Desktop Computers

Desktops

From MissionTechWiki

Contents

Before You Start Shopping for a Computer

How do I know when it's time to replace my computer?

Computers are expensive, and it’s natural to want to want to use one for as long as possible, before replacing it. However, there comes a time when a computer has aged enough that it becomes less capable to do what you need it to do. Eventually, the master-servant relationship can become unbalanced, with the result being that you are serving your computer, rather than the other way around.

Some signs that indicate that you are reaching the end of your computer’s useful lifespan, and that you may be served better with a new machine:

  • The machine is more than three years old
  • The machine seems to run more slowly than it used to, and you find you are spending more time waiting for it to run.
  • You want to add support for new hardware (such as wireless Internet connections, more memory, a writeable CD or DVD drive, etc.)
  • The machine has become unstable, and crashes or freezes frequently
  • A major component (such as the hard drive, or the display screen) fails, or has become unreliable
  • Plastic parts begin to break
  • The machine won’t run a new application (or the newest release of an application) without having to upgrade hardware.

Individually, none of these reasons is necessarily a compelling reason to replace your machine, and there may be ways of working around limitations. In particular, a slow machine may improve some with a system tune-up (by removal or disabling of unused software), and an unstable machine may improve significantly by having hard disk reformatted, and having Windows and your applications reinstalled. However, there will come a point where the cost in time, effort, repair costs, and lost production time (even for a machine that doesn’t have other faults) will be high enough that you will be better served by a new computer, rather than trying to keep an older computer running.

What are you going to use your computer to do?

Before you start shopping, it is useful to consider what you’re going to do with your computer. It can be easy to think, “I’m just doing a little bit of email, word processing and web-browsing.” Thus, it’s often easy under-buy, purchasing a machine that’s not adequate for you’re your immediate needs, or that doesn’t have enough room for growth, either in handling updated versions of software (which are often essential), or handling new applications.

There are a number of common applications that field missionaries often use. Some of these applications may require more computing capacity than is included in a “basic” consumer-grade, entry-level machine, especially if you plan to use several of them. (The features noted in parentheses are ones that often must be upgraded over a basic configuration in order for specific applications to work well.)

  • Personal finance
  • Desktop publishing (graphics, processor speed, memory, disk capacity)
  • Store and edit photos (disk capacity, memory, chip reader)
  • Listen to music (sound, disk capacity)
  • Edit video (graphics, processor speed, disk capacity, memory, FireWire)
  • Home schooling (graphics, sound)
  • Multilingual work, including Bible translation (graphics, multilingual keyboard)
  • Group/collaboration work (e.g., Groove) (processor speed, memory)
  • Play games (graphics, processor speed, memory, sound)
  • Watch movies (display, sound)

Further questions to consider:

  • How much do you travel? A low-end entry-level laptop computer is not designed to travel frequently, despite the apparent portability of its design. If you travel frequently, a smaller-form (and lighter) ultra-portable or subnotebook may suit you better than a full-sized desktop deplacement or mainstream machine. If you do most of your work at home or in your office, a desktop machine might serve you better than a laptop. (However, by design, a desktop machine isn’t portable, so getting help at a conference is usually not possible.)
  • How reliable is your electricity? If you often have power outages, then you should invest in an interruptible power supply.
  • Where do you work? If your environment includes high levels of heat, humidity or dust, then you may want to consider a ruggedized computer. You may also need to plan for more-frequent replacements of your computer.

General Suggestions

Choose a business-grade machine

A consumer-grade machine is often designed for a true home user -- somebody who does a little bit of word-processing, email, web browsing, personal finance, and maybe a bit of entertainment (especially digital photos and music), including use of small "all-in-one" suite packages, such as Microsoft Works. The way a typical missionary uses a machine does not fit many of the assumptions that manufacturers and software writers assume the machine is going to be used. Although a missionary may never work in a traditional office, or connect the computer to a Local Area Network, a the way that a computer that's used to support ministry work is far more consistent with the design assumptions that are made for a business-grade machine.

Thus, avoid consumer-grade machines. Although a business-grade machine will cost more than a consumer-grade machine, the long-term benefit is often worth the extra cost. Business-grade machines are generally built better, and frequently have better technical support. Consumer-grade machines use the cheapest possible parts, and are more likely to need repair work. They may also include a lot of unnecessary software (including promotional and demonstration applications) that can be difficult to remove, and get in your way.

  • Business grade: HP/Compaq, Toshiba Tecra and Portege, all IBM models (except the cheapest R-series models), Dell Latitude, Apple MacBook Pro.
  • Consumer grade: HP Pavilion, Compaq Presario, Toshiba Satellite and Satellite Pro, Dell Inspiron, Apple MacBook.

In the US, the base "street price" for business grade machines tends to start at around $800, and it's generally a good idea to be prepared to spend at least $1000 for the machine, before add-on hardware, software and extended warranty.

PC Magazine's review of what you get (and don't get) with the lowest-end laptop machines: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1895,2024586,00.asp

Can I Buy a Mac?

The short answer is yes, although as with any brand or type of computer, prospective buyers should give priority to letting three key considerations determine the hardware they purchase: (1) expected and potential software tasks to be performed, (2) desired type of user support, and (3) desired type of user experience. Most all of the traditional reasons to avoid a Mac are no longer relevant, and the discussion offered here is an attempt to clarify the issues in a practical way.

Apple’s MacBook Pro won “Best Laptop” in the InfoWorld 2007 Technology of the Year Awards. Consumers who don’t need all of what the MacBook Pro offers will find the MacBook laptop to be a very reliable tool. See "MacBook Pro vs. MacBook Value Revisited."

As of this writing in 2007, several hardware and software factors are converging which make this year look to be a special milestone for Macintosh systems. In addition to the Mac’s famed “user friendly interface” and best-of-class software, 2007 appears to be the year when Mac hardware might truly cross the line to being a user friendly multi-operating system machine. In practical terms, this means that the average user will be able to run Microsoft Windows applications on his Mac at native PC speeds right along side his OS X applications. (To what degree this will be true of high-end games remains to be seen.)

