March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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Changing Computers Before You Have To
It costs less to purchase and configure a new computer than to wait until the old one breaks. Good procedures make all the difference.

I used to own an old Toyota Corolla that I never took in for maintenance. I just kept driving and driving until something broke-only then did I have it fixed. I joked that I was trying to emulate the just-in-time manufacturing process (where parts are supplied just before they're needed, thereby keeping inventory costs down). The best time to fix a car is the day before it breaks, but I was always missing that time by one day.

This is a questionable practice with a car, but it's even more so with a computer. Most of us would be out of luck if we let a hard drive fail before replacing it. "Change before you have to" was one of former GE chair Jack Welch's list of "Six Commandments" for how to run GE. This is also a good rule for purchasing computers, so I decided to replace my two oldest computers while they were still working.

My Requirements
For the past seven years, I've used a laptop as my primary computer. My goal has been to keep each laptop for two years-but I've averaged only 17 months, even though I connect my laptops to external keyboards, mice and monitors to help save on wear and tear.

With that time frame in mind, I knew it was time to look for a replacement for my two-year-old Dell Inspiron 5300e, which has 128MB RAM, a 10GB hard disk drive, a CD-R drive and a 600-MHz Intel Pentium III processor running Microsoft Windows Professional 2000. My two biggest requirements were: (1) a much larger hard disk drive (since my existing drive was 95 percent full); and (2) the ability to read and write CDs and DVDs. Three of my five laptops have been Dells, and I've generally been satisfied, so I decided to stay with Dell for my new laptop.

At home, my desktop system is a five-year-old Apple Power Macintosh G3, with 32MB RAM, a 3.7GB hard disk drive and a 233-MHz PowerPC G3 processor running Mac OS 8.6. My family uses this computer for Internet applications (e-mail and the Web), and I use it for multimedia applications (such as creating photos and audio for our family Web site). I decided to replace this desktop with the new iMac desktop.

Because I want to be able to sell my old computers whenever I upgrade, it's important to me to purchase a computer that will still be powerful enough two or more years down the road. That, of course, affects costs. I maintain a spreadsheet that includes the major specifications for all the computers that I've owned. From that spreadsheet, I know that I've spent about $3,000 per computer. So that was the budget I set for each of the new computers this time.

Going Giga: Shopping Company Sites
It was an easy decision to select a Dell laptop and an Apple desktop. In addition to my satisfaction with their earlier computers, both companies have good reputations for quality and customer satisfaction, and neither has been involved in a merger or acquisition. Also, both allow you to specify configurations and purchase online.

The laptop purchase. Dell's Web site,, is very confusing. Rather than presenting computers by price or features, it forces you to choose a "notebook line" and provides little useful guidance on how to choose between those lines. For example, do you want "Latest Technology, Affordably Priced" (the Inspiron line) or "Durable, Standardized Network Notebooks" (the Latitude line)? I'd like both, thanks. Plus, after you've chosen which line you want, you have to indicate whether you're a home, small-business or large-business user, or are in some other irrelevant category. Question: Does Dell charge business users more for the same product?

Once you know what you're doing (and it took me plenty of tries to get it right), you can finally start to customize the laptop you want in five clicks. It seems to me that this should take one click.

During the customization process, I had to choose between many options, 43 to be exact-which is too many, in my opinion. How, for example, does one really choose between a 1.7, 1.8, 2.0 and 2.2-GHz processor? I chose 2.0 GHz, simply because it sounds cooler than 1.8 and should make the laptop easier to sell in two years. Other options had nothing to do with my laptop (such as digital cameras and Palm PDAs); others I didn't need (such as six free months of Internet service); and still others I didn't want or need but couldn't decline (such as EducateU, which came with MS Office XP Professional).

Also, it was painfully difficult to purchase two port replicators (or docking stations). The option to add a second docking station simply didn't exist. Maddeningly, I tried to figure out if the à la carte docking station that I found elsewhere was the same as the bundled one, because the part numbers were not the same. The bundled one listed for $199, the à la carte one for $175. I finally "reconfigured" my computer to remove the bundled one and bought two à la carte docking stations.

When all was done, I had bought a Dell Inspiron 8200 laptop, with 500MB RAM, a 60GB hard disk drive and a 2.0-GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor running the Windows XP Professional operating system. I also bought two docking stations and one piece of software (Office XP Professional). Total cost: $3,112.

The desktop purchase. On the Apple site,, it took two clicks to start configuring my iMac. Again, I had too many choices-20 altogether-and again, many had nothing to do with my iMac (such as the camera and printer options). What I couldn't do at the Apple site was select options that would reduce the price. But oddly, Apple gave me the choice of ordering MS Office v. X for either $199 or $499.95. Guess which price I chose?
I ended up buying an Apple iMac desktop with an 800-MHz processor, a 17-inch TFT (flat panel) monitor, 1GB of RAM and an 80GB hard disk drive running Mac OS X. I also bought one piece of software (MS Office v. X). Total cost: $2,885.

