Today I’ve chosen to examine what I have come to consider the primary tool of my trade: the computer. You probably already have a computer that you use and like. And I will not try to talk you into trading it in on anything; I just want to give you some information that will be food for thought the next time you upgrade.
Two Basic Types
Computers come in two basic types; desk-top and notebook. But there are variations of each that affect price, size and performance.
The advantages to a desk-top computer are robustness, component interchangeability, and upgradeability. The disadvantage is size. The lack of portability may be and advantage or disadvantage depending on your viewpoint and work habits.
As an example of the robustness of a desk top computer, compare the size of their hard drives. Even drives with equal storage capacity are vastly different in physical size, although they work, essentially the same. Packing the parts into a case that is one sixth the size of a desk top hard drive, means using smaller, lighter parts that can lead to earlier failure of the drive. Quality of lap-top drives has improved over the past few years, but on the whole, those in lap-tops or notebooks don’t last as long as those in desk tops.
I recently read a blog post by a writer/editor who complained that she has to replace her keyboard every 3 months or so because the lettering wears off. I can’t say I’ve had this problem, but I can see where if that were a problem, having a desk top computer would be a definite advantage because to change the keyboard you simply unplug a USB cord and plug in the new one. Swapping out the keyboard on a note book is not a task for the faint of heart (I know, I’ve done it). The same goes for upgrading a monitor, hard drive, optical drive or replacing something as simple as a cooling fan. Even cleaning out the dust that gets sucked into a computer (causing it to overheat) is a snap on a desk top, and a chore on a notebook.
Laptop / Notebook
The primary advantage to a notebook style computer is portability. With one of these you can cut the cord and go wherever you want or need to do your work. If you travel, a notebook computer is almost a necessity. But even if you are a homebody, being able to take your office out to the porch on a fine spring day, or to bed when you’re feeling under the weather, or to the auto repair shop when your car is being serviced and you don’t have another ride, can be a distinct advantage.
If you go this route, look for one with good battery life. Just a few years ago notebooks commonly offered only an hour or two of battery life, and their screens dimmed considerably when on battery power to conserve it. The HP Pavilion dv7 I just bought to replace an old Compaq note book touts 7½ hours of battery life (I don’t actually get quite that much: between 6 and 7 depending on what I’m doing) and the screen stays as bright and clear as ever when I pull the plug on it. Having to look for an electric outlet when ever you choose to work in another location is enough of a problem, but toting around and dealing with “The Brick” is a pain in the neck. These often weigh as much as the computer itself these days.
If you require internet access to do your work and often work “in the field”, you will want to acquire a cell-phone/modem card to use with a cellular account so you can have access anywhere. If you normally work at, say your favorite coffee shop or in a motel room as you travel, you can tap into the WiFi hot-spot these almost always offer these days and skip the air-time bills. Just be sure your model has built-in wireless networking.
Of course, portability of your office can be a detriment. If you always have your work within arms reach, it may make it more difficult to lay down the work and “go home”. I built my office in a separate building from my home to help with this concept, but then I bought a notebook that I can carry back and forth and hither and yon. I often end up spending my evenings at the computer, although I justify it by saying, “I’m not working, I’m reading. It’s recreation; really!”
If you simply don’t have a work space to call your own, a desk top computer of your own will be difficult to deal with. There are some models that are quite compact. One mounts the CPU in the monitor for an especially space efficient footprint. But even this requires a dedicated space to live in. A notebook can easily be packed up and tucked away when not needed.
How Much Power
How much computing power, storage space, and how many bells and whistles you get is mostly a personal preference. Many people these days will pay extra for the bragging rights of having all the latest toys and a blazingly fast processor, even though they may not use them in their writing.
Having lots of storage space is always a good thing. Modern software consumes mind-boggling amounts of disk drive space and RAM. If you write a lot, you will definitely be adding new files to your hard drive on a daily basis – although text files don’t take up much space. But if you’re a movie junkie, or do video podcasting, that is another matter entirely. The best I can say here is to match the new machine’s capability to your needs and don’t pay much attention to the salesman when it comes to what you “must” have in a computer. Most writers don’t need a Cray super-computer to do their work.
Buying a new computer is a business investment. You will be able to amortize it off of your taxes, but you must still pay for it up front. Please do not finance it by putting it on a credit card; by the time you’ve paid the interest charges at minimum payments you will have spent at least twice as much on it as the purchase price. If you must use plastic, make large payments and pay it off ASAP.
While drooling over the cutting edge features of the top-of-the-line models, ask yourself if you will actually be using those cost-heavy features. Be realistic. Buy a machine that covers your needs (plus a little) but don’t get carried away by the flash and glitz.
Where to Buy
And finally, let’s look at where you might buy your computer. If you are a big city dweller you should have no shortage of electronics super stores at which to shop. If not, you may end up ordering on-line. In either case, it is best to use a retailer with which you have previous experience. This is especially important in mail-order. If you have a problem with the computer, how will they handle repairs? How long will you be without your workstation? What repairs do they cover? Are they reliable?
Also, start by doing some homework on-line. Check out the reviews and recommendations for computers in the genre you are looking for, build a list of 3 or 4 makes and models you are particularly fond of based on their performance and capabilities, then go price shopping for those specific computers. Getting the best price on a specific model yields good value. Buying the cheapest model *similar* to what you want will generally yield disappointment.
Need more? This video features annoying into music but some great advice:
And that, Dear Reader, is my sagely advice on upgrading to a new computer. What advice do you have to share? Success stories, horror stories? Feel free to share them below. Thank you for reading