The basic pieces for this were all in place in 2006, but tweaks were needed to work out the kinks, and that process is making fast progress. Apple’s own BootCamp will be integrated into OS X 10.5, scheduled for release in Octorber 2007 (based on Apple's statement of April 12, 2007), a new version (2.5) of Parallels Desktop for Mac was released in February 2007, and VMware Fusion of PC world enterprise fame is getting ready to enter the OS X market. See relevant articles at <http://www.macworld.com/2007/04/features/windows_intro/index2.php>, <http://www.macnightowl.com/2007/02/27/parallels-desktop-reaches-another-milestone/>, also "Virtual realities: all the world on a Mac" is online at: <http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9011577&source=rss_news10>, and also at <http://www.macworld.com/news/2007/02/21/vmwarevsparallels/index.php?lsrc=mwrss>.

In February 2007, Microsoft said it would not allow the inexpensive Home versions of the recently released Windows Vista to run in virtualization environments (e.g. Parallels), although it will allow the more expensive Business and Ultimate versions to be used for this purpose. Ironically, Microsoft was quoted as saying this is a security issue for end users. This may be a mute point for MissionTechWiki readers who are part of organizations that have access to steeply discounted prices on MS Windows, or others who would prefer to boot up their Mac in Windows using Apple's BootCamp for a lengthy work session using Windows software. Others will think twice as to just how important Windows software is to them and how willing they are to pay Microsoft's exspensive entry and upgrade fees. For some people, having an older version of Windows such as XP or 2000 may even be desirable if special in-house software will not run under Vista; we know of at least one mission for which this is currently true.

In June 2007, new MacBook Pro laptops were released with LED-backlit screens that helps to extend run time on a single battery charge. Both the MacBook Pro line and the lower end MacBook line were also recently refreshed with faster Intel Core 2 Duo processors. The annual Apple worldwide Developer's Conference starts June 11, 2007, and will likely include more announcements of new products.

One of the misleading pieces of old data that keeps coming up is the cost of Macs versus PCs. Comparing a cut-rate PC to a higher quality machine--either Mac or PC--is only a worthwhile comparison if initial purchase price is overwhelmingly more important than anything else. In missions this is rarely true since missionaries often go places where there is no repair service or where it's important to have a computer that can stand up to power fluctuations. Better quality components generally cost more money. True cost of ownership is affected by the variables in long-term costs. More and more people are finding that an out-of-the-box Mac package gives more per dollar than equivalent PCs, and that in the long run higher quality hardware and software makes Macs less expensive than many PCs. The benefits of low cost are also sometimes mitigated by a superior user experience which empowers users to do more, thereby enabling some Mac users (such as this writer) to do tasks they previously could not imagine themselves doing.

In 2006, Apple transitioned its entire current hardware line <http://www.apple.com/hardware/> from IBM-Motorola PowerPC processors to Intel processors <http://www.apple.com/intel/>. Infoworld <http://www.infoworld.com/article/07/01/01/01FEtoysb4_1.html> says "Apple’s software library is completely ported to Intel, along with a solid 98 percent of third-party commercial software." Apple's "Made for Mac" website at <http://guide.apple.com/> identifies which third-party Mac software runs natively on Intel Macs; Apple's own software tools are listed at <http://www.apple.com/software/>.

Now that Adobe Creative Suite is "MacIntel"-native (as of April 2007), Microsoft Office is the only popular tool set for which a new Intel-native version is lacking, but is expected in the second quarter of 2007. Until then, a behind-the-scenes software utility called Rosetta transparently enables Intel Macs to run the older PowerPC version of MS Office. In spring 2007, Sun Microsystems began developing a native Mac version of OpenOffice which is Sun's alternative to MS Office.

As of December 2006, some Mac vendors were still selling left-over PowerPC Macs. Prospective Mac buyers are strongly encouraged to go with the newer Intel-based Macs rather than trying to save money by purchasing a PowerPC-based unit. PowerPC-only Macs not only have very little future, but their performance is less than optimal on the newer Intel machines that are capable of dramatically increased speeds and battery power efficiency.

There are positive reasons to buy a Mac, many of which can be found by using Google or other search engines to look for "reasons to buy a Mac"; Apple's entertaining web site also clarifies some issues in a humorous manner. Apart from the hyped aesthetics of Macs or other emotive factors, a few of the most significant reasons are:

  • Mac hardware is traditionally well built (Mac desktops currently have the top reliability rating at ConsumerReports.org), and will tend to need less repair and may last longer than a Windows machine.
  • Apple Computer has a good tradition of technical support, and many users find that they need less tech support with Macs than with other machines. Thus people working in an environment where there is no local support of any kind are generally better off with a Mac. Since Mac users tend to expect and demand a relatively high degree of support, many of the companies that produce third party software also tend to provide good tech support. Macs are machines, not miracles, so some sort of tech support should be expected at some point.
  • Apple's Mac OS X operating system, a Unix-based system with a long history of development, is very stable.
  • Overall system security is very good, and Apple has stayed on top of producing fixes for potential threats to the current OS X operating system. Of course no computer can be expected to be 100% invulnerable. Nevertheless, Macs are generally not attacked by the plethora of viruses and other types of malware that target Windows machines. The actual numbers of malware for Macs and Windows, and the varying degrees of potential versus real vulnerability, are the subjects of endless debates; however it appears to be safe to say there are currently less than 600 malware for Macs (500+ macro viruses that affect all Microsoft Office products for Windows or Macintosh, plus less than 100 actual Mac viruses, most (all?) of which affect the old, pre-OS X, "classic Mac" operating system), versus 100,000+ malware for Windows.
  • Mac hardware and Apple software are particularly well suited for multi-media applications, such as desktop publishing, photo processing and video editing, and this is the defining reason that many people use Macs. Apple's own Mac-only software options for photo, audio and video are of exceptional quality, and serve the entire range of users from novice to professional. Apple’s iLife (a suite of media tools included with every Mac) and iWork packages, and increasingly more of Apples’ professional tool suites, offer an amazing level of inter-application integration and convenience. Apple’s Keynote presentation software is one of this author’s favorite applications. (Why would I use Powerpoint when I can use Keynote?)
  • If others on your team are Mac users, having a Mac may facilitate peer-to-peer support and document exchange.
  • Mission Tech wiki readers may be interested in the extensive Bible software for Macintosh that is available from Accordance. Some PC users have been known to purchase Macs or to use Mac operating system emulators just to be able to use this software. Logos is projecting availability of its Bible software for the Mac in the first quarter of 2007; see MacBibleSoftware.com for news and links.)
  • Mac users in the USA and a few others major cities will say one of the reasons they bought a Mac is because of Apple's excellent retail stores which offer classes and high grade user support. See "Shop Retail" at Apple.com.

