My father is wanting a new computer, and I am trying to help him decide what he really wants. To refresh your memories, my father is retired and currently is using an XP desktop. I have already discussed laptop versus desktop. Next, we need to decide what OS to use.

Ubuntu is not an option. Even though it is quickly progressing as a mainstream OS, Ubuntu still requires too much tinkering under the hood. It will continue to get more popular, but it is not ready for primetime yet.

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XP seems to be the easy, logical choice. Dad is already comfortable with much of XP’s interface. If he decides to use a laptop, he is going to be learning about networks, trackpads, and a whole bunch of other new stuff related to that. Adding a different operating system on top of it all might be too much. All of his old programs and hardware will still work fine. Plus, he can always decide to upgrade to Vista at a later date.

However, if my father is wanting a new computer, he is probably not really enjoying his current computing experience. He has already asked me about upgrading to Vista when it first came out. He certainly seems to be anxious for a change.

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A switch to Vista would give most of the advantages of XP. (Vista Video Part 1 Here and Part 2 Here) For the most part the interace is very similar. In fact, you can even switch Vista back to an XP look. Most of his current software and hardware is likely to work too. On the down side, Vista only improves the user’s experience on a few fronts. Some of the changes to the user interface are confusing. Vista contains a lot of annoying bugs. Plus, Vista is treated poorly in the community, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Vista fades quickly much like Windows Millennium did.

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Changing to an Apple system with OS X would be a big leap. (OS X Movie Tour here.) OS X is a much better, much easier (but also very different) interface than windows. Most day to day activities are more simple on OS X, but learning a completely new operating system is tough. Spyware, viruses, and bugs are much less of a worry on the Apple system. However, much of his current hardware and sofware are unlikely to work. Many of the day to day activities such as editing and printing pictures would need to be retaught and relearned. Most of the games and software that he uses now, he would have to give up. (Parallels or Boot Camp would be way over his head.) The lack of a nearby Apple store for training keeps things tough. If dad can get over the hump and learn OS X, his overall experience is likely to be better than with a Microsoft system. That hump just seems to be large.

If dad was not already comfortable with an operating system, I would suggest starting with OS X. However, now that he knows XP, should I reinvent the wheel?

Any suggestions?

With my father considering a new computer purchase, he will soon have to decide if he wants a new laptop or another desktop. The popularity of laptop computers continues to grow. Although the differences between laptops and desktops have narrowed over the years, going portable involves many trade offs. Is going mobile worth it?

Basics–

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Creative Commons License photo credit: jeremyfoo

The goal of the laptop is mobile computing. They are frequently called portable, mobile, or notebook systems. Laptops are powered by a rechargeable battery. The monitor is either a standard size or widescreen LCD. Keyboards allow for easy input. Mouse control is typically provided by a trackpad. Also contained within the device are the typical computer components such as a CPU, video card, and hard drive. In a laptop everything is included in one package. Getting “under the hood” and changing components can range from hard to impossible.

Although the desktop largely contains the same components, the parts are not as integrated. Any beginner can change the keyboard or monitor of a desktop; however, the same beginner would find that changing those components on a laptop near impossible.

In contrast, a desktop is not portable either. Desktops and laptops are very different beasts.

Strengths of the Desktop–

Price. Based on similar specifications, a laptop can cost over twice as much as a desktop. For the same money, you will always be able to get a much more powerful desktop with a larger screen and more storage. A desktop is always going to give you more for your money.

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Power. Many high end desktops contain components that are not available in laptops. Some of the video cards out now are almost as big as some entire portable systems. Power requires cores and chips. Power requires cooling. Power requires wattage. Large desktop systems have plenty of room for big components, big power supplies, and redundant cooling. Power dependent task such as editing and rendering video will proceed less painfully on a desktop beast. A laptop is always going to settle for smaller, more efficient hardware. Many laptops that were sold as “Windows Vista Compatible” were not able to run Vista with all features enabled. Because it is purchased with less reserve, a laptop will not provide as many years of productivity before seeming underpowered and dated.

Screen size. We are in the world of ever growing LCDs. A 30 inch LCD computer screen is beautiful. If you have a desktop, you can even have multiple monitors. Many laptops start at 13 inches and the largest is 19-20 inches. If you go with a laptop over a desktop, sacrifice of screen real estate is the norm. External monitors can easily be connected to a laptop; however, there is the obvious loss of portability.

Wireless Network Required. With a desktop system ethernet works well. Having a notebook that is tethered by cat-5 cable makes no sense at all. To enjoy using a notebook system, a wireless network and internet is really required. Wireless networking is getting easier but is nowhere as easy as just plugging in a cable. Using and securing a wireless network requires learning a whole new set of computer skills.

