How to squeeze maximum functionality, power, and convenience out of the personal computing experience for minimal cost

The principles listed on this page are for the most part relevant to anyone using any sort of personal computer

A Presentation of jrm&aFLUX

Latest update around 8-13-02

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Modern computers suck. Sure, we've got the internet now, CPUs are running faster than ever, and hard drive space is getting big enough to swallow our whole lives on a single disk-- photos, word processing docs, music, everything. And computers are lots cheaper now than they were ten years ago.

But today's computers are harder to use than yesterday's. They crash more often than yesterday's. And often are less functional than yesterday's, too. If it weren't for the existence of the internet, the difference between today's computers and yesterday's in practical functionality and ease-of-use would be downright alarming for human civilization. Many lifetimes ago in computer years, I had a brand new Mac IIx with (I think) 8 MB RAM and 100 MB hard disk, 14 inch (?) color display, and Mac system 6.0.4. Can't recall the speed. Maybe 33 MHz or so?

It was blazing fast, effortless to use, and multi-tasked like a demon (even though technical purists will tell you it couldn't truly multi-task, but only pretend to do so). I remember once having 35 Excel windows open simultaneously, plus several other items (maybe MacDraw, More II, and MS Word, etc.?), working at a feverish pace to finish an important presentation plus juggle half a dozen other projects at the same time, and feeling like I was the maestro leading a symphony. It was a mind-blowing experience. I was able to do things I never dreamed I could with that system. I don't think I ever had to re-install the OS. When I got hold of an OS update I was never fearful of installing it-- I just clicked one button and it was done. The Mac might have crashed on me twice in a year(?) I can recall no strenuous measures ever being required to resuscitate it. I just restarted it. And it always booted extremely fast.

I loved that IIx so much I bought my own IIcx version of it for $thousands after I left the job where the IIx had been available to me.

Fast forward 12 years. I'm writing this on an iMac running OS 9 that supposedly runs at 333 MHz and crashes anytime I even dare think about creating a simple graphic on the machine. All I can realistically do on the machine is the simplest of text editing (HTML for my web site). Despite spending untold manhours trying to troubleshoot the system to make it more reliable, consulting MacFixIt and its forums, buying a disk utility for repairs, and re-installing the OS who knows how many times, etc., etc., etc.. When I start the iMac booting I leave the office for coffee or some other errand, as it takes so long to boot. I quit using Macs for web surfing maybe 1-2 years ago, as they're so incredibly bad at it. I got tired of crashing and spending 20 minutes waiting for the disk to be verified and the restart to finish, several times in every web surfing session.

We've got Apple's latest and greatest hardware here too-- a dual CPU G4 with tons of resources-- running OS X. And so far as I can tell, it runs even worse than my OS 9 iMac (check out the frequency of OS re-installs on that baby).

I must admit my Windows ME PC has so far given me far less trouble than the new Macs. But a big part of the reason for that is I baby the machine by avoiding installing hardly anything extra on it, and use it almost exclusively for web surfing (and yes, I baby the iMac too). I also don't let anyone else in the world use these machines, as it can be much harder to prevent problems and to figure out what went wrong when they do occur, if more than one person uses a computer. I got the PC new too, so it's been babied since day one. I only got the iMac after it had been used and abused by a user who loved installing everything on the Mac market on the machine. Ironically, the more stuff you install on modern computers, the less they can do (the worse they tend to run).

So what's an ambitious computer user to do? Like, say, if they want to have a reliable capability to print or scan on demand, create graphics, surf the web, write documents, etc.? For minimal cost and hassle?

Apparently the most practical and reliable way circa 2002 to accomplish this is to have not one but several different computer systems, with each one dedicated to a particular set of tasks. Once you have each machine successfully configured to do a particular set of tasks, you never change its configuration again. The stuff in italics is important.

