Crappy Computers

Marco Arment:1

This game works, especially in the downward-price-pressure direction, because consumers and the press overemphasize specs when comparing tech devices. In practical use, though, most people don’t need more than the entry-level capacities.

This is a sentiment you often hear from people: casual users only need «entry-level» devices. Even casual users themselves perpetuate it: «Oh, I’m not doing much on my computer, so I always just go with the cheapest option.» And then they buy a horrid, underpowered netbook, find out that it has a tiny screen, is incredibly slow, the keyboard sucks, and they either never actually use it, or eventually come to the conclusion that they just hate computers.

In reality, it’s exactly backwards: proficient users can deal with a crappy computer, but casual users need as good a computer as possible.

Let’s look at space. I don’t have any issues using a notebook with a 128GB SSD, because my iTunes library and my photos are on a home server. I also use cloud storage extensively, and don’t store a lot locally. Most casual users, on the other hand, store everything on their local hard drive: music, pictures, movies, it’s all on there.

Similarly, I can make do with a small iPhone, because I regularly synchronize it, and backup and delete all photos I’ve taken. Most casual iPhone owners I know never synchronize their iPhones, but take tons of pictures with it. As a result, the ones who have 16GB iPhones always run it filled to the brink with games and pictures, which means that it runs slowly, constantly throws up error messages, and forces them to manually delete data from their iPhones regularly (which isn’t fun).

Let’s look at speed. If my MacBook runs slow, I can open Terminal, figure out which app is hogging all the CPU or RAM, and kill it. I know how to check which of the graphics cards in my MacBook is active. I know how to find the bottleneck, and fix the problem. If a casual user’s computer runs slow, on the other hand, that’s it. The only reaction is to restart it, and if that doesn’t help, be pissed off.

I also know how to get rid of any pre-installed crapware, and how to avoid installing more of it. Casual users probably don’t, so they’re much more likely to end up with a computer that’s gunked up with junk. The slower the computer, the bigger an issue this is.

And finally, I can upgrade my computer. I can replace the SSD or install more RAM or put in another graphics card. Casual users will never do that. They’re stuck with what they bought.

Let’s look at screen size. I know how to use Exposé and Spaces to make the most out of limited screen space. I know how to install utilities like Moom or Cinch to help with window management. Casual users just make do with what they have; the smaller the screen, the harder it is to manually manage windows, and still know where everything is.

So the sentiment that «entry-level» computers are good enough for casual users is exactly backwards: casual users are the ones that need high-end computers, while proficient users are the ones who can work around the limitations of low-end computers.2

Update: Discussion on Hacker News.

  1. Addendum 1: I apologize to Marco for using his quote as a starting-off point for my rant. Obviously, he’s not advocating that casual users buy crappy computers. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and his quote triggered this rant, but now I’m kind of feeling bad for cherry-picking this single quote out of an essay that is on a completely different topic. Sorry, Marco! back

  2. Addendum 2: The same logic applies in many other areas. User interfaces, tools, cars: pros can deal with crap, and get something useful out of it; casual users are the ones who really need the good stuff. back

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