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Casual users need as good a computer as possible, proficient users can make do (ignco.de)
90 points by redacted 1863 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

Hehe, I was thinking about this recently, and I suspect it's true. I actually spent quite a bit on my current laptop (although, importantly, I optimized for screen resolution, size and weight above sheer performance). Then I looked at my usage patterns.

Which program do I use the most? Easy: Emacs and Firefox. Which I could probably run--just as easily--on virtually any computer imaginable.

Emacs really speaks for itself; "eight megabytes and constantly swapping" is not an insult any more. In the grand scheme of things, Emacs uses essentially no resources.

And Firefox is good for two reasons: it's pretty efficient as is, and I don't visit many heavy websites. Hacker News, StackOverflow, Reddit, Google, hackage, Wikipedia and so on could easily be rendered by even the weakest of computers.

So I could probably get by almost as comfortably on a ten-year-old laptop. The main problem I would have would be with compilers (especially GHC), but I don't compile large packages all that often. The programs I work on myself are never gigantic. So for my own files, especially without optimizations, compile time would not be an issue even on a smaller machine. And if I'm not using Haskell or OCaml, chances are I'm using something like Scheme or Python or JavaScript, which don't even have compile times.

I am definitely sure that I could get by on a significantly weaker computer than somebody with less technical acumen. But would I? No! I love my useless desktop effects, my silly widgets and my 20-second boot. I like my programs opening in seconds. And I certainly enjoy having more computer power than I strictly need.

So while I'm pretty sure I require far less computer resources than most people, I'm still going to get a nicer computer than I strictly have to. Just because I can.

Just an amusing observation I've had about myself.

I made the same observation and actually got an "underpowered" laptop. The only time I ever notice it's less powerful than my desktop at work is on the rare occasions I reboot into Windows (for some reason, its scheduler is much worse than Linux's).

I actually made a similar observation to this in high school, and promptly used what money I could to get myself a crappy netbook. (I also didn't really have that much disposable income back then, just what I made working retail)

An observation that I've made after using (a later, the first one broke) netbook with a conventional build versus the same netbook with a SSD is that with a hard drive, netbooks are painfully slow. Once you've swapped that for a really fast SSD, and stopped using Windows on it, it boots in 10-15 seconds and programs usually launch almost-instantaneously. I've found it to be almost as nice to use as my (much nicer and newer, quad core with a nice graphics card) desktop. There are exceptions to the 'almost as nice': flash doesn't work well, screen size is an annoyance sometimes, and you clearly aren't going to be doing much with CUDA. But considering it cost ~$550 with the SSD (which was almost as expensive as the netbook), as compared to well over $1000 for the desktop+screens, it's pretty awesome (and portable, too) for someone who doesn't always have extra cash (students don't have the best salary).

I'm only 34, but my first hard drive had a capacity of 40MB.

I am genuinely excited to be alive at a time when people can describe having a portable computer with a 128GB persistent ram disk as "making do".

No snark intended. Technology is amazing. That is all.

Yeah, this made me smile too. The Amiga computer ran a full-featured multi-task OS on 512kb of RAM in 1984, and my Windows 7 is still struggling with 4gb on RAM on the board as it constantly writes temporary files on the Disk. Technology is amazing but somehow, our OSes are not "so" amazing. And let's not forget Windows XP and its tendency to turn the MBR into crap over time, making it slower and slower as time goes. Linux is a better OS in all these aspects, but there's still room for improvement.

I would say we need a lot of power even for entry-level computers because our software is incredibly bloated in the first place, and not written towards efficiency. That's basically the game Microsoft and other have been playing for a long time: do not care about performance, because the specs will catch up anyway.

That's not quite fair to compare, a modern computer OS has a lot more features than something like Amiga OS.

Say for example, you have a folder full of movie files. The difference in computing required between just displaying a list of the files in there vs interrogating each file, generating a thumbnail on the fly and possibly sorting based on some metadata inside the file is probably more than an order of magnitude.

Not to mention all the extra stuff you have for security and stability when you are running so many applications at the same time.

You also have the classic trade-off of developer time (and therefor time to market) vs computer time.

