A Short But Sweet PC Buyer's Guide

We all end up having to buy new PCs for our business, but with so much choice available, how do we know whether we're making a good decision. In this episode, Matthew Reynolds takes a look at how to tell which PCs on the market suit most peoples needs, as well as talking about Macs vs PCs in business, ethical purchasing of PC equipment, and how to set-up your working environments to promote flow and productivity in your work.
6 June 2020
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Hey, deserving listeners. Today we're going to be taking a look at a buyer's guide for PCs within our business. Whether we're buying laptop PCs, or whether we're buying desktop PCs. Whether we're buying traditional Windows PCs or Macs. There's a lot to this topic but what I'm going to do is look at some really key things that we can think about when we buy PCs to cut through a lot of the rubbish and make sure that we're getting something that's really good, that we can rely on for a good five to seven years and it doesn't break the bank. We're going to be looking both at how you would walk into PC World, or Amazon or wherever you're going to buy your hardware from and we're going to look at how we can configure your working space or the spaces in which you work and how you can do the same for your employees. We're going to have a look at this issue between Windows PCs and Macs, and we're going to have a look at some environmental and ethical issues. Finally, we're also going to touch on buying smartphones and bringing some of the ideas we learned into that.

What we're looking to do is buy a good PC. We need to navigate the market to make sure we spend the right amount of money and get something that we can rely on for our day to day use. There's a great name that I like for this, which is a “daily driver”. This idea of something that we're using everyday to do our work. Let's move on with the first bit, which is actually how we go about dissecting the market and how we would choose a PC to buy.

I've been in the industry for a long time and I started using computers when I was eight years old. I've always worked my entire professional career within the industry. But, even I, when walking into Currys PC World, when looking at all the laptops they have there, I look at it and think, “This is overwhelming.” That is nothing compared to going and looking at Amazon because when you just go and look for laptops on Amazon, there are millions of products on there. I'm a great believer in the thinking that how well I can get somebody who owns an SME, who's more interested in the day to day of their business, to think about the IT within their business. I like to try and simplify and cut down with some really simple rules, a lot of the complexity of the industry. IT is an industry that likes to look like it's over complicated. It likes this, “It's difficult to get into. It’s difficult to understand” thing. The reality is that the PC market is very, very easy to understand. One of the analogies I like is that the PC market looks like the car market. Now, I don't understand the mechanics of the car market but there will be people who understand the car market really well, who will look at it going, “From the outside, it looks really complicated but inside it's really easy”. Anyway, if we look at the plethora of models and makes of cars that we have on the road, there are a lot, there are more than a lot. There are hundreds of different combinations that we can have. Realistically, if we look at all the cars that are available for us to buy on the market, we generally don't need a level of specialization. The vast majority of people don't have a complicated use case for a car and can satisfy their ‘need’ for a car with something like a Ford Focus or a Vauxhall Astra. The fact that we've got all these other cars in the market is for all the other wants and desires that we have related to a motoring experience. A metal box on four wheels with all the safety stuff that we need that can consume fossil fuels or however we’re going to do it and get us from A to B, you can probably just do that by just having a Ford Focus or a Vauxhall Astra. The reason why I quote both is that I am a great believer in however we're understanding the markets or the economy, or how anyone is approaching these things, we can think of markets as being divided up into a Coca-Cola choice and a Pepsi choice. I talked about this idea a lot. If we look at a market there tend to be two dominant players, which are duking it out at the top and then a whole load of other players at the bottom. If you choose one of those dominant players, specifically, especially within IT, you can go a long way. If you just identify the two of them and follow, you've got a good win anyway.

The use cases that we have as a society for a car can be satisfied by a far smaller number of products than we have on the market and that is the same as the PC market. We can focus on this common use case and if we just manage to identify what about all the things on offer in the market satisfy that use case, life becomes a lot more simple. The way that we do that is by looking at specific components within the computer that we're trying to buy. Luckily, this is relatively easy and the computers only have five components. They've got a processor, which does all the computation and actual work. It's got memory, which restores the stuff that it’s working on whilst you're working on it. So, this would be your open Word documents, your open copy of Microsoft Word, etc., and it's got a disk, which is where stuff is saved to when you're not using it. Those three are the core components, the processor, the memory, and the disk.

