Questions to ask when buying a computer

Questions to ask when buying a computer

I had a conversation with someone having computer issues, so he’s thinking about buying a new one. He went to my favorite store, but one thing he said got me thinking about questions to ask when buying a computer.

“I’m not convinced all the people there know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Fair enough. And that doesn’t matter when I’m doing the shopping, but not everyone is me. So here’s what you need to know if this isn’t what you do for a living.

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Color laser vs. inkjet: The hidden factor

Color laser vs. inkjet: The hidden factor

Ars Technica did a quick and dirty study on whether inkjets or lasers are more cost effective for color printing  and came down in favor of the inkjet. The math works in their color laser vs. inkjet battle, but it misses something non-trivial. Ink cartridges dry out. Toner cartridges don’t.

Here’s why I use and recommend laser printers for color printing.
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The "good enough" PC

PC World has a treatise on “good enough” computing. This isn’t actually a new trend but it’s never stood still for as long as it has now.Jerry Pournelle used to describe cheap CPUs from Cyrix and IDT in the late 1990s as “good enough.” Running at 166 and 200 MHz, they ran Windows 95 and NT4 and Office 97 just fine. They weren’t good gaming CPUs, but for everything else, they were great, and you could build a computer with one of those and save $100 or more over using a comparable Intel CPU.

Trouble was, the mainstream moved. Intel knocked off all the upstarts by starting a megahertz war, and AMD came back from a near-death experience to compete. The requirements to run Windows increased nearly as rapidly, and it wasn’t all that long before 900 MHz was pretty much the bare minimum to run Windows comfortably.

But chips kept getting cheaper, and today you can buy a 2 GHz CPU for pretty close to what a Cyrix or WinChip CPU cost. But you get more than 10 times the power for that money. And Windows XP runs perfectly comfortably on a 2 GHz CPU, whether it’s a new Intel Atom or Celeron or a 5-year-old corporate discard. So does Office 2003, which is the very last version of Office that any sane person would want to use.*

*Besides being the evil spawn of Windows Vista and Microsoft Bob, Office 2007 also crashes more often than Windows 3.0 did. The only way I can go a week without losing work from Office 2007 crashing is to go on vacation.

The PC World author claims that Linux and Open Office running on Intel Atom CPUs will be the undoing of Microsoft. I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Netbooks running Linux got returned to the vendor a lot. I suspect the biggest reason is because they probably couldn’t figure out how to get their USB mobile broadband cards–I’m talking the stuff that cellphone vendors offer for 50 bucks a month–working in Linux. That, and they probably couldn’t get Flash working so they couldn’t see Facebook and other popular sites the way they could on their regular PCs.

Frankly, the two things that keep me from buying a $200 Dell Vostro netbook this weekend are the price of mobile broadband ($50 a month), and my concerns about the reliability of anything sold by Dell in the last 5-6 years. I work with a lot of Dell equipment, and once the warranty goes, their machines do not age gracefully at all. But I think Dell will sell a lot of these units, because the price is absurdly low, they weigh two pounds, and they run anything but 3D games and intensive graphics apps nice and fast. Sure, a dual-core system with its memory maxed out and a solid state disk will outrun it, sometimes even running circles around it, but that system will also cost 10 times as much.

I do think Office 2007 is the best thing that ever happened to Open Office. Open Office’s interface is a lot more familiar and doesn’t hide anything, and while it may not be as fast as Office 2003, it’s certainly faster at most things than Office 2007 is.

Linux has been usable for basic computing for a very long time, but getting it installed and configured remains a challenge at times. A netbook that connects painlessly to the wireless networks in restaurants and to cellphone makers’ mobile broadband cards while running Linux probably stands a chance. Giving some automated, easy means to synchronize application data and web bookmarks between the netbook and a desktop PC would probably help a lot too–something that does the same thing that Activesync does for moving data between Windows PCs and Windows Mobile PDAs. Will these things happen?

But I do think an era of “good enough” is upon us. There was a time when the top-of-the-line PC would be entry level within a year or two, and that’s not really true anymore. The entry-level PC of today is comparable to the mid-range PC of five years ago. For most of my lifetime, basic computing on a five-year-old PC was always painful, no matter how good that PC was when it was new. That’s not the case today.

