RESPECTING THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE ELECTRONIC PRODUCTS FOR YOU
Nearly 90 per cent of all computers manufactured today are made in China. Due to the poorer working conditions in the factories of China and the shear numbers of computers manufactured, an increasing number of Chinese workers are being exposed to dangerous chemical fumes from cleaning products made of benzene and n-hexane. These chemicals are used to wipe clean the screens prior to packaging and distribution. Because the rooms of factories that do the cleaning have poor ventilation and the windows are small or closed, workers are breathing in enough doses of the chemicals to cause nerve damage and cancer.
Apple has quite rightly made the decision to ban the use of benzene and n-hexane among its main manufacturing partners. Unfortunately a large number of the subcontractors of the partners involved are not adhering to the rules. It is highly recommended that all computer manufacturers raise the price of every computer sold to consumers by 1 dollar and use the money to improve the working environments of Chinese workers, including different choices of cleaning solvents and improving the flow of fresh air through all the rooms that generate fumes of any kind for the safety of all concerned.
How to buy a computer
When buying a computer, choose the one that satisfies all your current and most of your future needs, all within a sturdy construction and solid 3-year or more warranty to ensure it last a long time. This means looking at the right computer manufacturers and the software that will be around for a long time.
If you are not sure of the right computer system, then some experts can help you out (see online reviews). If you want to do it yourself, look at the system requirements at the back of the software box for an idea of the type of computer system you will need. Also be aware of future trends such as new upcoming operating systems (OS) and software apps. An OS like Windows XP might be fine now (and people are generally happy with it), but later discover Windows 7 or 10 might be better suited to your needs (or allows for more modern software apps to run), except it needs more memory and extra storage to hold the behemoth of an OS once you get up to Windows 10. So make sure your computer can handle these future requirements. The same is true of OS X and macOS. The older OS X covers the gamut starting from OS X 10.1 (who uses this version?) right up to OS X El Capitan (version 10.11), whereas the latest is macOS Sierra (version 10.12) and macOS High Sierra (version 10.13). Moving up from OS X El Capitan to macOS High Sierra will definitely be more taxing on your RAM and hard disk space. Check the Microsoft and Apple web sites for details on the machine requirements. Once you know the computer system you will need for now and want in the future to handle new software, choose a computer that will not break down easily or will require regular repairs. And also choose a machine that you can afford with features that you will find most useful and has what you need for now and in the future.
For example, Apple computers were notorious for making products (mainly the laptops) that break down more quickly (especially the plastic variety of iBooks and PowerBooks) than they should due to excessive heat emitted by the microprocessor and graphics accelerator chip, not to mention the poor choice of cheap Asian components (e.g. poor display hinges, metal casing that bends too easily, or plastic casing that warp and crack etc.) to build the products. This could be seen as an incentive for anyone buying an Apple computer to spend extra on an extended 3-year warranty instead of the standard 12 months so you can think it is worth buying an Apple computer. Fortunately things have improved dramatically with with use of much sturdier and "able to withstand the heat better" aluminium one piece design and quad-core variable speed Intel processors. And the hinges used in Apple laptops today are far better than they were before. Now, at last, the quality is on par with even the best PC laptops money can buy. What a relief it is to hear this finally.
Still, you can never be sure what you might get. Therefore, the aim is to find a quality computer manufacturer that can provide you with a free extended 3-year or longer warranty. Those computer manufacturers that charge you extra for this are there mainly to make a bigger profit, but can also be a sign that they are ready to flog you off with a substandard machine. Don't compromise on a good warranty for the sake of a cheap computer no matter how good the specs might be.
In fact, every computer should be built to last no less than 5 years and ideally for as long as the customer wishes to use the computer (which could potentially be a lifetime). But, of course, this is rarely the case as software improves and faster computers with greater storage capacity are required to run the latest software.
What should I look for when buying a computer?
In general, you should look for:
A reliable and sturdy machine built to last.
Who knows? Perhaps your kids may inherit it one day or may turn out to be of historical value if it works (those that survive the distance will be of high quality design and manufactured using the best components), or maybe you are happy with older software doing the job you want for the rest of your life (until emulation and virtualisation software can allow you to run them on the latest computers). Otherwise it might as well be used as a coffee cup holder in which case it is better to throw it away (or better still, have it recycled)!
The highest speed performance that you can afford.
A microprocessor speed of 1GHz with backside cache is more than adequate for things like writing text in a Word document, adding some pictures, reading emails, and visiting some web sites. For commercial video editing and 3D animation specialists, the fastest machine possible is preferred. So the minimum would be 2.2GHz. Nowadays the best microprocessor is the 8th generation i7-8550U with variable speeds of between 2.1GHz to 4.0GHz and with quad core. The variable speed part simply means that when you don't use your computer too much or the software is not requiring a lot of processor work, such as when you are typing a letter in Microsoft Word or reading text on a web page (such as what you are reading now), you don't need a super fast microprocessor. A 2.1GHz processor is more than adequate. However, on those occasionswhen you do choose to do some video editing, playing a video, or processing a complex high-resolution and large photograph in Adobe Photoshop, the ability to go up to 4GHz is a benefit as it will process data faster. The only drawback is that the processor will get hotter and draw more power. Basically the slower the microprocessor, the less energy and raw processing power it will have. The variable speed of microprocessors is just a useful addition to laptops that need the battery life per charge to be maximised and without making the laptops too hot to rest on your lap. As for "quad-core", it means you could be watching a video, but in the background you could be rendering a 3D scene in 3DS Max. Basically you have four microprocessors running in the background. With the right modern software, a number of the processors will turn on or share the volume of data to be processed to ensure multiple software apps can run in a manner that seems simultaneous. Of course, the more software you run, the slower things will get for each running app, but at least for two to four apps designed to make the most of the multi-processor (the OS will tend to make sure it does, even for older software) it means they will run at almost full speed of each processor, and will start to drop in speed if you have more than four apps running at the same time. Avoid single or dual-core microprocessors as they tend to make computers feel like
heatersdesigned to have a short-life due to the extra heat generated (especially when you get up into the 3.5GHz or higher speeds).
The most memory capacity by way of hard disk space and RAM.
