Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why you should buy a new PC every year!


The first time I used a computer was in highschool in 1972; it was a teletype terminal connected to a mainframe. It used simple BASIC programming language. I learned to write a simple program that would count from 1 to 10 or generate random numbers, but it was not very useful by today’s standards. In 1973, I purchased the "Bowmar Brain" for about $100, the first inexpensive calculator that was widely distributed; but it was not programmable and, therefore, would hardly fit my definition of a computer. In college, I majored in engineering but still had limited, if any, use for computers. A few classes required writing computer programs to solve trivial math or physics problems. The computers were mostly text-based terminals, and some had the newer graphics-type display. It wasn’t until I entered graduate school in 1980 at Dartmouth College that I first used a computer as a productivity tool. In 1981, I used a brand new “mini-computer” to perform engineering analysis and generate graphical representations of mathematical results. The mini-computer was still a terminal based computer with wired access to a central shared processor. For one experiment, I would submit a set of mathematical equations to be solved by the computer and wait 6 hours for a printout that I had to retrieve from the “computer center” half-way across campus. If there was one misplaced comma or typographical error, the printout (about 50 pages) would be useless and I would have to start-over and then wait another 6 hours. I bought my first computer, a Compaq “luggable” in 1984, while I was in law school (about 12 years after I first touched a computer). Instead of crunching numbers, I used the computer mostly for writing papers; it was a great improvement because I made too many mistakes using the electric typewriter. When I graduated law school in 1986, lawyers did not have computers, only their secretaries did. The fact that I had a computer at home made me an anomaly in the legal profession. It wasn’t until 1992, that I bought my first computer for work, which was a Dell 320N+ notebook (I was always a sucker for portability). The Dell notebook had a black & white display that operated using Dos 6.0 and Windows 3.1 (yes, you had to install them separately!) and a 10MB hard disk. In 1992, I also bought a generic desktop computer and set up my first computer network (using Windows for Workgroups). In 1994, I replaced my Dell with a new more powerful Winbook computer. In 1995, I joined a start-up software company and switched over to the Mac, buying a Powerbook with a color display and a super-friendly graphical user interface using the Mac OS 6.0 that cost about $5000! In 1996 and 1997, I acquired several old Macs using them for networking, back-up systems, fax receivers, graphic editing, spreadsheets, and word processing. By 1999, I had 6 or 7 computers operating in my house. When I joined a venture-backed start-up in 1999, I was forced to go back to the PC, being issued a popular IBM notebook. Being an employee of a computer software company, new computers every year was the rule. Technology was changing so fast that it was essential to keep up with the latest and greatest software applications, and to run those applications, you needed more memory and faster processors. The old Macs, being fundamentally incompatible with the Windows PC, were junked. If you don’t keep upgrading computer technology, the peripheral devices, software, and components all become outdated to the point of being useless within five years. Having worked inside of three computer companies, I got used to buying (or being issued) a new computer every year. When I went back to the practice of law in 2002, I found out that it was essential to buy a new computer every year. According to Moore’s Law, processing speed, memory capacity, and LCD resolution are improving exponentially, doubling approximately every two years. That means that a computer you purchase today for $1000 may be worth only $500 in a year. And, if you are like most people, you need twice as much memory to hold all of your new information (pictures, music, and documents). And with the advent of the Internet, computers are being used by lawyers for more and more functions such as communications, entertainment, and commerce. These new functions require the latest operating systems and networking technologies. A computer is different than a refrigerator, a car, or even a telephone system. Computers are productivity tools, whose technology is changing so rapidly that you must continue to replace (not upgrade) every year. If the value of the computer after one year is only $500, then in two years, it is only $250. It makes almost no sense to spend even $50 to upgrade memory in an old computer (not to mention the cost of the technician to install it). I find it very hard to justify spending money on computer repairs or maintenance services. The computer companies know this as well, which is why they try so hard to sell extended warranties. Every time I buy a new computer, I find that I am significantly more productive. The new computer comes with more RAM (processing memory), a larger hard-disk, and new more powerful software applications. The time savings increases my productivity and billable hours far in excess of the $1000+ that I spend on a new computer. Also, I prefer to buy notebook computers instead of desktop computers because they take up less space, use less electricity, and are more readily adapted to personal use (I typically recycle my old notebooks by giving them to family members). New computers also make the practice of law more enjoyable. The less time that I spend waiting for computer software to load, and the easier it is to use multiple applications, the more I enjoy the practice of law. How often do you buy a new computer? What’s your philosophy on buying computer equipment?