The difference in computing required between just displaying a list of the files in there vs interrogating each file, generating a thumbnail on the fly and possibly sorting based on some metadata

Perhaps it's just me but I would happily trade in all that gimmickery for a usable file manager on OSX. I don't care for thumbnails.

I think I have tried every finder-addon and replacement under the sun. Nothing comes close to the frictionless and fast experience that (dare I say it) Windows98 Explorer gave me 14 years ago.

iTerm + `locate`. It rarely fails to find anything. The solution is a bit "out there," but it solves my problems.

Well, point taken (I'm a heavy shell-user myself).

However there's a range of tasks where a GUI file manager is just the right tool for the job. I maintain OSX should have a proper file manager, regardless how much Apple wants the Filesystem metaphor to die.

I'd add zsh to this combo.

Sure, I agree with you, it is not possible to compare them side by side.

I am merely pointing out the fact that I have yet to find a smooth experience on modern desktops like I found on previous systems years ago. No matter how much power we now have, it still feel damn slow, and maybe there is an excess of gimmicks vs actual, useful, clean functionality.

It is funny, in a way. I've had pretty much the same history as you do (not yet 35, 40MB of HDD after surviving on 2 double-density 5.25 floppy drives), but it is true that 128GB today is quite low, space wise. I recently bought a new camera (Nikon D600), and if you shoot at the best possible quality, each RAW file takes up some 30MB. Add a few movies, and suddenly those 128GB feel positively cramped.

I turn 35 this year, and I had computers with much smaller drives but the first HD I purchased was a 212MB for around $200 of my hard earned money. I bought it used. this also reminds me why a cd burner at 650 MB, more if you overburn was so incredible! given the size of hardrives now we need something well into the TB range to give us the same use. I enjoyed the jaunt down memory lane.

I disagree. I believe there is a threshold level of performance beyond which casual users cannot discern any improvement.

I believe that threshold for CPU performance is currently around a low/mid-range i5. Getting a faster processor than that will not translate into any tangible benefits in everyday usage. Even if there were a CPU that had twice the performance of an i5, an end user can not tell the difference between "practically instantaneous" and "1/2 practically instantaneous."

Likewise, there are limits to storage capacity. My parents, for example, store everything on a single 1TB hard disk. Their drive barely has 250GB used, OS and all. At their current rate of consumption, they might exceed 50% disk use in 5 years. Now we could come up with cases where the computer user is a photographer, a videographer, or likes to collect linux isos, but I believe in most real "casual use" cases, anything >1TB (currently) may as well be infinite.

Obviously there are also upper limits on what screen size a casual user would be able to effectively utilize. We should note, of course, that many casual users do not understand how to effectively manage windows between two monitors. I think the coming increase in pixel density coupled with a medium (say, 21 inch) monitor would provide a casual user with about as much screen as they could effectively use.

Lastly, there are cost trade-offs for all these things. Consider home internet. It is true that power users might be able to make do with internet speeds that would frustrate casual users (e.g. using Opera Turbo or using a data plan.) However, in my area for example, you would have to pay roughly 3x as much to get a "performance" 25 Mbps package versus the entry level 3-5 Mbps. Would it make sense for someone to pay that much more for internet just so that their youtube videos buffered faster?

Yes, but the casual user will need many GB of RAM on an i5. Any time I use my wife's laptop, it goes something like this:

Man this is slow: "top -ores"

"Hey hon, can I close any of these 4 word documents? What about the 15 webpages? No? Okay, I'll go get my laptop."

But I'd say that 6GB is probably more than adequate for casual users for the next few years. (4GB might be enough, but if we allow for crapware...) 6GB isn't top of the line, though; 8GB laptops are fairly common, and even higher capacities (i.e. 12 and 16GB) are available. I am hard pressed to exceed 6GB of memory use without resorting to methods like booting a virtual machine.

Sometimes it's good for developers to use an average or slightly below-average machine (for testing, at least) so that they feel the pain of inefficient code more deeply.

With the latest releases of OS X, I am convinced the entire Apple development staff got SSDs way before I did.

I'm running the latest release of OS X (10.8.2) on a 2.4 Ghz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro from 2007. The only thing the OS has done is improve in speed over its predecessors. I am not sure that it is entirely accurate to say that the Apple development team got SSDs before we did because there was a noticeable difference in speed on my laptop that was definitely appreciated.