The absolute minimum hard disk capacity would be 20GB if the work you will only ever do is pure text and some basic 2D EPS graphics (fine for writing a top-notch thesis or writing a new Bible or encyclopedia without movies and very few graphics). Or you can survive on as little as 80GB for serious video and photographic production and 3D modelling/animation work. But with the advent of bigger and more memory-hungry software tools and OS versions, and people want to store their work on one machine (you should also have a copy of it on a backup drive), movie recording and editing longer than 3 minutes, and world-class photographic-like 3D modelling and animation, not to mention high resolution HD and colour depth of up to 4K in the latest videos and so on, 500GB of storage has to be the absolute minimum (some manufacturers will still sell you 256GB, but don't buy it). We recommend 1TB (1,000GB). For fastest read/write access of data to the storage unit, SSDs are the way to go. No moving parts in SSDs also translates to a more reliable device even when you shake your computer rigorously like you are in an earthquake zone reaching a richter scale of 9+ (as in the Hollywood blockbuster movie San Andreas), but they are the most expensive once you get past 500GB of capacity. PC manufacturers have noted this slight pricing issue, so they have opted in 2017 and 2018 for a combo traditional magnetic hard disk drive of capacities reaching 2TB (that's 2,000GB) and will throw in a minimum 256GB SSD for those occasions where you need to work on a file and run certain apps (including the OS) at maximum speed. This is a reasonable compromise on capacity versus price until the SSDs come down in price beyond 1TB. Or you can afford to buy 2TB SSDs and be done with it on the latest laptops (which Apple has done with the latest MacBook Pro 2018 edition), but will cost nearly $4,000.
One more thing to keep in mind when it comes to SSDs. There is currently a concern among some experts about the longevity of SSDs. If one writes to a particular memory cell of an SSD chip a certain number of times (how many times is not widely reported, but presumably it should be able to handle quite a few tens of thousands of re-writes), it is possible that cell may decide to "give up the ghost" so to speak, and then it becomes impossible to write a 0 or 1 in that cell. If that happens, the integrity of a software app or personal file can be compromised. It is a bit like the mutation of a nucleotide in DNA inside your living cell. The DNA is meant to be preserved and protected inside the nucleus of a living cell. But nothing is ever perfect. Give it enough time and exposure to the external environment will result in a sufficiently energetic ray of electromagnetic energy from the cosmos to penetrate the living cell and disrupt the storage information kept in the DNA. There are biochemical mechanisms within the body to help retain the best original copy of the genetic data. For these mechanisms to work properly, they require DNA to be split apart (looking like an "unzipping" of the double-helix structure). Once it is divided in half, the code is checked against some other original (either the other split half or certain key genetic information is repeated in certain more protected areas of the DNA, perhaps in other chromosomes), the problem is fixed, and two new DNA molecules are formed, and a new living cell is re-created from this information which will then physically divide from the parent cell in a process called mitosis. This new cell is what faces the environment, whereas the parent cell may continue to survive unless its DNA has too many errors. In which case the immune system will destroy the cell.
With this in mind, something similar is probably taking place in SSDs. While a proper radiation-shielding metal cage to protect the memory chips is probably essential, it will also depend on the quality of the rest of the circuit components and circuit design to keep things like the voltage of the data coming in for storing in the memory chips to be just at the right level so that no memory chip gets "fried". On both of these points, a quality and well-made SSD will be essential. As the old adage goes, you get what you paid for. Paying top dollar for the best SSD may be your best investment. However, in this day and age, it is hard to tell what kind of SSD you will likely get from manufacturers. Therefore, the thinking is that the computer you buy today will likely be obsolete within 10 years. And by then, your data will hopefully already have been copied to a modern backup drive. And when you do get a new computer with a bigger SSD, the memory chips will be fresh enough and of better quality to retain the data for perhaps 15 or more years. It will not be like the quality paper from the 12th century and using the best ink and preserving the book in a library and know the data will be retained hundreds of years later. Any SSD built today will not outlast your lifetime, and should probably not be relied upon for more than 10 years. Apple has thought about this sufficiently and done its research to realise it is important to improve the longevity of the SSD. In macOS High Sierra, you now get a new file organising solution to ensure every memory cell in the SSD is used and data never gets re-written in the same spot in the SSD memory over and over again. Instead, the data will be re-written to a different and fresh new spot in memory. Hopefully this method will extend the life of SSDs built today by an extra 5 or potentially 10 years. As for PC users, it is unclear whether Windows 10 or the drivers installed by SSD manufacturers do a similar thing, but you should keep in mind SSDs will have a shorter lifespan than traditional magnetic hard drives. If you are going to use SSDs for all your storage needs inside your computer, try to find a backup disk drive that stores your data differently and with greater longevity. Optical drives are good if they have the capacity to store a lot of data. But if not, maybe a magnetic disk drive for your backup unit is sufficient to give you that slightly greater sense of security in retaining your digital data for longer.
On the RAM side of things (this is working storage designed to temporarily hold data as the microprocessor processes the data at super high speeds), it depends on the operating system you have and software you want to run. For pre-Windows 98 and Mac OS Classic 9, a minimum of 128MB was necessary. For the latest OS, you wouldn't be able to do much with 4GB (although with SSDs, you can just get away with it, because SSDs use memory chips similar to RAM except they are designed to retain data even when the power is switched off). Some computer manufacturers may still offer 8GB for your RAM. You should ignore them. The minimum standard RAM is 16GB to run the latest Windows 10 or macOS High Sierra, and any decent-sized monstrosity of a software app such as Adobe After Effects CC 2018, Microsoft Word 2016, or just about anything else. Generally the more RAM you can get the better your experience of a lightning fast use of your computer, but this depends on the price of the laptop that you are willing to pay. Basically it costs $185 to $500 for a 16GB RAM card (or 2 x 8GB cards) to upgrade the RAM in your computer. The more expensive means the data can be processed at a higher speed up to the level capable of the microprocessor. So you may benefit paying extra for that better quality and faster RAM, but make sure you have a modern computer capable of handling the best RAM memory cards. Otherwise, you can buy 32GB RAM at a slower speed for nearly all computers built over the past 10 years (so long as they have a slot or slots inside to hold the card(s).
Adequate software for all your immediate and future needs.
The whole purpose of getting a computer is to, well, run software so you can do things and get work done (or be more entertained). A computer is only as useful as the software it can run. And nowadays the software will only run when an OS is installed and of the right version (a common problem for macOS). The OS is just there to help you organise your files neatly in folders and present them on the screen will other system extensions will simplify the work of software developers in common tasks such as showing an Open or Save dialog box, so that the developers of these software apps do not have to duplicate these functions and work out how the dialog boxes should look. Basically the OS is there to make the experience of running different software seem consistent in the most common functions and to prevent the apps themselves from getting much larger in size should the common functions get duplicated.
