The Workstation Debate: Making a Rational Purchase

As I embark on a career as a full-time writer, I’ve come to discover that I truly need some sort of workstation on which to do my writing. My laptop (upon which every single post ever posted to The Simple Dollar was composed) works great for a couple one-to-two hour sessions a day, but for a full day of writing, it doesn’t cut the mustard for several reasons. It’s giving me minor ergonomic pain already and the screen size gets in the way of some of the editing that I want to do, for starters. Plus, given that I am now completely reliant on this laptop for all of my writing with no redundancy at all gives me some pause. Even more so, I want to start recording some audio and video for various purposes (podcasts? videos? what do I have in store?).

This leaves me with a handful of choices.

Option one includes hooking up an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse to my laptop. I have a dusty old 17″ monitor in the closet, so I attempted this solution. It worked to a degree, but the video card in my laptop has serious compatibility issues with the monitor. In a nutshell, this solution partially resolves one of the four issues I’m concerned with, but leaves me out to dry on the video and audio recording, the single unit reliance, and the screen size, as the monitor isn’t much bigger than the laptop.

Option two is to go all out and just get the exact system I want. This is expensive and specs out at around $4,000 – a staggering sum of money. Basically, this system is an iMac with a 24″ screen and maxed out memory, a new printer/scanner/copier, a backup system, and all of the software I might potentially need for any of my plans. This is expensive, but it solves all of my problems.

Option three is compromising between the two. This basically means a desktop PC of some sort with a large monitor. It’s not the exact system I dream about, but it does afford me the solutions that I need.

Right now, I’m using the first option. It partially solves the biggest issue (ergonomics), but it doesn’t really resolve any of the other concerns I have. In short, this is a stop-gap solution.

This leaves me with one monster question: how do I distinguish between option two and option three over the long haul? Here’s my gameplan.

Step 1: Specify exactly what I actually need.
This is the real challenge, actually. What components of a system do I actually need? I plan on using this machine for work day in and day out for the next several years, so actually getting a grip on my honest needs over that timeframe is vital. The problem, though, is that it’s very easy for wants to slip into the needs section.

Here’s an example. In my previous life, I got very used to a 20″ monitor, and now using my laptop’s 15″ screen (or even my old 17″ monitor) feels small. I feel like I’m chasing windows around much of the time and that’s a time waster. Coupled with that, recent research seems to indicate that six more inches in monitor space can save two and a half hours of time per day. If that larger monitor actually led to a 20% bump in personal productivity for me, it would be well worth it. But is that larger screen a necessity?

Similarly, whenever I spec out a system, I tend to want to add as much memory as possible to the thing, because I’ve witnessed time and time again how much difference plenty of memory can make for a workstation. My wife and I have very similar laptops, but mine has 2 GB memory while hers has 1 GB – and mine is light years faster while doing the same tasks. But is that speed difference necessary?

What I’ll effectively be paying for with both of these options is a bump in system speed over the next several years. That bump might translate itself into enough productivity to allow me to write an extra article or two a day – or it might be negated by other factors.

In the end, it comes down to me. The system will increase the speed with which I’m able to write and create, but will that extra time go to productive use? If the answer is a clear and confident “yes,” then I should go for the upgrades as they’ll pay for themselves. If the answer is “I’m not sure” or “no,” then I should hold off.

My genuine belief, based on my level of productivity recently, is that the answer is yes and I should go for the extras. Is that a justifiable choice? I’m sure it will be debated in the comments for this post.

Step 2: Look at my various options for a system that achieves those needs.
So, I know what I’m getting: a reasonably fast desktop system with a large screen (22-24″) and plenty of memory. I can then hop along to Dell and Apple and spec out these machines … and I quickly see that the Dell version is cheaper.

This brings up another question: what are my concrete and compelling reasons to go for an Apple instead of the Dell? This is a brand choice – it could extrapolate to any major purchase, like choosing a more expensive Honda Odyssey over a Ford Windstar. I can name several concrete benefits for the Apple (built in PDF creation, the relative portability of the iMac, the high quality and inexpensive price of the basic productivity software I’ll need (iWork and Final Cut), and more sensible user interface with less security and driver compatibility concerns, for starters).

Are those extra benefits of the Apple over the roughly equivalent Dell enough to pay a premium price for? I’m not sure, so I hold onto those two specs and move on to the next step.

Step 3: Work on minimizing the price on these options.
For the PC, I might be able to find a similar build from another manufacturer – or perhaps even build the system myself. Pricing the parts out online results in a couple hundred dollars’ worth of savings, but also a long day or two of configuring and setting up the system, which I doubt is particularly cost effective at the moment.

This means I move on to finding opportunities for discounts with Dell or Apple. Do I know anyone who can help me with a discount or a coupon of some sort, like the rumored 15% discount for friends of people who work for Apple? This basically comes down to social networking – who do I know that can help me out with a deal for either brand that might help me make my final decision – and research. What can I find that reduces my bill?

Step 4: Execute sooner rather than later.
At some point, I collect my best deals and move ahead with the purchase. There is some danger here of “analysis paralysis,” where I keep analyzing the situation and seeking better deals, but eventually there’s a point where that’s not cost-effective and I need to move ahead with my purchase.

What’s the point?
For many of you, this might have seemed like a great deal of navel gazing. Why fret so much over the purchase – just get what you need and get on with it! In this process, though, there are some valuable lessons that can be applied to any purchasing decision.

Figure out what you actually need before you start looking at products. It’s easy for me to go to Apple’s website, spec out a system, and go “Wow, that’s impressive!” and then talk myself into it. Even more dangerous is actually visiting an Apple Store, where the systems are out on display. I see them – and I want one. The best way to combat this is to know what you want before you even start looking at real systems. Figure out the specifications you actually desire, do research on the item itself in a general fashion, and then start matching this information with real-world items that match up.

Distinguish the needs from the wants. Obviously, it’s sometimes fun to buy stuff you simply want rather than need, but it’s very easy to go too far down that road and wind up with something overly expensive that goes far beyond what you need and goes into budget-busting excess. As you analyze features (and that should be done before you start actually shopping), focus on defining the things you actually need versus the things you want – and be honest about it. Recognize when you’re buying to fulfill a want rather than a need, and try to keep the wants under control – that will help keep your bill under control.

Tug on your social networks for discounts. Major purchases are a great time to ask around to see if any of your friends – or their friends – have opportunities that would allow you to make your purchase at a discounted price. Coupling this with effective research can often result in a nicely diminished bill at the end of the day. Even better, if someone asks you for help and you have the means to make it happen, make it so – it’s all about paying it forward.

Don’t add “impulse” add-ons. Most major purchases come with pitches for “extras” that you almost assuredly don’t need. Just say no to all of them and figure out any accessories that you might really need later on, and buy those separately with an independent purchase. Electronics stores and car dealerships are both notorious for this, as much of their profit is tied up in slipping little extras in with your big purchase.

I’ll let you know in a few weeks how this all turns out.

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