Graphic designers, video producers, and scientists will always need ever-more powerful systems for their work, so they’ll continue to drive the cutting edge. But everyday computing is stabilizing. I don’t think Intel wants the future of everyday computing to be the cheap Atom CPU, but at this point it may be impossible to avoid it. If Intel decides to quit playing in this space, AMD can design something comparable to replace it in the marketplace. The Geode won’t cut it, but something based on the Athlon XP architecture and built using a modern process certainly would.

And frankly I’m glad about this development. It’s been nice not having to buy a new computer every three years or so.

How to make your laptop more reliable (or at least die trying)

People have been asking me a lot of notebook/laptop questions lately, so I figure it’s probably a good time for me to write about them. I’ll tackle reliability first, then I’ll tackle upgrades. Here’s how you can make your laptop more reliable.

About five years ago, I wrote and published a newspaper column titled, “10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Buy a Laptop.” I still think the best way to get a reliable computer is to skip the laptop and get a desktop, but since people are going to buy laptops anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about keeping them reliable.

Buy the extended warranty. My normal response when people ask me if I want these is to say, “I fix these things for a living. I am an extended warranty.”But most laptops have no technician-serviceable parts inside and few technician-replaceable parts inside, let alone user-serviceable stuff. Aside from swapping a hard drive, RAM, or optical drive, a laptop might as well be a car with the hood welded shut.

Plus, a common malady of laptops is a busted screen. The manufacturer’s warranty won’t honor that. I wouldn’t cover it if I were offering extended warranties either, but most extended warranties do. If the warranty costs $150 or less and covers a busted screen, get it. At $300 it’s a tougher sell, seeing as entry-level laptops cost about $600, but I’d even think about them at that price.

Brand matters less than it used to. I used to look at PC Magazine and PC World reliability ratings. Usually people who asked already had their mind made up and bought something other than what I recommended anyway (and then regretted it), but the difference in manufacturers is evaporating. Most laptops are designed by the same engineers and made in the same factories these days regardless of whose name goes on it. And most support is outsourced to India too. I specifically recommended IBM primarily because their support was still U.S.-based, but with the sale of its PC business, that could change at any time now.

So no matter what you buy, you’ll get something of questionable reliability supported by technicians of questionable experience and ability, not that that’s going to matter much because you won’t be able to understand him or her anyway. If the terrible VOIP connection to India will get you if the accent doesn’t.

Buy a really good laptop bag. My laptop has lasted five years. I know at least one person who knows as much or more about computers than I do, but his laptops generally have a shorter life expectancy. The only difference I can see is the laptop bag.

He (along with everyone else I know) uses the typical laptop bags. My bag is an oversized, overweight leather bag. When the bag hits something, it usually leaves a mark. It weighs more than the laptop does, but seems to do an outstanding job of protecting it. I live with the weight. I’d rather have a laptop that works, and besides, I can use the exercise. I’m not exactly buff.

The bag discovery isn’t anything I can take credit for, by the way. The manufacturer messed up the order and included that bag with the laptop as appeasement. So a $150 bag to protect a laptop, whether it costs $600 or $4500, seems to be a good investment. Remember, you can always use the bag for the next laptop, so you only have to buy it once.

On the other extreme, I’ve seen people carry laptops in plastic grocery bags. They deserve all the troubles they get. That’s usually a lot, if you’re wondering.

Don’t put your laptop in overhead storage bins on airplanes. This should go without saying. But I’ve seen people with PhDs do it, so maybe that’s a truth that’s only obvious to computer techs. When the other stuff in the compartment shifts, the bag will get crushed, and that’ll be the end of your laptop screen. When the screen breaks, it’s usually cheaper to buy a new laptop.

Take the laptop as carry-on luggage, and stow it underneath your seat. There’s no other safe place for a laptop on an airplane.

Be aware of the hidden costs. Assuming your laptop makes it beyond its warranty period, there are two things that are as certain as death and taxes: The battery is going to die and need to be replaced, and the same goes for the hard drive.

Batteries aren’t cheap. If it’s under $100, count yourself lucky. And don’t be shocked if it’s $200. Don’t bother buying an extra one now to save for later; it’ll be dead by the time you need it. You might like having a spare to keep charged and swap in when the other one dies though.