In terms of the actual software you would want to run in order to get work done and create your carefully crafted and well-designed personal files for helping you get through life in an easier and more efficient way, older software is perfectly fine if it can run on the latest computers.The only slight problem is that people like Apple have a bad habit of updating the OS every year or two and claim the OS is allegedly better and before you know it, older software will, for some reason, no longer work. If the older software is more than adequate to meet your needs but don't see the value of upgrading to newer software, we recommend creating what are known as virtual disks. These are digital disks looking like a large file designed to recreate a newer or older OS environment right down to running the OS and any older apps you once had and experienced. The part that runs the OS and older software is a separate and modern software app that does the emulation or virtualisation of the environment. Once you are in this environment, setting to full window mode means the environment will be virtually identical to what you had before. The only slight difference is (i) it may feel a little slower to run older apps in this "emulated" or "virtualised" environment; and (ii) older software that took advantage of older hardware configurations and features may no longer work in your new computer. The software app that makes all this happen will attempt to provide the best alternative solutions to linking up the old hardware requirements to your existing machine. But bear in mind, it will not be perfect. Still, for more than 98 per cent of older software you may want to use, it is likely they will run without any problems whatsoever. If you wish to go in this direction, the best "emulation" and "virtualisation" apps are Parallels Desktop (for Mac) and VMware Workstation (for PC) or VMware Fusion (for Mac). Both apps will be able to run Windows, Linux and Mac OS environments of nearly any older or newer version you are currently on. There is also a free open source altyernative called VirtualBox. It is okay, but not fast enough compared to the other much more refined commercial solutions. Finally, make sure to run the apps on the faster storage unit and with adequate RAM in your computer. SSDs are highly recommended for the sufficient throughoput data volumes needed to make the environments seem to run at a respectable speed. Or else make sure you have a miniomum of 16GB RAM. Or better still get a combination of 32GB RAM and an SSD for the best and most optimal experience.
Otherwise, no virtual disks will mean you must be prepared to upgrade to the newer variety of software. May not be quite as bad as it sounds because sometimes the advantage of upgrading your software is that you will probably get more features that you didn't have in your old software, and it may even run faster on your new computer. While some new apps will help to automate common tasks which you may find useful and a massive time-saver compared to older software. The only drawback is that new features usually means a bigger software app. Therefore, your new computer must have adequate storage capacity to hold all your new software you wish to run. But remember, this approach will cost you more to keep up with the latest stuff (the bane of most computer users facing a new OS and eventually when buying a new computer).
Adequate expansion, communication and general ports.
You need a number of ports to, well basically, expand the capabilities of your computer should you require it. It is all about future-proofing your system and stopping those greedy computer manufacturers asking you to fork out more money so soon for another computer system when in truth you really don't have to. Among the ports you ought to have as standard are at least two USB ports (now up to Type C or version 3.1 in the nerdy technical language, meaning that more data can be transferred through the USB port; thus a large 2GB file can be transferred in under 12 seconds compared to a USB marked Type A or Type B, which could take several minutes; note that some computers will provide an older USB port for those older hardware and thumbdrives that can only work on this older port), a Thunderbolt port (a flexible way of connecting a variety of different devices to your computer, including large separate monitors and storage devices of any sophistication and power); an SD card reader (digital cameras tend to rely on memory cards that you can remove and slot into your computer to read its data, although it is expected this technology will be phased out by 2020 in favour of the wireless WiFi transfer of data as newer cameras will have), an Ethernet port (for connecting to LAN in your workplace, although again it is a technology that will eventually get phased out in favour of WiFi), an optional HDMI port (for connecting to your digital TV and view the contents of your screen on the bigger TV screen), and an audio microphone and headphone jack (either combined or as two separate connectors). Please note that Apple will skip on not providing all of these ports for the sake of the most compact computer possible when it comes to laptops mainly because the people at this company have thought the situation and realised certain ports will no longer be needed in the coming years. In the meantime, a single or two Thunderbolt ports and the latest USB Type C version 3.1 port is usually adequate. You can always buy adapters to plug into these modern ports to help your computer connect to older style Ethernet, USD, HDMI, SD card readers, and other hardware. Only the WiFi, and the Thunderbolt and USB ports will be updated to the latest to get the adequate speed in transferring data. For PC manufacturers, they have been clever in coming up with solutions in making the ports fit into a compact design for laptops. So expect PC laptops to have far more ports available to make life easier for the user.
The need for speed. A couple of computer geeks try to increase the speed of their once-advanced microprocessor - Intel's 686 chip - only to have the chip and computer melt under the extreme heat and stress. Today, the need for speed has not changed, only the volume of digital data has changed over the years. The more data that has to be processed to achieve a task, the faster the computer has to be. Basically all the latest computers are merely faster and more reliable versions of their predecessors, with bigger storage capacities, and a more spectacular and clearer screen (but not necessary bigger) to see what you are doing. These are the only things that change over time with computers. You are only paying to get the speed you need to achieve the kind of work you do in the digital world, or experience the kind of uninterrupted and reliable entertainment of highest digital quality you hope to enjoy. Source: Mehlman 2000, p.112.
In summary, Look at what you intend to use a computer for for the next 5 years and ask yourself whether you need to buy the very latest, fastest and best computer. If not, choose a cheaper version, but always make sure it is well-built and there are positive reviews about the cheaper system.
This is too expensive. Is there a cheaper alternative?
Understandably, this can turn out to be an expensive proposition. You can send a "Thank you" letter to the computer manufacturers later for thinking about your budget next time you are in the market for a new computer.
To minimise the costs when purchasing a computer, consider:
- buying a second-hand machine from reputable resellers, government auctions (including eBay.com) or from the classifieds of your local newspaper;
- purchasing a new basic machine with the option of expanding all of its capabilities at a later date as your needs and finances change over time;
- checking those IT companies that are giving away new, dirt-cheap computers when selling their products or when acquiring trained IT professionals as part of their workforce (you may wish to get a job in the IT industry or join an IT course); or
- obtaining software from second-hand software shops, browsing through the classifieds of your local newspaper, visiting your local trash n' treasure markets, going on eBay.com, or checking out every month for some of the older types of free full version commercial or new freeware software on computer magazines or downloadable from some software sites on the Internet or elsewhere.