Toughness. Laptops get dropped, banged, and generally mistreated. A desktop stays at home in general safety. My son broke the “e” key off one of my laptops after my daughter took it up to her room. He knows not to bang on my desktop but a laptop in his sister’s room was too inviting to pass up.

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Creative Commons License credit: booleansplit

Upgrading / Fixing. Another hard drive can be added to most desktops easily, and changing out a keyboard or monitor is trivial. Upgrading or fixing a laptop frequently requires a trip to the shop. Desktops can frequently be given new life with a newer, more powerful video card. As video is integrated in a laptop, this upgrade is not possible. The difficulty in upgrading is another reason that a laptop will not provide as many years of productivity when compared to a desktop.

The Powerful Portability of the Laptop–

The strength of a laptop is its mobility. It is the trump card that can overwhelm any of the desktop’s advantages. The cheapest, most powerful desktop in the world does not help the student that needs a computer in class. Chilling at a coffee shop with a mocha and your lappie can be magic. Recording or making music at a club or friend’s house is easy on a laptop. Getting work done or watching a movie on a plane can make the time fly. Can you really put a value on checking email from the potty?

Although portability is amazing, it is frequently not required or utilized. I know three of my neighbors that have their notebook sitting on the exact same place on their desk day after day. They are never mobile with their mobile computers. Many people really think they will take their computer everywhere, but then they never do.

In Defense of the Laptop–

Desktop worshippers will die arguing the strengths of the desktop that I have described; however, none of them are really deal breakers if portability is required. A laptop will always be more expensive and underpowered compared to the desktop. The careful consumer, however, can purchase a powerful laptop that will run non-gaming applications perfectly. (The majority of games will run on a laptop system too, but occasionally the video may not be as impressive.) A 15 to 17 inch laptop screen is plenty for most users. The integration of wireless networking into the major operating systems is making wifi easier as well. Industrial strength laptops that can tolerate the toughest of conditions are available for the clumsiest of us. If mobility is required, these are trade offs that can be comfortably tolerated.

Conclusions–

A desktop is always going to provide the biggest bang for the buck. Users rendering high definition video files or playing the latest games will naturally gravitate toward the powerful desktop systems. Users that must have mobility will require a laptop. The rest of us will have to decide if the convenience of portability is worth sacrificing the strength of the desktop.

You can follow the entire computer4dad series here.

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The journey starts off innocently enough…

To: “David Kirk”
Subject: Lap Top
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 2008 09:41:18 -0400
MIME-Version: 1.0

I am going to get a laptop. I need your help on what and where to get .

Dad

My father wants to get a laptop. I have that feeling that a parent gets when a child asks for a car or a bike or whatever. What appears to be a simple task is really a challenge to find the perfect fit.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Andrew*

Easy answers exist. If I were a zealot one way or another, then I would tell him to get whatever is my favorite device of the moment. I could be lazy and just send him a bunch of links and then hope he figures it out all on his own. Easy answers would lead to confusion and frustration for both of us — especially with parents living 13 hours away.

Dad is currently running an XP box with broadband, printer, scanner, and a couple of digital cameras. He learns well through step-by-step directions but can stumble if new obstacles are thrown his way. He transitioned away from AOL easily enough. However, storing, editing, and retrieving photos in an efficient way still seems challenging.

Just when I think Dad’s system is running well, he wants a laptop. Of course, he does. Everybody wants a laptop. My desktop is used less and less since I started with my laptop. My wife is the same way. A laptop, however, introduces a whole bunch of new challenges.

To work well, a laptop needs a wifi network. To exchange files between a laptop and desktop is not painless or intuitive. Using a scanner and a printer with a laptop has unique challenges too. To top it all off, I have to decide if now would be a good time to introduce Dad to the world of Apple and OS X.

I wanted Dad and me to sit down over some adult beverages and discuss this; however, he is excited to get started. Anxiously, I have been pondering my plan, and I hope I have found the correct path. I am going to tackle each potential decision as a separate blog post. I will try to weigh the strengths and weakness at each step to help Dad make his choice. Hopefully, my blog readers will chime in with additional information as well.

Here are a few examples of planned posts:

  • Laptop versus desktop
  • Apple versus Microsoft
  • Save or ditch the desktop

I will start each post from a beginner level and expand into our normal geek territory. If interesting comments appear, I will amend and edit my posts to reflect new ideas as well.

My father was key into getting me into computers. I get my technology-loving side honestly. Help us find him the best system.

I will blog these entries as computer4dad if you want to keep up with the series.

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