Fortunately, laptop hard drives have gotten cheap. You can still spend $200 on a laptop hard drive if you want, but Newegg.com has drives starting in the $60 range.

Make backups. Buy yourself a nice, big memory stick and copy over anything you care about (certainly your My Documents folder at the very least) every day. Laptop hard drives die all the time and usually without warning. So be ready for it. Or get yourself an external USB 2.0 hard drive. A copy of Ghost or a similar program for making images of the internal drive is also useful–that way, when the drive dies, you don’t have to spend all weekend reloading everything.

Get a good laptop surge protector. A portable single-outlet surge protector sells for $10-$20. Get one and use it. Those summertime hiccups that cause your lights to flicker aren’t good for your laptop either, and laptops are a lot more expensive than light bulbs.

Most people buy APC units, but Belkin offers a unit that costs a little less and offers a lot more protection. Expect to pay anywhere from $7-$20. It’s money well spent–you’re protecting a delicate machine that costs several times that.

When looking at a surge protector, more joules (the equivalent of one amp traveling through one ohm of resistance for one second) is better. And if you use the modem in the laptop, don’t forget to plug it into the modem outlet in the surge protector, since surges coming through the phone line can damage the laptop and, in my experience at least, are more likely to do harm.

Finally! A $60 RAMdisk on a PCI card

PC World: Taiwanese hardware maker Gigabyte Technology has stumbled upon a faster way to boot up PCs based on Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system.

Please allow me to quote something I penned back in 1999: “I’d love to see someone design and release a battery-backed hardware RAM disk for PCs… Such devices existed in the early 1990s for the Commodore 64/128 and the Apple IIgs and permitted these systems to boot their graphical operating systems before the PCs of their day had managed to bring up a C: prompt. A similar device for today’s PCs would do more to boost system performance than any other innovation I see coming down the pipeline any time soon.”You can find the paragraph, in context, on page 214 of Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia.

Enough self-congratulation. I’m glad someone finally made this device, which is called the Gigabyte i-Ram PCI ramdisk. And here’s the great news: The device is going to cost about $60 without RAM. 512-meg DIMMs can be expensive or cheap. A quick scan turns up some that I’d be willing to trust for $41 from Newegg.com.

It plugs into a PCI slot but it only uses the slot for power. Data itself is transferred via a serial ATA cable. This improves compatibility, I suppose, but I would have liked to have seen the serial ATA hardware integrated onto the board. But that would have increased costs, and arguably most of the people who will want this already have serial ATA. At least the target market does. I don’t know if this is going to prove more popular with people who want to hot rod their Pentium 4s, or people who want to increase the life expectancy of an older PC. This thing would do wonders for Mom’s PC, or my sister’s PC, and their primary interests are word processing and e-mail. They would love the speed and the quiet.

I’ve got all sorts of ideas for this thing. The article says it’ll be out in July. I want one BAD.

What kinds of ideas? For one, I’d love to eliminate the biggest source of latency in my PCs. I tend not to hit the CPU all that hard most of the time, but I sure do hit my disks hard. I’d love to eliminate the last mechanical piece in the system. Let’s face it: Hard drives crash. This thing gets wiped out if it loses power for 12 hours, but how often does that really happen? And if you’ve got a UPS and you shut the system down, shouldn’t it last indefinitely? Backing the data up to a real hard drive on the network somewhere, or onto a memory stick will solve that issue. Between that and a Ghost image of the system partition, you can recover from a power outage fast.

And who doesn’t want an ultra-quiet PC? Get a cool-running CPU and video card, and maybe, just maybe, your PC can survive on its case fan alone again. With this on a mini-ITX board with an external power supply, a completely fanless, ultra-quick PC might be possible.

And I can see all sorts of applications for this thing for my new employer.

I’m as excited as a puppy when company comes over bearing dog biscuits.

Straight talk on cheap laptops

I’ve been getting lots of traffic ever since we started talking about the Sotec 3120x laptop here last week. It looks like an era of inexpensive laptops is about to arrive, because the Sotec isn’t your only choice.
Sam’s Club sells a variant of the 3120x for about the same price as Wal-Mart, but it comes with a 30GB drive in place of the 20.

