It is very easy to underestimate the cost of a new computer. The cost of purchasing a computer is relatively straightforward. You pay the price that on the sticker. However, there are two other areas of cost that are often overlooked. Let’s briefly look at each of them.
Computers are like cars. They have a finite life and at some point it is very likely that they will both need repair. The older they are, the more likely it is they will need repair. When people buy computers, they often focus on the sticker price and not the total lifetime cost. The one year warranty that comes with a computer automatically may be a lot cheaper than the three-year coverage, but how long do you expect to have that computer? If you expect to have it for three years, it usually makes sense to buy the three year warranty up front.
I’m not suggesting that you just blindly purchase the longest warranty possible. Read the fine print. You need to know how long the warranty lasts, what it covers and how long it takes to get repaired. The best warranties I’ve had on laptops would send a repair man the next day with a replacement part and fix it on site. “On Site” meant everywhere from my hotel to my business to my kitchen table.
Even if the cost of the repairs doesn’t greatly exceed what you paid for the warranty, getting problems fixed quickly with a minimal amount of downtime can be invaluable. In fact, one of my biggest complaints about Apple computers is the amount of time it takes to get something repaired. They aren’t necessarily slow, but a three or four day turnaround time without your computer throws a significant wrench into your productivity compared with having someone show up at your door the next day.
Another cost that most people overlook is the amount of time it takes to switch from one computer to the next. This has gotten significantly faster particularly with Macs, but most people (particularly those who are technology experts) still have to invest a significant amount of time in changing computer systems. You have to copy your data, reinstall software, reconfigure your e-mail accounts and tweak all your preferences. Even if you know what you’re doing, this can easily take 4 to 8 hours.
I generally take the approach that I want to switch computers systems as infrequently as possible. Eight hours spent setting up my computer is a lot of lost productive time. Because of this I usually buy a top-of-the-line computer with a plan to replace it in 3 1/2 to 4 years. Buying a mid-range computer and replacing every 2 to 3 years might be less expensive in terms of up front cost, but more expensive in terms of setup time.
Last time I tried the Macintosh migration assistant, I was pleasantly surprised. If it always works that well, I may need to rethink my strategy and possibly start purchasing less expensive computers more frequently. The point is that you need to pay attention to the parts of computer ownership that consume your time.
Obviously my plan may not be what’s best for you. Make sure you consider the hidden costs of a new computer and creating a plan to maximize your return on investment in technology.
Deepankar Datta says
I have to say on the flip side Apple computers are a lot longer lasting and easier to maintain. Although the upfront cost is slightly higher (and nowadays only slightly if you accurately compare specifications) the long term benefits productivity wise are much higher if you set your computer up from the outset. Think of buying it as a Mercedes compared to (insert lower brand car) – the Mercedes seems to mostly have a better build and will have all sorts of bells and whistles to make your life easier. My personal ibook is still going strong near 6 years down the line, and colleagues do think it works so faster than their newer computers.
To get the full cost you need to ‘insure yourself’ against problems. A good firewall and anti-virus will save you from the start, although then again previous windows computers’ anti-virus solutions have actually made things worse. Windows 7 and its integrated security seem quite good, but again vendors seem to like installing all sorts of software onto your computer to make it harder to maintain before selling it to you.
Also backup regularly. I find CrashPlan a good backup solution which allows you to designate space in your computer for friends’ backups, and friends to reciprocate. You can even cross backup between your own computers. On top of this a regular backup to an external hard disk is essential to prevent heart ache (think of all the musci and photos you accumulate) plus it also allows you to use it work on your own documents staight away.
Another service that I recommend is dropbox – it will synchronise files between two (or more even I think) computers which makes it useful if you have more than one computer in a house, or if you move a lot.
I moved to a Mac to get away from the pain on Windows – it was not fun and wasted my time. I had frequent problems with Windows with anti-virus software, and had to regularly re-install the whole system to correct problems. In my years of owning my ibook I have only re-installed an OS once, and that was moving from 10.3 to 10.4. It just seems to work.
