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.



Writer’s improvement hell – Tools #3 (Backups and document sharing)

I should be working on Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, or blogging about the development of that project – which I think is a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve tried yet. Possibly, I should be blogging about the fact that I just left a workplace that I happen to like a lot for a new adventure (this was emotional for me and has rather consumed me for a few days now).

Instead, I’m going to muse on backups and document sharing. This rant will be a lot shorter than the other two in the set. If you’ve read tools #1 and tools #2, you’ll know my writing setup consists of an Ubuntu Linux laptop and a MacMini desktop that I rarely get to use because reasons. I’m mostly using LibreOffice and Scrivener. A big mash-up right? How can I possibly keep all that straight, and more importantly how am I going to move documents back and forth – e-mail?

Another question that filters in here is how to I keep my work safe? What if my computer is stolen, or thrown into the duck pond? OR the geese eat it!

There are options – to deal with both of these concerns, actually. Most of which aren’t ideal with Linux.

The two categories are the cloud, and something else.

The cloud options consist of things like dropbox. If you’re like me, you think that the cloud is just another way for very large corporations to suck money out of you without providing you something you couldn’t have done just as well on your own. That said, there is some comfort in knowing that if your house burns down tomorrow, all of your writing work will be spared. If not going with a cloud option, for backups and what-not, there are a couple of choices.

The first choice in home-backups would be thumb-drives. In fact, this was my primary backup system for some time. They’re easy, portable, and cheap. However, they’re also not the most stable medium in the world. If you don’t spend enough money on one, you are looking at a potentially high failure rate. Imagine that your thumb-drive containing all of your work fails. Well, that would truly stink. There’s nothing more irritating than a failed thumb-drive. Imagine if your thumb-drive is bad AND your hard-drive fails, or worse, you’ve forgotten to backup your work in a few weeks and your computer spontaneously bursts into flames. It’s pretty unlikely so I expect this is a pretty good choice for backups. After all, they’re back ups, not primary storage. However, for me, that’s only half the story. What if I want access to my stuff from multiple places and I don’t want to have to try and work out version control on a thumb drive?

Next possible option is to get one of those fancy routers with a USB port that you can plug a portable hard drive into. This would kill 2 birds. I get portability AND a certain amount of backup, excepting for a couple of issues. The first is that I’ve got to fight Linux to make it work. Fortunately, I’m a reasonably smart guy and can probably make it work, plus Ubuntu has a fairly robust community. Problem solved right? No. Now I don’t have remote access to my files, and the portable hard drive connected to my router is the primary storage for my files, meaning that I still don’t have a back-up. This still leaves thumb-drives, which I’m ALWAYS forgetting to use anyhow.

Alright, let’s consider ‘cloud’ solutions. To be clear I do not like the ‘cloud’ it’s a word that IT managers use when they’re too stupid to implement their own, more effective and cheaper solutions. Don’t argue with me on this one, it’s a position I won’t budget from unless clear evidence can be produced to the contrary. HOWEVER, for certain applications, it has an appeal. First off, let’s discuss problems. One being security. How do I know that if I dump my files on to some cloud service that they’ll be secure? In general, you can’t. This is the reason I won’t use Dropbox. Another problem? Cost. Many of these services have monthly fees associated with them. Yet another is constant network access. So why consider it then? Because there are a few services out there that have encryption so intense that if you lose your password, don’t expect to ever see your files again (something I generally approve of), second, if you set it up right, you won’t need remote access, you’ll have copies on your local computer. The remote cloud stuff is just a backup. So, we just achieved two benefits. This is good. As for cost? Well, there are services that will back-up a certain amount for free, and for someone like me, the free amount is enough.

So, in spite of my deep-seated prejudices against ‘the cloud’, I’ve found a cloud-based service that works just fine. To date, I haven’t experienced any problems with it. Is this the best solution? Probably not. The best might be to develop my own back-up service that goes to a locally hosted RAID array. Yes I could do this, but it would cost a lot and take a lot of time. As a result, I’m sticking with my setup for now. Am I going to recommend what you should use? That would be an emphatic no. You have to do what makes you comfortable and works for you. Same as all of the other tools.


photo credit: IMG_0561 via photopin (license)