Also, to make a workable, usable computer, we need to have a keyboard and a mouse, and we need to have a monitor or a screen. Those two ingredients, the monitor and the keyboard or mouse are less important. When we want to build a computer, we either take all of those five components and put it into a small clamshell chassis we can walk around with and that's called a laptop, or we use a slightly bigger chassis, put it on a desk, and we call that a desktop. We're going to talk more about laptops and desktops later, but they are exactly the same components under the hood.

To understand which computer to buy, you only need to focus on the processor, the memory, and the RAM. Luckily for us, this gets very straightforward. Again, we got the same car market analogy, and we've got the same Coke and Pepsi analogy.

The processor that you have running in your computer can be from one of two vendors. It can be from Intel, which is the Coke and it can be from AMD, which is the Pepsi. If you choose a processor from either of those - you won't really find anyone trying to sell you anything that isn't either of those which is really straightforward - AMD is getting a bit more mindshare now within the community than it did but for our purposes here, it doesn't matter which one you choose.

When you look at the actual processor, they will classify this in terms of brand. Effectively you’ve got the manufacturer - Intel or AMD as the car manufacturer - and you've got the different processors as Fiesta, Focus - I'm not particularly good cars but you get the idea. There is a way that AMD and Intel both name theirs which looks like the BMW naming scheme so 3 Series, 5 Series, and Series in that you have the Intel i3, you have the Intel i5 and you have the Intel i7. Like BMW, Intel actually does a load more processors but in terms of the core of the market, what they're really aiming for is those three. AMD does the same thing. So, as well as the Intel i3, you have the AMD Ryzen 3. You have the Intel i5 and the AMD Ryzen 5 and the Intel i7 and the AMD Ryzen 7. The reason why I'm doing three is because there's a sales psychology thing here in that we tend to do well when we're presented a bronze, a silver, and a gold choice. In any form of sales psychology when we see that kind of bronze, silver, and gold we tend to choose the silver one which is the i5. This can be likened to the 5 Series. It's a bit nice and the 3 Series is what you might use if it's going to be something that's your daily driver everyday for years, you want to do really good work on. Broadly speaking within the processors, what we're doing is we're picking the one in the middle. We're picking the i5. We're not picking the economy i3 or Ryzen 3. We're not picking the flashy performance i7 or the Ryzen 7 or indeed anything that's above that because there are some weird and wonderful things above that. We just go for the one in the middle.

So, the first thing we're going to do is walk into PC World and we know we want to buy an i5. We know we want a desktop or laptop, we'll come to that, but we know we want an i5 processor. The graduations within that, if you're buying new also don't particularly matter at this level either. Memory is a very, very important component of the computer but it is in terms of getting a satisfactory use out of it. The more you have the better, but the more you have the more expensive, so we want to try and get a sweet spot. You'll only see PC memory offered is 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB. 4GB is too little, 8GB is probably just right and 16GB is a bit overkill. So again, we're going in the middle of a bronze, silver, and gold choice. We're going for that that silver option or the 8GB. Now when we walk into PC World, we're saying we want to get an Intel i5, we want 8GBs of RAM. Then all we need to do is decide on the disk as the last core component. You don't really need much space for normal work. Like if you're doing web browsing, a bit of Office, other bits and pieces, you don't need a lot. You will find that manufacturers will tend to offer disks in terms of 250GB, 500GB, and 1TB or roughly 1000GB. Again, bronze, silver, and gold, go down the middle, we want 500GB.

The other thing to be really careful of here, which is where we break the rule a bit, is we need to absolutely make sure we've got something called an SSD or a solid-state drive. Back in the olden days, hard disks used to literally be hard lumps of metal that spun around mechanically. We now use solid-state disks, which means they don't have any moving parts and as such, they're more reliable and much faster. They are much faster to the extent that you need to have an SSD in the computer that you're using as your daily driver and now the prices have come down to a point where it's pretty cheap. So, as well as walking into PC World and asking for your Intel i5 and your 8GB of RAM, you’d need to ask for a 500GB disk, but that disk has to be an SSD.