There are also some potential trade-offs to owning a Mac that may affect some users, while other users will see these as irrelevant:

  • Local repair may not be available in many countries for Mac hardware or software. (Only 28 countries are listed on Apple's web site.) Factory authorized repairs may require being shipped out of country. Of course this is frequently also the case for some popular brands of PCs even in countries where those brands have manufacturer-recognized vendors.
  • Although Apple often uses premium hardware, the down side of this is that this may sometimes result in a higher initial purchase cost for a Mac than for a PC. However, when Mac and PCs are equally configured, PCs have sometimes been known to cost more than Macs. Specific configurations have to be compared, but can also be hard to evaluate, e.g. comparing the quality of a power supply, hard disk, or RAM. The low price of some hardware may in some cases be offset in the long run by a higher maintenance and repair cost.
  • Gaming software has not been a strength of the Mac, although there is evidence (i.e. that Apple computer has reportedly been hiring gaming programmers) that this could change in 2007 or 2008; meanwhile, if high end gaming is important to you, you should currently stick with a PC.
  • More low cost software is available for PCs than for Macs, but users need to determine whether what is available is what they need or want for their particular use. Generally speaking, long-term benefits of wisely chosen, well made and well supported software (and hardware) outweigh initial savings.
  • Although widely used Windows applications (such as Microsoft Office) are available for the Mac, Mac versions are often released later than Windows versions, although in other cases the reverse tends to be true. Some users who want to avoid the problems that frequently accompany major version releases may consider the late availability of Mac software to be a benefit.
  • If you're in a place where you're not around other Mac users, getting user-to-user help or local tech support that is knowledgeable of Mac hardware or software may be difficult. On the other hand, many individuals and organizations that use Macs discover they need less tech support than when they were using PCs, and in today's world of connectedness peer level help and tech support are often just a click or phone call away. In some developing countries, Macs are used primarily by professionals in the local graphics and video industry, and local Mac vendors and tech support may be known more by word-of-mouth than by advertisements or Yellow Pages listings; prospective Mac buyers can find out where local graphics and video pros get their Macs and tech support. (It has also been seen in these situations that vendors may adjust their prices to the professional market where the cost of a computer and software can be paid for in a single job, so consumers need to take this into account.)
  • Some applications that are less widely used don't have Mac versions, which would imply a learning curve for some Windows users to learn new tools. However, there are also notable Mac applications with no Windows versions, and the Mac owners who use them sometimes say that is why they purchased a Mac in the first place. Apple Keynote and Accordance Bible software are two examples in this writer’s opinion. Video software is another reason amateurs and pros are turning to Macs.
  • Users needing to run Windows-only software can do so on a Mac, but have to purchase a Windows emulator and Windows OS. (This is particularly significant for gamers and those using software that makes high demands on the central processor.) As of Dec. 2006, Parallels Desktop for Mac has taken over the Windows-on-Mac emulation market and is under very active development; see AppleMatters.com for a critique of Parallels Desktop and features being tested for the next version. See also Infoworld's comments. A less convenient solution for Intel Macs is Apple's "Boot Camp" which comes with all new Macs to enable them to start up in either Mac OS X or in Windows; note however that having Windows software is required (of course). Boot Camp isn't officially supported in OS X 10.4 ("Tiger"), but will be in OS X 10.5 ("Leopard") by mid-2007. For further info about Windows-on-Mac strategies, see MacWorld.com, CodeWeavers.com and MacWindows.com and the many links at these sites. For running Windows on old Macs, Microsoft's VirtualPC may work, but is not available for current Macs. Some vendors have recently been selling Parallels very inexpensively as part of package deals with the purchase of a Mac.
  • Although the Mac user interface is famous for its ease of use, it's different enough from the Windows user interface that there is a learning curve for those with well established Windows user habits. This writer found that moving from PC to Mac was easy; others are all over the range of experiences.

The portals MacSurfer.com and MacOnlySource.com are excellent sources of information about Macs. You can find information about the use of Macs in ministry through the Christian Macintosh Users Group.

Apple's own web site also has a lot of helpful information.

For a helpful report on up-coming Intel brand chips that may affect Apple laptops (and desktops) in 2007 and 2008, see the March 7, 2007 eWeek article at <http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,2101695,00.asp>.

Much of the Mac vendor market has a history of being very Web-centric, although Apple's new retail store chain with classes and expert help have added to the very positive total user experience; vendors can be found by visiting Apple.com/by/ and wheretobuy.apple.com.

Determine which variety of desktop you need

  • Multimedia machines are optimized to support entertainment. These machines run the Media Center version of Windows XP, and often include wide-screen displays that are good for watching movies
  • Games machines are the highest of the high-performance machines. They include the fastest processors, the best graphics and sound, and the most memory.

Be realistic about expected lifespan

Why is it necessary to replace a computer so often? Software demand and wear on moving parts are primary reasons. Software is continually being improved. Newer software tends to make more demands on a machine, especially for processor and memory capacity. Using an older machine will impose limitations on the software you can use, whether it is upgrading to newer versions of software you're already using, or installing new applications on your machine.