Khürt Williams says
Moving apps is easier with a Mac than with Windows or Linux. The OS will take care of most of the work. I never ever save ANY data to my computer’s hard drive. All media (music, video, documents etc) are stored on external disk or online so nothing has to move to the new computer.
2 points –
1. The cost of a new computer should take into account the value you can get for your previous computer. The resale value for used Macs is way higher (percentage of original purchase price) than for PCs.
2. The migration assistant works awesome on the Mac – it will transfer you programs, data, safari bookmarks, internet settings, passwords, etc. It is so much easier than anything I have seen for Windows. The other option is just to clone the hard drive and bam! you are done (I use Carbon Copy Cloner but Super Duper is highly regarded, too)
Jeff Miles says
Great article. After just having to reinstall everything after switching to Windows 7 (to try it out, so far so good) I completely agree with the “hidden” costs you mention in this article. Khürt makes a good point as well. I don’t go to the extreme he does, but I usually only store things in 3 different folders on my computer as a programmer (C:\files, C:\wamp\www, and C:\SourceCode) I could easily move the source code folder under files, but it was a habit I started awhile back. That way I only need to backup/copy/restore 3 folders and I am good to go. Deepankar makes a good point about the bloatware that is installed on Windows computers, but I usually end up wiping computers clean and starting from scratch when I get them so I don’t have the bloatware (which adds to the 4-8 hours Mark mentions above).
Arjun Muralidharan says
I agree with conversion costs. Though I may add that with a little preparation, you can pretty much map out your digital life and keep it portable. I need this because I’ve found to be changing computers rather frequently: Sometimes I’ll work a month at the University Lab, sometimes it’s at work, sometimes I’m at my parents’ place for a longer period of time, etc.
Apart from that, I always like to invest in the best computer I can afford, because Speed is another issue for me. I don’t use intensive applications, but the time saved through a good desktop processor is remarkable. I’m always on the edge to buy a Mac Pro instead of an iMac or Macbook Pro.
Mark Shead says
@Deepankar – My assistant is using my old Powerbook. It is 5 or 6 years old by now and uses the PowerPC processor, but still very usable. It obviously isn’t quite as fast as a new computer, but I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of it.
@Jeff – I’m looking forward to trying out Windows 7. I’ve heard some really good things about it. Someone said it is about like going to Windows 2000 from NT 4 and WIndows 95. If that is true it is going to be incredible.
There are some programs that will let you take a snapshot of your computer once you get it the way you wan it and you can restore back to it at anytime. So you wipe out your new computer, install the OS and your primary programs and then take an image. When things get sluggish you backup your data, restore the snapshot and reload your data. I think Deep Freeze does this.
@sfmitch – Good points.
@Khürt – This is a bit more problematic if you use a laptop, but you can get many of the same benefits by putting everything important in a specific folder or even by backing up your home folder from time to time.
@Arjun – I’m a pretty big fan of my 17 inch laptop because I have everything I need while traveling. However, I’ve been playing around with the idea of getting a more portable laptop and a desktop to maximize my portability and raw speed.
J.D. Meier says
I think my biggest measure of the cost of a computer is the speed I gain every day … that adds up. When my old box slows me down to the point where either it feels slow or just can’t keep up pace with me, it’s time to trade up.
I’ve been known to make pretty crappy laptops last for around 3-4 years so when i get a mac later this year i’m pretty sure i can suck up about 5-6 years or more out of the thing :-)
If you’re getting a Mac laptop, I recommend getting the 3 year warranty for sure. I’ve never had a Mac laptop that didn’t need it at some point!
I’ve had better luck with Dells and HPs (if you avoid the entry level stuff) and the best luck with Thinkpads.
Mark Shead says
@MichaelM – I’d suggest getting a three year warranty on any system you get. I have had high end Apples, Dells and Thinkpads all have serious issues–enough so that I think they all have a similar reliability. Computers are incredibly complex so we shouldn’t be too surprised if there is an occasional issue.
The one thing I’d recommend is to wait several months to get a newly designed computer. Let other people see what type of major issues there are instead of being the guinea pig.