How much computer do you need? – A recommendation for writers.

How Much Computer

This is my rig. Cool eh? It cost me less than $1500. For reference, a Macbok pro can run upwards of $4000.  In either case, it’s about a hundred times more computing power than I need for anything but gaming and image processing. If you’re a writer or have a small business, you don’t need anything like this. In fact, most of what I’ve got going on here is just for looks.

As a ‘computer guy’ I sometimes get the question, what sort of computer should I buy? I’ve never had this question come from a person actually needing real performance. As a result, my response is almost always: Pretty much anything you pull off the shelf is going to work. I know that’s a pretty bland response from someone who owns the device pictured but, for most users, virtually any unit off the shelf is going to work fine. There are some key exceptions here. For example, if you’re doing image or video processing or streaming, you’ll see notable improvements in productivity from something more powerful. For most people though, the only questions that truly matter are:

  • how much can you afford,
  • what software do you need or think you’ll need (what are you planning to do with this unit),
  • does it need to be portable,
  • what screen/keyboard size works for you?

For the most part, when people are asking about what computer to get, they really want to know if something cheap is going to be okay. Again, I usually tell people whatever they get is probably just fine, but know that if you are buying the cheapest piece of equipment available, you are also most-likely buying the least durable option. Computers are like any tool, quality can make a difference.

The first question we have to address is software needs. This is going to drive the whole decision-making process. As a writer, I use Scrivener for drafting, MS Office for editing, Chrome for web-related stuff, and a smattering of applications for preparing images for the web. None of this requires much performance. Again, any device off the shelf is going to work fine. To be honest, even if I were running a small business, this would be the bulk of software I needed, with the exception of possibly inventory or accounting software. Either way, anything is going to work.

The second question to answer is portability. Folks already know this going in, but asking it again brings devices other than laptops into the discussion. For example, iPads or MS Surface, plus others. Personally, iPad is my portable device of choice. It’s lightweight, reliable, the battery lasts forever, and it has a wide range of apps. Other platforms offer similar benefits and, in particular, with the Surface, you get Windows 10. In the case of iPads, these devices are limited in multi-tasking activities and aren’t ideal for certain types of workflows. Further, these devices tend to be really expensive for what you actually get. A laptop with similar specifications is going to run you less than half the price of a Surface, for example.

If portability isn’t a factor, any desktop computer is a viable option and if you want a bit more power for other tasks, it’ll be cheaper. Expect to spend around $400 for a pretty darn good workstation that includes all the hardware you need. You can spend a lot less as well, but you’ll have to dig around.

To go back to mobile computing options, I’d recommend sticking to a laptop platform as a cheaper, larger, more flexible option than surface or iPad. Assuming we’re just doing basic business or writing tasks, screen size really winds up being the key decision you have to make and it’ll drive cost. You can basically ignore the internals. If you can spend more money, you should do this based on screen size – for the most part, you’re going to get better internal hardware along with that larger screen as well. Keyboard size tends to go along with screen size. On the truly small devices, keyboards can become crunched and in some instances even have a slightly different layout than you’re accustomed to. This is one of the issues with mobile devices like iPads.

The only other real consideration is the platform. For most users, I’d suggest Windows or Mac. Other options include Chromebook and Linux. In spite of a wide range of favorable reviews for Chromebook, I’d suggest avoiding them. Not because they’re bad or don’t work, but because they’re limiting. If your going to spend several hundred bucks on a device, flexibility should be taken into consideration. What’s more, with Chromebook you’re pretty much locked-in to working online. While this is already the context for many of us, it does wind up being something of a problem once you get beyond blogging and drafting your novel. I would also argue against Linux for most casual users. It’s just too much of a bear to maintain, and there are also limitations with software availability.

If I had to distill my opinion down to a single device, I’d suggest the following as a guidepost:

Dell laptop – 15.6″ monitor and 500GB hard drive. The rest of the specs are essentially irrelevant. I’d describe this as a mid-range work-station that will absolutely do what you need it to. This is not, by any stretch, the cheapest option and there are absolutely better options out there that will match your specific needs, but this is a good measuring stick.


One Year Later

Look at me! Two blog posts in a week, must be some sort of record. According to Facebook, today was the 1-year anniversary of my return to Fish & Game. I wasn’t gone terribly long, and I had been with the department for years before that, yet this feels like a big personal milestone to me. I’ve been thinking about it for days, and with that milestone under my belt, there are a lot of things I want to say about the job, but I don’t really know where to start. I didn’t realize until last year sometime just how damn important this job is to me. Part of it is the people, yes, and part is the work, but any place you go can be like that, can’t it? I don’t know, maybe not.

I started at Fish and Game back in early July of 2004 as an Analyst/Programmer. It was something of a lucky break at the time, but not because it was Fish and Game. In my time, I’ve interviewed a lot of people to work for the department who want to work for the agency because of what it is and not because they have any of the knowledge, skills, or abilities to do the job. I, however, wanted to work for the department because it meant a promotion and it wasn’t the DMV.