- Choose a computer with a microprocessor speed that is fast enough to achieve what you want (not what other people with a vested commercial interest in selling the computers want). For example, computers manufacturers will tout how brilliant the latest 8th generation Intel i7-4550U microprocessor is. The aim here is to get you to buy the latest computer. However, if you look around carefully, you can still get roughly the same speed from the 7th generation i7 chip in a machine built the previous year and save you hundreds of dollars in the process.
More about microprocessor speeds
A computer having a microprocessor running at a clock speed of 1000MHz (1 GHz) does not necessarily make for the fastest machine. If two computers are identical in all respects except one runs at 500MHz and another at 1000MHz, then the 1000MHz is the faster machine. However, if the 500MHz machine can process a greater volume of information (i.e. the microprocessor can run, say, a 64-bit processing core instead of 32-bits, such as Motorola's PowerPC G4 microprocessor, or may even come with a dual or quad-core running at the same speed) together with a large and efficient "backside cache", the 500MHz machine will run faster than a 1000MHz machine.
The only way to test the true speed of a computer is to run "real world" processor intensive tests using a software package like Adobe Photoshop (e.g. try to measure how long it takes to process a fairly large 200MB CMYK graphic image using a number of different special effect filters). Alternatively, and so test other components in the computer system, such as the hard drive's read/write speeds, try running a large application like Microsoft Word 2016 and see how quickly it loads up (now this is a beast to launch and get to the point of seeing a blank Word document).
AMD and Intel have up the ante on microprocessor speeds to well over 3.6GHz. The regular improvements to the chips over time compared to lesser known microprocessor manufacturers, such as Motorola's PowerPC G4 microprocessor that used to run at the heart of older Macs prior to 2002, has seen Apple make the decision to move onto the Intel chip and so keep its product line and the company relevant in the modern age. And it also solved a major problem for Apple: the older chips would get too hot at higher speeds. That is why the decision by Intel to eventually introduce dual and quad-core processors and later variable clock speeds depending on the data volume required to be processed has been crucial in saving Apple from going bust at a time when its products were not improving as fast as its PC counterparts. We see this decision from Apple to move onto Intel chips when in January 2006 Apple introduced the new Macs running the Intel Duo Core processors at between 1.67GHz and 2GHz. NOTE: Heat is a killer of all electronic components and will shorten the life of your computer.
Moving to the Intel chips allows Apple to be poised to make a switch at any time to selling its OSX to PC users. But while Microsoft and Apple have made a secret gentlemens' agreement not to impinge on each other's market share, Apple will only sell OSX to Mac users, and Microsoft will only sell Windows 7 to PC users. That would change after 2014 with VMware now able to run OS X and macOS on a PC with a slight hack thanks to a utility called VMware Unlocker 2.1.
Today, Intel has improved its microprocessor to the point where i7 quad-core processors are the most energy efficient, low heat emissions, and fastest processors (changing clock speeds between 2.1 to 4.1 GHz) available on the market.
Do I need the extra microprocessor speeds?
Good question. Why would you need the extra speed to do whatever it is you want from your computer right now? Approximately 90 per cent of computer users will rarely ever use the full raw processing power of the latest microprocessors except for the professionals working in 3D animation, digital video editing, and the more serious power "gaming" users running the latest 3D immersive environments of various games. Unless you are running the incredibly slow Mac OS X (has improved since Tiger came out, and is better under Snow Leopard, but things have got better with some newer OS versions and the latest computer updates to its hardware specifications, incluidng SSD technology) and therefore need to spend money upgrading to the fastest microprocessor speed possible to make everything move fast enough again, a 500MHz computer with MacOS8.6/9.2.1 or Windows 98 is more than adequate to run programs as big as Adobe Photoshop 7.0 or Apple Final Cut Pro 2.0 and do everything you'll ever need in the digital world.
Having the latest computer with the fastest microprocessor is not necessarily going to make you a millionaire or famous overnight in whatever you wish to do with your computer if a 500MHz machine can do the same tasks just as well. You are only making computer manufacturers richer if you do.
You may not have much choice nowadays except upgrade to a faster computer (and with it the latest operating systems) thanks to the profit-motivation shown by software and hardware manufacturers. Software is now being designed to work only on the latest operating systems and sometimes on a very specific microprocessor (e.g. Microsoft's latest Virtual PC 7.0 for emulating a Windows system on a Macintosh will not work on the latest Macintosh G5 computers, only the G4). Even though software manufacturers can make the products compatible with older and newer operating systems and microprocessors if they really want to (e.g. Insignia's RealPC 1.0.9 software for emulating the Windows environment will run on a Macintosh G2/G3/G4 and G5 computer), many choose not to for the sake of minimising costs and/or forcing customers to pay more for upgrading their computer, operating systems and general application software. A classic example of this can be seen with Adobe Photoshop 7 to CS3.
The above observation remains true to this day. If all you ever need to do is type letters, write a book, read emails, and/or visit a few web sites, a microprocessor speed of 1.2GHz is perfectly adequate. However, as we all like to get entertained, the volume of digital data has increased significantly with the advent of 4k HD videos and more sophisticated 3D environments (the origin of the latest CGI-intensive images we see in Hollywood movies). To get the results coming out to the highest quality and on time for making some people lots of money, it is essential to have the fastest computers you can afford. For desktop computers, 3 GHz or more is the norm. For laptops, variable clock speeds of 2.1 to 4.1 GHz is essential mainly because some professionals use a laptop to achieve the high volume processing needed yet at other times want the machines to stay cool for greater longevity of the electronic components.
What about for the small business operator?
Unless, as a business operator, you are in the professional desktop publishing, advertising, movie-making and/or graphic designing business where extensive manipulation of graphics, video and sounds in the digital form are required, you are far better off with a less powerful, low-cost and reliable computer.
Most small businesses can pretty much do away with all the fancy technologies like a DVD drive, 4k displays, and special graphics accelerator cards. What is more important to a small business is a simple, low-cost and reliable computer with a good HD screen that will run the essential software needed to run a business. For professional gamers, the requirements will be different. For these people, the best and fastest graphics accelerator card and a decent quality display are essential.
NOTE: A top quality gaming machine will usually have more grunt than a business user is likely to ever need depending on the type of business the person is doing.
This means any reasonable computer of up to say 10 years old should be able to run many of the new, and certainly nearly all of the second-hand software.