I had the opposite feeling of my old mbp. Every OS upgrade seemed to slow down until I got an SSD and more ram in my new laptop. Which is expected to some level. To say it got faster each iteration is a bit of a stretch.

I strongly disagree.

1. space

In a perfect reality I agree. In our reality you often end up with a crappy unreliable or data volume capped internet connection. The data in the cloud is useless when I can't access it fast enough.

2. speed

If the cpu is slow it just is slow. Lukas, if you want to spend your time waiting for the compiler rather than writing code, you can do that but I don't.

3. screen size

It is possible to run eclipse on a 1024x600 netbook. But I'm pretty sure the productivity is higher if you can fit an ide, one or two pdfs, a web browser and instant messages on your screen.

A high-end user benefits from a nicer machine. A low-end user requires it.

For example, I largely mitigate most of your issues when using my netbook by treating it as a terminal. The "real work" gets done on my faster rig, with compilation offloaded to a grid. Because of that, I'm only a tiny bit less productive on my netbook compared to working from my office.

And that entire productivity drop is due to the small screen.

Agreed. My current project is 61 linkages with a quarter million lines of code. I rebuild it from scratch in a couple of minutes. A faster computer reduces my cycle time - giving my employer something like 20% more Engineer-hours for his money.

Having worked a helpdesk at a university, I agree 100%. It saddens me when people come in with $400 pieces of junk loaded up with crapware that take 10 minutes for everything to load on startup.

I know how to remove all of that and get a reasonable experience out of the hardware - they don't.

My 13" MBA with every option ticked is a way better "default" computer for them, but they're not willing to or unable to spend the money for whatever reason.

I do a fair bit of tutoring on Skype, at $80 an hour. Often 5-10 minutes of an hour long lesson is spend watching my student deal with technical difficulties on their computer.

Their system fails them at very simple tasks: displaying a website (often the solution is use chrome or firefox rather then IE 8), opening a picture file, bandwidth for Skype video, audio/microphone output, RAM for running Skype + a browser, etc.

They waste money with me, and they're surely wasting time with almost everything they do. It's bafflingly inefficient, when you consider the marginal cost of buying a better computer at purchase time.

However, much of what you described has little or nothing to do with them having bad hardware. It's almost exclusively software and amenities (bandwidth).

Yeah, I generalized it to not makintbe effort to setting up a good system, such as paying $10 a month for better bandwidth, or upgrading old software. XP + IE8

Try Sococo instead of Skype. Its tested under low-capacity situations and we (I work there) intend it to be self-adjusting to conditions.

Here's my anecdote:

I cut my teeth programming MC6811's with eprom storage. I'm more than happy to program a PIC in assembly to make my projects go, but I'm super impressed with what today's army of weekend warriors can do with their arduinos.

I agree on some points - getting a bad screen or keyboard will make using the machine painful - get good ones. Investing into a faster CPU or GPU is a complete waste of money. Most of the cheap machines try to give you a fast CPU while skipping on the important parts.

I found chromebooks to use decent hardware where it matters and skipping on the rest.

Faster CPUs are always nice, however. I wouldn't consider them a waste of money for a development machine. Even web browsing is improved by a faster processor, however.

I agree when comparing atom to a core, but I can't tell the difference between a i5 and a i7.

Having owned both, I can. Not so much with web browsing but with compile/test cycles, every little bit makes a noticable difference. (Remember when Linux kernel compiles took 20 minutes? Now 20 seconds feels like a long time.)

I have to agree with this sentiment.

My personal anecdote is more that I have a handful of better computers in the house, but the laptop I spend the most time working and programming with is my crappy 8-year old gateway running Ubuntu. I'm not entirely sure why I'm drawn to it over the others, even if it's the slowest and oldest machine in the house (excluding my netbook). But I type faster on this keyboard than any other keyboard I've ever used.

There's just something about it that I prefer, and I'm perfectly willing to deal with its warts, as it's used almost exclusively for programming (vim and ssh don't exactly use a lot of resources). Chrome does have some memory issues on it (and I'm considering switching back to Firefox for that laptop), and sometimes compilation times get annoying, but overall, this system has been tweaked and configured to be my ultimate programming machine.