Within the first few weeks of starting, I’d struck up a pretty friendly relationship with most of the folks I worked closely with, especially the other Dave at the time. One day he brought in his guitar to go pick with some of the other IT folks in the back parking lot at lunch. Somehow, we came around to the fact that I was trying to learn and he invited me along, so I went. That whole summer I’d join some of the other guys out back and pick bluegrass tunes. I loved coming to work, and not just because of that, it was also because I understood the work. It made sense to me. Sure, some parts were totally foreign and my training in SPSS was 100% on the job, but it made sense. There is a lot more to it than that, especially in the fact that there’s room to expand professionally if you’ve a mind to do it.

Fast forward to last September, at least I think it was September may have been October. I was still at the last job and even fairly recently gotten a promotion, but undeniably unhappy, though I was trying. In any case, I’d gone out to attend a going away get-together for a former fish and game colleague. It was a great event. The place was packed with so many people I’d worked with, including more than a few who had already moved on themselves. As I stood up to head out of the event with a friend (former coworker/team member), I looked around, shook a few more hands and thought: “Why the hell did I ever leave this place? These people are my family.”

I went home that night feeling profoundly nostalgic. The feeling kept up for days, maybe weeks. Every day, I’d go into work, feel sick to my stomach about how things were going, fail to be as successful as I wanted to, then go home. Then, I got a sign. Most people, when making difficult life decisions, look to the sky and ask for a sign, as if lightening is going to write the answer across the clouds. Well. I didn’t get struck by lightening, but I did get a text. It was short and basically said that my job was opening back up. But it wasn’t just the text, it was the timing. It came in the middle of a meeting that had been called to update the CTO on project progress. I was also attempting to lay out a case for more resources, I just didn’t see how I was going to be successful without more bodies. My case not only failed, but the CTO explained how my project management game was in bad shape and I needed to focus more on change management. All things that were, in fact, true but could not be achieved without more bodies. In retrospect, if I’d had to stay, I probably could have made a partial save, but I wouldn’t be satisfied with my lot just now.

I know, deep down, that while this place has been good for me, it could become something else as fast as anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that I walked back in those doors, and even to a lot of new faces, and thought: “I’m home.”

A year ago I was in a bad place

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and to be honest, I haven’t been writing much at all lately, this is largely to do with the day job being incredibly busy, but also an experience at the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference which put me into a seriously weird place as a writer. I’m still digesting that and giving myself time to think about the writing endgame (read: Publishing etc…) In any case, I’ll blog about that sometime in the future, for now, something else is on my mind.

This morning, as with most mornings, I crawled out of bed and picked up my phone to check Twitter and Facebook. As Facebook sometimes does, I got a notification about memories from previous years. One of those memories was a blog post titled “Can’t I just disappear for a while?” I’ve been thinking about this post a lot lately. Not because I feel that way, because I don’t, but because it was about a year ago. Arguably, I’m as busy right now as I was then. This past weekend was the first weekend that I really took in its entirety since about mid-September. The post from last year was a long and ranty about how I wasn’t having a super-great time. What I remember most about the post was standing in the parking lot at work and staring at the building and wondering what the bloody hell I’d gotten myself into and was it worth it? There was also a keen feeling of self-loathing and failure. At the time, I was doing a lot, but didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. In fact, every step forward felt like two steps back. I’m a pretty driven individual, usually, and this wasn’t a good place for me to be.

Not three weeks after that post, I’d gotten a promotion and a shiny new office. I blogged about that too. There was some hope and optimism in it, but in my heart I didn’t actually feel it. When I moved into that big new office, it put me in mind of what I used to do at Fish and Game, and those feelings grounded me, a little. However, by the end of November last year, I had left that job and gone back to the old one.

In looking back at those posts, it feels so far away it may as well have been someone else’s life. In hindsight, leaving that job was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but so was taking it.

When I left Fish and Game, I had loads of reasons, I wanted more advancement opportunities, a more stable position, a place where I could get back to programming, and all sorts of other stuff. A lot of that really ended up being true, except for the position stability – turns out that doesn’t really exist for my generation. In any case, by going out to experience a completely new environment where being the new guy meant nobody had time for me was a tremendous growing experience. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, I did get along with folks well enough, and I did get help, when I asked, but a lot of times, especially when it came to the biggest most important parts of the job, it wound around to things like “I don’t know” and “I hope this project fails” or “This project is going to fail”.

I could easily rant all day about the things that made me feel bad or worked against me, or made the job intolerable, but nobody wants to hear that. What I can tell you is that not quite one year on, and I’m back where I started and I feel positive in ways I haven’t since I first started at Fish and Game back in 2004. A lot of that attitude adjustment has to do with the negative experience I had at the other place. I think it just goes to show that sometimes we all need to step back from our current problem or situation and look elsewhere for perspective. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think, or maybe turning your back is the right thing. In any case, it was a good experience for me, even if I really look back on it with a negative attitude.