For example, a 2009 MacBook Pro can easily run Microsoft Office going back to the earliest version right up to the latest 2016 monstrous edition (a bit slow but still workable). The only exception is when people like Apple decide to release the latest OS. In the case of Apple, it will choose to put in restrictions on which version of certain older software it produces can run on it, and even remove the software support code needed to run the older software on the newer OS. Or else newer software will have support code removed to prevent it from running on a slightly older OS version. A classic example is FileMaker Pro 2017. This version will only run on macOS Sierra or higher. Yet FileMaker Pro 2016 works perfectly fine on OS X El Capitan or higher. What's wrong with running FileMaker Pro 17 on El Capitan? Is it really such a technologically challenging proposition for Apple to make it work on the slightly older OS version? If so, it must be because of the way the company will, on the one hand, add a few new features and, on the other hand, put blocks in the OS to prevent certain software from running. Or else it will change the way the OS behaves and in providing those common APIs needed by third-party software developers only to stuff up older (including the last version) software. Until the software is re-compiled under the new and latest OS environment, basically anyone who pays for the older software will realise it is a waste of money. So what does Apple do? Instead of maintaining a Rosetta Stone of programming code that allows the latest software to run on older OS versions, the preferred approach is to deprecate (to warn users that life is getting too hard for Apple to maintain support for older systems) and eventually to remove the support (i.e. rip out the code) that would have otherwise allowed the latest upgrade to run on OS X El Capitan or earlier versions. Microsoft, on the other hand, has learned not to do this by allowing Windows 7 applications to run on the latest Windows 10, and vice versa (there are only a few exceptions to this rule), by ensuring the essential APIs in the OS needed by software developers are kept in the same place and accessible using the same code to call upon these APIs. In that way, there is enough resilience in the PC system to handle a wider variety of older and newer software.
That is why a number of business users with a PC are not likely to see the benefits of upgrading to the latest software when a ready-made spreadsheet prepared in Microsoft Excel 5.0 or the more sophisticated MYOB for analysing one's business finances, as well as a simple database like FileMaker Pro 3.0 for storing customer and business contact details, and a simple word processor like Microsoft Word 6.0 for creating letters, invoices, and simple text-based newspaper advertisements are usually more than enough (1). Only a few business users who want to create their own graphic-rich television and newspaper advertisements and go beyond the mere use of carefully-crafted text and personal presentation of selling oneself and the products/services will consider purchasing a more powerful computer (up to 3 years old).
Should I get a desktop computer or a laptop?
Today's laptops offer all the speed, connectivity (if you choose a PC, or pay extra to Apple for the adapters you need to plug into your Mac) and storage capacity of any desktop PC. The choice is therefore up to you.
The advantages of laptops:
- Its compact design makes for a more environmentally-friendly machine than desktop PCs, especially when you decide to get rid of the computer (a very tempting proposition given the direction society is heading in the use of this technology);
- It is small enough and light weight to carry around to almost any location you like (useful for students, scientists and business professionals); and
- It can be safely used indoors in battery-operated mode during an electrical thunderstorm.
The disadvantages of laptops:
There tends to be a limited battery life per charge. At time of writing this (i.e. 2001), you would be lucky to get up to 5 hours per charge (the usual claim by manufacturers when you first purchase a laptop and which you may enjoy in the first few weeks or months) of continuous use out of a laptop, before it drops off quickly to around 1 to 2 hours in 12 to 18 months. Now in 2005, with so many features being added to laptops and the OS, you would be lucky to get 3 hours of advertised use. The truth is, after about a year of regular use, the Lithium ion battery found in most laptops of this period give a maximum time of between 15 minutes and 1 hour;
Improvements to lithium ion batteries and greater miniaturisation of more energy efficient electronic components has helped to improve battery times. The best times reached today is around 16 hours on a single charge (see some of the HP laptops). The average is around 5 to 11 hours for 15.4-inch screen size laptops (MacBook Pro 2018 editions are currently closer to the 11 hour mark for low to moderate processor intensive activities). Using a 17.3-inch display, the extra power needed to run the additional pixels means the battery time can drop to 4 to 7 hours. For those 17-inch 4k displays with higher resolutions and colour depths, battery time is further reduced to around 1.5 to 3 hours.
Laptops tend to cost more to buy compared to the desktop variety. This is mainly because of the quality and size of the LCD screen, availability of new and better quality components to make a computer (e.g., graphic cards, SSDs etc.), the greater difficulties in making components and computers compact enough for portability, and sometimes the choice of materials to make the "box" to hold all the electronics inside and other parts can be quite expensive. It is to do with availability of certain components, the difficulty in manufacturing these components, how many computers can be manufactured in a certain time frame, and the decision by the manufacturers to be fancy and value add to the product as well as how much to sell the components or computers if they think it is the best thing in the world (market forces will tend to decide if it is).
The price of some laptops are getting below the A$2,000 mark. And those without a screen and keyboard/mouse (e.g. the Mac minis) can be below the A$1,000 mark. But do check on the quality of the flat-panel screens (they may have blown pixels/transistors). The screen will probably be of the standard 15-inch variety and the casing will look cheap. Also make sure the computer is not running too hot.
PC laptops with an Intel Core Duo processor can be purchased for under AUD$1,000. Apple MacBook Pro laptops for the 15-inch model start at AUD$2,100.
- You have to look very carefully at what you are getting in a laptop from cheaper manufacturers. Some manufacturers may have just one USB port to save space or is not of the latest Type C variety, or you lose out on some other port which is standard on other laptops. Also check the wireless communication standards in use. The slower ones will use 802.11a, b or g standard when in fact it should be 802.11n.
- The keyboards on some cheaper laptops may look a bit cramped or keys placed in odd positions and can be difficult for you to type comfortably.
Laptops are built to break easily.
Panasonic has released a new laptop designed to meet US military durability requirements. Known as Panasonic Toughbook CF-51, it is water-proof and shock resistant. Casing is made of a magnesium-alloy. Coming with a removable (for security) 80GB hard drive, and have the optional extras of fingerprint and smart-card readers.
