Cheap Computing

Mar 24 2014   6:00PM GMT

You Probably Don’t Need a New Computer

Robin Robin "Roblimo" Miller Profile: Robin "Roblimo" Miller

AcerLast week Acer sent me an email offering a touchscreen notebook for $299. With Windows 8, no less. I use my Android tablets as writing tools enough that, once in a while, when I’m using my old (Acer) notebook computer, I poke at the screen with a finger. Nothing happens of course — except my wife laughs at me. So for a mere $299 I could stop my wife’s laughter and have a brand-new notebook computer.

But wait! Would the new notebook help me work faster or more efficiently? I don’t see how. Same screen size and keyboard as the one I already have. Same size hard drive. Plus there would be the trouble of installing Classic Shell to make Windows 8 endurable. So I may *want* a new laptop, but I have no good business case for buying one.

The one practical, recent advance in notebook and desktop computers is the Solid State Drive. Here’s a 128 GB one from NewEgg for $85.99 (at this writing; prices change), which is a great deal considering it’s a major-brand (Samsung) piece. My friend Jamie put an SSD in his Acer notebook, same model as mine, and said it made it blazing fast, that it was like a $1000 super-notebook. Wow!

We’ve all known for years that adding RAM was the least expensive way to improve computer performance. Now we have SSDs. 128GB isn’t a huge drive, but let’s be truthful here: How often do you really need 128GB of storage on your laptop? I make videos, and *I* don’t need that much, except to store old files, which I can (and nowadays do) keep on external hard drives. With a little thought, you can almost certainly fit all your software and working files in 128 GB. And with that sub-$100 SSD, you’ll have a blazing-fast notebook.

Sometimes You Really Do Need a New Computer

I had a desktop that started failing. It was a little over four years old, and was sort of an “emergency purchase” – a cheapie discount computer for less than $300 from a major manufacturer, bought at a discount computer chain because I needed it immediately. For some reason, it had a RAM failure, then a power supply problem, then a hard drive dump. I have *work* to do and didn’t have time to mess with all those problems, so I looked at my poor little bank account and, after a little weeping, put some of it toward a new computer — except I found a great deal on a year-old *used* computer from a game freak who needed immediate money for his college tuition, and had gone crazy building a beyond-sane desktop computer with top-end components.

This doesn’t mean a used computer is always the best deal, just that you should keep your eyes open because you never know.

The same thing applies to commercial and enterprise computer purchases. The IT manager for the town of Largo, Florida, once bought a whole bunch of fanless network-boot terminals for something like 20% of their new price. They worked fine, and last I heard they were still going strong. So you never know, Check Craigslist and eBay before you lay your money down. You may find something and you may not, but it’s always worth a look.

One caution: buy used computing equipment *only* from people you know or from people who have offices or otherwise are obviously decent folks. The shaky-sounding guy who wants to meet you behind the Waffle House at midnight? Um… no. It doesn’t matter how good a deal it looks like he’s giving you. The risk isn’t worth it.

So why *do* people buy new computers?

They used to buy new computers because they were better and faster and had slicker operating systems than the ones they already had. Now computer sales are in the toilet, because an awful lot of people seem to have decided that today’s new computer simply isn’t that much better than the one they bought two or three years ago. Even servers. Other than SSDs, what is really new in server hardware? More and cuter blinkenlights? And even if you are in the market for new servers due to expansion, are you going to buy your own or look toward the cloud? The latter is a big deal these days, which is another reason computer hardware sales aren’t doing well.
There are always fashion buys. Gloria Vanderbilt reputedly said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” If you worry about being laughed at on Fashion Police, you obviously want the thinnest, shiniest laptop there is. Strappy shoes and a 6-year-old Apple notebook? A travesty! But this kind of buying isn’t about computing. It’s about your computer as a fashion accessory. Yes, the battery may last longer than on an older or cheaper computer, but is that a big deal?

Think of yourself in your IT Manager role, even if you, yourself, are the only person whose IT you manage. Can you make a business case for a $1400+ Google Chromebook? I can’t, no matter how good the screen looks. A MacBook Air starting at $999? I can buy an SSD and an extra battery for my Acer laptop and have the same functionality — except in Windows or Linux, not Mac.

Thinking of which, I have a 5-year-old MacBook Pro in great condition that runs the latest version of Final Cut just fine. If I want a faster Mac, once again – the sub-$100 SSD.

Now here’s a cautionary tale about the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mindset: An article titled Ancient Linux servers: The blighted slum houses of the Internet (Updated). We’re all proud of your 10-year uptime, and that you have a server that still runs Red Hat 00.1. And you’ve never patched it! And it runs fine!

Except that server, with its no-doubt-ancient software, is a giant security hole waiting to happen. If you haven’t had problems, it’s dumb luck. I like old stuff myself; my 1996 Jeep Cherokee is my pride and joy. But I wash it and change the oil and tune it and check the tire pressure regularly. Keeping and rehabbing old cars or computers is fine and can save you a stack of cash, but you still need to keep up with your maintenance.

And sometimes a better something or other comes along. On my Jeep, it’s new off-road lights for the front bumper. I got some very cool LED lights on sale recently that are way brighter and better-focused than the original factory ones. On computers, I’m about to go on an SSD kick, starting with my wife’s beloved laptop, that she complains is slower than she’d really like.

Note that I *could* buy my wife a new laptop. But she is the kind of person who decorates a computer, so I assure you that it’s better to put the SSD drive in the one she already has than to buy her a new one.

I looked, I thought, I pondered, and I showed her that $300 touch-screen Acer, that aside from the touch screen is pretty much what she already has, and she said, “I really don’t need a new computer, especially if you can make this one faster — and put it back to Windows 7.”

Wiser words are rarely spoken about computer purchases, whether from the mouth of my wife, who is studying real estate law, or from the mouth of the CTO for a multinational company that owns 12,000 servers, 6,000 desktops, and 4,000 laptops.

A new computer? Or computers? Maybe next year or the year after, but not now.

This sub-$100 SSD can make your old computer seem like a brand-new one.

An SSD for under $100 can make your old computer seem like a new one.

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  • FTClark


    "You Probably Don't Need a New Computer"

    What an incredible concept! So very true! I am sorry for all the companies that pushed us for so many years to buy newer and newer computers and software with such great success (and making a lot of money from us). They got addicted to the cash but now they have to face the facts. They aren't offering us anything new that we want. It is time to tighten the belt and address the real customer need. Are you listening Microsoft?

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