Computer Buying – Holiday style



Buying a Computer - 2013 holiday style

It’s time to buy that computer as a gift – again.


As tablets continue their upward trend, many people are switching away from their traditional computers – but in many cases a traditional computer, whether laptop or desktop, is still the right choice.  Here are some things you ought to consider this year.

Form Factor

While tablets are really light and travel well, in their standard state, they are not good workhorses for heavy duty writing (word-processing) or big data manipulation (complex spreadsheets).  Yes; they can be used effectively; but in most instances, if you’re in a production mode, desktops or traditional laptops will be faster and easier to use – with their more ergonomic keyboards, multitasking, and external mice.  Tablets are great for portability, connectivity, and doing tasks that are not heavily production oriented.

No Guts No Glory – NOT

It used to be that you would measure how fast a computer can run by the speed of its CPU; but that’s no longer the case.  Now the Intel line is generally split into i3, i5 and i7 models, but having the i7 doesn’t always translate into faster work output than the i5, and respectively the i3.  They are different technologies.  For instance, the i7 has four cores (which you can think of as 4 computers in a single chip), and the i3 has two.  So if your application can take advantage of four cores, it will run much faster.  Think graphics and engineering applications among this group.  But your email software and your web browser typically can’t take advantage of all those cores.  If that’s all you do, you don’t need an i7.

Memory – The Forgotten Hardware

The latest operating systems from Microsoft (Windows 8) and Apple (OS X Mavericks) can take advantage of much more memory than previous operating systems – so having large memories can have even more of an impact than previously.  The operative term is “addressable memory”.  You can have lots of memory on your system; but if it’s not all addressable, it’s wasted expense.  For instance, while earlier versions of Windows were limited to 4 GB of addressable memory (or even 2), Windows 8 can address a whopping 128 GB to 512GB depending on the version.  Mac notebooks will address 8GB to 16GB, while the desktops will max out at 16GB to 64GB.  (Don’t use this to compare Mac to PC; they use memory differently.)

In general more memory makes your computer faster because it decreases the amount of movement of data between your computer’s CPU and your disk.  So a rule of thumb is more is better if you can afford it – but only up to a point.

SSD Comes of Age

One of the most marvelous technologies to come to mainstream computers in recent years are SSDs or solid state disks.  In essence, these are storage devices, like your hard disk drive, that have a technology factor much like the cards you put into your camera or phone or like your computer’s main memory.  They are much faster than normal hard disk drives, use a lot less power, and are less prone to breakage.  Prices have come down a lot in the past few years, but they’re still extremely expensive.  A 256GB SSD may cost you the same amount as a 1,000GB (a.k.a. 1 TB) hard drive.  The differences are even great on larger SSDs.

The rule of thumb here is if fast is much more important to you than cheap, SSD is preferred.  But you’ll likely need to make a trade-off.  When I was recently pricing out a Mac configuration, it was 60% more expensive with an SSD than with a traditional hard drive.  Lots of factors affect the price.

Lifetime Factor

As always, I mentor you to buy for today, and NOT buy for the future.  Products will change dramatically over the next few years.  So while your computer might last you five years, you might find an innovation in two that makes whatever you purchase seem obsolete.  Don’t worry about.  Ride the wave.  Unless you break it, your computer will still be usable.  It just won’t feel as shiny and new.

Other Buying

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been helping you with your holiday tech shopping for 13 years already.  This year, I’m also helping with other buying – in a way that also helps local groups (such as PTAs, schools, fire departments, and youth activities) raise money through a concept called “Effortless Fundraisers”.  Please consider buying some holiday gifts through your favorite group store using the lookup widget below.  You’ll find cool, useful products, and in many cases, will get FREE SHIPPING.  Thanks – from me and your favorite group.  Here’s the widget:


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The Best Feature of Apple’s iOS 7 iPhone Upgrade

My favorite screen in Apple's iOS 7 - ugly, but beautiful

My favorite screen in Apple’s iOS 7 – ugly, but beautiful


Apple has done a good job of providing “new phones” with some operating system upgrades. iOS 7 is a very different experience than anything that came before – and it’s available all the way back to iPhone 4.  (See my column in TEQ for upgrade tips and how the upgrade differs based on which iPhone model you own.)

With all the changes over iOS 6, this ugly grey screen is my favorite.  It puts the things I want most at my easiest disposal.

Those four icons on the bottom are Flashlight (a new feature that helps me get rid of my separate flashlight app), clock (great access to the timer, stopwatch and alarm), calculator (always needed at short notice), and camera.

There are two at the top that make all the difference – Airplane mode (far left) and Bluetooth.

And the reason this screen – especially those icons are so useful: Because it’s available from anywhere on your iPhone – even before you unlock it.  Simply swipe your finger from the bottom edge of the screen up toward the top to pull up these controls putting them immediately at your fingers.

What a great way to turn on/off your wireless head phones!  Or access your timer when you’re getting ready to practice a presentation – or your calculator when you need to verify formulas you’re working on with colleagues..



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What a difference a Century Makes

Red Sox celebrations in 1903 and 2013

Red Sox celebrate World Series victories in 1903 (against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Huntington Field Boston) and in 2013 (against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park).

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Thrival Festival a Success; Bobby Z “Gets” Customer Support

Thrival LogoThis weekend’s Thrival Festival, conducted by Thrill Mill was excellent.  The investor pitches that happened at Google’s Pittsburgh Office in Bakery Square were among the most polished pitches I’ve seen.  Then the evening’s music festival across the street was hopping.

Early in the evening, I mentioned to Bobby Zappala (co-founder of Thrill Mill and organizer of the Thrival event) that I was not able to grab my ticket online because ShowClix had had shut down ticketing already – and his reaction demonstrated customer service at its finest: he reached into his pocket and pulled out a $20 bill (the cost of admission), handed it to me, and said. “Use this.  I’ll get it back later from the person at the gate.”

Now I understand why his portfolio companies looked so good in the afternoon and why the event went so well.  His reaction showed class, quick thinking, and an attitude that doesn’t hesitate to put the customer first.


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Modcloth – Model of Tomorrow (and Yesterday)

The ModCloth fulfillment center in Pittsburgh - efficiency like the old Pittsburgh; growth in California style.

The ModCloth fulfillment center in Pittsburgh – efficiency like the old Pittsburgh; growth in California style.


I had the chance last week to visit the Modcloth fulfillment center – and boy was I shocked. (“Impressed” would work too – and be an equal descriptor).

I’ve heard for a few years about how the company was growing on the strength of retro styled clothing (hence the yesterday) – and that they have kept a foot in Pittsburgh while growing here and in California.  My college-aged daughter and her friends drool over their fashions – and at least one has based her entire wardrobe on Modcloth purchases.

So when I traveled into my old neighborhood and found a grand fulfillment center and offices a mile away from the condo I used to own, my eyes got wide.

It didn’t take me long to realize the Modcloth team has its act together.  Alex Kyyashko (senior industrial engineer) and Aire Plichta (fashion press specialist) showed me around the fulfillment center and let me ask questions ranging from the usual business stuff to the more arcane operational questions – and demonstrated that the company has a focus on efficiency in the present and an eye for the future – even though they’ve made a reputation with clothes reminiscent of the past.

Udi Nir, the company’s chief technology officer, spoke of vision – not of technology, making it clear that the company uses technology as a tool to serve its markets.  Unlike many CTOs, he’s interested in relationships – in his markets and in the communities his company serves.

Despite the growth, the company seems to have maintained its start-up atmosphere, with lots of the perks you see in Silicon Valley and its own distinct Modcloth style.



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