To be sure, at this price you don't get a "barn burner" with top-of-the-line performance. However, it is a reasonably good machine, moderately fast with a lot of disk storage space and quite a bit of RAM memory. You can find these bargain PCs at almost all the discount computer stores. All have roughly the same specifications with minor variations. I purchased mine at Staples but similar bargains are available at most other discount stores: BestBuy, OfficeMAX, Fry's, MicroCenter, and more.
I decided to avoid any system with a Sempron processor as Semprons are about the slowest processors being sold today. The Compaq Presario CQ5210F Desktop PC that I purchased has a 2.7 gigahertz dual core AMD Athlon™ II X2 215 Processor. That isn't exactly a high speed processor either but the dual core AMD Athlon™ II X2 215 processor is faster than a single-core Sempron. The Compaq CQ5210F also includes three gigabytes of installed RAM memory whereas some of the other systems in this price range only have one or two gigabytes of memory.
The Compaq CQ5210F also includes 64-bit Windows 7, which may be a good thing or bad, depending on the situation. The 64-bit version of Windows 7 is reported to be a bit more secure than the more common 32-bit version. However, if you own an older peripheral, such as a printer, a scanner, or digital camera that plugs into the USB port, you may not be able to find 64-bit drivers while 32-bit drivers are available. Some applications written for 32-bit Vista also may have incompatibilities when running on 64-bit Windows 7. The 64-bit version of Windows 7 also requires a minimum of two gigabytes of RAM memory whereas the 32-bit version only requires one gigabyte. Luckily, this Compaq system included three gigabytes of RAM memory, which should be adequate for most of my processing tasks.
The total price, after instant rebates, was $299.98 plus sales tax. These were not mail-in rebates; the total price paid at checkout was $299.98 plus tax. The sale I found is now over but I see plenty of other $299 PCs still being advertised.
The above prices include a keyboard and mouse but do not include a monitor. I already own a 22-inch monitor and have no desire to switch. My monitor is connected to several computers by a KVM (Keyboard-Video-Mouse) switch, so I only have the one monitor on my desk along with one keyboard and one mouse. I can switch them to my different computers simply by pushing a button on the KVM switch.
I took the PC home and installed it. I must say that the routine that runs the first time you turn the power on is much better than "the old days." Microsoft and/or Compaq has done a nice job of leading the new user by the hand through the myriad of configuration options.
The only problem I encountered was with the printers. I own two printers. I was pleasantly surprised when my color HP OfficeJet 6500 wireless printer/fax/copier/scanner was detected by Windows 7 and installed automatically. This is a rather sophisticated device and yet Windows configured it without any significant action on my part.
Finding and installing my older HP LaserJet 1320 was a different story, however. It is installed on a Macintosh and is shared and available through my in-home network. I installed it on several other Windows systems in the past without difficulty, but Windows 7 couldn't find it.
I downloaded the latest Windows 64-bit drivers for the LaserJet 1320 from the HP web site. When I double-clicked on the ZIP file to install the drivers, an error message told me that stated that I didn't have the proper printer drivers installed. Catch-22! For the time being, I can only use the OfficeJet 6500 wireless printer/fax/copier/scanner which is slower and also costs more for ink than the LaserJet. I'll go back later and try again.
I found Windows 7 to be easy to use for anyone who is used to Vista. In fact, it really appears to be Vista! I would suggest that giving this operating system a new name is a bit misleading. No matter what the name, this is really Vista version 2.0.
To be sure, there are a number of significant improvements. For one thing, Vista is the most obnoxious operating system I have ever used. It seems to constantly pop up warnings about this or that. (The warnings can be turned off but I bet that most people never do that.) Windows 7 appears to have all the same warnings but all interactions are funneled through the Action Center. The Action Center serves as traffic cop for announcements that inform, warn, and often annoy. But rather than a pop-up window, the only alert you'll see is a small flag in the notification area (near the clock) that turns yellow or red as needs dictate. The new Action Center is much less distracting than the old methods of issuing warnings. However, it is so small that one might overlook warnings.
My new Windows 7 system seems to boot up much faster than the Vista system I have been using, even though the Vista system ran on similar powerful hardware.
Windows 7's security is also stronger and less intrusive. Windows 7 reportedly is significantly more difficult to crack than Vista. I must admit that I haven't tested that and probably won't. However, it is always nice to know that something new is more secure than the system you were using before.
The search of the computer's hard drive(s) now works properly. Windows XP introduced a built-in search feature but it was slow, painful, and buggy. Vista's built-in search was better but still often did not find information that you knew was there. In Windows 7, Microsoft has, at long last, made the search part of the operating system itself, not an add-on utility. There's no noticeable system overhead; searches operate quickly, and — most important of all — the results are accurate. You can initiate a search from just about any location in Windows 7: on the Start menu, inside Control Panel, and in Windows Explorer.