Once You Order Your Computer
On Dell's site it was easy to save an order and buy it later (via the "My Cart" feature). But once you've customized a computer and put it in "My Cart," you can't make changes to your configuration. Apple's site has the same flaw. There were, though, these differences: Dell charged for shipping, Apple did not. Apple gave an on-screen receipt, Dell did not (just an order confirmation). In addition, I found it difficult to track my orders on both the Dell and Apple sites. Neither included username or log-in boxes on their home pages, so I had to click around to access my accounts.

When I first logged on to Dell's site, there were no orders showing in my account. The reason was that my account had two profiles (SOHO and Small Business), so I had to "associate" my order number with my profile of choice. Then, when I tried to sign up for e-mail notification of shipment, I received an error message, because the order number (which Dell e-mailed to me) contained 12 digits and Dell's site requires a 9-digit order number. I guess I was supposed to know instinctively to omit the three leading zeros. But it did not matter, anyhow. Even though I did sign up, Dell never sent an e-mail notification that my order had shipped.

Apple didn't let me sign up for an e-mail notification of shipment. But in this case, despite having not signed up, on the 13th of the month, I received Apple's notification that my iMac "had shipped" on the 14th. Both computers arrived in about two weeks.

Setting Up the Dell: Three Days to a Fast Boot Up
When I unpacked the Dell laptop, I had to flip it around a few times to make sure I'd removed all the plastic wrapping. Then I tried to start it up. But I decided not to set up the docking station initially because I was too lazy to open another box. A good thing, too, because I later read that I wasn't supposed to use the docking station the first time I started the laptop (though I'm not sure why).

It took nearly three days to configure the whole Dell system, in part because I had 3 gigabytes of data to move and about 35 applications to install, re-register and configure. In addition, I dedicated one of those days to making the laptop user-friendlier.

First, I removed all unwanted software (such as America Online, Earthlink and MSN). Second, I reconfigured Windows XP, mostly through various control panels, to make it less annoying and more secure. For example, filename extensions are hidden by default (annoying), and an account called "administrator" with no password is created by default (insecure).

I spent the other two days installing boxed software (Norton Antivirus, Norton Utilities, Adobe Acrobat, Eudora Pro, FileMaker Pro and QuickBooks Pro) as well as hardware drivers and downloaded software. Fortunately, I keep hard copies of all licenses for all software that I use, which made the process at least a bit easier. Also, for all downloaded software, I save copies of all versions of the installers, so I didn't have to re-download any of those.

The good news was that the new laptop boots up faster than the old laptop. Just for kicks, I ran benchmark tests on both computers using the Fresh Diagnose software by Freshdevices (, which confirmed that, yes, the old laptop is slow and the new laptop is fast. These benchmark tests are interesting but not particularly useful (your mileage may vary). What is useful is the knowledge that you don't have to wait for your computer to compute.

Setting Up the iMac: A Few Hours till Gift Time
Setting up the iMac was easier, but not exactly "easy." For one thing, I was surprised not to find software that provided a tour of the new Mac OS X, which is quite different from previous operating systems. Also, after starting up, I noticed a "Software Update" window, which was behind the top window, that was prompting me to install updates to various software. The updates took 35 minutes and three restarts. The iMac was a Christmas present for the entire family (okay, mainly for me), and I was glad I decided to do all of this before Christmas Eve.

Then I set out to install Microsoft Office v. X. My first challenge was figuring out how to open the CD-ROM tray-until I saw a sticker on the keyboard (suggesting my challenge was shared by other users) that instructed, "Hold down the Eject key to open disc drive." As soon as I found the Eject key (above the number pad), I was in business. As I do with all software, I opted to do a "custom install" so I could avoid installing annoying programs like MSN Messenger.

It only took a few hours to configure the iMac, but that's primarily because I didn't have to install 3.5MB of data or 35 programs.

Lessons Learned
Neither Apple nor Dell has produced an entirely friendly purchasing process. And neither has cracked the code on making it easy to move software and data from an old computer to a new one. The biggest lesson that I learned is that it's important to have good procedures for purchasing and configuring new computers. ( See the sidebar) Fortunately, my procedures stood up pretty well to this test. Unfortunately, after essentially cloning my old laptop, I had to ship my new laptop back to Dell because the part that connects to the docking station was defective. (I started this article on my old laptop, continued it on my new one and finished it on my old one.)

Since I continuously modify and improve my procedures, my next computer purchasing experience should go more smoothly than this one. Yes, I could have hired somebody to do all of this for me, but they're called "personal" computers for a reason. Let's just hope these new computers last two years!

Erik J. Heels ( is a patent attorney in Maynard, MA.