In addition, older machines begin to break down from wear on moving parts. Screen hinges are the most common points of wear, especially on machines that travel more than occasionally. Bearings in hard drives and cooling fans are also a common problem. In arid places, plastic parts can have problems when they dry out and become brittle. Excessive heat, humidity or dust will put extra stress on a machine (and shorten its overall expected lifespan). Consumer-grade machines will also usually wear out more quickly than business-grade machines.

Components to Consider

When buying a computer, it's easy to under-buy, getting the cheapest possible machine, but one that is lacking in the ability to support what you're doing, quality of equipment and service or inadequate to handle future growth, and may have a too-short overall lifespan, that needs replacement too soon. It's also possible to over-buy, purchasing a machine with ability that will never be needed.

Below are some suggestions of how to figure out how much is enough, without getting too much.

[ Note: comments included here are personal opinion. Other contributors are welcome to disagree, and invited to add contrasting opinions. gp]

Main Memory (RAM)

The amount of available memory often has the most effect on a machine's performance (even more so than processor speed). Consider 512 MB of RAM to be the minimum for a Windows XP machine. Having more RAM is preferred, and if you want to use a machine for more than three years, 1 GB of RAM isn't too much. It's also easier to get memory pre-installed than to upgrade later. Remember, the next version of Windows, (called "Vista") is scheduled for release in early 2007, and it will require more memory (512 MB minimum, 1GB recommended).

If you want to use your Windows XP computer for more than the "bare minimum" style of usage (office-type applications, email and web browsing), consider at least 1GB of RAM. Applications like audio and video editing, photo editing and presentations etc require a lot of memory. Generally, spending any extra money on more RAM instead of a faster processor is a better choice. And the faster RAM styles (eg DDR2-667 over 533) is worth it if you need performance.

Processor

Intel Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon processors are both good choices. Intel's latest product line is called "Intel Core", a successor to the Pentium series. AMD processors are usually less expensive than comparable Intel processors, and they have begun to appear more in the last year or so.

Intel Pentium-M processors are optimized for mobile use, including lower power consumption (which makes battery life longer) but are more expensive than standard Pentium 4 processors. Machines that include Intel's Centrino technology are optimized for mobile use, and they include on-board support for wireless connections. Centrino-equipped machines will have longer battery life - sometimes, as much as 8 hours between charges. Intel's latest processors are the Intel Core Solo (single processor) and Core Duo (dual processor). AMD's Athlon processors compare well with Intel Core processors (although there is not yet an AMD dual-processor yet available). In the same way, the Intel Turon line compares well with the Pentium-M.

Via Technologies' chips are extremely low-power. They aren't quite as fast as AMD or Intel chips, but the low power draw promises reduced power bills. Unfortunately, most manufacturers, even those who use Via chips, don't make it easy to select models according to the CPU.gjs

Avoid machines equipped with either the Intel Celeron or the AMD Duron lines. The Sempron processor is AMD's entry-level processor (and is acceptable); it has virtually all the processing capacity of a full Pentium-4, but with prices similar to a Celeron.

Generally, processor speed isn't especially important. Buy one of the processors with slower clock speeds, and use the extra money on other things, especially memory or dual-core processor.

There are two new trends in processors: 64-bit processors and dual-core processors. Both add computing capacity to the processor; dual-core processing also makes a computer more crash-proof. For now, most users should avoid 64-bit processing due to the extra complexity of device drivers and such, unless you run high-performance, processor-intensive applications, such as large, complex spreadsheets with lots of floating-point calculations, desktop publishing, video editing or games.

  • Dual-core processors bundle two processors into a single processor chip. Many of the new laptops, as well as Apple machines with Intel processors have Intel Core Duo (which is Intel's dual-core chip.) Dual-core processors are less prone to lockup because even if a device causes one processor to temporarily "hang", the other one will still be available. They are also a help for users who use more than one program at the same time, and frequently have many open windows. Dual-core is a very inexpensive option, typically cheaper than extra RAM or faster clock speed.
  • 64-bit processors extend the amount of data that can be processed at once. Taking advantage of a 64-bit processor requires software that is written for 64-bit processors. At the same time, 64-bit processors can also run standard 32-bit software. Most AMD processors are already 64-bit. However, the value of 64-bit processors is minimal if the software (especially the operating system) running them is only 32-bit software.

As a general thing, there's nothing wrong with having either a 64-bit or dual-core processor, but at this update (May 2007), there's still little enough that can make use of 64-bit processing to make it worth the extra money or hassle. Dual-core on the other hand is almost always worth the small additional cost.

Disk drive

If you're going to work only with business-type (that is, text-based) applications, 20 GB will provide you with plenty of storage space. However, if you are doing multi-media (photographs, music, etc) that will consume a lot of space quickly, 80 GB (or more) may be useful. Video editing consumes more space, and for that, it's often necessary to invest in an external hard drive. (A minimum of 40 GB has been recommended for Windows Vista.)

You should also try to make sure that the disk drive has a speed of at least 5400 RPM. 7200 RPM drives are becoming common, and are noticeably faster; however, a faster drive may be a little more expensive, and consumes more power (which can increase battery usage). Ultra-portable machines may have drives with only 4800 RPM.

CD/DVD

Make sure you purchase a machine that can write CDs, and it's also good to have a read-only DVD drive. A combination CD-RW/DVD drive is a good option, although the CD reader in a combination drive will be slower (often 24x) than a stand-alone CD drive (usually 48x or 52x). A writable DVD drive is a often a practical low-cost solution for backups (always recommended); of course they are also useful for video work.

Video Memory

Video memory is the memory that's used as a part of the display. If the machine has separate video memory, then main system memory doesn't have to be used for this task, and the result is a faster machine. If a machine has less than 512 MB of RAM, having at least 32 MB of separate video memory is a good thing, especially if you do work that makes a lot of video demand. Games are the heaviest user of video memory, but if you use higher video resolution settings, or you have many windows open (and frequently move from window to window), separate video memory will cause a noticeable performance improvement. The new user interface for Windows Vista will also require separate video memory.