Plus, testing server software on slower machines can be helpful to find bottlenecks that might not present themselves as obviously on blazing fast machines.

All that said, I'd say we've gotten to the point where a casual user will do just fine with 4-year-old technology. Most Core2 machines are fast enough for just about anything. And Casual PC users typically aren't PC Gamers, which is its own segment, and even then, my Core2 PC for gaming is "fast enough" to play the games I play.

I am pleasantly surprised by how much I agree with this article and it applies to other technology like cars, tools, etc. A good corollary is a proficient user is well served by spares.

Ex: our router is acting up so I'll swap it with one sitting on a shelf. Or, it's easier to fix your computer or car if you have another one to download patches or give you a few days to get the job done.

...for small values of "proficient". Although I do a lot of different things with a computer these days, my primary use case is editing large photographic images in quantity. And while I don't need the working machine to have a large amount of long-term storage (it lives elsewhere most of the time), RAM, processing speed (both CPU and CGU) and display size (and depth) matter to me in ways that they absolutely do not to a typical Instagram lunch-picture-poster. Let's not mistake programming or text document creation for "proficiency" or for a "normative" professional use case. There are a lot of people out there dealing with media creation, and processing power (along with software that can efficiently use that power) makes a huge difference in productivity. If I can knock two minutes off of the processing time for each "keeper" image shot at a wedding, that's a full working day saved. And compared to the video guys, I have it easy.

The guy who wrote this uses a mac, his examples are relevant to mac software, is he even entitled to write about the subject or did he just try to fill his weekly rant quota?

If you have a mac, don't write about netbooks being shitty. It's your opinion, true, but you should keep that opinion to yourself.

I do lots on my netbook.

I'm sorry, I didn't realize that I needed some kind of official entitlement to be allowed to write about this subject. Since you seem to know more, can you point me in the proper direction? Where do I get the entitlement that I require?

By the way, I also have two netbooks (a Asus running Ubuntu, and a hackintoshed Dell). That's kind of my point: netbooks aren't shitty — for people like us. We know what they are, and we can work around their limitations. Most "regular" people don't, and can't.

Makes sense. But I will give an Arduino to the next senior citizen I meet and find out for sure.

Proficient users can do: depends on the kind of work you do, if you have to process images or video data or compile large projects, run data analysis tools on large amounts of data then you will need a fast computer. But for everyday work this is right, I can set up a decent enough Linux + browser + text editor and a few more tools on a very low level machine.

Casual users need a good computer: Maybe, but the problems described do not disappear with a better computer. If you crap a small or medium machine, it will only take a bit longer until you messed up a better machine too.

I would argue that most of these issues are software problems. Advising casual users to buy better hardware might help the symptoms somewhat, but the real solution would be better-adapted software or non-lazy developers. (Better-adapted: software that runs well on entry-level machines rather than just on state-of-the-art machines. Lazy: write poorly-performing code and rely on state-of-the-art hardware to run it.)

In many cases this is true, but the thrust of the article is that enthusiasts are able to make more efficient use of the resources available than entry-level users.

Certainly one aspect of that is enthusiasts having the good sense to either fix or dump bloated software.

I respect the authors' thoughts but I think that he is utterly mislead. Crappy software (eg windows) has always exceeded hardware capabilities. Buying the best (and most expensive) is a dead end. You will both pay too much and still have the same bad experience, only a little later in the future.

I would argue that all that is needed is that casual users demanding what they pay for, eg a system that works.

> Most casual iPhone owners I know never synchronize their iPhones, but take tons of pictures with it.

One interesting side effect of this is that casual users are probably not using iCloud backups, because the free space is only 5 GB and they have more than 5 GB of photos so it refuses to backup.

I don't the same point of view as the writer in the article. In essence mine is: you need an adapted device to your needs.

Since casual users buy a device for emails, browsing the web and watching movies, they must buy a deviced adated to those needs. And the iPad v1 for instance is well suited. If you look at the iPad v1's tech specs, it is not tremendous. I don't remember exactly, something like 256MB RAM ... 16Go SSD disk .. and so on. Apple made technical choices (or design choices) based on the user needs.

