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.