Steve DeLassus tells me a number of places have been hawking Toshiba Satellite 1115-S103 laptops in the sub-$1000 price range after coupons and rebates and other marketing gyrations. Suggested retail price on it is $1099. Street price should be $1049 or lower, as that’s Toshiba’s price if you buy direct. Toshiba’s offering a $200 mail-in rebate. So at the very worst, you can get a Satellite 1115-S103 for $849 if you buy it direct from Toshiba.

And then I did some checking on a hunch. Dell’s offering its Inspiron 2650C for $899 ($849 through 12/11). HP is offering its Compaq Presario 905us notebook with an Athlon XP 1400, 256 MB RAM, DVD, 14.1″ LCD for $999 with a $100 rebate. The HP Pavilion ze4101 has a faster processor but less memory, for the same price. There are some variants on the HPs and Compaqs out there–you might not find in stores exactly what HP’s selling direct, but you’ll find something awfully close.

The Toshiba and Dell offer a bigger screen (14.1 inches), DVD drives, 256 MB RAM (the Dell has 128), and the other expected gizmos like modem and networking, along with a seemingly faster 1.5 GHz Celeron processor.

Which brings up a point.

The 1.5 GHz Celeron is based on the P4 architecture. Remember, at 1.5 GHz, the P4 is a dog. The Celeron is a castrated P4. The P4-based Celeron doesn’t start to give decent speeds until it hits 2 GHz. Even though the Celeron 1.5 has a 300 MHz advantage over the older P3-based Celeron 1.2, the “slower” Celeron will actually be faster. And less expensive.

The HP/Compaq models offer truly faster AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon mobility video chipsets.

I know people are going to ask me which one to buy. So let’s agonize together.

Durability: Toshiba, Dell, HP and Compaq all had decent service records in the past and there are lots of places that will work on them. Sotec is more of an unknown in the United States at this point.

Dell has traditionally had the best reputation, but their laptops didn’t fare well this year in PC World’s service and reliability roundup. HP and Toshiba were the best of this bunch. Now that HP and Compaq are the same company, the Compaq should fare well too.

Frankly, I’d buy an extended warranty with any of them, and count on it breaking at least once. That’s par for the course with a laptop, especially if you use it for what it’s intended, which is carrying it around a lot.

Performance: The 1.5 GHz Celeron in the Toshiba and Dell models is a notoriously bad performer. The 1.2 GHz Celeron in the Sotec is a good performer but the integrated video will hurt. The HPQ models use AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon Mobility video chipsets. Performance on the latest 3D games will disappoint (but LCD screens in general are bad for 3D gaming). But for light gaming and everything else someone might want to do, the HP and Compaq models will be great.

Input: The Sotec offers a slightly reduced keyboard with an at-times quirky layout. The others offer full-sized keyboards. All use touchpads; they’ll be decent but you’ll probably want to pick up a USB mouse with any of them to use at least part of the time. Touch-typists will prefer anyone but Sotec. Hunt-and-peck types probably won’t care much one way or the other.

Portability: The Sotec weighs 4.4 pounds. The others weigh in at 6.5 or 6.9 pounds. None are hogs, but some people will really like the svelte Sotec. The Sotec has a longer battery life. Advantage: Sotec.

Expandability/extras: The Toshiba, HP and Compaq models offer TV-out, which isn’t something everybody needs, but when you want it, you want it. It allows you to use a big-screen TV for presentations in a pinch. You can connect up a TV to the laptop and do digital slideshows for a bigger audience than can crowd around a laptop screen, which is nice if you’re into that kind of thing. And when hooked up to a TV, it can serve as an emergency DVD player.

The Toshiba offers two PCMCIA slots. Everyone else offers one. HP and Compaq memory maxes out at 1024 MB, while memory on the Toshiba and Dell max out at 512 MB to the Sotec’s 384 MB. HP, Compaq, and Sotec are all using shared video memory, so they’ll steal a little system memory to give to the video chip. Toshiba and Dell aren’t doing this. All have built-in USB 1.1 and networking; none offer built-in Firewire.

HP offers the fastest CPU of the bunch, and CPU upgrades in laptops are always questionable.

Advantage: HP.

