Best Tools forthe Job

Choosing the Right Computer for Home, Office, and Field Use

- 2007.01.25 -Tip Jar

There have been many articles lately about cheap computers and thevalue proposition of a higher-priced option like a Mac mini or an iMac (or a premium model PC) compared to theultra-cheap offerings.

In other articles and in many email discussions among Low End Mac'scontributing authors and regular readers, the value and performance ofused Macs are often compared to the cost and performance of newer Macsand cheap PCs.

A current topic of discussion started by Dan Knight, Low End Mac'spublisher, asked for recommendations of used bargain Macs for varioustypes of users, which again drifted to include comparison costs withnewer models and with cheap PCs.

I've been a computer hobbyist for almost three decades and usuallybelieve in buying the best products for a given task, but as I'veexpanded my office and purchased computers for office work, I've twicenow bought super-cheap PCs for that role. Right next to one of thosesuper-cheap PCs I have a 7-year-old Power Mac G4 thatcontinues to perform extremely well and do everything I ask of it.

With that in mind, here's a subjective look what I consider the bestoptions for a variety of users, though not restricted to the used Macoptions. I'll look at the technophobic home user (think grandma), thetypical office worker (secretary), the road warrior on a budget(student), and finally family computer, a machine likely to be sharedby many users of varying skill levels and performance requirements.

The Technophobe

Let's start with the technophobe. There are many computer-savvygrandmothers out there, but there are also many people old and youngwho simply are not interested at all in computers per se; they justwant to send email, get directions, and share photos over theInternet.

I honestly think that a Mac is the best computer for such peopleif and only if they're not already experienced Windowsusers.

The Mac is simpler to use than Windows XP or the upcoming Vista, butonly in the context of a new user or existing Mac user - and these daysnew users are a rapidly shrinking group that will soon be confinedalmost exclusively to newborn babies.

Many of these users are not computer literate, but they can gettheir work done on a Mac or PC with very little fuss simply becausethey know where everything is. Sit one of them in front of the otherplatform and things look and feel different enough that productivitywill drop. Yes, the difference can probably be learned in fairly shorttime, but for the very modest needs of word processing, email, andgetting directions to a restaurant, the differences are minor atbest.

There is also the question of software. Perhaps this user has athree-year-old (current until next week) copy of Microsoft Office forWindows and a two-year-old copy of Adobe Photoshop for Windows on their3-year-old PC. Between those two packages, she gets 90% of her workdone in a way that she knows.

To switch to a Mac will require repurchasing software that shealready owns and learning how to use it on a new platform. (If thishome user currently has a Mac, the same arguments apply against buyinga cheap PC. She knows where everything is on the Mac, and no amount of3 GHz processing on the PC will change the efficiency that comesfrom familiarity.)

The Office Worker

Lets move on to the secretary. The needs here are perhaps even moremodest than for the home user.

...familiarity is more important thanperformance....

The home user might retouch photographs or watch downloaded moviesand TV shows, but the secretary will typically work in documents,perhaps light graphics, spreadsheets, email, and viewing websites.Again, this is a role where familiarity is more important thanperformance as almost any computer from the last five years is alreadyfar more powerful than this user needs.

Many professionals will fall into this category. I have an attorneyin my office who spends a lot of time researching cases online andwriting legal briefs - demanding work no doubt - performed on a pair ofhigh-resolution 19" LCD monitors. While her video requirements arefairly high, driving those twin 19" panels is too much for the lowbrowintegrated graphics in many cheap PCs (and cheap Macs), but offloadedto a 5-year-old midrange graphics card performance is terrific even ona 6-year-old PC with a "slow" 1.8 GHz Pentium 4.

The trick here is that the computer is really only handling Word,Outlook, and Firefox, nothing too demanding, while the ATI Radeon 8500with 64 MB of dedicated video RAM and dual outputs handles the twinmonitors without sucking performance from the main processor or memory.The 7-year-old Power Mac G4 in the office did the same job before itsrole was changed to video, photography, and Web work, again the modest1 GHz G4 was free to handle the OS and applications while a pairof modest 32 MB graphics cards drove the twin monitors.

The Road Warrior

For the road warrior on a budget or the student, I recommend settinga firm budget and then buying the highest quality new or used laptopyou can afford.

Highest quality does not mean highest performanceor newest.

Highest quality does not mean highest performance or newest. Sizeand weight are more important than processor power, while other factorslike battery life, screen size, and keyboard quality also figure veryheavily in the equation.

Unless you are doing high-end video work (this include high-endgames), the small and light machine with integrated graphics is betterthan the monster desktop replacement, which explains why iBooks andMacBooks are sopopular with students.

