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Journal dutky's Journal: new computer economics

Well, since I got this job, even though I have a big new responsability (my 7 month old daughter, Serena), I've found that I'm making enough money to be able to afford nice stuff: luxury foods at upscale grocery stores, new pants and shirts that don't come from the sale rack, all the books, CDs and DVDs I can eat from Amazon, and a brand-spanking-new MacBook laptop from the Apple store. I'm not trying to brag, however: I'm actually quite interested in why I thought, for so many years, that it was a wise investment to buy used laptops and nurse them along at great effort on my part. This is an investigation of personal economics.

The straw that broke the camel's back was all the time I spent this past fall trying to get Linux working on my old Toshiba Portege (bought used for about $300). After plugging away for six months I, finally, just gave up. Hibernation never worked reliably. Wireless networking never worked at all. Running windows in an emulator was entirely unsatisfactory (and WINE was a horrible disappointment). Battery life was barelly acceptable. I decided that, for my birthday, I would get a Mac and be done with it.

The Mac has been an absolute joy. Hibernation and Wireless networking just worked, right out of the box. Running Windows was a simple matter of installing Parallels and sitting through the Windows installation. The machine runs on battery long enough that I can get in a full work session (three or four hours) or watch a DVD from the dinner table, living room or bed room. How did I convince myself that I COULDN'T afford this for so long?

Obviously, there have been times where I simply did not have the money on hand for a new computer. In those cases it was a no-brainer to get a used machine, but that has not been the case for several years, at least. Instead, I think that I enjoyed the hunt for interesting old machines. There is also the 'sunk cost' factor: while economics tells us that we should ignore sunk costs (initial purchase price) and worry about recurring rents (time cost of maintenance), human nature does the exact oposite (worries about sunk costs and ignores rents). I'm sure that I was suffering a bit of human nature as well.

Here is what I think the real calculation should look like: when a tool costs as much in maintenance and down time as it would to replace, you should buy a new one. How does this apply to a new laptop? Well, let's assume that you make an equivalent hourly rate of $25/hour (which is a little above the median wage for the nation, but probably below the wage for tech workers). If you loose only 1 hour a day to some annoying problem on your rickity old laptop, it takes only 40 hours (about 2 months) before you've wasted enough time to have a new, low-end laptop (the low-end Apple MacBook costs about $1000 with an Amazon discount). I put up with my crappy laptop for 6 months, which should have rated me a 15" MacBook Pro, at least!

Now I've just got to see how much time I waste because I have an old PowerMac G4 on my desk: maybe I can justify a shiny new Mac Pro with a giant LCD!

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982