Wireless

Wireless networking is becoming common enough that it's generally something you want, especially if you travel frequently. A computer with Centrino technology will include wireless support. Built-in wireless capacity will typically add about $400 (USD) to the cost of the machine. Using a PC Card for wireless connections is considerably less expensive. For wireless security, make sure that the technology is capable of WPA (and preferably WPA2) encryption. (The older WEP standard is inadequate.) WPA is normally supported on equipment that has the 802.11g standard. Don't bother with the newer 802.11n standard, at least not yet. As of September 2006, 802.11n hasn't yet been finalized as a standard, and 802.11n equipment that is being sold will have to be updated once the standard is finalized.

Accessories

Floppy drive

Now that USB memory devices (often called "memory sticks", "thumb drives", "jump drives", and such) are common, floppy drives are rarely necessary. Get a floppy drive only if you have other computers with which you need to exchange files that won't accept a USB drive.

Monitor

If you buy a traditional glass-tube (CRT) monitor, get at least a 17-inch display. A 15-inch display doesn't allow high enough video resolution. If you buy a LCD flat-panel display, a 15-inch display will provide the same output as a 17-inch CRT.[edit]

Audio: speakers, headphones and microphones

As with video, modem, and Ethernet networking, sound is commonly integrated with a computer's motherboard, but it's often quite basic. If you frequently listen to music or play video games, you'll want to upgrade your sound card (the Creative Media SoundBlaster is traditionally a good choice), and good speakers can make a significant difference in sound quality.

If you anticipate using Skype or other Voice over IP (VoIP) Internet telephone service, you will also need a microphone. Some monitors have microphones built in, but sound quality is bad. The best solution for VoIP usage is a headset that includes a microphone. Altec Lansing headsets have good quality, and are inexpensive.

Multifunction card reader

A multifunction card reader (5-in-1, 8-in-1 or 9-in-1, etc.) that can be plugged is nice if you're using a digital camera or video recorder, although it's not essential to have bundled with the computer, unless your camera doesn't support USB connections.

FireWire

FireWire is a competing technology to USB. It's faster than USB, and if you're doing video editing, it's significantly faster to move data from a camcorder over a FireWire connection than with USB. Most Sony machines include a FireWire port. FireWire is also the preferred technology on Macintosh machines.

Anti-virus and security software

Many machines come with bundled anti-virus software, either by itself, or as a part of a larger security suite (either free, or an inexpensive add-on option), especially Norton and McAfee. In some cases, the value of these is questionable, especially the full suites.

Norton and McAfee are adequate virus scanners, although Norton can put a noticeable drag on overall system performance. Additionally, renewal of Norton subscriptions can be difficult from some countries, because of potential credit card fraud issues. Additionally, Symantec provides support for Norton for only three years (including subscriptions for signature updates). Thus, if you have the 2004 edition of Norton Anti-Virus, and have renewed your subscription in 2005 and 2006, Symantec won't let you renew again for 2007 -- they make you buy a new copy. If you put a new version of NAV on an older computer, the performance hit is much more noticeable. Thus, if you intend to get more than three years out of your machine, it may be better to not use Norton at all, or be prepared to replace Norton with something else when Norton stops renewing your subscriptions, and you have to get a new virus scanner, anyway.

All-in-one security suites (especially Norton and McAfee) are probably better to avoid. Expertise by a vendor in one security area (such as virus-scanning) doesn't necessarily translate to expertise in another (firewall, spyware scanning, spam-filtering, etc.) and many of the suites are collections of products with varying effectiveness or ease of use. Norton's firewall has a reputation of adding additional performance lag on a system.

As a general thing, it's better to use stand-alone tools for each individual function, rather than an all-in-one security suite. Besides being preinstalled on a computer, the primary attraction of a suite tends to be a single, unified user interface. However, the result is often that there are individual components that are inadequate for your needs. For Norton and McAfee, the bundling of tools in their security suites are mostly a marketing thing, designed to increase sales (and renewal subscriptions) for their anti-virus products.

  • Anti-virus: Which anti-virus scanner you use is often less important than making sure that you keep the signatures updated. Norton and McAfee are the most widely known (and most often pre-installed on new machines), but a number of other acceptable ones are out there: F-Prot, AVG, NOD32, Trend Micro's PC-Cillin, Kaspersky, H+Bedv, Avast, Norman and others. NOD32 has a reputation of being very fast. AVG and Avast both have free versions that are available for personal use (limited to one computer per household).
  • Firewall: The firewall provided by Microsoft with Windows XP Service Pack 2 protects only inbound traffic (and ignores outbound traffic), and as such, is of value only until you can connect to the Internet and download and install a firewall with two-way protection. The free versions of ZoneAlarm and Outpost are quite good. Zone Alarm is easier to set up than Outpost. The Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall is also adequate, and nearly as easy to use as ZoneAlarm. The paid versions of both have more functionality. It should be noted that there are beginning to be weaknesses in freeware firewalls that may never be fixed, and we may soon see the end of the era when free tools will be adequate.
  • Spyware scanners: There are several good tools that are free, several that are paid software, and a lot of malicious software masquerading as legitimate anti-spyware tools. Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy are good, free tools that identify and remove installed spyware. It's good to use more than one spyware scanner, as each has its own methodology, and both Ad-Aware and Spybot will find things that the other misses. Spyware Blaster is also free, and helps a machine prevent spyware from installing.

Another approach to spyware scanning is a tool called Hitman Pro. Hitman is a collection of some number of anti-spyware packages -- some are free (including AdAware, Spybot and Spyware Blaster), and others are demos of paid software. If you suspect you have spyware on your machine, Hitman is a good way of getting the most thorough scanning possible. The one thing to be aware of is that some of the packages in Hitman have varying aggressiveness, and some may turn up false-positives of legitimate files.

For further information about what anti-spyware packages are available, as well as lists of rogue anti-spyware packages, see http://spywarewarrior.com/asw-features.htm.