My daughter is 12, and her school permits laptops for some classprojects. I bought her a 5-year-old ThinkPad X22, which is the envy of her class despite most kidshaving brand-new MacBooks, Inspirons, and even a Gateway Tablet PC.Despite its age, the ThinkPad still weighs only 3.5 lb., runs 4 hourson batteries, and is smaller than most textbooks, none of which can beequaled by any other laptop in the class.

That it also has one of the best keyboards and may very well be thetoughest machine there are also strong advantages in this marketsegment. Total cost: $250 with wireless PC card (retractable antenna -very nice). To avoid the risks of Windows and careless downloads (itsused by a 12-year-old), I plan on installing Ubuntu Linux, which is alreadyinstalled in a dual boot configuration (with Windows XP) on my ownThinkPad X22.

The Family Computer

My last segment, the family computer, is by far the most demanding,at least for a desktop computer. While it will likely have theemail-only technophobe using it, it will also be called on formultimedia student projects, high-end games, and everything inbetween.

This computer needs a massive hard drive to store many users' files,must be very fast and have fast graphics to handle those games, and bereliable so that junior's Internet adventures don't ruin mom or dad'swork projects.

Here a high-end Mac or PC is the only way to go, with the Mac thepreference when nobody in the family is diligent about computersecurity (the topic of an upcoming article). My family has a 20" iMac G5 in this role, and itdoes a terrific job at everything except high-end gaming, which is justnot a priority in my family. Part entertainment center, part workmachine, and part study-tool, the main thing with a family computer isthat it just works - and that means having enough muscle to do whateveris asked of it.

Suggested Computers

So back to Dan's question, what is recommended for these users?

Well, for grandma I recommend consistency. If she is currently doingher email on a Mac, keep her on a Mac. Likewise, if she is sendingthose emails on a PC, stick with what is working. She has better thingsto do than fight with a new interface or try to find work arounds toprograms that she had on the old platform but doesn't have on the newone. If grandma is currently using a Mac passed down from your lastupgrade, pass down again the next time you upgrade. If she is using anold PC, a newer one will be appreciated.

For the office worker, cheap PCs are a great way to go for thesimple reason that they are really cheap. I have a $300 PC fromlast March and a $250 PC from December, and either one of them can blowthe doors off of the highest-end workstation of four-years-ago. Theyreally are that fast - and upgradable, too!

Don't forget the older computers you alreadyhave.

Don't forget the older computers you already have. Any Mac or PCfrom the last five years or so remains a very powerful and capablecomputer.

It's funny how in so many articles on the Mac Web writers talk aboutreplacing older PCs that have slowed to a crawl with equally old Macs.Guess what - Macs slow down with use just like PCs do. No, they don'tget gummed up with malware, but neither do well-maintained PCs. Thesimple fact is that using your computer fragments files, bloats the OS,adds all sorts of crud into hidden places of both Windows (registry)and OS X (libraries) that they literally have far more things ontheir minds than when they were new.

Take an older Mac, wipe the drive, and do a clean OS X install,then leave off every application except for those you need, and you'llbe rewarded with a massive speed boost. Likewise with a PC. Wipe thedrive, do a clean install (without the manufacturer's crudware) ofWindows 2000 or XP, install only the applications you need, and even anold 400 MHz Pentium II will be a fast and efficient officecomputer.

I have a 400 MHz Pentium II box with 320 MB of RAM at home that Irecently tested as an office machine. With Windows 2000 Professionaland Office 2003 Professional, it booted in 37 seconds and launched Wordin 6 seconds the first time instantly thereafter. Firefox takes about 8seconds to load the first time, and it's fast after that. This is a9-year-old PC folks - nine years old - and it's almost identicalin function to new and fast systems in the office context.

For students, I like MacBooks, iBooks, and ThinkPads, because theyare durable and compact. Tablets are also terrific for students, asdrawing on class notes is an amazing boost in efficiency. Price, age,and performance aren't terribly important; look instead at the feel ofthe keyboard, the battery life, and how well a portable is built.

For the family, the larger iMacs are about perfect. Even whenWindows applications or games are required, modern Intel Macs runWindows natively and have you covered. For a desktop in a demandingenvironment, these are truly the best of the best.

I left out creative workers' machines, because those are selectedalmost entirely based on the applications needed and the strongpreference of the user, and any recommendation would have to beconfined to a specific user, not a broad category.

Whatever you use, use it behind a good firewall (included in mostrouters these days), don't open weird attachments in email, andremember that your bank doesn't need you to correct an account problemthrough an email link (phishing). Avoid the scams on either a Mac or aPC, and you'll have a healthier and happier online and financial life. LEM

Further Reading

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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