At the contrary if I need to compile big c++ projects with more that 1,000,000 lines of code. I need to set-up a something suiting my needs. Either a big machine with a big horsepower. Or a compiling grid? Whatever. Something that suit my needs.

"I don’t have any issues using a notebook with a 128GB SSD, because my iTunes library and my photos are on a home server. I also use cloud storage extensively, and don’t store a lot locally."

So, the casual people should allready use home server and cloud storage before buying a computer

No. The point is that they don't have these things, so they probably need more than 128 GB of storage on their laptop.

Encouraging money wasting to make up for misdesigns and lack of education ? Hard to agree with that.

Not everybody wants to be "educated" in the intricacies of modern PC hardware and OS design. And, in fact, not everybody should need to be. I don't know exactly how trains work; I just sit in one, and it gets me to where I want to go.

And that's good.

It's not my job to fix the train to get it to run properly; neither should it be the user's job to fix their crappy computer. Instead, her job should be to do a heart transplant, or write a court ruling, or fix the clutch in a car. That doesn't make her uneducated; it makes her somebody who views her computer as a tool, not as a hobby.

I don't subscribe to this. Using a transport system isn't just sitting in the first thing you see. You'll probably have to book, or know a map, decode the lingo of the network. And that's only if they provide you just what you need. If there's a problem, you'll have to rewire your plan, find new paths, their data, compare .. How many people get confused in subways on their first encounter ? just stopping using it for a few months and you'll lose habits.

Just like a computer.

And I'm absolutely not fond of how our OSes and software are designed, that's what I was suggesting by 'misdesigns'. What I reject is the neverending story of buying new shiny when old rusty could have done it but nobody told you that. People's mindset is that problems are solved by spilling money and trashing usable devices, double waste.

You sound like you're unfamiliar with public transport?

The way trains usually work nowadays is that you open a website, enter from where to where you want to go, and when you want to arrive, push the "pay" button, and print out the resulting page (which contains your schedule, sometimes a backup schedule, and a QR code that works as your ticket). Then, you just follow the schedule.

There's absolutely no need to know any map or lingo or network.

The main point I'm making is that, for most people, computers are appliances. I use my stove, but I'm not a cook. I'm not a "stove technician", either. I just know that I need to heat stuff at a certain level for a certain amount of time, and I only have to turn a simple knob to achieve that.

Similarly, most computer users aren't programmers or techs. They just want to write a letter. They should be able to do that without knowing about viruses and SSDs and RAM and OS upgrades and file format incompatibilities.

I'm familiar with it, I see people confused everyday, myself too sometimes. It's a nice myth that you can just get somewhere and everything will unfold naturally. You'll always have to learn how to communicate your intent to a system, and for each implementation of this system it will be slightly different, be it a subway network, a word processor, a stove, or even a pencil.

It gets down to the issue with any product be it a car, house or even a cooker. You have to maintain them, be that cleaning or proactive and reactive maintenance like MOT on a car or repairs for a broken part.

This is also true of computers. Sadly the cost of AA/RAC for a car is a lot cheaper than any software support agreement, let alone hardware. Which is half the battle.

People treat computers like they treat calculators, a simple tool, robust that should just work and you don't have to worry about it degrading overtime beyond jam or dirt on the buttons.

It is with that that with most users the only maintenance they carry out is to clean there mouse, monitor and keyboard. Those who know IT/computers well and operating systems and even those who have a little knowledge, know that this is not the case.

So the argument that a casual user needs a more robust/powerful computer to counter the degrading aspect is right but also the wrong approach. For the price of a high-end SSD computer the humbler user could buy a standard well adjusted computer and a year later buy a replacement and still end up spending less money.

With mobile phones and tablets the mentality the industry is bestowing is one of that the product is good for the warranty period and after that you should be getting a new model anyhow.

With that, you don't need bleeding edge or to be paying for it, you need something that you can get support/issues dealt with under warranty. This is why Apple are doing well, as for a common end user, having a store they can get that level of support and a standard point of call is one which they know and trust. If you get a Ford car, during its warranty period you get it regularly serviced by Ford, this is true of a lot of consumer products for the period of there warranty. It is outside that period were the extra user is pushed that you use 3rd parties expertise.

