Cheap Computing

For a few years the price and performance of mid-end desktop computers has been stagnant. I discovered this a couple of years ago when I priced out a current replacement for a personal Ivy Bridge quad-core Intel Core i5 box I was using at work, and I found that the price and performance had barely changed in several CPU generations.

But look around, and you still see a good flow of that good older equipment into used markets for a fraction of its original price, through equipment surplus channels, online classified ads, and plain old eBay.

And for laptop shoppers, it’s hard not to recommend a used quad core workstation or “pro” laptop of 5 years ago over the glut of mostly dual core 720p laptops the big box stores still seem to want to sell for C$500 today.

As long as new prices stagnate but the depreciation pattern of the old days holds up, computers become like cars: the new market has poor value compared to the used market.

There are some niche areas where things are still getting better: Discount lines (e.g. Celeron, Atom) are breaking into the quad core space and getting better graphics and video processing features, lifting them out of netbook and net-top machines only suitable for email and lite web browsing and into more useful low-end computers. And occasionally a gem comes along, like the Acer CB3–431, a quad core 1080p 14" aluminium Chromebook w/ 4 GB of RAM you can get for C$250.

I’ve always had a soft spot for what can be done with cheap technology — and the leaps in creativity that come from having tools cheap enough that they can be in the hands of unlikely people, who do not have more disposable income than the average citizen of western society or a professional artist’s willingness to invest large amounts of savings in tools.

On top of that, yesterday’s low-end server hardware that doesn’t cut it for efficiency anymore gets evicted from its rack space, and when not getting recycled as desktops directly, at least provides the true computer enthusiasts a steady supply of old drives and RAM, and LGA 771 socket CPUs that an LGA 775 system can use with the right modifications.

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