ASUS has caught on to this US military durability requirements idea with its own laptop known as ASUS B9440UA 14" Full HD True Military Grade Business Ultrabook. Casing is made of a magnesium-alloy. The basic model starts at US$990 with an Intel Core i5-7200U and goes up quickly depending on SSD capacity, amount of RAM required, and choice of an Intel processor. Maximum features possible with this model is an Intel Core i7-7500U with a 2TB SSD and 16GB RAM/ Processor speed is a consistent 2.50 GHz for the basic and top end model. And since it is not meant to be a top-spec gaming machine, the graphics card is the standard Intel HD Graphics 620 chip. Only criticism with this machine is that surprisingly the metal for protecting the display is unusually thin and this makes it easy to flex the lid. Probably a decision by ASUS to keep the laptop as compact as possible when closed up (the rest of the box will presumably provide the extra strength to prevent the lid from flexing too much).
The increasing glut of computers are seeing further price drops unless a new feature is found to justify the high price (e.g., SSDs). PC laptops with a slightly older 7th generation i7-7500U quad-core processor, a 15.4-inch display, a 2TB traditional magnetic hard drive (i.e., no SSD), and 16GB RAM can be purchased for under US$500. However, add an SSD and depending on its storage capacity, the price can jump up dramatically. Otherwise, a moderate increase in the price is expected for the newest components used to make a computer. For example, with the latest 8th generation i7-7550U quad-core processor, add US$300. For PC laptops with a 17.3-inch display, the equivalent is US$760 using 7th generation i7-7500U processor, and add about US$300 for the 8th generation processor. Where things do start to get expensive is when you add an SSD of 256GB or greater and a decent quality graphics card, and whether or not you want the 4k resolution in a 15.4 or 17.3-inch display. This the price can jump to well over $2,000 quite easily (in fact, there is no limit while sufficiently high capacity SSDs are few and far between).In the Macintosh world, there are no 17-inch laptops since they were phased out in 2013 with the decision that it can sell more 15.4 inch laptops to students, or else the company thinks everyone else will buy a desktop machine such as the Mac Pro or iMac. Business users rarely use Apple laptops or more likely it is because they have realised they can get more bang for their buck from PCs laptops. Apple only sells the largest MacBook Pro 15.4-inch laptops starting at AUD$2,100 and quickly climbs to over US$3,800 once you have 2TB SSD. The only other benefit of having a Mac is that at least you do get a decent graphics card and the latest i7 quad-core processor, and Apple will make things as compact as possible for a laptop with the least number of ports that it thinks you would need. Any other ports you might want can always be obtained via an adapter.
Brands and places to look for a good computer
While some lesser known computer manufacturers can come up with some unusually well-spec machines with reasonable durability and at a surprisingly good price, we recommend that you go for solid brand names with consistently good quality products from major computer manufacturers like ASUS,, HP, Dell, Lonovo, and perhaps even the new range of (finally) tried and tested MacBook Pro if you are happy with 15.4 inch screens (or choose iMacs, or buy a decent external display and plug it into a Mac Pro). The only differences between Apple Macs and PCs are that the latter tend to come fully equipped with all the essential ports you need for connectivity and will be priced about $1,000 less than an equivalent Mac. However, with the advent of SSDs, a high-spec and well constructed PC with 2TB SSD will have to be priced no more than the best Mac on offer, or else people will start to consider buying a Mac. So expect pricing at the top end for PC and Macs to be roughly the same.
Look for a computer with real stability, reliability, solid construction, a quality display, and a respectable amount of flexibility and performance. The standard built-in features such as the microprocessor should be of the latest versions for maximum speed, stability and reliability, but sometimes price can be a consideration. So consider the previous year versions as the speed and quality are still very good and not worth spending hundreds of dollars more for the latest version. For example, the previous 7th generation Intel i7 is still a very good microprocessor that will rip through and process your digital data just as well as the latest 8th generation chip. Going for a computer with the previous year's chip is going to save you hundreds, if not more than $1,000 as computer manufacturers make special deals to get rid of old stock in order to make way for the latest machines.
The best place to see what's on offer today is visit the library or newsagent and read computer magazines discussing reviews done on various computers. And check tech web sites to determine the problems users find in certain computer models.
Best laptops on offer as of 2018
We recommend in the 17-inch class:
- HP Envy 17 with a 7th generation Intel Core i7-7500U, NVIDIA GeForce 940MX, 12GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, and Windows 10. A very good condition second-hand machine can cost as little as US$935.
- ASUS VivoBook Pro with a newer Intel i7-8550U processor, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD + 1TB HDD, NVIDIA Gaming GeForce GTX 1050, Backlit Keyboard, and Windows 10. This one is perhaps the most MacBook Pro-like laptop you will find (and probably the machine that Apple should have built), and with specs considered not bad for the price of US1,099 given that this is for a brand new machine.
- Lenovo Flagship Business laptop with a respectable Intel i5-7200U, 12GB DDR4 RAM, 1TB HDD, DVD-RW, and Windows 10 is an unusually cheap 17-inch machine for the budget-conscious user. Price for a new machine is around US$649.
In the 15.4-inch display class, there are plenty of very good quality laptops on offer, including, dare we say it, the MacBook Pro 2018 edition with its touchbar. The following PC alternatives might be worth a look at:
- A surprise entry from a big computer manufacturer not noted for building attractive and compact machines is the Dell XPS 15. The unusual effort from Dell to design a compact and solidly constructed machine has paid off with an attractive bezel-less (called the InfinityEdge) display. The latest 2018 edition has a starting price of AU$1,999 (might as well make it $2,000 as it is close enough to it). This will come with a 7th generation Intel i7-7700HQ quad-core processor (should have been the 8th generation chip), 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM (expandable to 32GB, but base model should be 16GB by now) and Windows 10 Home. With the exception of the processor, all this can be bumped up to the highest spec machine of 1TB SSD (you will have to buy a third-party SSD of higher capacity) and 32GB RAM for a tad under AU$3,000. A bit expensive, but with Dell's legendary quality control, solid construction, and a decent warranty and replacement policy, it is probably not as bad as it looks.
- HP Spectre x360 (2017 edition) comes with a 2.7GHz Intel quad-core i7-7500U processor, 16GB RAM, a 2GB Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card, 512GB SSD and Windows 10. One nice feature to set it apart from other laptops is the 360 degree hinges that allows the machine to behave like a tablet (Lonovo is one of the few other companies famous for doing this sort of thing). Priced at a respectable $1,489. However, we recommend that you wait for the new line up of better-looking machines to arrive from this company in late 2018.