Additional Buying Considerations

Windows XP Home or Pro?

The primary limitation of XP Home is with networking; generally, you can't connect XP Home into a corporate Local Area Network. Additionally, XP Home will "see" only five computers in a small peer-to-peer LAN.

Other limitations of XP Home:

  • No inclusion of backup and Automated System Recovery tools
  • No support for Encrypted File System - even with full-disk encryption software, EFS is useful for encrypting individual files and directories on machines that have multiple user IDs.
  • Less support for multilingual work

Ultimately, XP Home is designed for a true home user, one who does light-grade email and word-processing, web-browsing, personal finance, entertainment, and other recreational use, etc. Many missionaries don't fit the assumptions that Microsoft (or computer builders) makes of how a machine with XP Home is being used. A further consideration with XP Home is that when Microsoft releases Windows Vista (in early 2007), they will begin scaling back support for Windows XP, and support for XP Home will not be available for as long as for XP Pro.

Although you may never need the extra features of XP Pro, it's better to buy XP Pro and have the features, than to buy XP Home and not have them if you ever need them.

Get a Windows installation CD

Many of the big vendors may try to save a few cents in production costs by not including an installation CD. Instead, they put all their recovery software on the hard disk. Some vendors (especially IBM) put recovery information in a place on a hard drive where it can easily be copied to CD. Others may rely exclusively on putting all the necessary data in a portion of your hard disk called a "recovery partition," where it's not easy to copy onto CD. Compaq machines have a long history of recovery partitions (which may be difficult to use, or conflict with the disk encryption software.) A further description of this issue can be found at DataDoctors.com.

An installation CD is essential for rebuilding a machine from a reformatted hard disk. Additionally, a few Windows features aren't normally included in a normal installation, unless you install them yourself from a Windows installation CD. If a hard disk crashes and has to be reformatted and rebuilt, a "recovery partition" is useless. Sometimes, installation CDs are available, but the vendor won't tell you about them unless you ask for one. If the machine you're considering has no installation CD, and no way of creating it easily, consider that a "deal breaker", and choose another computer.

Repair and Service

If you are considering buying your computer in a country that is different from the country in which you work, check the availability of the vendor's repair network in your country, including warranty support for computers purchased in a different country. Toshiba's repair network traditionally is widest. First-line vendors (Dell, HP/Compaq, and IBM) are usually best, but coverage can vary by country.

Remember also that the first point contact of tech support for Windows comes not from Microsoft, but the company (or person) that built the machine (thus, if you have a Dell computer, if you need tech support for Windows, you need to contact Dell, and not Microsoft).

Warranty

Just about all workers need to think about warranty issues. For workers on the move, or buying equipment and working in another, International warranty is essential, but not always available. If you follow the advice for a business-class laptop, it's also more likely that you can take advantage of an international warranty. Some vendors (Dell, etc) allow you to transfer the "home base" of your warranty from nation to nation.

For workers based in a particular country/region, if possible check with the vendor or on their website to see if local service is available. Otherwise, local knowledge is invaluable in determining what brands are supported in country. If local service is not available, the user may be without the laptop for weeks at a time while it is sent elsewhere for repair. We have heard of people sending broken machines back home with colleagues to be fixed. This may become essential if International warranty isn't purchased.

A general rule of thumb is to purchase the longest warranty for the laptop that is affordable, including "all risks" coverage. If your laptop is an essential part of your work, and onsite coverage is available where you work, seriously consider paying the small additional fee for overnight onsite repair. It will save weeks of frustration when a repair is needed. Laptops are notoriously expensive to repair. And they will break. You may find yourself paying several hundred dollars for such coverage, but it is often well worth it. A single repair can easily cost US$500 to US$1000.

Many manufacturers require a machine to be covered under warranty in order for you to have access to phone-based tech support. Others will provide support for out-of-warranty machines, but only under a pay-per-incident or pay-per-call basis. Typically, half of all computers need support attention from the manufacturer or the dealer in the first 3 years after purchase, and the likelihood of needing attention will increase once the computer gets into its fourth and fifth years. If the manufacturer doesn't provide at least three years of warranty (even for an extra charge), then the machine isn't worth buying. If you keep a machine longer than the initial (three or four year) warranty period, it's worth renewing support as long as possible, as the chances that you'll need help will increase significantly.

Avoid paying extra for services only valid in the country of original purchase, such as warranty extensions provided by the retail vendor (rather than the manufacturer).

On-site service is often only valid in the country of purchase, but check on this. Dell for example allows for transfer of complete warranty coverage to many nations worldwide.

Ergonomics and noise

It's good to get a sense of how comfortable you are with a particular machine, before committing to it. Designs have less variety than they used to, but something that's in an awkward location can be a problem. For some, things such as the feel of a keyboard (very soft or firm press of keys), the type of pointing device, or the location of something such as the CD bay can be significant. For some people, these kinds of things may be important; for others, they may be irrelevant. However, if a machine is uncomfortable to use, you will be a lot less satisfied with it, regardless of what technology is included in it.

Fan noise may be a consideration, especially with desktop machines. If possible, listen to the model you plan to buy in a quiet setting, not in a noisy shop.

Windows Vista

The latest release of Windows, called "Vista", was released to consumers in 2007. Vista has a major redesign of the user interface, and machines require more memory and video capacity than are typically configured on machines with Windows XP. To run Vista, machines require a minimum of 512 MB of RAM (1 GB is recommended for optimum performance), and a video card with 64 MB of video RAM will be necessary for the new user interface. (Machines that don't have enough video hardware will be able to run Vista, but won't be able to use the new user interface; instead, they'll use the older interface used in Windows XP.)

The official designation of hardware requirements for Vista can be found on the Microsoft site.

As is typical with Microsoft hardware requirements lists, the designation of "minimum" is the absolute minimum necessary for Vista to run. The "recommended" levels are usually necessary for acceptable performance.