D. Todd Smith said...

I'm with you, Roger. I've been thinking about buying a new Dell laptop for some time now, as I'd like some additional memory and features than what's available on my 16-month-old D820 (which has been a great machine, by the way). My main concern is Vista compability and various issues I've heard in the Vista v. XP debate. What's your take.

V-lawyer said...

I'm just about to buy a new computer too. I have heard about the problems with Vista vs. XP and, frankly, they don't bother me. I am not running any specialty software or legacy systems that might not work on Vista, and I don't intend to buy any specialty software or legacy systems. I believe in using tools developed on mainstream products that will all have to run on Vista. I am also working on building a web-only infrastructure for our law firm so that it is not dependent on desktop operating systems, is scaleable, and will be easier to manage.

The Dell notebooks (Inspiron 1420 and 1520) that I looked at on the Dell website are only shipping Vista, which means if there are any bugs, Microsoft will have to fix them and provide a patch ASAP. I'm quite sure that they have customers bigger than you and me who will be yelling and screaming if there are any major problems. Also, Vista has been out for about 9 months already. So, I plan on buying Vista on my new laptop and will test all the applications before decomissioning my old laptop.

D. Todd Smith said...

Dell is offering XP on just about all the laptops in its Latitude line, which is what I have and wouldn't hesitate to buy again.

I didn't think I had much in the way of legacy software, but after taking inventory, it looks like I have 5 programs that I use fairly regularly. Some of those are flat-out incompatible with Vista, and others require a downloadable patch. At this point, I'm inclined to wait until Vista is more stable. I can always upgrade to Vista later.

V-lawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
V-lawyer said...

If you have legacy software, it makes sense to wait. One reason I like the Dell Inspiron (instead of Latitude) is that you can get a 320GB Hard Disk and a webcam, both features that facilitate mobility.

Paul said...

I started to make a comment, but as I wrote I went on and on and was concerned that what I had to say was too long. But Roger gave it a thumbs up so here it is:

Interesting to read this posting. Admittedly, my use does not track yours or your colleagues'. Most of my time is spent working in one or more software development environments. This fact of my life makes it a harder for me to justify a new PC every year. Let me tell you why.

The application I am using most heavily these days is a Java based environment called Eclipse. I have other environments and tools that I need too, though they are mostly on the periphery.

Since I don't want to have more than one computer, I have all of my personal apps such as photo editors installed (though I do need this type of editor for work on occasion). My need for office software is minimal and for that Open Office works just fine. All of my data is stored there too. (Just an aside, my backups are handled daily online via a service provided by Mozy.)

To put it bluntly, the development tools are pigs. They need a lot of memory, a lot of disk space, and chew a lot of cycles. As much as I'd like to, I can't justify getting the fastest chip, largest disk, and most memory so these apps can fly. However, if I try to get something more moderately priced, these apps will be dog slow. When I buy a new machine, which has been a laptop for many years, I will try to configure a system that strikes a balance between just right today, and divorce.

Once I get my new machine, I end up spending a fair amount of time migrating my development environment from old to new. Other applications take some time, but not a lot. Overall, this process can take sometimes two full days, depending on what I am working on. I look forward to this about as much as I look forward to a disk crash. Because of the cost of a more heavy duty system, and the time to migrate, I avoid buying a computer for as long as possible. I buy with the idea of at least expanding the memory a year or two down the road if necessary.