For an ultra compact 14-inch display laptop with good durability and toughness, it is hard to go past the ASUS B9440UA 14" Full HD Intel Core i7-7500U True Military Grade Business Ultrabook with 16GB RAM. Just choose the SSD capacity that you can afford above the standard US$999 base model and you should be happy with it for a long time. Otherwise, a Dell XPS 13 2018 edition with its 13-inch display is not such a bad laptop for roughly the same price as the base ASUS model. For an expensive 14-inch laptop with decent features, there is the HP ZBook x2 G4 for roughly $3,622.
If you want the best laptops money can buy with the specs you can't beat, you should choose the ones described as the best "gaming" laptops. The one we would recommend is:
- Razer Blade Pro Gaming Laptop with a 17-inch 4K Touchscreen. It comes with an Intel ii7-7820HK, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and a GeForce GTX 1080 8GB GDDR5X VRAM. This is considered the top end for a quality gamings machine (and hence have more than the grunt to rip through your digital data for processing when it comes to a work machine). A very good condition second-hand machine can cost US$3,255. A cheaper 15-inch version is available if you prefer the more compact design.
NOTE: All machines will come with the latest WiFo, Bluetooth, USB ports etc.
What about warranty?
When purchasing a quality computer or any other computer-related products from a reputable company, consider spending an extra couple of hundred dollars in getting a three-year, next-business-day onsite support warranty (we can't recommend this more when it comes to Apple products). Even better, you should look for those companies like Hewlett-Packard (HP) who are prepared to give you a three-year "complete replacement with no questions asked" warranty at no extra charge if you should find a fault with any of their products. This is a good sign of quality.
And with Dell, as of June 2006, upgrading from a 1-year warranty service to a 3-year deal will include a free 1-year theft insurance cover for laptops.
When buying a computer, don't confuse technical support with warranty. Warranty is a period of say 12 months from the date of purchase (or 3 years for the extended warranty) when your machine may develop hardware faults through no fault of your own other than the standard wear and tear (be careful of manufacturers who try to use the wear-and-tear excuse to avoid applying warranty to obvious design and manufacturing faults we hope Apple is listening to this one!) in which case the manufacturer should happily repair or replace the computer. Technical support is merely the after sales support for problems of a minor nature such as how to install your system software or modem device on your computer. No repairs, replacement or refunds are done through technical support.
Make sure your computer manufacturer can supply good quality technical support on the web site or by telephone. If not, the company is only interested in saving money for a bigger profit at the end of the financial year, or else the machine is so perfect and easy to use that it doesn't require technical support. Even the best computer manufacturer will still have a technical support section. Therefore, it is unlikely a computer manufacturer with no technical support will ever produce the perfect machine (not even Apple).
Remember, a computer system that comes with a 3-year warranty or longer at no extra charge is usually likely to be a well-contructed machine designed both for the consumer and the professional markets. If you find a computer that has only a 1 year warranty (e.g. Apple computers) and you have to pay extra for a 3-year extended warranty, they are usually described as "consumer" products and therefore not likely to physically last as long as a machine with a guaranteed standard 3- or 5-year warranty. For example, if you were to decide on purchasing for the first time either an Apple MacBook Pro laptop for AU$4000 and a Dell machine for roughly the same price, you would be better off with the Dell machine because of its standard 3-year warranty (Apple can only guarantee a 1-year warranty on all its products for the high price unless you are prepared to cough up more money to extend the warranty why?), excellent construction, and good value for money for the features it has included in the "box".
Furthermore, you should insist that the computer comes fully installed with an operating system (together with an installer CD or USB thumbdrive containing a backup of the entire operating system and all other standard software), full documentation (preferably in printed form although it is acceptable nowadays for the documentation to come on a CD), and simple installation instructions when setting up your computer. (2)
NOTE: Do not buy a computer that claims it comes with everything and then find you have to go online to download the complete help files or extra "crucial" software which should have been on the CD supplied with the machine. Apple's original and very first G4 iMac flat-panel computer with its OSX 10.1 software and looking more like a desk lamp when it first came onto the market was notorious in not supplying the full OS X help files on the computer (e.g. it wouldn't provide information on how to network the iMac with older classic Mac computers for some reason until you go online to get it). This was so that consumers could be enticed to set up an Internet connection where your registration details can be automatically sent to Apple in secret and to figure out why you want to hook up to your older Mac (Oh doh! So we can get the friggin files off the old hard disk. What do you reckon?).
How do I look after my computer?
This is getting pretty hard to do with many of the latest and complex-looking computers on the market. The more features and parts there are in a computer, the more likely something will go wrong. It also does not help if computer manufacturers decide to include some form of obsolescence into your computer in an attempt to force you to buy another one (we won't be pointing any fingers at anyone, will we Apple?).. And did you know the latest technique of getting you to buy a new computer every three years or less involves making computer's so hot with the help of the latest microprocessors and low-current hard disks that eventually the computers will fail to function properly and will cost too much to repair it regularly with the help of locally-approved technicians?
At any rate, your computer, if it is of good quality, should last you a lifetime. Or if the computer is a relatively ordinary one, you should get at least 20 years use if kept in very good condition unless the manufacturers have deliberately forced you to upgrade the computer because of excessive heat problems and inherent manufacturing and design faults.
A computer should technically last a lifetime (just look at the original Macintosh computers from 1986 still running today) mainly because the actual computer itself (i.e. the motherboard) has no moving parts to wear down over time. The only parts you may need to take care of and perhaps repair or replace every 5, 10 or 20 years are those components that have moving parts like the floppy and CD drives, the internal hard disk, the mouse, and possibly even the keyboard. (3)
Fortunately many new computers nowadays allow for the easy removal and replacement of these quick wearing components. And with SSD technology, much of the moving components needed to storage digital data has been removed. The only issue with SSDs are how well they are constructed (i.e., provide good radiation-shielding to the electronics inside), the quality of the memory chips, and whether the heat generated by the computer can be dissipated well to prevent a shorter life to the electronic components.
