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StaffIncremental BloggerWould you convince a friend to buy a computer that's cool but...

Would you convince a friend to buy a computer that’s cool but not what they really need?

This thread on Engadget is bothering me this morning. It’s about a college student that’s looking for a replacement computer. I posted about this yesterday, but I can’t keep shaking my head at much of the advice he was given. To recap, here’s what he’s looking for:

“I’m a Uni student doing IT Security, and I’m looking to replace my now four year old Windows laptop, and am tossing up between getting another Windows PC or getting a MacBook, and just wanted some advice on how it would suit me. Essentially I do some C/C# programming, Web design, presentations, reports and the like, with assignments needing to be in PPT and DOC formats. Could I get some advice on how each one would fare for my purpose, and iWork and Office compare for University use? Any help would be much appreciated!”

There are some good suggestions in the currently posted 243 comments in the thread, however, a vast majority of them are posted more to advocate a particular product that respond to what the original poster is looking for. Come on folks. Is this really the way to do things? I realize there are people with strong opinions all around, but would you really suggest that someone get a Linux machine if they need to develop C#? Really? Sure there’s Mono, but the Visual Studio environment is tops for developing C#. No doubt about it. Sure it’s probably a great idea to try out Mono and learn what its advantages and disadvantages are, but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend a development environment centered around it as a student’s primary machine–unless there’s some very good reason to do so. In this case, there doesn’t appear to be.

And then there’s the discussion about Open Office versus Office or iWorks. Again, there are lots of “Get a Mac; use iWorks or Open Office” or “Get Linux; use Open Office.” Really? Are these really the best recommendations here? Now a Mac running Mac Office (or Mac running iWorks to a degree) is fine. Depending on the school that this person is attending this could work out well. However, would you place it at the top of the list for this particular person, considering that they appear to have existing investments in the Windows platform? Moving OS’s, like moving apartments or homes can get expensive. You have to consider that–especially for a student. Yes, there could be some significant advantages going with the Mac I think if the person is looking to do videos, let’s say in their web development work. iMovie (V6) (and Garage Band) has the low-end edge, if you ask me for producing videos. Of course, he didn’t mention videos, but that’s a question I’d ask. For instance, what about Flash development? Or is his web development more database and form oriented?

There’s also a strong bit of advice around picking Open Office in order to avoid giving Microsoft any money. That’s fine, if someone wants to take this stand, but is that really good advice for a student–especially if it doesn’t give them the full advantages that they otherwise would get? I’m not saying Open Office couldn’t work, I’m saying that given let’s say the flexibility of recording class lectures and synching them with your notetaking and later searching its contents–all provided in OneNote–I’m asking is that worth giving up? For $20 or in some cases nothing–since OneNote is included on a variety of PC laptops and Tablets on the market? Well, if we’re talking about a Mac, OneNote has some alternatives, but Open Office doesn’t.

Now on the Mac side, Bootcamp is a great suggestion for someone who needs access to Windows technologies, as this person mentions that he does. Parallels is OK, but it is slower, and if you’re doing development work, slowing things down isn’t my first choice. With Bootcamp the Mac machine can be evaluated just like any PC. From this standpoint it’s personal preference if you ask me. Which notebook would you like to carry around and do you see yourself being more productive with? Realize that to pull this off you’d have to purchase a standalone copy of XP or Vista–which isn’t too painful at student prices, but does add to the total if the person is price sensitive.

I also was surprised that in all of the early comments, no one suggested looking at a Tablet PC–especially for someone in a tech field. What about taking notes in a math or physics class? What about brainstorming UIs? Or “whitepage conferencing” with others online using OneNote? Seems like a great solution to me. Now there are some that don’t see themselves handwriting or drawing anything, so in this case, a Tablet PC isn’t necessarily a perfect match. But I’d ask the student how often they see themselves needing something other than a keyboard and a mouse.

Now there is another valid take on all of this. I remember well being a college student and watching every penny. The Linux/Open Office/Mono route can work. But would this be my first choice in this case? Absolutely not. If I had no other choice and couldn’t afford anything else, would I give someone the thumbs up if they came up with a solution like this to get by? You bet. But this wouldn’t be at the top of my list of recommendations.

Anyway, all this jabbing back and forth over products is really getting unfortunate. What gets me is that most of these same commenters would probably find it offensive if they’d go to their local computer store and then be encouraged to purchase a particular product simply because it’s in the seller’s interest–and not yours. It’s not right when this happens there and it’s not right online. We should do better than this.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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