My current laptop is about three years old. Initially, it worked just fine even after I started my current contract which required Eclipse, but just barely. Independent of performance, the disk started showing signs of problems within the first year. It was under warranty, but because I didn't want to deal with the two day hit of having to rebuild my system, I decided to just go buy a replacement drive and used Norton Ghost (or maybe it was a competing product) to clone my old drive onto the new drive. That kept me up and running with very little interruption.

Performance was still an issue. My development environment ran OK if that's all I had running (other than browsers). But if I had to run other apps concurrently, a photo editor for example, the system would thrash. First order of business was to up the memory to 1.2G. This improved things. Even if my machine's value was ten cents, it was still cheaper to buy a gig of memory than buy a new computer. (What I did was to replace one 256M chipset with a 1G chipset. If I were to buy today, I'd configure a system with at least 2G and might be tempted to do that all in one slot with the idea that I might have to double it sometime down the road.)

Later, I needed to work with Linux. I got my hands on another disk (disks are really cheap now) and configured it with Ubuntu - very popular Linux distribution. For a time, it was acceptable to be swapping disks. Even if I needed files from my Windows disk while running Linux, I could set things up such that I could access the Windows disk as a USB drive. Over time, this constant swapping of disks got a little stale. I was delaying the inevitable which was in order to be more productive, I needed to configure a dual boot system Second order of business was to get my hands on a larger drive, configure it to let me boot either XP or Linux and carve out a shared partition for data that both operating systems could access. This meant starting from scratch. The very thing I kept trying to avoid.

I guess I could have used that as an opportunity to buy a new system, but because I had upgraded my memory earlier, (oh I forgot to mention that I also had to replace my wireless card) it seemed more economical to just buy a larger drive. As you outlined in your posting, capacities have soared while prices have plummeted.

What I did at this point was no different than if I had a new laptop. I continued to work with the old disk as I, over the course of many days, installed only those apps that I really cared about. The version of XP that came with my laptop was old, so I let automatic update bring it up to the latest rev. When I finally got all the easy apps reinstalled, something I did a little at a time during the evening, I blocked out chunk of time during the day to reinstall the development environment and the code base I was working on so that I could permanently switch over to the new system.

A couple of digressions here. My laptop came from Dell back when they shipped CDs for the OS, the drivers, and the craplets. When I first got the laptop, I had to spend some time uninstalling the craplets. When I went through the process of getting the new disk up to speed, I had the luxury of installing only what I wanted. This is something that is not so easy to do today since everything is now saved away in a restore partition.

This has less to do with migrating to a new system but came to mind when I think about how much harder it would have been for me to migrate to a new disk if I didn't have some other media to restore from and to be able to restore selectively. I am thinking about the craplets addressed by Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal awhile back. Even if my disk had died under warranty and the vendor was able to send me another disk, I would have been back to where I was when I first turned on my laptop when it was new and had to uninstall all the crap that came pre-loaded. Craplets have become a problem that has gotten worse since I bought my current computer.

The other digression has to do with just how much junk I had on the old disk. Though I uninstalled the Craplets that came with my system, I still ended up installing stuff that was in some cases no better as I will now address. Over the nearly two years I had my system, I had installed various apps here and there. A lot I never ended up using and instead of uninstalling them, I just left them there and forgot about them. Pretty much each of these apps would install some process that would run during system startup. All these processes seem to do is sit around in the background and wait so that when the real app is launched, it can launch much faster. Nice idea. The downside was that it would take much too long to boot my system and log in because of the accumulated time needed to start all of these processes.

This problem crept up on me slowly - it took awhile before I started to notice my startup time was getting bogged down. At first I thought my disk needed defragmenting. But that didn't seem to be of much help. Every time I launched the task manager, I didn't give it much thought when I saw this huge list of processes running. But it finally dawned on me that it was all this stuff that was slowing me down.