As of late 2007, many security programs (firewall, antivirus, antispyware, antirootkit, and encryption software) still did not work with Vista. Therefore, there is an advantage in pursuing machines which still ship with Windows XP Pro.

Vendors

Generally, it's wise to avoid buying from mass-market consumer product chains. In the US, this would be places such as Circuit City, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Costco, etc. A store that sells stereos and refrigerators is not likely to be especially good at helping you find the right computer or providing ongoing support, and most of the machines available are consumer-grade machines that are intended for home use. In a similar way, office supply chains such as Staples or OfficeMax are also questionable sources, because of their focus on selling consumer-grade machines. Computer superstores (CompUSA, Fry's Electronics in the US, PC World in the UK) have more selection and expertise than the mass-market consumer electronics vendors, although a many of their machines tend to focused on home users, rather than business users.

A further potential difficulty with a mass-market supplier is that the first level of technical support may not be even the computer's manufacturer, but the retail vendor. It is unlikely that the support staffs provided by retail vendors have any experience in working in an international situation (especially if they require you to call a toll-free number), or with business-grade applications, such as full-disk encryption.

If purchasing by mail order isn't an option (especially for people in East Asia), then the next best source for purchasing would be from a manufacturer-authorized dealer. However, in some countries (and for some manufacturers), authorized dealers may be significantly more expensive than purchasing from non-authorized sellers.

If you're buying a desktop machine, having one built by a local builder in a Western country is a good option, even if the machine costs a little more than purchasing through a mass-market retailer. Having a machine built in a developing country is a questionable proposition. While it's possible to get a very good computer at a good price, there is significant risk that the machine is loaded with pirated copies of software (especially Windows).

The Dell Outlet and the Apple Store are good places for "slightly used" machines and good discounts. In some cases these machines were identified in the assembly line as being unacceptable for shipping; in other cases they were used as in-store demos or have been returned by buyers or taken back by Dell on warranty exchange, so they can't be sold as new computers. Quality is acceptable, and all machines are fully covered by warranty. Options are limited to whatever is currently in stock (and available for immediate shipping), but often tend not to have enough RAM memory.

Check www.techbargains.com for unadvertised coupons and other specials for all kinds of computer equipment. If you know the brand or model number of what you want to buy, you can purchase at the techbargains site, or you can search for a list of current coupons and discounts available.

One caution on discounting - to some degree, computers are a commodity item, and margins are very thin, especially on hardware. Thus, there shouldn't be major cost differences for the same machine between two retail vendors. If one vendor's price is dramatically lower than the price asked by several others, it's important to ask why - somewhere, there's something that the lower-cost vendor may not be including, but not disclosing (at least not obviously). An online provider to avoid is newegg.com; although their prices are inexpensive, quality can be a problem.

Clearance sales of discontinued models (where a vendor is clearing stock, and willing to take a loss) can be exceptions, and more radical discounting may not be a problem. However, for some machines, the warranty period begins from the date the machine was delivered to the retailer, and not when purchased by the user. Thus, if a machine has spent months in storage, and is being sold on a clearance sale, there can be times where, by the time the end user purchases the machine, the manufacturer's one-year warranty has already expired.

In addition, auctions (such as eBay) may be OK for lower prices, because the cost is usually being bid upward from zero (or a set floor price), rather than negotiated downward from a suggested retail price. If you have experience with purchasing on eBay, there are also good bargains there, although you need to know how to identify a reputable seller. If you don't have experience with eBay, don't let a computer purchase be your first transaction!

If you happen to have a friend or relative who is or was employed by one of the major vendors, you may want to contact them to see if their employee purchase plan extends to friends and relatives (IBM, for example, does).

Brands

Any discussion about recommended brands could become a swapping of disaster stories, however some general points are worth making:

  • It is worth paying extra for reliability.
  • Warranties are often worth the money.
  • Desktops which are great for air conditioned offices may not cope well with extremes of temperature, humidty and dust.

As a general rule, the large, well-known vendors (Dell, HP/Compaq and IBM/Lenovo) have the best repair networks worldwide. However, quality and reliability of service can vary widely, both by brand, and from country to country. A lot depends on the vendor's in-country partner. Thus the HP partner in country X may be terrific, and the partner in country Y may be very difficult to deal with. For some brands (especially Sony), warranty work may be available only in the country the machine was purchased in -- thus, if you buy a machine in a western country, you may have to send it back to that country to get it repaired under warranty.

Second-tier vendors, such as Hitachi, Fujitsu, Acer, etc. may have machines of adequate quality for field use, but often have smaller repair networks.

In short, before you buy a machine, make sure you know about what service is available from the vendor's repair network, in the country in which you are working.

Acer

I had good experience with Acer support in Hong Kong. gjs

Apple

Apple has a long-standing reputation for building good, reliable machines, and outstanding tech support. Apple's line of computers includes professional grade machines (those which include the word "Pro" in their name) and consumer grade machines. See the Apple web site for further information. Both tend to have equally good build qualities. The consumer grade machines are the ones usually purchased by schools and have to stand up to that level of use/abuse. Apple's online store provides a user-friendly mechanism to configure any model to suit your needs; other vendors can be found by visiting www.apple.com/buy/ and wheretobuy.apple.com.

Apple’s Mac Pro took the “Best Desktop/Workstation” award.

Apple's international repair network is somewhat limited, and parts and service may not be available in the country where you work. However, in our experience in "developing countries", many well-known brands that are sold in a given country may not provide factory-authorized support in that country and may require international shipping; this is especially true with laptops which are less easily serviced than desktops.

Although there are numerous third party vendors for Apple's Macs as well as for replacement hard drives, RAM memory, video cards, power adapters, etc, Apple Computer is the only manufacturer for Mac OS X computers, thus providing an improved level of quality control and integration in today's market of bewildering options and levels of quality. Of course this is true for most manufacturer's computers, but an old criticism of Macs by tech people was that parts to repair Macs could not be "mix-and-match" from a variety of manufacturers so as to facilitate build-your-own computers and do-it-yourself repair. However, modern technology being what it is, the do-it-yourself strategy for end-to-end computer building has become irrelevant for most end users. Some third party parts are very highly rated by buyers, such as OWC (macsales.com) and Newer Technology to name just two. Using an Internet search engine such as Google to search with the key words "Mac repair replacement parts" (without the quote marks) produces a large number of useful links.

