Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Buying Advice: Computers

It's one of the most frequently asked questions I get. "What computer should I get?"

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FIRST:

As everyone should know by now - any computer you buy TODAY, right now, is instantly out of date. Technology flows at a pace much faster than the market and consumers can absorb -- which makes it very difficult for companies to attain any market leverage for any significant period of time. That's partly the reason why there is significant parity among computer companies these days.

There's a couple of things you need to know about any computer you're going to get. If you get more than 5 YEARS out of it - you've done good. For laptops, if you get 2-3 YEARS out of it - you've done really good. (more on laptops later) Why only 5 years? Because we're not buying a durable good like a refrigerator or a stove or a TV here that's supposed to get some decent life out of it. Computers are pretty fragile devices - and susceptible to heat, movements and power fluctuations. Even if you take really good care of your computer stuff -- anything over 5 years is really good.

So what do you look for first?

Actually - the question falls back on you: "What are you going to do with the computer?"

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OVER 80% OF USERS OUT THERE NEED JUST THE BASICS.

Some word processing, ability to check email, download pictures, maybe do some video work and surf the web. Clearly you don't need the top of the line, but in order to reach that 5 year target, we need a computer that can at least last that long. One of the guides I use are the prices of the computers across the spectrum.

There is no compelling reason WHY anyone should get a top of the line computer system. (period) Even for gaming because most games are optimized for older computers anyway. You'd be better off spending that money on a souped up graphics card or more memory.

That's why I promote the "middle of the road" way of computer purchasing. With top of the line out of the question, you also don't want to purchase a bottom priced computer because (spec wise) they won't last 5 years like we want it to. Where you want to focus your attention is in the middle of the road computer prices as they represent your typical 5-year computer system. More than not, these computers will do nicely for most users that want to extend the life of their computers as much as they can.

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WHAT SPECIFICATIONS AM I LOOKING FOR

Gigahertz, megahertz, dual core, quad core -- holy heck!! Don't get bogged down with the verbiage. Don't get bogged down in the chipset. Keep an eye on the price tag - remember the middle of the road advice up above? The same is true here. But there are only a couple of things you should look out for: memory and hard drive space.

Ideally you want as much memory and as much hard drive space as you can get. But look at how much you're paying for the extra memory and space. If it's a small amount (under $150) it'll be a good deal. Upgrading your memory doesn't cost that much and installation is generally straight forward. You can have your computer memory installed for cheap. At bear minimum - you should seek 2GB of memory.

Hard drive space is a little different. Upgrading a hard drive also requires the re-installation of your operating system - which take more time and hence, more money. In the alternative you can get an external hard drive and use that for your data, photos and video. There's some draw backs to using external hard drives, but that's for another blog entry. If possible, try to get at least a 200GB hard drive with your system.

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THE OPERATING SYSTEM MESS

When it comes to the basic software that runs our computers, the operating system -- everyone is stuck with Microsoft Vista unless you're lucky enough to be in the mac crowd or geeky enough to venture into Linux. When it comes to Microsoft, in my honest professional opinion - I wish they would've stayed with Windows XP. It was a great operating system that worked with every piece of hardware you could've had.

But with the advent of Vista - and the cataclysmic amount of problems it towed with it -- it lost its luster very quickly. One would expect that with a new operating system you could expect the same performance, if not better. In the testing I conducted with a myriad of programs - I actually found my performance significantly decreased to the point where these programs are so bloated when they run the computer is bogged down.

Unfortunately - there's no much choice.

Windows 7 is due out in the next year or two - but users will remain cautious not to jump the gun like so many did with Vista. These operating systems are substantial memory hogs -- which is why it's essential for you to consider starting off with no less than 2GB of memory.

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WHAT ABOUT MACINTOSH COMPUTERS?

Before I made the switch to Windows, I was an avid Macintosh user. I started using them back in 1989 in college and loved them. Really great solid computer systems and very easy to learn. So why did I move over to Windows? It became a question of applications. The availability of programs has always been a problem because software companies would have to dedicate two sets of programmers for both operating systems.

