Purchase decisions

Ever have to buy a computer?

Back in the day, I was asked a *lot* of times for help on purchase decisions since I was the local propellerhead, and could explain options in a reasonable way. Not that people always listened, because there’s always the overriding issue of affordability, and that a lot of times, they wanted to purchase a machine to help their children do “homework”.

I’ve had an on again/off again relationship with the gig economy, and have had to make computer purchase decisions for myself because there’s that obvious need for technological self-sufficiency, since there’s no corporate machine assigned for use when it’s on again. The trick of course is that you can’t do throwaway stuff (netbooks anyone?), because of capital expenditure obligations, and the need to be able to complete the project irrespective. Ergo, whatever is selected has to last/endure for 5 fiscal years.

When I first did this, I sort-of followed Bill Machrone’s old tenet that the PC you want costs $5000. By sort of, I had been maintaining my own list of specifications that I thought was computationally important, and the machine I wanted was closer to $10,000. Of course, that’s CAD$ 10,000, while Machrone quoted in USD$, but that’s still eye-searing territory irrespective of currency.

Tyan Tiger S1832D

The dual-Slot 1 Tyan Tiger S1832D that my workstation was built around.

So, back when everyone was running maybe a 80486 or a Pentium with 4 MB RAM (yes, megabytes), a 500 MB hard disk and a 14″ CRT, I built a symmetric multiprocessing machine with two Pentium II CPUs, ONE entire GB RAM, a multi-GB disk array on a cached UW-SCSI hardware RAID, and a 20″ Trinitron CRT driven by a Matrox MGA. I also had ADSL (woo!), while most everyone else was doing 28.8K dial-up. Apparently that was considered a workstation-class system, but I could process data, draw, edit images and anything else that could be asked, including the then-difficult ability to create and edit PDFs.

Tremendous stuff back in the day. Apart from all the content creation I was called to do, the machine could also keep the room warm with all the heat being blasted out of it by the 18 case fans, and I had the impression that there was a bend in the floor where the case stood. When I think about it in present-day context, my 4 year old smartphone has the same amount of physical memory and several orders of magnitude more storage and computational and graphical power in 0.17% of the weight. Ouch.

So fast-forward close to a decade and it was time for purchase decisions again. The nature of work was changing and it was becoming mobile, meaning I needed a laptop. My SMP workstation had been obsolete for years, but thanks to the overspec when I first built it, it was still able to run current software. I was doing a corporate thing at the time and was carrying an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60, which was impressively mobile with a travel weight just over 2.7 kg (6 lbs) with its AC adapter. Unfortunately, it was paired with an “ergonomic” rollerbag, which had everything tipping the scale at 9 kg, which put it into the “luggable” category for me.

Since I personally felt that “mobile computing” should actually be mobile and shouldn’t involve lugging a computer and bag combo that weighed as much as a bag of rice, I eventually selected a Lenovo X-series ultralight: lots of RAM (for the time), lots of storage (for the time), the fastest CPU option available (for the time), and all wrapped in a svelte (for the time) 1.31 kg (2.89 lb) package. Unfortunately, Lenovo somehow managed to build a lightweight power adapter that was 500 g (1.1 pounds), but switching to a Briggs & Riley bag meant that I could shave my travel weight down to 3 kg. That’s the difference between being able to jog through an airport as opposed to waddling through an airport.

Fast forward to the here and now, and I am starting the purchase decisions process yet again.

My X still lives and is still chugging along but it now seems oddly archaic. The nature of work is still mobile, but unlike the previous cycle where everyone toted a black machine, it is now a very chunky singular brick of black amidst a sea of very thin aluminum. It still works and it still runs current software, again because of the overspec, but also because software requirements on local hardware probably plateaued 5-6 years ago as things moved to alway-on connectivity and cloud computing.

I have to start considering replacement primarily because portability come at the cost of durability: battery packs and replacement keyboards are no longer available for my X (I’ve already replaced both) and the hinge is the critical point of failure. So it’s contingency planning more than anything, as at one point, it will be obligatory retirement due to usage failure.

Due to privacy concerns and the potential security issues surrounding mainland tech companies that the American administration seems willing to ignore, I’ve been considering Apple’s hardware this go around. I priced what I consider to be a valid Mac option, and it came out to an eye-searing CAD$ 9300.00 +tax. That’s not a typo, and that’s for a portable, not a (i)Mac Pro. That is eerily similar to what my old SMP workstation cost, except it’s considerably more powerful and doesn’t weigh more than I do. In fact, this particular Mac option weighs less than my old keyboard.

I’m not spending $9300 though, because I don’t need to. The nature of work has continued to change, and it’s changed significantly since my SMP days, with little to no data processing, modeling, graphics, or content creation, but with a whole lot more messaging, data manipulation and document revision. But it’s mostly messaging, meaning connectivity is now paramount.

I have identified a considerably more palatable alternative which is more reminiscent of my beloved (and still functional) Newton MessagePad, which coincidentally also happens to be this option’s technologic Lucy.

Less expensive than my X, more powerful than my X, can use a pen and weighs about the same as my MP2K. Seriously – the two are within single digit grams of one another even when cases are included.

However, there’s no urgency to acquire it RIGHT NOW because I don’t have instant gratification issues. I kid: apart from no immediate urgency for replacement, it’s primarily because we’re in August and the next generation could be announced as soon as 4 weeks from now, and available within 72 hours after I decide “it’s time” and confirm with a thumbprint.



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