A random collection of stuff mostly about operating systems, software licensing, technology, and privacy

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MikeCh’s stuff…

Buying a personal computer

December 18th, 2008 (Some links updated August 14th, 2013)

Why is buying a new Windows-based personal computer such a hassle? Because no matter how hard I try to figure out everything about the computer’s capabilities, including the operating system and the applications requirements, I can’t shake the feeling that I am buying a pig in a poke.

My Dell Precision 450 workstation, which I had been using every day since I bought it in 2003, is getting pretty close to not running at all. The graphics subsystem drops lots of pixels from the display until the computer gets warm and the display repaints several times.

Let me be clear, my discomfort in buying a new computer is not due to concerns about Windows Vista. I have been quoted in the press as saying that I don’t think Vista is as bad as Microsoft has convinced people it is. Particularly since the release of Windows Vista SP1. No, the real discomfort is just trying to figure out whether or not I am buying a computer that will meet my needs, at the best possible price.

I always recommend that people really think about what they plan to use the computer for, what applications they want to use to perform those tasks, and finally, what operating system it will run. So I try not to start my search for a new computer by looking for a Mac- Windows- or Linux-based computer. Rather I look for a computer to perform the specific tasks that I need to do.

For example, this approach led me to select a MacBook Pro for law school, because I like using Word:mac 2008 to take notes and write papers. So I decided what do I need to do the most on this computer—take notes, write legal briefs, memos, research papers. Then I considered word processing programs that could perform those tasks, such as Word (for both Windows and the Mac), OpenOffice, and OneNote. I almost selected OneNote (which would have pushed me towards a Windows-based computer) but in the end I didn’t think OneNote would work for writing briefs or legal research with proper legal citations. By knowing I wanted to use Office:mac 2008, my search was narrowed to selecting the Mac that I liked best--which was mostly about storage and screen size.

But even when I had narrowed my search down, there was one remaining tradeoff. The law school mandates the use of a particular application for exams that only runs on Windows-based computers. Therefore, if I use a Mac, at the end of the semester I would need to find a Windows-based computer for my finals, or hand-write all my exams (and likely annoy the professors who would have to decipher my hand-writing. So, I could choose a computer that was optimized for taking notes and writing papers, tasks I would perform many times a week for the entire semester, or use word processing software that didn't work as well as the Mac version, but have a computer that could run the exam software, for about 12 hours each semester.

In the end, an Apple computer running Office for the Mac still made the most sense.

To replace my old Dell Precision computer I had a different set of requirements. More and more I am talking and writing about virtualization technologies, as they are becoming a part of some operating systems. So I was looking for a computer that could support a variety of virtualization software from companies such as Microsoft, VMWare and Citrix.

The desire to have an optimized computer for virtualization meant I really wanted an AMD-V or Intel VT 64-bit processor, which is becoming fairly common in servers, but less common in desktops and laptops.

Not expecting that I would have much luck, I headed to one of the big-box retailers that sell computers. Of course, asking the sales and support staff in the store which computers had processors with hardware virtualization support made the sales personal do their impression of a deer caught in the headlights.

 Even taking it one more step and asking whether or not a machine had a particular processor, including ones that I knew had the necessary support got me no where. If the information wasn’t on the tag next to the computer, the sales person wasn’t able to add any additional information.

I could find lots of information about the computer’s size, wieght, estimated battery life, all the obvious hardware attributes, but digging deeper was frustrating and disappointing. And I have access to lots of information and know what to ask, even if I can’t get a decent answer. What is the average consumer to do.

As I recently told the Seattle Times, when I buy an Apple product, I can’t wait to get home and open it up. I know it will work, and I will enjoy it.

In contrast, when I but a Windows-based PC, all the way home I worry I’m going to have hassels. I am sure I will have to download drivers, futz with the system, and generally struggle to get it configured the way I want it. And from that moment on it will start to deteriorate and slow down, unitl eventually I will have to repave it (delete all the software, reinstall the operating system and applications, and restore my data).

And in the end, this, more than any other fact, is why it sucks to buy a new PC.