PCs: Why The Thrill Is Gone

Would you pay more than $4,000 for a laptop?

Such goodies are now available. Bloomberg News reports that the latest laptops are quick, thin and have huge amounts of storage capacity.

The price for such computing firepower? Anywhere from $1,700 to as much as $4,500. (See: Skinny, Pricey PCs Timed for Windows 8,” May 2, 2012)

So here’s the question: How much more computing power do most of us need?

Not to be a Luddite, but I suspect most people do not need a laptop to calculate the mass of distant stars or keep the books at Goldman Sachs. Instead, computers have become prosaic utilities for most of us, in practice about as different from one another as a set of spoons.

Computers have also become cheap. The machine I bought last year for travel cost about $275. It has a physical keyboard, which I prefer, and a large enough screen for practical use. While it’s true this device probably does not have sufficient computing power to weigh a distant star, few of us have a need for such massive computing strength.

The computers from several years ago had enough power to surf the web, word process, listen to music, look at pictures and operate spreadsheets. Great advances in storage mean that most of us can keep decades of content on whatever machine we happen to own. Expanded storage capacity for most of us now just means more empty electronic space.

The real necessity for new and shiny computers is that such products need to be sold. We’ve gone from desktops to laptops and notebooks, and then to netbooks and now to tablets. Having a thinner computer is no longer a great leap forward in terms of practical advancement unless we reach a point when they can be rolled up and thrown away.

And making computers physically smaller may not be especially helpful. Have you noticed that in recent years your fingers have not shrunk? Do you really want to watch a movie on a cell phone?

When laptops were first introduced I was elated to have a small, mobile machine that would allow me to write articles and figure mortgage amortization schedules for FHA mortgages, VA loans, and conventional financing products. Several generations of computing later and my needs have not much changed. I’m still pleased when a computer can figure mortgage amortization, but whether the equipment is thin or thinner the answer is always the same.

Making computers lighter has been a good idea but we’ve reached the point where making them lighter means a loss of features such as keyboards and disk drives. Disk drives may no longer seem important and for many people probably aren’t, except that to make a rescue disk for my latest netbook you apparently need a CD-ROM backup — something the computer doesn’t actually have.

The result is that to make a rescue disk you need an external drive — but if you have an emergency will the external drive be with you? After all, one big purpose of a small computer is portability.

Maybe the idea is that a new computer is a fashion statement of sorts, like a pet rock or disco ball. But at a time when the marketplace is tough and employment is not as certain as it should be, the suspicion here is that most people are perfectly happy with a small, light computer that simply works — and better yet one that works simply.

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