PART 1: LAPTOP, COMPONENTS or ALL-IN-ONE … I need a valium!
Let’s face it, buying a new computer is confusing. Why; because the computer manufacturers have done a lousy job explaining a ‘use case’ for what they sell. For those of you who are not neck deep in corporate lingo, a use case is a simple explanation as to why you should spend money on something. A good use case for lunch is that you are hungry. A good use case for a television is that you like to watch Netflix. I assume you already understand the use case for a computer (something to watch Netflix on at work) so we aren’t going there. Rather, in this blog we are going to explain the use case for three different types of computers.
This blog assumes that there are three different types of computers, a laptop, a PC with separate components (monitor, computer, keyboard, etc.) and all-in-one (AIO, the computer and monitor are combined). In reality, there are many other types of computers ranging from your smart phone and tablet to your microwave. For the purposes of this blog however, we are discussing personal computers which are basically either Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac devices. The easiest way to think about this is that this blog does not cover devices running Android (Google’s mobile operating system) or IOS (Apple’s mobile operating system).
No particular type of PC will meet every need of a user so your best bet is to evaluate your particular use case against some basic questions.
1. What is your budget? You can buy a basic laptop that can surf the internet, manage email, and handle most day-to-day spreadsheets and word processor activities for under $400. A high-end gaming system, on the other hand, can run several thousand dollars. Your budget will likely determine the answer to the next question.
2. Can you justify owning more than one computer? Every PC format represents a compromise. Thus, even some of the fastest laptops are incapable of running games at their highest settings or rendering high resolution video quickly. That said, if you are a user on the go, lugging around a desktop PC is impractical. So, if you are a serious gamer, you might be able to justify a desktop computer with an extremely fast video card for your home and a slim, light laptop for work.
3. Where do you expect to use your computer? If you are a kitchen table or coffee shop user, a desktop makes no sense. If, however, you tend to spend long hours working in a home office, a desktop setup usually offers the best ergonomics.
4. How much desktop space is available? This issue is frequently overlooked by laptop buyers that intend to use a dock to convert their laptop into a full-blown desktop. Laptops can take up significant desktop space because, assuming you plan to use a full-size keyboard, you now have to accommodate the laptop footprint, keyboard footprint and monitor(s) footprint. A desktop setup actually has a smaller footprint than a laptop and dock. Some convertible tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro eliminate this issue (Author’s note. I am a user and fan of the Surface Pro).
5. Is system appearance important? If you live in a smaller apartment and your computer will be ‘on display’ for all visitors, you may wish to minimize wires and other gizmos associated with a computer. In such use cases, a sleek all-in-one (AIO) PC can be a great choice. Your monitor and CPU are combined and limited to a single power cord. A wireless mouse and keyboard can complete the clean look and the setup makes dusting a breeze. Moreover, some of today’s AIO’s are quite powerful and can even run high resolution games at reasonable frame rates.
Answering these five questions will make your selection of a computer type relatively straight-forward. Stay tuned for the next installation of this post; Part 2: PC Horsepower or …when is enough enough?
Part 2: PC Horsepower or …when is enough enough?
In the previous installment of this blog post, I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of computer form factors. Two computers may have identical exteriors but be entirely different machines that provide vastly different user experiences. So, once you’ve decided on the form factor and budget, it’s time to look at all of the bits and pieces that make a computer do cool things. This post focuses on three particular aspects of a PC; the CPU, RAM, and hard drive.
CPU: The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the brains of your computer and, like many people you know, can vary from pretty high-powered to exceedingly stupid. As a general rule, there are two primary CPU manufacturers, Intel and AMD. Both make a wide range of CPUs from those that can do brain surgery while balancing a half dozen plates on pool cues to those that struggle to make toast. In very few instances will either extreme be appropriate. There are simply too many ‘flavors’ of each CPU to go into detail (but for a great list as of 2018, check this out… https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/cpu-hierarchy,4312.html) but most PC manufacturers will give you three distinct levels of processing power. The mid-level offering will almost always provide the best bang for the buck and, other than a few very specialized circumstance, will provide all of the processing power you need (Author’s note. I generally stick with Intel CPU’s and the most current I5’s are rock solid performers for most users).
