I’m going to take some time here to talk about personal computing. Not just any old personal computing in the “PC” sense, but personal computing in the “Me/You” sense. Your computing. The device you use when you’re doing something other than doing work. Oftentimes, this can be a “work” computer (my employer paid for the computer I’m using to write this post). It can be your iPhone, or your Nokia Internet Tablet, or your Alienware Area51 M9750, your MacBook Pro or your Dell XPS 720 H2C.
Maybe you’re a h4rd-k0r3 gamer. A video blogger. Business-oriented road warrior. A graphics designer, a programmer, a small business owner, a MySpace addict, a college student. A parent of triplets with a HD-camcorder, a DVD burner, and a large mailing list of relatives. You’ve got a permanent addiction to techno, a midi board, and you’re not afraid to use them. Maybe you “just surf the web and send email” (I hear this more than any other use case for computer users, and have yet to meet anyone who actually *only* surfs the web and reads email).
Whoever you are, someone just like you has walked into my office at one point and asked the question *every* IT person dreads, “I’m thinking about buying a new computer… what do you think I should buy?” The only possible response from my end is, “What are you going to use it for?” which inevitably results in one of four responses:
- A huge description that indicates you’ve already thought about this as thoroughly as possible
- A blank stare (which usually represents them channeling something along the lines of, “Duh, it’s a computer, IT guy, what do you think I’m going to use it for?”)
- The previously aforementioned, “Just surf the web and send email”
- The most dreaded response of all, “It’s not for me… it’s a gift for my [brother, daughter, husband, wife, mother, grandfather, etc.]
If you’re the first type, you don’t need to be in my office. Sure, we can talk geek for 15 or 30 minutes, but it’s unlikely I’m going to tell you anything you don’t already know. You know how much battery life you’re going to need, how often you’re going to travel, whether or not you need the giant honkin’ display, and how you’re going to carry it around. You’re here for one of two reasons, really. First, because you’re like me (and most other geeks) and you want to talk shop about your computer the way we would have talked shop about the supercharger in a customized ’68 Camero 35 years ago. If that’s why you’re here, let’s go get some coffee and do some geek bonding, I’m ok with that. The second reason is that you’ve heard somewhere on the order of three dozen religious cultists talk trash about the manufacturer and tell you that you’re making a mistake. I’ve heard them all… “You’re thinking of buying a [Hell/Deathbook/Portajohn]? I used to own one of those and it was a boat anchor!” Here’s the thing. I’ve dealt with hardware from every manufacturer. Rackmount servers, portables, desktops, portables-that-are-workstation-replacements, you name it. Every single manufacturer has produced a bad product line, or a bad model in an otherwise good product line. Every manufacturer has also produced a genius product that was such a giant slam dunk that everyone that bought that genius product thinks the manufacturer is the greatest thing since the integrated chip. Unless I’ve personally handled a dozen or so of whatever *precise model* it is you’re thinking about buying, I’m not a reliable expert witness. We can go do the coffee thing and I’ll tell you what I’ve heard through the grapevine, but when it comes down to it, caveat emptor.
If you’re the second or third type, we can do one of two things. One, you can sit down with me for the next 45 minutes or so and answer a lot of personal questions so that I can figure out how you’re actually going to use this. I need to know who is going to use it, how often they’re going to use it, whether or not you travel, have children (or a spouse) who has a tendency to break things, and how much data discipline you have. If you have a giant collection of music files (please don’t tell me if you downloaded them all illegally) for god’s sake tell me how many you have. If you stopped taking pictures with a non-digital camera and have 100 kabillion pictures .jpgs of your two kids but no backup, I’m going to *make* you buy something with redundancy. If you don’t have the time for this conversation or you’re not the type of person who is willing to share all that info with a coworker, I can’t help you, and it’s probably a bad idea for me to try -> I’m going to give you bad advice based upon incomplete data.
If you’re the fourth type, you had better know all the answers to all of those questions for the person lucky enough to have someone giving them a computer. Knowing someone is a college student isn’t enough information.
“Oh, come on, Pat,” you say, “it’s just a computer!” To some people, I suppose. Some people out there really do just do a half dozen things with a computer. They read email, they surf the web, post to a blog, organize their photos, and listen to music. If that’s really all you do with your computer, and you’re really never going to do anything else, buy a Mac and surrender yourself to having an iLife. Generally, get the second-fastest processor that’s available (that’s usually the highest on the bang-for-the-buck scale). If you’re buying a laptop, get the warranty, and shell out the extra $$$ for the screen repair option – if your screen breaks, you’ve got a very expensive, underpowered desktop computer, or you’re shelling out more money to fix the computer than it is worth.
My biggest piece of advice for people in the market for personal computing devices is be coldly honest with yourself about how much data discipline you have, and buy a backup solution that works for you. If you only have one copy of your data, you are absolutely 100% guaranteed to suffer. You’re going to lose all of the photos of your children. You’re going to have to re-rip your entire CD collection. You’re going to lose every personal email you’ve ever received. Buy an external drive, use it religiously. Get space online, and put copies of everything there. Consider your privacy implications carefully, but do something that makes copies of your important stuff.
I’ll post about my own personal computing soon…