But times have changed for Mac users. While there are still inherent differences between the programming of both operating systems, there are better programs that attempt to bridge the Windows world over to the Macintosh experience. Overall, these programs do a pretty decent job at it. It's important to note that some of the more robust programs that require a great deal of resources (games, video and graphic applications) may have some difficulty running in the cross platform using VMWare or parallels. There's no easy way around that - which is why I can't make a total switch to macintosh unless I'm willing to sacrifice all of the applications and programs I currently employ. That's a hefty investment on top of a new computer system.

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PORTS, ADD-ONS AND OTHER STUFF

You can obsess about the number of USB ports are available or the number of Firewire ports if you want. The 80% of folks out there will want at least 3-4 USB ports and maybe a firewire. USB ports are good for hard drives, cameras, scanners, printers and some video cameras. Firewire ports are good for video cameras and some hard drives. You can get some computers that have a spattering of different reader cards for digital cameras - if that works for you.

Something to keep an eye on - is whether or not the computer comes with a monitor. You're likely to get a flat panel LCD screen with most computers these days and they start around $150-200 if you were to buy it solo. You're probably not going to find one cheaper -- so if it comes with an LCD screen -- get it. Do you need anything larger than 17 inches? In most cases - probably not, but if you're looking at a small differential in price with similar specs on your computer system -- get the upgraded monitor.

But stay away from package deals with ink jet printers. For more information as to why I stay away from ink jets -- see my other blog entry on buying advice for printers. Ink simply isn't worth it.

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LAPTOPS...

Ahhh, the convenience. The ability to do our computing on the road, in our job, in our house -- having all of our files right there with us when we want them -- all sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately the problem goes back to issue I raised at the start - where these computers are generally very fragile. Even if you baby them -- they're still prone to problems as they age. Hard drives can fail, the LCD monitor screen can suddenly quit, they can overheat -- etc.

My rule of thumb when it comes to laptops: NEVER use them as your primary computer. As fragile as they are -- you'd need to adhere to a consistent and reliable backup process. I employ my laptops to be an extension of my computer work - so that I can eventually come back to "home base" with it and sync up my data later. This is where thumb drives and external hard drives come in particularly handy.

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WHAT ABOUT ANTI-VIRUS AND SPYWARE PROGRAMS?

There are a number of options out there and some of the applications aren't worth their weight in gold. It's important not to get deceived by the likes of Norton and McAfee anymore. They've become incredibly bloated and can bog down your system in no time. They try to tack on so much garbage that it makes your computer run very slow. There are some free options out there in the form of AVG, Avast for anti-virus and Spybot Search and Destroy for spyware. These free options do pretty well, but there's the golden rule of computing:

"Most users are wholly responsible for the viruses they get..."


Viruses land on our machines for the following reasons:
- Your computer doesn't have all of the necessary updates (Windows, anti-virus, etc)
- You visited sites that installed malicious stuff behind the scenes
- You opened emails that you shouldn't have
- Exploits that are contained in other programs that haven't been patched by you or by the companies that designed the software

The best way on how to avoid a virus and other malware is to practice safe computing. With all of the scams and phishing crud out there -- it's important to stay up on warnings from other users to make sure you don't get scammed or damage your computer.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

It's important to accept the fact that we're all going to have to invest in new computers and applications every 5 years. We simply can't avoid it. If you're still running on Windows XP, you'll probably have to buy a new printer and other hardware. As frustrating these computer companies have become, the reality is - the industry will keep turning over new products and programs as fast as the market can handle. So - aim for the middle, get the deals you can and practice safe computing!

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who can you trust?

The Internet has a lot of really useful information. Unfortunately it's also filled with a lot of dis-information designed to do but one thing: to get you trust what "they" say as gospel and hopefully persuade you to buy the product or service that they want to steer you towards. Often times these folks are paid to this.

They're paid to write persuasive reviews on behalf of the company, product or person that has hired them.

Doesn't seem very fair does it?

It's not, but you've already come to the first step of thwarting their attempts by being informed about what's out there. So what else can we do to help wade through their words and prose to figure out exactly whether a given brand of equipment is worth it to buy? There's a process that I go through every time someone asks: "hey, is this printer any good?" It starts with the most popular search engine out there: Google!