RAM: RAM (Random Access Memory) is your computer’s short-term memory. If I tell you my name at a conference, it will first be stored in your RAM. If you’re pretty sure you’ll never see me again, my name will never get any further than the first conversation and you’ll forget me. In a computer, RAM serves the same purpose. It remembers things that the computer will need immediately and then forgets it when the computer doesn’t need the information anymore. Most business computers will perform perfectly fine with 4 GB of RAM but these days, 8 GB has become much more common. Unless you are working with very large data files and sophisticated software, you will never need more than 16 GB of RAM. As with CPU’s the mid-level offering almost always provides the best return on investment so I’d stick with 8 GB systems.
Hard Drive: Sticking with the human memory analogy, a hard drive is long-term memory. Since you found me so fascinating, you decided to store my name in your long term memory so the next time we meet, you’ll remember my name. The most common type of hard drive is comprised of rotating magnetic disks read by an arm similar to a phonograph (for those old enough to remember vinyl). That said, computers are rapidly moving to solid state drives (SSD’s) because they are incredibly fast (think about your computer starting up in under 30 seconds). They also have no moving parts and thus, their failure rate tends to be lower than a traditional hard drive. This is the one area where, if it’s in your budget, go with the largest SSD you can afford. It will have the greatest impact on your user experience.
The final installment of this post (Part 3: The Other Stuff) will be added early next week and will discuss some critical peripherals such as monitors, keyboards and pointing devices (touchpad, mouse, etc.). Don’t miss this one since no matter how good your computer is, poor peripherals will ruin the experience.
Part 3: The Other Stuff
So, what’s the other stuff. Well, try to use a computer without a monitor, keyboard or mouse, and you’re very nearly out of luck. So, let’s start with those.
Monitor: For a desktop or an all-in-one, go for the biggest one you can fit on your desk. Alternatively, you can go for two smaller monitors that can be shifted around using an articulated mount. Basically, more screen real estate is better and the price per inch has fallen dramatically. You can buy a 24” monitor for a little over $100 and packaged with a desktop, they are even less. I would not recommend spending extra money for a touch screen on a desktop system as, in my humble opinion, they just are insufficiently ergonomic to make them useful.
Laptops are an entirely different matter. Size still matters, but use case is even more important. As a general rule, the smaller the screen, the lighter the laptop and the longer the battery life. So, if you are a frequent traveler and want to work on a plane, you’ll likely be more comfortable with a smaller screen (typically in the 13” range). If however, you primarily use your laptop on your kitchen table (we all do it), a larger screen might prove more useful (typically in the 15” to 17” range). Fifteen inch screens seem to be the sweet spot at the moment. Keep in mind that a docking station (see below) can also change your use case.
Keyboard: While we all dream of the day when we can seamlessly dictate to our computers, we’re just not there yet. As a result, your keyboard is how you will interact with your computer. Wired keyboards are cheap but I’d strongly suggest going with a wireless model. I’d also strongly suggest sticking with one of the major brands such as Logitech or Microsoft. Both companies make a wide range of wireless keyboards in a variety of layouts. Try a few out at the store and buy whatever is comfortable. Also note that blue tooth keyboards do not require a dongle (a little antenna that you plug into a USB port).
Mouse: As with keyboards, I’d stick with a name brand mouse. Just buy whatever feels comfortable in your hand. Note that most manufacturers sell keyboard/mouse combos that will save you a few dollars.
Laptop Dock: In my opinion, a laptop dock is the single most important peripheral you can buy for your laptop. Using a dock, you can add a full size keyboard, mouse, and multiple monitors thereby turning your laptop into a full fledged desktop. Just plug your laptop into the dock, and everything else comes alive.
There are many other peripherals that can be attached to your computer but this covers all of the basics you will need to get up and running.
Allen Friedman is the owner and CEO of Techaerus LLC, an office efficiency consulting firm. He is also a licensed attorney. Allen founded and managed one of the largest consumer collections law firms in the country and managed over 50 attorneys as well as hundreds of non-attorney staff. Prior to founding that firm, he opened and managed the New York and Michigan operations for the largest consumer collections firm in the United States. Throughout his career, Allen has always placed great emphasis on ensuring that investments in office technology provide the greatest possible returns. In order to achieve these returns, he focuses on three pillars of office management; asset management, training, and automation. His expertise includes document/image management, software and hardware integration, training, and process management and automation. Allen lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife Amy, his children Cassidy and Gideon, and two adorable dogs named Roxie (a labradoodle) and Bentley (an Old English Sheepdog).