Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
My wife's computer was struggling and it was time to replace it. After evaluating her usage, her willingness to make a change or two and my own experience, I made a decision that might surprise some.
My wife's old Dell D610 laptop has served us well for many years, but its age was beginning to show. Maxed out at 2GB of RAM, running Windows 7 Professional along with Microsoft Security Essentials, Team Viewer, Dropbox, Evernote, and a couple of other things, it was just getting ... pokey.
Not absolutely, horrifically slow, but slow enough from time to time that it was clear action would soon be called for.
Now, the normal approach would be to backup, reformat, reinstall ... it'd been a while since I'd done that to this machine and it was probably overdue for that level of cleanup. And it would probably help.
But I'd also decided that she was overdue for a new computer anyway, so I'll be completely honest and call it what it really was.
The most important question whenever anyone asks me what computer to get is, "Well, how are you going to use it?"
My wife's needs are actually very simple:
Email: I'll claim that something just short of half of her computer usage is email.
Web: Also just short of half the time is spent in a browser, be it various websites relating to her hobbies, Facebook or whatnot.
Well over 90% of her usage is nothing more than email and web browsing. The rest is a smattering of instant messaging, word processing, and note taking.
All told, nothing particularly stressful for most machines.
As I outlined in Do desktop or laptop platforms really matter any more?, there's nothing at all PC specific about what she's doing. In fact, just about any reasonable system would do, be it PC, Mac or even Linux. Honestly, as an active user of all three, the PC versus Mac debate is pretty much over as far as I'm concerned. Everybody won.
My own experience with my Mac led me to believe that the changes my wife might encounter if she used a Mac would be handled fairly easily.
So my choice of what to get her next was based mostly on hardware.
And I'd fallen in love with the Macbook Air.
You'll find a lot of PC manufacturers touting the new "ultrabook" type of computer right now. Small, light with large screens, but no CD/DVD drive and often using SSD hard disks, these computers are exceptionally portable. If you're someone who prefers a "real" keyboard, they're often a perfect lightweight alternative to a tablet of some sort.
And, as is sometimes the case, these manufacturers are playing catch-up.
The MacBook Air is really the first ultrabook.
Given that it has a solid track record, I really felt that it was a good, safe choice of hardware for my wife's next computer.
But switching computers - to just about anything - involves at least some amount of change.
Before we even switched computers, I'd asked my wife to try something.
She's used Outlook 2003 for a long time, but I've been routing her email through Gmail for the past couple of years.
So I asked her to try using Gmail directly via the web interface.
Outlook (as my wife knows it) is not directly available for the Mac (and even if we'd switched to a new PC, I'd probably upgrade to the latest Outlook anyway), so some kind of change was inevitable here. While there are many compatible email programs, including my favorite Thunderbird, my thinking was pretty simple: why bother? Particularly as a non-power user, Gmail's web interface is really all she needs and would allow us to jettison an entire program from what might actually need to be installed on whatever machine she landed on.
And if for whatever reason it didn't work, then absolutely we would simply install an email program, probably Thunderbird.
Of perhaps more interest is the fact that a lot of things work regardless of what computer or platform we might choose.
Google Chrome, Skype, Lastpass, Evernote, [and] Dropbox all work and work pretty much the same regardless of where you are. In the case of the last three - Lastpass, Evernote, and Dropbox - that even includes our phones.
Given that so much of her time is spent in the web browser, using the same browser and embedded utilities like Lastpass was a big win. I just installed and it all just worked.
Rather than install Microsoft Word for the Mac, I've elected to try LibreOffice, a free open-source Microsoft Office alternative. Able to produce Microsoft Word and Excel compatible documents, there's a very good chance that it'll more than meet the need. It's been installed, but as I write this, she hasn't had a need to use it yet.
Windows Live Messenger of course doesn't run on a Mac, but Trillian does. I'll be installing that shortly.