For example, let's say you set up one system to be a graphics and printing workstation. Hopefully you can get both a scanner and printer to work in it. With this machine you do all your major or complex desktop publishing and/or graphics jobs. Another system might be reserved for plain word processing and/or HTML editing. And a third would be your dedicated web surfing/email station. A fourth computer might be dedicated to gaming, for the kids or whatever. A fifth might specialize in video editing maybe. You can hopefully get all these networked together into a fast LAN (Local Area Network) so it's easy to transfer files between them, and share internet access in a pinch.

Now some of you may be saying I'm crazy, that one system should be able to do all this, and you're right on both counts. One system should be able to do this, but making many attempts over the past decade to make a single system do all this reliably and at minimal cost has drove me crazy.

Keep in mind the qualifications reliably and at minimal cost in time and money.

The more stuff you install on a single computer the worse it runs. Period. If you get enough stuff piled onto it, it finally stops running completely, and you have to wipe the disk and start all over again-- or buy a new computer and start over there. At minimum tens of millions of folks the world over have experienced the truth of this.

Luckily, between the best deals in new PCs and the ones available for quality refurbs, monetary cost is not nearly as big an issue in regards to setting up multiple specialized systems as it once was. At least in regards to Windows or Linux PCs. Apple Mac prices however remain stuck at the stratospheric levels of maybe eight years ago, in some sort of time warp. So only rich folk could attempt this technique with relatively new Macs.

Remember too the differing hardware requirements for various specialized systems. Plain word/text processing systems can get by with just about the lowest hardware specs available today, in terms of disk space, RAM, display, etc. You can send all your docs to be printed over the LAN to the printing specialty system, so the other systems need no printer. There's adapter boxes available to allow multiple systems to all use the same display/keyboard/mouse/other input devices, I believe. So that could save expenses too. Thus, the major costs involved come down to the multiple CPU boxes and software for each, plus networking wares. And the desk space to store all this, of course.

You can get decent new PC boxes for around $400 these days (at last check). Likely less if you go refurb. So $400 or less each would be the financial floor cost for each system mid-2002. Your word processing box wouldn't necessarily require even this much hardware-- you could use a pretty old and slow PC already sitting around the house for that in many cases. So the WP box hardware should be free for lots of folks. The web surfing station would mainly need a fast Ethernet card or 56K modem-- the rest of the system could be pretty basic. So let's say $400 or so for that.

Your graphics/desktop publishing system, and/or gaming system could in truth utilize $400 boxes too, but some folks might want to add more RAM or a better graphics card for them. Heck, why not forget about computer gaming altogether and get a $50 Playstation or $200 Playstation II instead? So we're talking a cost of anywhere from $450 to $1000 maybe for obtaining these two items.

So how about the video station? Well, lots of folks would be tempted to make the desktop publishing station (or a gaming PC) do double duty as video editor too-- and if they were very lucky they might pull it off-- for a while anyway. But it's far safer to keep these functions separate.

Like the desktop publishing and gaming workstations, a video editor would often do best with a bit more hardware than the lowest end PC might offer. Plenty of RAM, bigger hard drive, faster CPU, Firewire, USB 2.0, etc. And there's the accessories to consider as well, like a digital video camera, tripod, external removable media with lots of disk space, etc. So this baby could easily run you $1000 to $2000 (or more).

In-depth analysis of how much money, time, and effort many folks put into just a single or dual system to attempt to shoehorn in all these capacities (and keep them working over months and years) would likely show the multiple system route to be far easier on the wallet and the nerves.

Keep in mind this caveat though: allowing users other than yourself to access any of your machines will significantly increase the risk of problems, as well as reduce your own clues as to what caused the problems, thereby making them tougher to troubleshoot. So how do you (in good conscious) deny family members access to your machines? Buy them their own.

(And as soon as it's practical force them to learn how to troubleshoot, repair, maintain, and upgrade their own system themselves)

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The above article(s) come from and make references to a collection copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by J.R. Mooneyham (except where otherwise noted in the text). Text here explicitly authored by J.R. Mooneyham may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes in paper and electronic form without charge if this copyright paragraph and link to the timeline ( are included.

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