At any rate, if you wish to preserve your computer and all its peripherals and components attached to it for as long as possible, keep in mind the following points:
- Always use a surge-protected power board to protect all your valuable electronic equipment;
- Provide adequate ventilation for your computer as too much heat will stress the electronic components inside your machine and ultimately reduce the lifespan of your computer;
- Additional electronic pollution emanating from magnets and untidy power cables running over your monitor or computer may cause your computer to behave adversely and/or may cause your valuable data on the hard disk to be damaged or lost. This is less of a problem with SSDs compared to magnetic disk drives, but still something to consider. So keep your power cables and magnets neatly tucked away from your computer;
- Put your magnetic disks in a safe, dry place, away from your computer. The computer is also a source of electronic pollution (i.e. it creates electromagnetic fields) and will damage some of your disks (in particular, the magnetic variety such as floppy and Zip disks, but not the optical variety such as a CD-ROM) if the pollution has enough energy to penetrate the media (e.g. if the disks are placed at close range to a computer and are not well protected inside a metal cage to reduce the energy);
- Every week or so, give your computer, keyboard and monitor a quick wipe with a clean cloth or feather duster to remove dust. Otherwise a build-up of dust over time may eventually interfere with the operation of your computer, especially those components with moving parts; Also keep in mind the grill size on some laptops can be large . This might be okay to cool the computer, but it can allow more muck by way of pet hair to get inside and eventually short-circuit the logic board. The grills should be finely with enough tiny holes to prevent solid and large dust and hair particles from getting inside, but allow plenty of air to flow through them. Otherwise, a slower clock speed of the processor is preferred for the less heat it generates if you want a computer that lasts a long time.
- For personal hygiene (i.e. to reduce the likelihood of you getting infections and colds), clean your computer properly at least once a month with a non-abrasive and slightly damp cloth dipped in alcohol (i.e. methylated spirits is fine although we are told Apple's old iBook G3 used poor quality plastics are designed to react with the alcohol resulting in the appearance of a cloudy scratched-like surface, a bit like the way turpentine eats away on soft plastic). Take particular attention to the keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), for this is where most people tend to touch when using a computer;
- When cleaning your monitor or LCD screen (about once a month), use a highly quality spectacles cloth and a quick-drying "streak-free" alcohol spray as used by optometrists for cleaning eye glasses (composed mainly of ethanol). This will prevent leaving behind a streak on the screen and minimises the chance of scratching the surface of the monitor or LCD screen;
Avoid eating and drinking while using your computer. Any food spills you create might cause permanent damage to your keyboard or, worse still, your computer (especially if it is a laptop!
NOTE: Thereare some laptops on the market designed to be spill resistant over the keyboard area.
- Don't regularly switch on and off your computer. It will only increase the stress to the electronic components inside. Try to leave the computer switched on for as long as possible until you have to switch it off (e.g. when a thunderstorm is present outside, or when you have to take the computer with you during your travels). If you need to switch it off, consider using the Sleep mode. This will help to preserve the power to your computer and protect your machine for longer periods of time; and
Don't overstretch or twist cables or they might break inside (which you may never be able to see). Keep the cables straight and within comfortable reach, and if you must fold them up, keep it simple, loose and tidy to ensure their long life.
NOTE: It is also possible for the cables of some computers to be of a poor quality (i.e. stiff and prone to metal fatigue if bent regularly) such as the original black AC adapter supplied with the Macintosh PowerBook G3 Series computers, and even to this day Apple still provides those magnetic AC power adapters where the thinner wire still breaks free from the white brick no matter how well you take care of it (a problem that Apple is willing to do nothing about for the extra profits it and the Apple resellers can make from Mac users coming back again and again to get replacements). If the problem repeats, this is a manufacturer's fault and should be replaced free-of-charge irrespective of whether your computer is under warranty or not.
What about palmtops?
Want something more portable than a laptop? Want to avoid wasting pen and paper in our environmentally-sensitive world? Try a palmtop or tablet!
Palmtops (or PDAs) was originally designed to replace traditional notepad and pens for business executives. Now the palmtops have reached a level of power approaching a 1998 model 416MHz laptop without the bulky keyboard and a very large screen. Of course, if you want a bigger screen and a keyboard, there are palmtops capable of doing this if you want.
Prices for palmtops vary from A$500 to A$2000. Our most recommended model as of 2005 for its features at a reasonable price has to be the Palm Tungsten T3 for A$799. The model has a large colour screen, 64MB of memory, a 400MHz XScale processor, a virtual keyboard on the screen, handwriting recognition technology, Bluetooth wireless communication technology, and can run Microsoft Word and Excel documents without having to convert them first. Another interesting addition to this model is the ability to rotate the screen for easier viewing.
Now if only the palmtop could have 128MB of RAM, offer a biometric finger scanner technology for securing data on the palmtop (e.g. HP IPAQ Pocket PC H5550 for A$1299), have a built-in 1.3 megapixel camera (e.g. Sony Clie PEGNX80VG (NX80) for A$999), and be able to call someone like a mobile phone, and this would have been an absolute beauty for under the A$1000 mark.
If you don't want all the bells and whistles, you should be able to get a basic palmtop for $199 (check out the latest Zire).
3 June 2006
Palmtops or PDAs have come a long way. Our recommended choice for 2006 are O2 Xda Atom for A$1,229, and the Blackberry 8700g for A$959.
The O2 Xda Atom comes with a large 6.8cm colour display, tri-band phone connectivity, built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi, FM radio and stereo speakers, the best 2-megapixel camera on the PDA-market capable of handling a wider range of lighting conditions, and a zippy 416MHz PXA272 processor running Windows Mobile 5.0. It is quick enough to breeze through Microsoft Word and Excel. Pictures, videos and sounds are easily organised with its one-touch access to the multimedia centre.
The latest Blackberry 8700g is quite an exceptional handheld device. It is considered legendary in the email handling department according to users. And it can easily browse the internet, store photos and comes with a built-in keyboard. Has all the usual organising tools such as a calendar and the works. Screen size of 6.5cm colour is highly respectable for what is considered one of the best quad-band PDA devices on the market. A popular hit in the US and certain to turn heads in other countries.
If you buy yourself the latest PDAs, spend an extra A$159.95 for a 2GB miniSD memory card from SanDisk as of June 2006. Because prices for RAM have dropped again, you can max out your PDA to the full.
Now all they need is a built-in GPS navigation system with maps and you have to question why you need to lug around a laptop these days?
Useful accessories: For PDAs that double as your MP3 player, plug in a Belkin TuneCast II Mobile FM Transmitter for A$79.95. With this device, you can listen wireless from your PDA to your car's stereo FM radio receiver. Power for the Belkin device is obtained from the car's cigarette lighter socket (if you have one!), avoiding having to replace the batteries (which we understand would be regularly with this nifty little product).
Need a PDA case to protect your investment? Visit Press Digital for above-average looking and quality PDA cases for various models.