Dell

Dell laptops are popular, athough many missionaries tend to buy the consumer-grade Inspiron. The business-grade Latitude is preferred, even though they are more expensive, becuase of a better build quality, longer warranty, availability of international warranty etc. Traditionally, the difference between business-grade and consumer-grade in Dell machines has been less dramatic than with other vendors, in terms of quality of hardware. The primary differences are that with the business-grade machines, the base configuration stays more consistent, for a longer time (allowing for corporate buyers to make repeat purchases of batches of computers, and have reasonable expectation of near-identical configuration), and sometimes in support channels.

However, in the last year or two, quality of all Dell machines and tech support has noticeably declined. gp

We've seen way too many Dells with over-heating issues to recommend them to anyone. Dell (along with many major OEMs) design their laptops for use in climate controlled buildings and the harsher conditions that most missionaries live/work in seem to be too much to ask. Missionary Tech Support recommends avoiding Dell laptops if possible. - Shawn - Missionary Tech Support

Personal experience - A missionary purchased a Dell with international warranty and was guaranteed in writing that it would be serviced in India. When the LCD and optical drive both went bad - Dell tech support in India said the warranty licensing for India was re-negotiated and that his warranty was no longer valid. That extra $450 warranty was all of the sudden useless. Ouch. Shawn - Missionary Tech Support

One missionary working in the Middle East reports that in his country, the Dell partner there won't even look at a computer that wasn't purchased in that country. gp

Another perspective (Pete, ICTA): we've had very good experience with Dell laptops, plus although their tech support has declined the same as other vendors, they continue to have better tech support policies than others. For example, some vendors now will terminate your warranty if their support cost exceeds what you paid; Dell does not do this.

Even if you don't buy a Dell machine, a visit to the Dell website can be useful. Dell's online configuration tool is an excellent way of requesting an estimate on a specific machine configuration -- thus, you can get an idea of what things are likely to cost, and that's useful for comparison shopping.

I have major hesitations in recommending Dell. To me, people buy Dell for the same reason they eat at McDonald's: not because it's any good, but because it's cheap. gjs

HP

The HP/Compaq is a business-grade machine. HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario are consumer-grade machines. HP's business-grade machines seem to be good quality, and seem to have a reasonably good tech support network.

Compaq's customer support channel (the one used for the Presario) has a long history of uneven quality, and has often finished near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys. The merger of Compaq into HP seems not have changed this.

Lenovo

In mid-2005, IBM sold control of its PC division to Lenovo (which had been manufacturing for IBM for several years previously). As of mid-2006, there seems to be no significant dropoff of either machine quality, or of technical support. (However, when I was looking for a new notebook in December 2006, they had reduced the very broad product range that IBM had had, and the prices were not as competitive as they had been against the likes of some Dell products.)

Lenovo is now producing machines under its own brand name. At this writing the Lenovo 3000 is new enough that we don't have any indications of how good it is, or if it's a machine that should be avoided. However, several reviews indicate that the Lenovo 3000 isn't bad as a business-grade machine.

Sony

Sony machines are generally well-made, and are especially good for entertainment and multi-media use, but Sony's repair network is limited, especially in developing countries. Sony machines may not be a good choice in some parts of the world. Often, the warranty is only good in the country of purchase.

Second-tier vendors

Second-tier vendors, such as Hitachi, Gateway, Samsung, Sharp, NEC and Fujitsu may produce computers of adequate quality, but probably won't have wide repair networks. Thus, getting repair work done may be difficult, costly, and time-consuming, especially in the country in which you work.

Other Brands

Lesser-known brands are worth avoiding, because of probable limitations in service networks. These include WinBook, Avaratech, and eMachines, as well as house brands that are belong to a retail vendor (e.g., the "GQ" brand at Fry's Electronics). Some may be good machines (Avaratech has a good reputation), others may be bad. Packard-Bell machines are notorious for poor quality and poor service. Avoid Packard-Bell (including the NEC Reddi line, which is manufactured by Packard-Bell). Custom-built desktops may have good quality, but if one needs service, you may have to rely on the specific builder; this includes hardware support as well as support for Windows.

Used Desktops

For information on re-using computer, consult the Computer Re-use Optimisation Project [gjs]

Used Computer Dealers

Appletekk North Vancouver, BC, Canada Cal's Computer Warehouse Vancouver, BC, Canada CPUsed Toronto, ON, Canada The Mac Market Vancouver, BC, Canada MacResQ Concord, CA , USA

Getting Advice

There are many sources of comparative information on the Internet. Reviews of individual machines can useful, and there are a number of web sites that can help you narrow your options to just a few computers (rather than dozens or hundreds.) Some sites may help you make direct comparisons be two or more selected computers.

PC World Magazine and | C|Net are good sources of information, as well.

Epinions.com is a good place to get reviews written by users (rather than professional reviewers), and allows you to search for specific brand/model combinations to see real-life experiences. Be aware that negative experiences tend to be amplified - satisfied or indifferent customers often may not contribute, but unhappy ones will. Purchasing links generally lead to vendor-sponsored links like Buy.com (which may be a good buying source).

Google can also help you find additional reviews for specific brands and models. From Google's search dialogue, try entering "review XXXXXX", where "XXXXXX" is the brand and model of the computer you are investigating (e.g. "review Dell Inspiron 8600"). However, be wary of vendor-placed ads returned by Google searches - disreputable firms are known for paid placement of ads on Google. Although Google ads may also show reputable vendors, it may not be easy to tell which is which.

Original page: http://www.missiontech.info/wiki/Desktops
from the MissionTech Wiki created by the International Conference on Computers and Missions

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