Most programs that operate on Vista should operate on Windows 7. After all, the two operating systems are almost identical. I still think this latest version is really Vista version 2. However, older programs designed to run on Windows XP may have some difficulties. Higher end versions of Windows 7 can run in XP Mode, a feature that gives users the option of running older applications that aren't compatible with Windows 7. XP Mode is really a free, virtualized copy of Windows XP. That is, your system will run both Windows 7 and Windows XP simultaneously. This requires some powerful hardware and the Windows 7 Home Premium version, however. My $299 system won't do this.
Windows 7 centralizes control of all devices: printers, MP3 players, phones, keyboards, mice, fax machines, and anything else you plug into your computer. The controls all appear in a place called Device Stage. It had no problem finding and installing my all-in-one printer, scanner, copier, and FAX machine that connects via wi-fi wireless networking. However, it never could install my LaserJet printer that is available on the network.
On the downside, the new operating system requires a lot of computer hardware: a minimum of one gigabyte of RAM memory (two gigabytes for the 64-bit version), a lot of disk space and a lot of processor power. Of course, that's nothing new. Almost every new version of Windows and even of some other operating systems have required more and more system resources than the previous versions.
For many people, upgrading from an older operating system to Windows 7 may not be cost-effective. By the time you buy the upgrade version of Windows 7 ($120 or more) plus all the new hardware required to make your old computer compatible, you may find it cheaper to simply purchase a new computer with Windows 7 pre-installed. That's the route I chose.
Is Windows 7 worth the upgrade? The only answer I can offer is "maybe."
I do like Windows 7 better than Vista. It seems that Microsoft learned well from their Windows Vista debacle. The refinement just might be what the PC industry needs to overcome a devastating recession. Even so, keep in mind that Windows 7 offers only modest new functionality when compared to Vista, along with some ease-of-use improvements.
If you already have a Vista system thatmeets your needs, I see no reason to upgrade to Windows 7. Yes, there are improvements but they are mostly minor tweaks. I don't think the minor improvements are worth the $120 upgrade cost. In short, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." If you have some specific problem that requires an upgrade, however, it might be worth the expense.
If you are using Windows XP, the decision is a bit fuzzier. If you are the only person who uses the computer and if all your present and planned applications are meeting your needs, I'd suggest you not upgrade. However, if you share your computer with family members and if some of them are not security-conscious, the new security features in Windows 7 might prove to be very worthwhile. You will probably need some hardware upgrades also.
If you are using a Windows system older than Windows XP, an upgrade is probably a good thing but you will probably need to purchase a whole new computer. Very few of the Windows systems built prior to Windows XP have the necessary hardware required to run Windows 7. In most cases, purchasing a new system will be cheaper than purchasing the individual piece parts needed to upgrade an older system.
As for me, I'll keep the Windows 7 system and I expect to use it occasionally to test and write about genealogy programs installed on Microsoft's latest operating system. However, I see nothing in Windows 7 that tempts me to switch from the Macintosh as my daily workhorse system. The Mac already has better security, doesn't get viruses, and is more user-friendly. I expect to use the Mac for most of my work, switching to Windows 7 only when some unique requirement dictates the use of the Windows operating system. I can't imagine any Mac user ever wanting to switch to Windows 7.
The bargain price of $299 plus tax for the Windows 7 system I purchased is very attractive and certainly is much cheaper than a Macintosh system. However, the price is slightly misleading. To be sure, I only paid $299.98 plus tax for the computer. However, the system also needs a monitor (I already had one), and an anti-virus program (costing anywhere from free to about $60, depending upon the program selected). The system I purchased came with a 60-day version of Norton Internet Security, but it will obviously need to be renewed or replaced in sixty days.
Windows 7 has a wide choice of drivers but still may not work with older printers and scanners. You may need to purchase a new printer or scanner or other replacement devices for your older equipment. Indeed, it has not yet been able to connect to my LaserJet 1320 printer. I am hopeful that will be fixed, however.
The $299.98 system I purchased is more than powerful enough for casual computing use: surfing the web, writing with a word processor, and running any modern genealogy program. It will run two or three programs simultaneously, as long as none of them are particularly resource-intensive. However, if I wanted to run CAD/CAM programs or to edit videos or to do intensive work in Photoshop, I'd want more memory and a faster processor. Perhaps the most demanding application of all is computer games. The graphics-intensive games require high end processing and video cards, along with a lot of memory. I don't play computer games so I don't need that power. Your needs may be different.
Is a $299 computer worthwhile? I'd say "Yes" if, and only if, your computing needs are modest. If you have specific processor-intensive applications, be prepared to pay more.
UPDATE: After working on it for more than an hour, downloading, installing, and uninstalling three different printer drivers, I finally got the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 1320 installed and working. It wasn't easy!