Those are the key metrics that we're looking for when we go in and we buy. The manufacturers we're going to talk a little bit more about later, but the manufacturers to an extent almost don't matter. If somebody like PC World is selling you a manufacturer, you've got to consider their motivation as part of the sales process as well. They are not ordinarily going to want to sell you something which is rubbish. You can largely go in with a specification, take the view of the people who are there helping you to buy it and go, “This is probably going to be okay” and if you look to spend on a laptop, about 650 750 pounds including VAT, and you're buying it from PC World and you’re buying it to the core components I'm talking about and you're not buying anything weird and wonderful with it, then you're good. A quick tip about PC World is they will like to upsell you into things like extended warranties and setup services, etc. It's worth being very cautious when looking to buy anything other than the equivalent offer from Amazon. You can go and buy something from PC World, you can also buy from Amazon, you can buy it from a whole load of other online sellers but there's a reason why PC World wants you in there. It's in order to get you to buy all these other things.

One of the things that I see people using, which is a shame, is when they'll have a laptop computer and they'll always use it just by placing it on a flat surface on a desk and using the keyboard and the trackpad that comes with it and this tiny little screen and they're trying to get access to all of this creativity in the work that they're trying to do by hunting and pecking on this tiny little device that they are hunched over. Laptops, despite the name, are not intended to be used on laps. They are semi-portable devices that are designed to be taken from one level working surface to another level working surface. The first truly portable devices we have are smartphones, laptops are not this. In fact, laptops aren't even really called laptops. When this form factor that we're used to today, this clamshell that opens like a book, that form factor used to be called notebook computers. Even years you ago used to be able to look on the Dell website and they wouldn't have a listing for laptops, it would be a listing for notebooks. Laptops are a compromise. They are designed to let you get more flexibility out of a capital expenditure than the desktop because they are more readily to be able to take from one place to another. So rather than having to buy two computers, one for home and one for the office, you can buy one and transport it. They're also a way of getting into a position where you can use a computer and get back a bit of time when you previously would have lost that time. For example, if you happen to be driving past McDonald's, you can go in there, open your laptop, do a bit of work and save that fifteen or twenty minutes that you otherwise would have lost.

The laptop’s compromise is that in order to provide that portability, the screen has to be very small. The keyboard has to be small-ish. It certainly is missing a lot of the keys you would see on a normal full-size keyboard and then you've got the trackpad in lieu of a mouse. The reason why we have the trackpad is that touch screens on laptops don't work very well at all. We've been able to put touch screens on laptops for about 10 years but that kind of modality of having to move the hands from a flat position to a vertical position on the screen doesn't work right. This is why we don't see touch screen laptops. It's not an issue to do with cost. It’s an issue because there is a low level of usability.

We have the trackpad, which is arguably still a very bad experience. Laptops were a compromise. They inhibit us from accessing or maintaining flow. Flow is this idea that we’ve got a state of mind where we're really working through our work. We are being very creative. Things are just happening because we're relying on a lot of unconscious processing. Flow is very difficult to get to and it can be lost very easily. What we do with our IT can either promote that flow or it can inhibit the flow. The laptop compromises get in the way. The moment we can't smoothly move from a keyboard to a mouse, or we've only got one monitor and it's really small, as opposed to two and we can see all the data that we need to, it's getting in the way of flow. An analogy I like to use for this is to think about an artist’s studio. You go into an artist’s studio and it's set up exactly how they want it. They've got their easel and lots of natural light. All their paintbrushes are organized, and all their other materials are nearby. You can imagine the artist working in there, really being able to access their flow and just come out with whatever picture it was they were coming out with would be great. It would be a lovely experience for them to produce. It would be a quick experience. It would really come together. We can all think about that sort of space and go, “Yeah, that would be a nice space to work in”.

