Don’t believe the hardware hype

I’ve just ordered a new laptop. Is it another PowerBook? I hear you cry.


An iBook?


A top-of-the-range Alienware gaming laptop?


A state-of-the-art Pentium Mobile with massive screen?

Nay, nay and thrice nay.

I’ve ordered a bog-standard, not particularly exciting, Celeron-based Dell Inspiron with a 14″ screen. I didn’t buy it because it’s fast – it isn’t – and I didn’t buy it because it’s cutting-edge technology, because it isn’t that either. I bought it for one reason and one reason only: after the various “buy today and get x% off” offers, it cost a grand total of £457.

£457 for a brand new laptop – that’s cheaper than most refurbs, and safer than any second-hand buy.

Of course, it isn’t as expandable as higher-end machines, but the only expansion I intend to do is to stick a Wi-Fi card in it. The screen isn’t the biggest, but I do most of my work on the Powerbook and I’ve got a big flatscreen monitor I can hook up to it if 14 inches isn’t enough. Battery life is rubbish but most of the places I travel to, I run the laptop on AC power anyway. And it comes with a 1-year warranty, so if it breaks after that period I can smash it to bits with a hammer and order another one.

Most importantly of all, I’d be much less devastated if a £450 laptop was broken or nicked on my travels than I would be if my Powerbook suffered the same fate. All I need when I’m on the move is Word and Wi-Fi, music playback and possibly the odd bit of DVD watching – and a cheap and nasty Dell is just as capable of those things as the most expensive PowerBook you can buy.

One of the big myths about computing is that you need the latest, greatest technology – and in most cases that’s completely untrue. If all you need to do is run Office, manage your digital photos and music, browse the web and send emails then there’s absolutely no reason to shell out thousands of pounds on state-of-the-art kit when a second-hand PC or Mac will be more than adequate.

Of course, if you don’t have a reasonably recent PC then you won’t be able to use the latest applications, the system requirements for which are truly terrifying. Again though, do you really want to? The word processors of ten years ago weren’t much less useful than the word processors of today, and the latest versions of music software are often bloated pieces of crap with endless DRM “enhancements”. An old copy of WinAmp or iTunes is quite happy with MP3s, and there’s no shortage of shareware, freeware and open source programs that can do most of the things big-name programs can do – without the massive system requirements or the massive price tag.

The exception is games, where we’re repeatedly told to upgrade our kit to play Doom III, Half-Life 2 or whatever. And while there’s some truth to that argument – games are driving PC technology these days – I still think it’s flawed. Reviews suggest that Half-Life 2 gives you about 14 to 18 hours of playing time; it’s a similar story with Doom 3 and other big-ticket games. Is it really worth shelling out hundreds or even thousands of pounds for less than a day of gaming?

Put it another way: if you borrow £1,000 on the super-low-rate Halifax credit card and pay only the minimum balance each month, it’ll take you 12 years and 4 months to repay the money. 12 years of payments for 14 hours of gaming? Bargain!