Now with a computer the amount of time and effort to get it back to normal is almost guaranteed to be greater than its initial cost if you start hand repairing things beyond a certain level and with that a the approach of just reinstalling became the standard and safest approach It's not lazy, its just the best sane way. We have all heard the story of a friend of Steve Balmer having issues with his PC and Mr Balmer saying my techs will sort it out and after many many hours/days etc. they concluded that it was best to reinstall than to hand pick all the spyware/malware and other issues it had. So as an approach you not showing that you can't do it, just that it is really the sanest and in many cases the only real way to fix the issue software wise.

Now back to a common run of the mill computer user having some high-end SSD singing system. Sure it will hide the issues a lot of PC have in that it will have the speed to hide those issues, does it make it better, is it a better approach, nope. A approach which the user can pay for a PC and software and have one place which he can get support, on a fair price support contract is one which they want. People say Apple products are pricey, but there again support is not cheap and if you can cover that and offer a little bit more touchy feely element to the support procedure for the user then the user is happier.

Yes you do have to hold there hand, but there again we are in many ways at the stage with computers were there was no driving licence and antivirals is not legally required so in many respects we have yet to get to the stage which has a man walking in front with a red flag warning non drivers of the impending car coming

It is also worth factoring in that computer with regards to laptops/desktops are in many ways like Swiss army knifes in that they are multi functional tools. you could have a computer that does just manage the time and display it and it will just work doing that simple dedicated job, we call them watches and you can get expensive or cheap ones, they generally just work, doing that one job.

Imagine eating your meal using only Swiss army knifes, sure it would be doable-though not as easy as using a dedicated knife, fork and spoon and bottle opener etc. This is what home computers are, dedicated multi-function tools. They can play games, they can do work processing and they can run nuclear power plants, but they are also not as good as a dedicated tool for the job.

So for a lot do they need a powerful computer, no they need a games console to play games upon, they need a camera that plugs into there printer, they need a computer that just does there internet banking/facebook and allows them to do emails and type and read documents. So in many respects for common normal users I'd say a dedicated tool whenever possible is more apt and for many a chromebook would not be that wide of the mark.

Another way to look at it is does a normal user need a high-end scientific function graphing calculator or something that does the basics. When you look at it from that perspective you understand that a dedicated tool which will just work at that limited range of tasks the user wants is more suitable than not.

Remember the average common user want s simple interface and with that you can appreciate why Windows8 changed as much, me as a geek who knows what to do I found Vista just fine and lament the direction windows8 metro is going. But I understand it and accept it. Though until we get a system that just works and is not in need of software updates every random moment and is as robust as a desktop calculator, well until then everybody could do with understanding a little bit of computer maintenance in the same way that early car users had to be mechanically minded or have somebody on staff who was.

Remember you can add a margin of error and give a normal user a high-end computer or you can just eliminate that error and give them the tools they need that just work. With that for many a games-console, telephone and Tablet or Chromebook seem to be more suitable over the state of the art high-end tools. It would be like shopping at Tesco's in a Ferrari, sure can be done, but an expensive way towards practicality. I would also want a user that had an issue to be able to know and get help, if they have malware scanning and hacking away at the internet as part of a Bot army then I’d like there pc to slow down and for them to be able to see they need help. Certainly not approach that issue by making them have a faster PC and bigger pipe to the internet.

Do you have spellcheck enabled?

No such option, though I did copy it, popped it into write and hit F7 to much bemusement (thank you) and edited it as above.

assuming a decent computer is affordable by average ppl. why bother killing this n that, switching here and there just to accomodate an old/cheap computer? just my thought :)

This is a stupid statement. If that's true, then why are many casual users ditching computers for tablets?

Because (some) tablets actually are good computers. They achieve extremely high quality (speed, good UX) at the tasks they do by simply not doing most of the tasks a desktop PC does. If you only want to do email and some web browsing, a tablet is actually a higher-quality, faster, easier-to-use machine than a PC.

Because tablets lower the bar for proficiency. If tablets were just lower power, cheaper computers that happened to be portable and have touch screens, you wouldn't see adoption of tablets by casual users.

"Do one thing well."

Because they don't know what will make them most effective at getting their work done.

Because their computers are clogged with viruses?

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