 1980s
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

If you own an IBM-compatible PC and have done for a while, the chances are that you will have at some point been told that a new operating system will do it the world of good.

Replacing your tired old Windows ninety-whatever with either a spanking new version of Microsoft's flagship or something more esoteric could make your machine more stable, easy to use, street credible or even all three, you may have heard.

But deciding whether to stick with the devil you know or take the plunge into OS replacement depends very much on how much patience, money and technical confidence you have.

You could

  • stick with your current OS, give your system a good old clean out and save yourself the hassle of an upgrade
  • invest in Microsoft's shortly-to-be-released Windows XP, which, despite all the efforts of the US Department of Justice, integrates Windows more tightly than ever with the company's other services
  • dip a toe in the waters of open source software and install one of the many versions of Linux alongside your current system
  • go the whole hog, discard Windows and move entirely to Linux
  • try another open source OS like one of the BSDs
  • go for a commercial PC-based Unix like Sun's Solaris or Caldera's OpenUNIX, or
  • give up entirely and buy a Mac.

Microsoft would, of course, prefer you to take the first route, or, better still, buy a new PC entirely, with a copy of Windows XP already installed.

Microsoft makes good money selling upgrade copies of Windows, but most Windows users buy their OS with their machine and stick with it until they get a new computer.

Fit for the task?

If you do decide to go for XP, check first whether your computer is modern enough to run the system at all.

Windows XP
Release date 25 October
Legal action against Microsoft still in progress
Focused on integration of multimedia and internet
Home version is first Microsoft consumer OS to abandon MS-DOS foundations

Microsoft recommends having at least a 300MHz processor, 128MB of RAM and 1.5 GB space on your hard disk to run the Home version.

But new machines approved for XP tend to have at least a 1 GHz processor.

Then decide whether you want to try to upgrade your existing setup, or back up what you have, wipe your machine clean and carry out a fresh installation.

A fresh installation might be more stable, but the trouble of reinstalling all your programs and data might not be worthwhile.

Whatever happens, you should definitely back up your system before you start.

Peaceful coexistence

Trying out Linux is easier that it used to be.

Companies like Red Hat, Caldera and SuSE sell packaged versions with sophisticated set up tools which deal with the problem of making space on the hard disk so that Windows and Linux can coexist.

But they will not handle moving an existing set up based on Windows NT or 2000.

The surprise for many newcomers to Linux is how much software is included with the system.

While Microsoft includes its Internet Explorer web browser, Outlook Express e-mail program and Media Player tool for playing sound and video with Windows, its popular Office suite, including Microsoft Word, costs a hefty extra sum.

Compatibility questions

Linux users face the opposite problem, with several different word processors, spreadsheets, e-mail and drawing tools thrown in.

The problem is finding out which ones will work with on files created by colleagues still using Windows.

Linux does not run familiar Windows programs by itself, though it is possible to run them via an emulator, or to use programs like StarOffice that read Word or Excel files.

Despite all the improvements, installing Linux still takes a little technical courage, though the benefits in terms of learning how your machine works can be substantial.

Tough stuff

Going for a BSD-based system or a commerical Unix is definitely not for the faint-hearted. You will need to know a fair amount about how your machine's internals are set up, or at least have a patient friend to turn to.

But if you are the kind of person who enjoys understanding how things work, or you want to learn about server operating systems for professional reasons, it could well be worth it.

Both Caldera and Sun provide free licences for non-commerical purposes, so you could experiment with Unix for the price of the CDs and postage.

And Caldera's OpenUNIX even incorporates Linux, a move which blurs the lines between the corporate world and what began as a rough and ready enthusiast's OS.

Then again, Apple's new Mac OS X does look lovely.

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
XP prepares to storm desktops
18 Jul 01 | Business
Apple warns of trouble ahead
14 May 01 | Business
Nokia chooses Linux
25 Mar 01 | Business
Life gets serious for Linux
23 Mar 01 | Americas
Apple updates operating system
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