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Tech Lab

Now is a terrible time to shop for gadgets

This is a terrible time to shop for electronic gadgets. Yes, there are lots of good products to be had at reasonable prices, but a whole crop of new and upgraded devices will be hitting store shelves in the next eight weeks, and any of them might make your current favorites obsolete.

Why buy a new PC now, with Microsoft Corp. rolling out its new Windows 8 operating system on October 26? Why buy a new smartphone when Apple Inc. is about to introduce a new iPhone and Microsoft will soon pop the cork on Windows Phone 8? And as for tablet computers, that iPad may look good, but Amazon.com Inc. is upgrading its Kindle Fire, and Microsoft will soon release its radical new Surface tablet.

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So do you buy or wait? It depends. If you’re looking for a new PC, I say grab it now. But when it comes to phones and tablets, I’m inclined to hold off for a while longer.

Buying the PC now is an easy call, for several reasons. First, Microsoft is making it really cheap to upgrade to Windows 8. I can upgrade the Windows 7 laptop I bought in March for just $39.99, and upgrading any Windows PC bought since June will cost just $14.99. At that price, you might as well buy the computer now and add Windows 8 later.

Or maybe not add it at all. I don’t think Windows 8 is worth waiting for. I’ve used the preview version on a couple of laptops. Its most significant change is a new user interface that’s lovely to look at, but painful to use. It will no doubt work well on touchscreen devices, but for the great majority who use a mouse and keyboard, the “improved” interface just gets in the way. You can switch it to a more familiar, Windows 7-like interface, but why bother? Buy your new computer now, and stick to Windows 7.

When it comes to smartphones, some people will find the now-or-later question equally straightforward. Apple is going to make a major announcement on Wednesday, and it is almost certainly the long-awaited iPhone 5. The true believers will buy it as soon as it goes on sale. Simple.

But too simple for me, because I'm such a huge fan of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 software. Its beautiful, innovative screen interface and remarkably snappy performance make it a worthy rival to the iPhone, and decisively better than Android. Microsoft is slowly closing the app gap, with about 100,000 Windows Phone apps, compared with about half a million for iPhone or Android.

Microsoft will soon release Windows Phone 8, an upgrade so massive that the new software won’t run on existing Windows Phones. So here come a host of new handsets, including some impressive-looking entries from Samsung Corp. and Nokia Corp., which unveiled its new Lumia 920 and 820 models on Wednesday. All of these phones should be landing at stores by late October.

But for loyal Apple users, it’s the new iPhone or nothing. It’s hard to argue; I have an iPhone 4S, and it’s superb. Besides, Microsoft holds just over 3 percent of the world’s smartphones, compared with 16 percent for Apple and 68 percent for Android, according to the research firm Canalys. So if you whip out a Windows Phone at a party, expect a lot of puzzled looks.

But that’s OK if your phone really is cool. Which is why I’d hold off on that next smartphone until the latest Windows Phones hit the shelves.

If you’re in the market for a new tablet, prepare to get really confused — or not. The easy move is to buy an Apple iPad, or for something cheaper and smaller, the excellent Nexus 7 tablet from Google Inc. But hang on for Amazon.com’s big announcement Thursday. Expect an illuminated version of its Kindle electronic book reader, with a screen based on technology from E Ink Corp. of Cambridge. But we’re also likely to get an upgrade to Amazon’s hit mini-tablet, the Kindle Fire, this time with a much-improved color touchscreen.

And in a move that shocked the computer industry, Microsoft is building a tablet of its own, called Surface, which will go on sale Oct. 26. Designed for Windows 8, the Surface will feature a razor-thin shape and a screen cover that doubles as a keyboard. Nobody outside Microsoft knows if the Surface will be as good as it looks, and we still haven’t heard a price. But why not wait until you find out before you buy?

In all, it’s a lousy time to shop for digital gadgets, but only if you’re the impatient type. For the rest of us, looking forward to a flood of new products, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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