That same artist can do exactly the same job if you'd locked them in a broom cupboard without an easel, put a canvas on the floor, and put a bare light bulb from the ceiling. They can do the same job because the talent is still there, and the skills are still there but the flow won't come because it's inhibited. This is why we need to make sure that when we're setting up our computers for use, they're really getting out of the way. This is especially true for people who aren't that comfortable with computers, or where computers aren't their day to day work. They just are using it as a tool. It’s like, “This is the way the tool is supposed to be set up”. The tool is set up like that because the industry works like that. We are dependent on software engineers developing the software that we need in order to write. They use computers that are set up like this with massive monitors, nice keyboards and mice, and everything at the right angle. Everything designed to maintain and get them into their flow state when they're coding. When we're using devices with their software, we need to think actually, even unconsciously, they're always going to be biased towards developing in the way that they work. We've always seen this. Software developers are probably the people who are the most ‘guilty’ of making it so that we have to upgrade our computers every few years anyway because they use such high-end computers that when they're developing software and testing it, they're testing a really good kit. If they were working on a much worse kit, they would make the software work on a much worse kit. They make the software work on the good stuff so overtime they continually push the software up and up so we need more and more horsepower to drive the computers. It's the same with this flow idea.

So absolutely, people shouldn't be using laptop computers on a desk surface. If you're over about 30 to 35 or older than that your first experience with computers [tentative 00:16:00] are desktop computers anyway. You go much younger than that, you start looking at people who are millennials, they often have only ever seen laptops. So you can find someone working in a business who's 20 years old, who will be quite happy using a laptop and pecking around on the touchpad and looking at this tiny screen because it's what they've used, “Hey, you know what? At least it’s bigger than the phone”. However, you can get so much more productivity through that flow by saying, “You know what? Just get used to using a monitor and a separate keyboard and a mouse because this is how it's supposed to be used”. So, two things on this subject. One is that two monitors are definitely better than one so if you have a desktop computer, you should be giving everyone two monitors. A 24-inch monitor, a reasonable one, is only going to cost you about 100 quid these days, and two of them get you so much more productivity because people can put all of this electronic information they're receiving and working on, on the screens. It's not like we're working now. We're getting so much less information coming through with paper. We don't have to have the paper on the desk surface. We need to be able to get the electronic representations in that broad expansive space.

Similarly, then a laptop, what we need to be able to do is build these landing strips where people can take laptops when they come into the office, put the laptop somewhere and then connect it through to a big monitor, keyboard, and mouse; the laptop becomes their second screen. The thing I like to use here is called a Kensington Easy Riser. It's about 25 quid on Amazon. This is a little device your laptop goes in, it raises it up, and it puts it next to your main monitor and it looks like a second monitor. The next trick is to reproduce this exact same setup with all the same components at home. So, when you're working in the office, you come in, you bring your laptop, put it on the landing strip, everything is sorted out, everything is where it's supposed to be. At the end of the day, you tear it down, take the laptop to your home, and you put it into exactly the same setup. Now I have from time to time in my career, had four of these different environments set up with all the same kit and it makes such an enormous difference to flow.

Another good way to do landing strips if you are doing this, is I see a lot of businesses where people going into the business have to scramble around on the floor to plug in laptops when they arrive and unplug them again at the end of the day. It's pretty easy just to put a mains adapter on the desk so when people land, part of their landing operation is just to plug in on the desk rather than having to scramble on the floor.

Now that we're halfway through the podcast, I wanted to take a moment just to talk about what it is that I do in my IT services business. I run a business called It's What's Next IT. We are an IT support business that works with small to medium businesses within Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Northamptonshire. We're a social enterprise so we hire people who are disadvantaged in the job market such as care leavers and ICT services personnel, etc. If you're interested in what it is that we do as an organization, both in terms of how we operate as a social enterprise and in terms of whether we might be able to support you in your business with your IT needs, then you can find more of information on www.iwn-it.com or you can Google “It’s What's Next IT”.

A common objection I get when I'm trying to sell my IT services is that people say to me, “I use Mac so I don't have any need for IT support”. That's interesting because on one side, your Macs go wrong in the same way that PCs do but that's by the by. IT is much more than just about the devices that you use. The idea of IT, especially within SME, is we're trying to get the same advantages that the bigger companies have from their IT just by the fact that they can get this level of scale, and that they can box clever and do all these innovative things and control risk in a way that seems inaccessible to SMEs but it isn't. We can do everything that a large business does. We can do it with the agility of a small business as well and we can do it with the same social, community and environmental regard as a small business can do too.