As for the rest... well, that's actually all I've been able to identify as being needed so far. I'm confident that when the inevitable "What about ....?" comes up, there'll be plenty of acceptable solutions.
Change isn't always completely smooth. And there are a couple of differences encountered so far that my wife has commented on:
The "no button" trackpad. Not a big fan of trackpads to begin with, this was easily solved by plugging in the (Microsoft) USB mouse into the Macbook Air.
The behavior of the Delete key. To a Windows user, the Mac Delete key behaves as Backspace (deleting the character before the cursor) with no obvious equivalent to a Windows Delete (deleting the character after the cursor). I know I bump into this myself all the time as I switch between machines.
I expect more minor issues to crop up - the difference between the Ctrl and Command keys for copy and paste keystrokes, for example - but nothing major.
It wouldn't be an Ask Leo! article if I didn't talk about how this fancy new computer is getting backed up.
In short, it's not. Not directly anyway.
Now before you go calling me a hypocrite, let me explain my reasoning:
The majority of my wife's "data" (in the form of email) isn't kept on the machine. It's on Google's servers. I do back that up separately, using other machines and technology.
The one change I made to LibreOffice immediately after installing it was to change its default data folder to be a folder in DropBox (as Office's had been on her old machine). Any document created or modified there is immediately replicated to DropBox servers as well as about half a dozen other machines and which are also backed up using other means.
Other data kept actually on the machine is minor. Even notes kept in Evernote are synchronized to their online servers.
All that really leaves is a system backup. I'm making a conscious decision to not keep one. If the system suffers a catastrophic failure, I'll let the local Apple Store take care of it. It'll take me maybe half an hour to restore the changes I've made and applications installed after that.
I will mention Time Machine, Apple's backup software. I'm a big fan and I use it on my own Mac mostly because I have a lot more actually installed on the machine. Unfortunately, it's not easily configured to backup over a network (and I'm not even sure about restoring over a network). Leaving an external hard disk with the laptop at all times also seems somewhat counter to the way the machine will be used.
The important take away: I'm making an informed decision and no data will be lost. The worst-case scenario would be an inconvenience, but only an inconvenience.
The machine configuration is well beyond what my wife actually requires.
Most importantly, I maxed out the RAM, ordering it with 8GB. Even the disk space (256GB) is more than she needs.
Why? Two things, actually:
Longevity. As we all know by now, over time software expands to fill all available resources. Having more resources available means that the machine will continue to be viable for applications and operating systems that continue to grow in size over the coming years.
Contingency. If for whatever reason this machine didn't work out for my wife, it would probably end up being mine. My needs, as you might expect, are somewhat more demanding and ordering a machine that would work for me meant that, even if completely rejected, the machine would still fill a useful role elsewhere.
If this machine were more easily user-upgradable, I might have skimped on RAM or other aspects, simply making sure that it could be upgraded at some point in the future.
I don't mean this all to imply that I'm recommending everyone switch to Macs. Not at all. And Ask Leo!'s focus will continue to be where my expertise resides: Windows, the internet, and technology in general.
Macs are fine machines but so are many PCs. Operating systems and the applications you expect to use every day are perhaps a more compelling decision point. As I pointed out at the beginning, I started by carefully considering how this machine would be used before thinking about what specific hardware or software might be required.
That, more than anything, is the point that I want to get across. All computers, be they PCs or Macs, exist to fill a need. The better you understand your own personal needs and constraints, the more informed a decision you'll be able to make.
Don't underestimate the "personal" portion of that statement. Accepting change is, in my opinion, critical to the effective use of computers and technology, but the practical reality is that we don't all react to change the same way. Some can't really handle much change at all (as frustrating as folks such as myself might find that to be).
But understanding exactly how you use your computer, what's required to meet your needs, and to what degree your usage can change - even perhaps to the point of walking away from the email program you've used every day for years - can help you make an informed decision that can result in a more effective, and even fun, computing experience.
I know my wife got a pretty sweet machine out of the deal. (And she agrees. )
So far, so good.
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