Hardware Recommendations 2008

One of the things I am often asked to do is to recommend hardware, and there is never a single best answer for everyone. Most folks have programs or ways to work that are best for them, or older equipment that needs to be integrated. There are, however, certain things I find myself consistently recommending again and again, so here are my general hardware recommendations for someone configuring a home office which may expand to include multiple workstations.
A sample office setup

Desktop or Laptop

One of the first questions that people have is whether to go with a desktop or laptop computer. Many people prefer the stability and large screen size of a laptop, but there is a strong tendency for technology to become more personal and tied to an individual. What began with headphones and personal cassette players spread to cellular phones and laptop computers. All things being equal, I generally recommend a laptop because few clients who have made this decision regret it. For the best of both worlds, consider the option to purchase an external monitor and keyboard, which can be used with the laptop when at home.

Since its debut in 2006, I have considered the 13″ Intel MacBook with polycarbonate case to be the “sweet spot” of value in Apple’s product line, but whatever Mac meets your needs is a good place to begin, and Mac OS 10.5 “Leopard” also brings certain advantages, the most important of which is Time Machine.

Have a Backup Plan

Time Machine was the breakout feature for Mac OS 10.5 and answers the long-standing prayer that all IT folks have for simple and easy backups. Lack of a sound data retention strategy and disaster recovery plan is an ongoing danger for serious hobbyists or small businesses of all types, and Time Machine largely solves this. Purchase an external firewire hard drive, and Time Machine will automatically volunteer to use it as a backup device, creating hourly backups whenever plugged in, keeping a month’s worth of daily backups and then weekly backups thereafter until the drive is full, whereupon it will offer to delete the oldest backups first. This is the holy grail of backup systems, and has saved more than one of my clients when files were accidentally deleted.

For those with laptops and wireless networks, the new “Time Capsule” sharing hub and network storage device announced at this year’s MacWorld in San Francisco makes Time Machine even easier. My general recommendation is to get the 1TB Time Capsule if you have a laptop and can afford it. If you are purchasing a hardwired backup drive, plan to buy one at least twice as large as the drive you are backing up, and plan to create an off-site archive (to DVD or yet another drive) at least once a year, in case of fire, theft or other disaster.

Share the Wealth with Good Network Planning

High-speed “broadband” Internet has been the standard for offices for a few years now, whether it comes over a cable modem from Comcast or across telephone lines with DSL using another ISP such as Hevanet, AOL or SpiritOne.com here locally. Most broadband comes through a high-speed cable or DSL “modem” which often has a single ethernet connection. Purchasing a router of some sort allows one to share this connection among many computers and wirelessly. High-end sharing hubs such as the Airport Extreme or Time Capsule can be used to do this, while also providing network access for printers. At the low end of its product range, Apple’s Airport Express shares one connection and a USB printer wirelessly for $80, but inexpensive, third-party devices from Linksys and Netgear can do the same for less money.

Since “sharing hubs” such as these work through a protocol known as Network Address Translation (NAT) they also inherently serve as a firewall, and provide a greater degree of protection for Windows computers on the network than a cable or DSL modem by itself. Mac OS computers are generally protected against such things without a NAT, unless specific sharing has been turned on through the “Sharing” pane of System Preferences or by loading peer-to-peer programs such as LimeWire.

Network Printer to Copy, Scan and Fax

For the first five years I was not fond of multifunction devices, which promised to scan and fax and print and copy and make coffee and read the morning newspaper, because they didn’t work. The software that came with them was usually written for Windows, and they used proprietary protocols that made them a nightmare on the Mac. The first devices to begin changing my mind about this were the “MFC” (multi-function copier) series of laser writers from Brother, and now I am a convert.

Very few offices I work with really need color all that often, and almost all need to copy or send a physical fax from time to time. Because they are appreciably less trouble and expense over the life of the machine, I have long recommended monochrome “laser printers” over color inkjets, and the Brother MFC series was the first to come out with solid software that allowed scanning across the network. There are a variety of models, but I currently adore the tall “pillar style” MFC’s from Brother. Just make sure to get a model which ends in “N” because those have ethernet networking built in and will plug nicely into your network sharing hub, providing a solid printer with a good mechanical mechanism for many years of printing and scanning.

If your office really does need a color printer, my general recommendation is a mid-range HP inkjet, plugged into a desktop computer with “printer sharing” enabled. Although photographers adore Epson printers for their high quality, I find them a bit temperamental and difficult to maintain unless they are in constant use. HP cartridges tend to be slightly less expensive and less prone to need constant cleaning or replacement if unused for a few weeks. Color laser printers tend to be of lower quality than their inkjet counterparts, so check out the quality before buying one. I once took my laptop with USB cable into to sample print quality at a StapleMax Depot, and suggest this if you are considering a color laser of any sort.

Take It with You, Using Your iPod as a PDA

Currently the darling of the “smart phone” set, the iPhone is a nice device, but pretty much every iPod ever made with a screen (including the iPod Touch) can also function as a PDA. If you use iCal and the built-in Address Book application, iTunes can automatically synchronize those to your iPod, and if you choose to enable “disk mode,” the iPod also works as a portable hard drive. The new video adapters for third-generation iPods (including the iPhone and iPod Touch) will even let you share videos through iTunes and/or photo albums, synchronized to iPhoto. Since Keynote and Power Point slide shows can be exported as JPG’s and loaded into iPhoto, this is a pretty terrific option, even if you only want to review your own notes while on the plane, train or bus.

Max Out the RAM and get AppleCare

I often joke with my clients, expanding on the Duchess of Windsor, by asserting that you can “never be too rich, too thin, or have too much RAM.” Unless perhaps you have a high-end Mac Pro tower, I generally suggest that people plan to install the maximum amount of RAM that their machine will hold. In combination with an upgraded hard drive at some point, this is the single best thing that you can do to extend the useful life of your machine.

Another useful thing to do is to purchase AppleCare. Although generally I view extended warranty programs as a waste of money, I have long purchased AppleCare for all my own computers and am delighted at the end of the contract to feel that I have wasted the money. There is almost nothing that can be done to repair a new Mac which costs less than an AppleCare, and the extra phone support is a comfort for many folks. Since AppleCare expires after three years, I plan to upgrade my own machines on this schedule, assuring myself that I will have working hardware for that entire time. Although certainly there are exceptions to the rule, I generally advise businesses to budget replacement of every computer every five years, and find that a policy of giving old computers to employees (or selling them for a dollar) is a good one to encourage employees to learn more and take better equipment of all machines.

Recommended Vendors and Further Information

Over the past ten years, I have found a few vendors whom I trust and have repeatedly used for equipment and upgrades.

  • RamJet.com sells high-quality memory at fair prices, and has excellent customer service
  • Other World Computing is also a terrific company, and I adore their “Mercury” series of external hard drives
  • Computer Stores Northwest runs the Mac Store regional chain, with good used equipment through PowerMax in Lake Oswego.
  • Apple retail stores also have excellent customer service, and a terrific new “One to One” training program for Apple-branded applications
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