Historically Macs used to not be liked within a business because they were difficult to manage. If you think about it you've got a business where you might have 1000 or 2000 devices or desktops that you need to manage, 1) Macs we're not quite as malleable as they needed and 2) PCs were designed from the get-go to say to a corporate, “I've got 3000 people working for me, I just need you to manage this”. So Microsoft and all the other vendors piled in and gave everyone tools to do that and that was not a market Apple was interested in. Their interest was much more on the creative end, whether it be smaller agencies or one-person operations. Today, it's not exactly the same and it certainly isn't the same as that for an SME. We can have a blended mix in our estate of PCs and Macs, depending on preference. That absolutely isn't a problem. We do that for two reasons. One is that everything we do is in the Cloud anyway. We don't tend to put stuff on software that actually has to run on the computer. The only thing we did ever have to run was Office generally and we now have a really decent version of Office that we can run on a Mac and everything's priced the same, everything's set up the same, and everything works in exactly the same way. So, we now can create these blended estates on Macs and PCs. One thing to watch out for though is that they are at least double the cost of an equivalent PC. You can get a very good PC for 700 pounds. You cannot get a very good Mac for 700 pounds. When I was researching this, at the time of writing, I couldn't find a Mac that I would want to own for less than 1500. The last Mac I bought cost three grand. They do work really well for specific use cases. If you're just a general computing user, it does tend to be a preference point.

There is one huge benefit to a Mac in that they are effectively indestructible. They are made of metal. They are made with care. They are not made down to the cheapest price of the components unlike every other vendor in the PC market. So, if you do want an effectively indestructible machine, then go ahead but that said, my wife did drop her MacBook on the stone floor in our kitchen the other day and actually has cracked the screen. It's really a screen fix but then again, the screen fix was 800 pounds thinking about it, not that we've paid for it. To me, that was a bit too rich. It's like 800 quid for a screen on a laptop that’s a year and a half old? That's a lot of money but again, this is what you get. They are really good. They are very robust apart from if you drop them, but no PC is particularly robust if you drop them unless it’s a specific PC like a Toughbook.

Where we need to just think in terms of the PC and Macs is things that are neither. Coming back to this idea of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, we've obviously got the Coca-Cola of the Windows PC and the Pepsi in terms of a Mac. There are some other Happy Shopper Colas out there, such as Chromebooks and iPads. They have very limited, very deliberate use cases. I'm lumping Chromebooks and iPads together and they're very different devices but they're supposed to be used in very specific ways. They're very, very good for those very specific ways. There are huge advantages in terms of reliability and maintainability. If you have a Chromebook, it's not going to get infected by malware. They are just so easy because all they do is effectively connect to the web. iPads are so locked down that they are very reliable bits of kit. They don't succinctly cover the same common use cases as a PC. Before in the first section, when I was able to say, go into PC World and buy an i5 with 8GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD, that's because I know that if I just give people this general piece of advice, they are going to be able to cover pretty much every use case I would expect to see in a normal small business. No, it’s not going to cover some use cases where the business is peculiar, but the business knows it’s peculiar. It knows what it needs to buy. Not the same with Chromebooks and iPads so I would question any strategy. You would not go into a big corporate and find no PCs or no Macs and everyone using Chromebooks and iPads, you just would not see it. I believe that we have to design the IT in SMEs so that it starts at a point and can grow into something that looks like a larger corporate because there isn't a Rubicon you cross where you go, “I'm a small business, now I’m a big business”. As you grow the business, you need that IT to be one step ahead in terms of your maturity and capability and that means you need to stick ideally to PCs. If you really want to then go and spend the extra money on Macs but just don't try and do anything peculiar. These Happy Shopper Cola ideas of Chromebooks and iPads, you can use them for little bits and pieces you need to use but they shouldn't be part of a central strategy.

