Spending Your Technology Dollars – Are You a Mac or a PC?

Or… you might be an Android. 😉

I’ve had a significant shift in my own technology shopping habits over the last decade: While for many years I have told people who asked my advice about a new computer purchase to “go to Best Buy and buy the cheapest thing they have,” for myself I have often bought premium hardware.

Nowadays, the specs on hardware everywhere are so over-the-top that most users (myself included) get, in my opinion, no benefit from buying premium hardware. The basic stuff gives you everything you need.

Exceptions for cases like people who are doing lots of high-end graphics and video work, or who intend to use their computer as their TV. Those people need hardware that will support great video, smoothly.

So instead of spending a ton on specs, I now spend an equal amount on things like…

  • Redundancy – To ensure I always have an available computer
  • Portability – To ensure I can always take some technology with me
  • Software and services – To ensure I have great tools for backup, password management, and data storage – e.g., tools like Quicken, Dropbox, SugarSync, LastPass, Remember the Milk, and Evernote (these are just my personal favorites)

Apple hardware is awesome. Beautiful stuff. Likewise, there are beautiful cars out there that take basic driving functionality and pile it high with an additional layer of awesome beyond the more mundane experience of my own silver Toyota sedan.

But is that what I need? Will my redundancy, portability, and available software / services suffer if I have to choose carefully in order to fit the right level of awesome into my budget?

How much awesome do you need?

Nobody needs a computer. As much as it might feel like you do, it’s actually completely possible to live without a computer. But computers are fun, so we like them – that’s cool. 🙂

But I would argue that even among the people who will truly appreciate the magical stuff that a computer can sometimes seem to do, there is still little benefit to a constant race toward “awesomeness.” And besides, “awesome” is in the eye of the beholder. I use Quicken for personal finance management, but I think GnuCash is way more awesome, because I love the elegance and transparency of its data storage system (a gzipped XML file – the comparison of Quicken to GnuCash I will save for a future post.) Most people would look at the drably designed GnuCash and say… “ick” – because it doesn’t appeal to mainstream design standards.

So when it comes to buying a computer, do you need a Lexus?

I am only using Lexus as an example because I hear they are nice. I don’t really know much about what makes them nicer than my entry-level sedan. But my guess is they have some of the Apple-awesome that isn’t very important to me, personally…

Wouldn’t it be nice to have…

As I’ve said, I put a lot of emphasis on redundancy, portability, and software/services. I always want my most useful tools and data to be readily available to me. It turns out that for a fairly modest amount of money, you can now get all sorts of redundantly available portable systems – enough gadgetry to make you feel like you are in Star Trek, all the time!

What if you could – for a fairly modest amount – get a fancy phone, a tablet, a desktop, and then basically multiply that by two so that if any of them died you would still have something to use? That’s what I like to do, but I can’t justify the expense, in the “Apple realm.”

A Example Technology Budget

Here’s a scenario, comparing what you might get in the “Apple realm” vs. what you might get in the “PC and Android realm.”

Big caveat: If you just plain like Apple, don’t bother reading. I’m not going to argue that Apple’s stuff is not cool or awesome. I just don’t think a lot of people really need that level of cool or awesome. Plus, I believe vendor lock-in is so great with Apple that it is worth considering alternatives just to express your own yearning for technology freedom. 🙂

As of today, you can buy a 15-inc Macbook Pro, starting at about $1700 or so. It’s basically a portable desktop – lots of power (and bulk). With a few add-ons and sales tax the price easily goes over $2000. And you can add to that a nice iPad (which I highly recommend, if you “need” a tablet!) for about $500 for the cheapest model. If you decide to get more memory or cellular access on that device (which I don’t recommend) then you can easily push the cost near $800 for a device that will be obsolete in about two years. But lets say you just get the cheapest Macbook Pro and iPad (and find a way not to pay tax). That’s $2200.

Contrast that with my own personal technology buying strategy. Since portability is important. I “need” a great smartphone. I thought I needed a tablet, but it turns out I don’t really like using any of them very much (but I still recommend an iPad to people who want / need a tablet). So I focus our dollars (for my wife and I) on getting our portability and redundancy problems solved. For the house, I’m fine with the clunkiest stuff you can give me, because at most it is going to move from the living room to the office. And anyway, I really like working on a desktop. So I don’t want to spend much on home hardware – the money I save there can be better spent on more portable hardware and software services like Dropbox, Evernote, Remember the Milk, and LastPass – all of which go to greatly increase the value of my entire hardware portfolio.

So in the last year we bought a bunch of stuff (please note, we had both been working on mostly-still-good five-year-old hardware prior to this year’s upgrades). Here’s a summary:

  • One Android tablet ($500)
  • One iPad ($500)
  • One clunky laptop with lots of horsepower and the very nice Windows 7 operating system ($275). Yes, two hundred seventy five dollars, brand-new. 🙂
  • Two awesome desktops with lots of horsepower ($500 each)

We spent a total of $2275 (before tax), and for that we got lots of nice portability, more redundancy at home than we could ever possibly need (the two desktops are basically replicas of each other), and lots of flexibility for future upgrades at reasonable costs.

One caveat is that we didn’t need to buy new monitors – the old ones were just fine. We also bought a few other things, which seemed pretty reasonable since we were still buying pretty economically overall – so we also got a WiFi laser printer pretty cheap, an iPad for my Mom, and an upgraded Android phone for my Mom.

The laser printer didn’t cost TOO much more than the price of replacing the cartridge in our old one. The iPad (for my Mom) completely replaces her old laptop. And the upgraded phone was only $100. All pretty economical and useful.

Plus, while upgrading my Mom’s phone I realized that our current cellular plan was more than we needed. Trimmed that back enough to save $360 per year – more than enough (over a few years) to pay for the $400 it will cost my wife and I to upgrade our own phones later this year. (Those new Android phones will be so powerful that they will probably cause me never to buy or want a tablet again.)

And now we’ve got so much awesome technology that I get to play with stuff all day! 🙂

How do you spend your technology dollars? Do you think it has to come down to a choice between Mac or PC?

Did Bill Gates, the guy that everyone accused of monopolizing the world, suddenly become the great democratizing force in consumer technology?