When I launched the task manager on the new disk, with just the minimum set of apps installed, the difference in the size of this list was dramatic. To boot up and log in on the new system was also dramatically faster. Today, this list isn't as short as it once was, but it is not as long as it used to be. I have been careful about installing junk just for grins.

To return to my original thread, at some point next year I will probably have to break down and buy a new system. Though my current system is running just fine, my main concern is that the day will come when XP will no longer be available and I am not ready to go with Vista. The people I work with feel the same way regarding Vista.

Currently, Dell offers the option of systems installed with XP and no or very little craplets with their Vostro line. That may be one option. Lenovo also offers XP as an option, though my friend at IBM tells me to stay away from the T61 which is the model that interests me. I've asked him about specifics when he told me that people in the office were given T61s and they are not happy. What I don't know about either line is if I can get restore media rather than a restore partition. BTW, Walt Mossberg is not impressed with Vostro, though I don't think his concerns match mine.

One option I am seriously considering is to go to a local outfit and have them customize a laptop for me. This certainly won't be a low cost solution which means that I won't be doing this every year. With that said, I will be able to tell them what I want and don't want on the disk and to get the media to restore things should the need arise. That alone is may be worth the extra cost.

Back to Vista. Frankly, I'm not ready. I see no value in buying a faster higher capacity machine just to have the OS hog it all up before I can get to it. XP has been around for a long time, has a very broad install base, and it will be a long time before new devices and applications won't run on it. So, though I won't be running with Vista on my next computer, I will have no other choice when I go with the one after that. But by that time, the chips will be even faster and the capacities even higher. Everything should just fit. I will be more than happy to leave it to you early adopters to set Microsoft straight regarding what they should put into future service packs!!

Before I close, I'd like to note a couple of things in the posting that I don't agree with.

"These new functions require the latest operating systems"

If you buy a new computer today with Vista, and then another new computer next year, what you will get is Vista. And if you buy yet another computer the year after that, again, what you will get is Vista. As long as you take advantage of automatic updates, the Vista you have on all three systems will be the same. When I restored XP onto my new disk, initially it was pre service pack 2. Once I let automatic update do its thing, I was eventually current and had a level of XP up and running that would have been no older than if I had just gone out and bought a new box. Of course you don't want to be running Win95 today, nor Windows 2000. Even if you never ever upgrade your applications, your point about new devices and netorking is well taken. But you don't need to buy a new computer every year to stay current with an operating system because operating systems do not change every year.

"If the value of the computer after one year is only $500, then in two years, it is only $250. It makes almost no sense to spend even $50 to upgrade memory in an old computer (not to mention the cost of the technician to install it)."

I can buy part of this. When I had to replace the wireless card and the memory, the people who sold me the parts helped me install it and it didn't cost me. The disk I was able to do myself. But the part about a computer losing half or three quarters of its value, though true, doesn't mean that the computer will lose half or three quarters of its capability. Your processing speed and memory capacity will be the same. True, you could replace your current version of office software with a newer version which will end up taking more space than the old version and will run slower but it won't be twice as slow or three times as slow. My memory upgrade was a win. And, had I not needed to deal with Linux, I could have done just fine with the disk I had. Should I have needed more space, I could have either gotten a USB drive to hold stuff I didn't use regularly, or I could have just pulled that disk cloning trick onto a larger drive. The issue I outlined earlier about the slow startup time would have still been with me, but at some point I would have figured it out and would have started to uninstall the unneeded applications.

In conclusion (shades of Bill Clinton in 1988), I just can't see going to a new machine every year. Same is true with the people I work with. It's more like an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. If the system is slow because the applications are taking up too much memory and the system is thrashing, then a memory upgrade is a good way to get past that bottleneck. If the processor can no longer keep up with the computing needs of the applications, then a new computer is the only way to go because that's the best way to get a faster CPU and faster graphics.