God Bless ‘Em, They Ask Your Advice…

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I’m honored to be asked for my advice on what to purchase in portable computing. It’s a compliment to me and a recognition of my 30-some years of being in the computer field; “Hey, this guy knows what he’s doing…let’s ask him!!”  I’d like to discuss the traps of providing this advice because most of you in computer support & helpdesk get a lot of these questions (formal & informal).

Sometimes you find the question, “What laptop should I buy?” a bit daunting.  I received this request from someone with a Doctorate <paraphrasing>:

I need a lightweight laptop.  It has to run SAS so it needs a lot of power.  I also would like it to have a large enough screen so I can clearly view the data and I have large data sets, so it needs a massive hard drive.  But, let me reiterate…it needs to be light so I can travel with it easily.

You see any traps here?

  • First of all, one person’s “light” is another person’s “too heavy” and vice-versa.  So I need to get back with this person and ask what “light” means.  I hold out no hopes for this because most human beings just stare at you when you tell them the laptop is 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 lbs.  It isn’t until it arrives and then pick it up and say, “This is way too heavy!”  I don’t know why I expect more out of people who have so much schooling they’ll never pay off their student loans in their lifetime but…there it is, isn’t it?
  • The second is the trap of not knowing system requirements & performance issues of the current release of SAS.  I know it must be highly optimised to do what it does but – and here’s an important point – We don’t use it  …PhD’s, MBAs and business students use it.  We’re in IT.  We do INFRASTRUCTURE.  Our role is providing our customers with the foundational tools (client computers, server computers, network, storage, database, printing, etc) to do their job.  It’s up to your customer to know how to use the tools of their trade.  This is a severe and way-too-prevalent misconception of the customer’s role & our role in IT support.  So, I’ve had to pour over support docs on SAS and system requirements to see what on the computer needs beefing up and what is superfluous.  No problem: its why I make the big-bucks <meh>.  With the current run of mobile i7 procs in laptops, I don’t think horsepower will be an issue but storage could be a bottleneck.  With the exception of solid state drives (SSDs), storage can be a bottleneck to performance.  Remember, this person wants MASSIVE storage in this laptop because of large datasets.  With large SSDs come exponentially higher prices.  However, in some work environments you notice the tendency not to care about price when its someone else’s money.  Henry Hazlitt mentions this phenomenon in his book, Economics in One Lesson.
  • The third trap and the most contributory to the weight issue, is the screen size.  From my customer’s request, I interpreted that to mean that 15″ is minimum but 17″ would be ‘optimal’.  Well…seeing as the difference in even the most weight-conscious laptops made today that going from 15″ to 17″ is 1.5-2.0 lbs… This makes 17″ is a deal killer under most circumstances.  Again, I need to get back to my customer with a clearer understanding of what is and is not acceptable in terms of weight vs screen.  Resolution on smaller screens can assist with finding a compromise in this situation but when you get to the point of needing an electron microscope to view your data, it may just hinder productivity <smirk>.
  • So we come back to the fourth trap which is also the first trap.  My customer reiterated that fact that they needed this laptop to be “lightweight”.  When someone goes back to their first point, it usually means that this is precisely where the emphasis should be kept.
  • And the last trap is one that isn’t apparent.  Wouldn’t an application like this be better served by a cloud infrastructure?  Of COURSE it would.  However, try getting management on board with that kind of capital expenditure or show them the cost of using an existing cloud and I promise you those ideas will vaporize before the last words leave your mouth.

I’ll talk further with my customer and ensure that all of these issues are clearly spelled out.  Like anything involving another person, it takes a lot of listening and knowing your audience.  But in respect to purchasing, the most important job (IMHO) is to ensure the customer realizes that even with today’s technology that any computer is a unique set of compromises; each tailored for a specific job.  Think ‘claw hammer’ vs. ‘ball-peen hammer’.

And that has been and will continue to be the hardest idea to get across to an academic; the concept of compromise.  I mean that in the most complimentary of ways because these folk operate at a very scary level in their specialized field of study.  Compromise is not something PhDs are accustomed to since they are quite uncompromising in their own lives.  That’s why we’re the little brains.  What’s a little brain?  Oh…that’s just something they call us behind our backs. <smile>.

So…what am I likely to recommend?  Well, based on the info I have now, probably this model:


I hope some of you benefitted from my little rant here.  If you think it has value, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN and whatever social media floats your boat.  I would also appreciate your opinions on this as well.  I don’t know everything …but want to <grin>  B$