Serviceability: The Sotec’s DVD/CD-RW drive and hard drive are bolted in, rather than being plug-in modules. It’ll be a lot harder to fix yourself if need be. On most other companys’ models (I don’t know about any of these for certain), the drives slide out easily for replacement. Replacement CD/DVD drives are a pain to track down after the fact for any laptop more than a year or two old, but the big name brands will almost certainly be easier. If you buy an extended warranty, fixing it is someone else’s problem, at least for a couple of years. Advantage: Everyone but Sotec.

Overall winner: Hard to say. The Sotec is designed to be a subnotebook; the others are entry-level full notebooks. If portability and versatility are important to you, get the Sotec. It’s the only one of the bunch that’ll burn CDs for you at this price point. Keep in mind that the Sotec’s combo DVD/CD-RW drive will wear out quickly if you use it to watch a lot of movies, and that replacing it won’t be terribly easy, as it’s not a slide-in module like costlier notebooks use. If you intend to watch a lot of movies on the Sotec, make sure you buy an extended warranty on it.

The Sotec has a couple of question marks, but it also has an awful lot going for it.

The HP and Compaq models have the best combination of serviceability, expandability, speed, and reliability. I don’t think I’d mess with the Toshiba or Dell unless their prices dropped considerably. Between Compaq and HP, HP gives you the faster CPU, while Compaq gives you the bigger hard drive and more memory. It’s easier to add memory and replace the hard drive than it is to upgrade a laptop CPU; I’d get the HP and add memory to it pretty quickly and plan on replacing its hard drive with a large 5400 RPM model in a couple of years. With its best-of-class CPU and video and upgraded someday with a faster hard drive, the HP ought to be a good performer for many years. If the Sotec’s question marks scare you, the HP offers a compelling alternative.

Future outlook: When a system reaches a magical price point (notables were the $899 all-in-one Compaq Presarios in 1996, the $399 eMachine in 1998, the $199 Microtel Linux PCs from Wal-Mart this year, and this year’s sub-$900 laptops) it’s extremely tempting to run out and buy one. Especially the Sotec, which offers not only a great price, but almost every possible extra.

But remember what happened in the past. Compaq invaded Packard Bell’s territory in 1996 and released an underpowered but reliable and capable PC for $899, complete. Almost immediately, everybody was selling PCs for under $1,000. Then along came eMachines, deciding that even $499 wasn’t cheap enough and offering a unit, again underpowered, for $399. Few matched eMachines’ price point, but most companies were soon offering something for $499.

Laptops aren’t going to bottom out at $849. There’s no point in putting a smaller screen or hard drive in that Sotec. But if Wal-Mart decides it wants a bottom-feeder laptop, it could have Sotec substitute a VIA C3 chip for the Celeron (the Celeron’s being phased out anyway, and Wal-Mart already sells C3-based machines and their sales have proven you don’t have to have Intel Inside in order for people to buy them), and replace the combo DVD/CD-RW drive for a straight DVD drive or even a straight CD-ROM drive. A Sotec 3120x variant with an 800 MHz C3 and a plain old CD-ROM drive could probably sell for $749 or even $699. If Wal-Mart decides to thumb its nose at Microsoft and offer a Linux-based variant, it could chop another $100 off the price. (The big question there is whether it’s possible to support the Sotec’s modem under Linux.)

How soon will it happen? Hard to say. But think about it. Wal-Mart undercut everybody. Everybody reacted quickly. Dell wants to own the laptop market, because it’s part of the PC market. Wal-Mart wants to own every market. They’ll both strike back. HP and Toshiba won’t throw in the towel right away either, because they’re both big in retail laptops.

Right now the Sotecs are selling like crazy. Wal-Mart and Office Depot can’t keep them in stock. They won’t lower prices any further unless Dell and HPQ and Toshiba react again and seriously cut into sales. That’ll depend on whether they’re satisfied with their current sales figures. With 14 shopping days until Christmas (and realistically, the clock running out on shipping something to arrive before Christmas), I don’t expect pricing or inventory conditions to change much in the next two weeks.

But remember, this is Christmas boom time. People always cut prices after Christmas to spur sales. Chipmakers cut their prices too, meaning these laptops will be cheaper to make a month from now.

So if you’ve been wanting a laptop for a while and the sudden appearance of $849 laptops got you thinking but you’re willing to wait a while longer, this is a good time to wait.