It's amazing what we can find in Google with the right keywords. Simply put in the brand and/or the model number including the word "review" at the end. I'm basically searching for sites that I have come to trust. I want to check out certain magazine sites, newspapers that have technology columns, and any other computer online resources that do thoughtful reviews on products, software and services. Basically, I'm looking for an honest assessment and not someone paid to say all the right things. If I'm looking for printer reviews, I want to check out places like CNet and PC Magazine to see if they have reviewed them or not.

"All I have to do is trust the brand name"
We don't always know if a reviewer has a bias against one company or another. It's like the whole "Ford vs. Chevy" grand debate. You can have people that drive Chevy trucks their hole life and refuse to even consider a Ford merely based on principle alone. In computer terms, this happens all the time in the ongoing battle between PC or Mac. Both are very capable platforms but are uniquely designed for different purposes. But you'll have the naysayers from one side or the other trashing the other platform without really giving a viable technological reason why they don't like it.

Another example of this though is blindly trusting the brand name for everything they produce. Here's an example: Hewlett Packard makes really good printers, but their desktop computers are okay, but not great. Now based on that assessment, we can see that HP makes good printers, but when it comes to purchasing a new computer, we may want to find a different company. It's this kind of review that proves more beneficial because we're not going to rubber stamp every product HP makes even though they maybe exceptionally good in one area.

"Customers can be trusted"
Sometimes this is true in some cases, but you need to be even more critical when a customer leaves a review because someone may be really upset by the way Dell handled their customer service from years before. Some people will continue to carry out a "vendetta-style" review that may not have anything to do with the product or their experience. It'll be a lie, a fabrication.

Others will get increasingly frustrated with a product because they didn't read the instructions or couldn't diagnose the product successfully. They condemn the product despite the fact it was likely cause by their own problem.

We then have the "I'm an I.T. expert" reviewer. Which basically is a desperate attempt to win you over that somehow their "expertise" somehow weighs more than the casual review. Be weary of the self-professed "I.T. experts" and their opinions because anyone who has to advertise their I.T. experience is a bit problematic. It's almost like saying: "hey, I know what I'm talking about, listen to what I have to say." I read reviews to be informed, not to be impressed.

The last group of customer reviewers are also "paid-for-reviewers" which will be focused on "product A" -- give them glowing reviews from several different accounts while trashing "product B", a similar product, but a competitor. The reviewer's jaded view on the product is predicated on getting payment from their contractor.

That doesn't seem very fair either.

Look for the middle
That's why when I'm looking into the background of a given product or service, I'm checking the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to know the worst case scenario and see how it matches up against the positively glowing reviews. When you read a cluster of reviews you want to look in the middle. You want to hone in on performance issues and reports of customer service. But when it comes to customer service, we need to watch out because most of those jobs were outsourced to another country and there's a pronounced language barrier. Folks get frustrated when they can't communicate -- so you need to temper the customer service score a little bit or at least take that into consideration when you are making your purchase.

Sometimes if you can't find your exact model, do a search for other similar models by the same company. More than naught, models have been discontinued for a newer model and thus have become obsolete. Sometimes these units are replaced by better, more capable products and may be more cost effective solution. Sometimes a particular run of products can have defects in them and it would be prudent to steer clear of them for a cycle or two.

Bottom Line
With careful consideration, weighing the pros and cons with an objective point of view, you can discern a practical perspective of the item you're considering. It's important to get as many different opinions of the product you're considering as well. Just because one person trashes your computer while another one thinks it walks on water -- the truth is somewhere in between. Don't be afraid to do a lot of digging and find more information before you make your decision. It's not unreasonable to dedicate some time in researching your product -- the trick is to know where to trust and how far to trust them.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Buying advice - printers!

Aside from my other semi-normal functions, I'm also a techno-guru of sorts. I get asked a lot of questions about recommendations about technology stuff, computers, hardware, software and the like. One thing that I am very picky about are printers. Now printers have evolved over the years and it's so incredibly easy to fall for the $59.99 inkjet printer that's on sale at your favorite retailer. The ad says all the right things: it can print straight from your memory card, it prints on high quality printer paper, etc...

Well - not quite.

Here's the deal about those cheap inkjet printers you tend to get: they are cheap for a reason!! Or rather - they are cheap initially, but just wait until you have to pay for replacement ink cartridges!