The second to last thing I wanted to talk about - I wanted to break out separately in terms of the manufacturers - was an issue of ethical buying. I'm probably the only person in the industry who tries not to sell IT hardware. I like to say to a customer, “You know what? You can get a few more years out of this device if you just do this”, and the reason for that is there is simply less damage to the environment if you can reuse a computer. If you can use one for seven years as opposed to five, you've got an extra two years of that where you haven't had to go to the market and ask somebody to go and dig a whole load of conflict [minerals] and metals out of the ground and use a load of carbon to do it, and not exactly treat the labour that's putting it together particularly well. There is a strong argument to being able to look at the ethical buying of computers. That said, I am not an enormous fan of these businesses set up specifically to be environmentally minded. Building PCs is very difficult. You effectively need a level of scale. You need the sort of level of scale to come back to the first point that car manufacturers have. There's a website that I use called The Good Shopping Guide. They research lots of different consumer-type products, but they have a section for PCs and laptops. They have a section for printers as well. If you go into that and have a look, they grade everything is “red”, “amber” and “green”. So “red” means there are some things that you might have to think about ethically. “Amber” is like, “Their generally okay” and “green” is like, “Okay, well we know with this company that this is a priority for them and they're able to demonstrate the importance of people and planet”. There's quite a lot in each category and I’ll pull two out - the Coke and Pepsi no less - of each of the three sets. So, in the “green” set, the well-performing set, we've got Acer and we've got Asus. Now Asus happens to be my preferred brand. I'm recording this on an Asus right now. In the “amber” set, we’ve got Dell and we've got Microsoft. Dell, obviously good workhorse computers, very reliable. Microsoft is there for its Surface brand. Surface laptops and devices are very, very good. Again, they're quite a lot more expensive. They're designed as a price premium to try and compete with Apple but again, they're good. So just to reiterate this first point, you go and buy an i5 with 8GB of RAM and a 200GB SSD from any of these four manufacturers and the three I'm about to mention, you're going to be okay.

In terms of the low, in terms of “red”, surprisingly we find Apple in there. We also find HP and we find Lenovo. Lenovo used to be owned by IBM and they now own the ThinkPad brand but IBM ThinkPads used to be a really, really solid workhorse computer and very desirable. If we look at the 2019 market share figures - and I’ve used 2019 figures because the 2020 fingers are so weird - the top three, Lenovo HP and Dell in that order with 25% 24% and 17% market share take up 66% of the market. You can see there that in the top two-thirds of the market, The Good Shopping Guide has rated two of those vendors as low and one vendor medium which is Dell but the two high ones they rate, Acer and Asus come under their other category. It's just something to think about. I like Asus because the products are good and I've got a lot of good experience with them, but I would tend now to buy them more because of that high ranking. Well, that was only one data point just with that Good Shopping Guide but that's worth having a look if you want to go onto Google and have a look at that.

The final thing I just want to touch on is smartphones because we can't talk about PCs or Macs or laptops or desktops without really talking about smartphones. After all, they are such a primary computing device. So many of us do work on smartphones but we almost tend not to think about it as being part of the IT estate within a small to medium enterprise. Now, obviously, there's a Coke and Pepsi choice here of iPhone and Android or iOS and Android more properly. This is really personal preference. Both of them work equally well. Both of them have got pros and cons. Personally, I like to use Android because I don't like the idea of carrying around in my pocket a 600 or 800 pound piece of glass that I might break with one careless move. I like to buy much cheaper phones because I don't like the idea of carrying around something expensive. That's my personal choice. In terms of Android, the market leader in terms of units sold is Samsung followed up by Huawei. They again are the Coke and Pepsi of the Android world, so they do really well. Samsung makes great phones and Huawei makes great phones. The problem with Huawei now, of course, is that they're getting so much pushback because of concerns about their software engineering and their product approach. We can see that even today so many world governments thinking, “I'm not so sure about putting Huawei’s hardware within our telecoms infrastructure, etc”. There are instances where that is a manufacturer that could end up effectively getting pushed into oblivion or beyond. It's a difficult one to choose.

Samsung makes great devices that are quite expensive. The way I like to go with this is effectively to think, “I'm only going to use this phone for a couple of years so I'm going to get a cheap challenger clone from some other Chinese manufacturer, and there are lots of things out here. Honor is a particularly good brand. I like the new Nokias that have come out of their new manufacturer etc. So again, smartphones, personal choice, very much part of your IT estate, but almost an easier choice because these devices rely on everything being in the Cloud so we don't have any local device problem. It just basically “Is this [still 00:30:13] secure? Can I get a cellular connection? Can I get a wireless connection? Can I encrypt it? Yes, you can because the encryption is built into Android and iOS, and that's generally all you need to worry about”.

Well, that's it for this edition of the SME IT podcast from It’s What’s Next IT. Thank you very much for listening.