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Price vs Value - Part 2 - Computers Why getting a "good deal" really isn’t!

In my last article, I talked about why getting a “good deal” on a printer may not be the cost savings you think it is. If you missed it, or want a refresher, you can take a look here. I’m going to continue on with examining “good deals” on computers.

When looking to replace or add a computer, you face a similar choice: do you buy a business class machine, or should you just pick up a computer on sale at the local big box store?

Understanding hardware specifications can be confusing (i5, i7, DDR4, SSD, Ryzen, etc.) but when evaluating between business class and consumer grade computers, these specifications are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface, or – in this instance - inside the case.

As a technician and someone who repairs machines on a regular basis, I can tell you that the internal differences are the ones you should be concerned with.

Consumer grade computers - those available off the shelf in retail or big box stores – aren’t built for longevity, upgradeability, or ease of repair, they’re built to be cost competitive. As such, they’re often filled with proprietary components and unexpected hardware choices which lock you in to the existing machine configuration. In addition, there’s frequently very little physical space for additional components. These choices make replacement parts difficult to source, and frequently also make existing components difficult to remove. Overall, these computers are difficult or impossible to repair when something goes wrong.

With laptops, there’s also usually a sacrifice in chassis strength, quality and serviceability. Business class laptops are often designed to be more durable, reliable, and serviceable. Dell, HP and Lenovo all have good business product lines.

In both desktops and laptops, the warranty tells the real story. Length of warranty is an indication of how long the manufacturer expects a machine to perform reliably. Consumer grade machines come standard with a one year warranty; business class machines with a three year warranty. Why the difference? “Silicon lottery.”

CPU Wafer

Let me explain. CPU manufacturers (like Intel and AMD) produce tens to hundreds of individual units on a single piece of media called a wafer, made from silicon and other precious metals. Due to inevitable manufacturing defects, not all of the units meet the specifications for top-of-the-line models. These imperfect CPUs are tested for stability and then re-branded as lower level models with slower clock speeds, limited features or lower power consumption. Memory and graphics cards are manufactured and graded in a similar fashion.

These not-to-spec components are often sold in bulk to system manufacturers (Dell, Lenovo, HP, etc.) for use in their lower end consumer-grade systems. The components aren’t defective, or inherently worse, they just do not perform to the highest manufacturer standards, so their reliability is an unknown factor.

Another factor for consideration is the setup and configuration time. Someone will have to setup the machine. Out of the box, nothing is exactly how you want it, so someone will need to configure it. Computers designed for business use often have supporting software to assist with hardware diagnostics, installing drivers, and providing easy access to software purchased with the unit. There are also options for extended duration, higher quality and faster warranty support if issues do arise. Computers designed for home use usually come with a much more limited toolset to assist in setup.

Finally, when one of your computers goes down (and it’s a question of when, not if, with any computer) you must factor in both the cost of having a technician repair it, and the less visible cost of having an unproductive employee while the machine is out of service. Both of these expenses increase as repair time increases, and hardware built for business use is built with rapid repair in mind.

In the end, it boils down to making sure you’re selecting the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t buy a tractor to commute to work, would you? What about a Harley Davidson for off-roading in the desert? Machines, including computers, are designed and built for the type of environment they will be working in, and the job they’re expected to accomplish.

In the next newsletter, I’ll get to the final piece: how to select components for your electronic and networking infrastructure.

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