Over the years I've probably had about 6-8 different inkjet printers from a wide range of manufacturers. I found that it's more headache than not when it comes to printing from these ink disasters simply because of the cost value. When I purchased my first laser printer, I became instantly impressed with the consistent quality and the toner life I got from it. To compare:

Inkjet Printer:
- Costs $60.00
- Inkjet cartridges can range from $17-35
- Ink life is *maybe* 300 sheets.
- Banding will typically appear in most photographs you try to print when the ink is running low or the print heads need to be cleaned (which typically uses *more* ink...)

Laser Printer:
- Retails as low as $120.00
- Toner replacements cost as much as $85.00
- Toner life is at *least* 3000 sheets or more
- No banding, but as the toner starts to get low, the text will look splotchy. (Trick: take the toner out, hold horizontally to the floor, shake horizontally, place back into the printer) This trick buys you about 100-300 more sheets

Because the toner life of a laser is 3000 sheets, it would take 10 ink refills to match the same output. Hence, you could pay $120 for a printer that will print 3000 sheets straight out of the box. Or you could pay $60 dollars for a ink printer followed by (9 x $20 avg) $180.00 in ink just to match what the toner cartridge produces. $120.00 versus $240.00 to print the same 3000 sheets.

However....

If you're printing pictures - then your output will not reach 300 sheets as advertised. In the small print, you will see where manufacturers include caveats like: "depending on print usage" or "based on a print area of less than 10%" or some other like-minded message. Because the moment you go to print a 5x7 or 8x10 photo - your ink cartridges will be bleeding profusely and their life will end very very quickly. You will be spending a great deal more in the end per page than if you got it processed by your local Walgreens, Walmart or online at places like Shutterfly or Kodak Gallery.com

But what about quality? It sometimes looks great coming from your printer, but I've taken really great photographs, have them printed on extremely expensive photo paper, put into nice quality frames where they remain protected from the sun and other elements, only to watch the ink fade with time. The lush colors slowly evaporate from the print. Simply put, prints from an inkjet printer simply do not last. And if they are ever exposed to water or other liquids, they will smear and run. Your very expensive print, on very expensive print paper, using very expensive ink via a cheap printer - is ultimately ruined.

Further - you're not guaranteed the best results each time. Ink doesn't always behave the way it should - and as cartridges get used, sometimes they leave banding marks -- which requires you to initiate a cleaning protocol to clean the heads. It also means that you're quickly depleting your ink capacity - which means you'll be buying more ink quicker than you may normally would.

Yes - you can treat the images you print by spraying some sort of matte finish afterwards, but that requires additional work on your end just to ensure the possibility of retaining the right color and consistency of your artwork. Furthermore, the paper will have a tendency to curl - meaning that your print is ruined.

And this is why I do not recommend inkjet printers. Too much cost, too much hassle, and ultimately your prints are unusable with time. Why waste that much investment when you could have purchased prints from a vendor? You're not saving money, time, stress or headaches.

But what about Laser printing? I do like Laser printers. I do not rely on them for my artwork because the quality just isn't as good as when it's printed through one of my chosen vendors. I personally own HP printers - because in my tenure in the electronic world: "HP knows printers." That's not to say that I fully endorse every HP product, but when it comes to printers - they really know what they're doing..

Do I need to buy the most expensive laser printer out there? Oh heck no. I have two printers: a dedicated monochrome HP model that I paid $120 for on sale at an office supply store, and a HP color laser that I paid just over $300 for on sale at a different office supply store. (Hint: check the sales ads, and keep noting the prices). Most of the features you have in the upper laser models simply are not needed for the average user. If you have a small studio with multiple computers, then you may opt for a laser printer that has networking capabilities. Otherwise I've been extremely pleased with the lower end models and often recommend them to other clients.

Do I need two printers? Nope. I purchased my monochrome printer years before I got my color laser printer. That said, my default printer is the monochrome because the toner cartridges are cheaper ($60) in comparison to my color printer ($85).

BOTTOM LINE: Stay away from inkjet printers, find a good printing vendor around town or online for your prints, buy a laser printer for your normal printing.

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