Cyber Monday: What Computer Should You Buy for 2020?

Computers in the old days

In what's become a Cyber Monday tradition — okay, it's the first year but it's a tradition if I say it's a tradition — let's examine the interesting question of what computer you should buy this year.

And yes, you should buy something. It's the American Way.

Honestly, though, the first question should be ...

Do you need a computer?

I feel like a traitor for saying this, being that I've dedicated my professional life to computers for a very long time, but a lot of people now don't need a computer.

Or at least anything that claims to be a computer, because you do need and use computers every day. An inexpensive cell phone is a bigger computer than I used through most of my time in computer science grad school, and an iPhone ten times the Cray One computer, which was the unimaginably powerful supercomputer when I was an undergraduate, but as Whoopi Goldberg might put it, it's not a computer computer.

Still, most people just want to have email, play some games, and shop on Amazon or Wayfair or whatever. So the question becomes ...

What do you want to do?

The technical term for this is "What is the workload?" and if you want a technical discussion of it, I wrote an article "Weighing the Workload First" about describing the workload in order to make decisions about a larger-scale computer system. Quoting myself:

If you look in a conventional, non-technical dictionary, you find "workload" defined as something like "the amount and type of work done by someone or something." Technically, we refine that a bit for software or systems engineering and say a workload is the sequence of tasks performed by the system over time. Describing that workload is called workload characterization.

So, if you're thinking of buying a computer, you should think about what your workload will be, not in the detailed sense of particular tasks, but by thinking about the things you want to do in general. We can break those into several categories:

Casual users are people who want to read email, surf the web, play casual games, and possibly watch occasional videos on YouTube, VEVO, Netflix, or Amazon.

Web Denizens are people who do all the things the casual users do, but do more. They want to see news and entertainment content, follow Twitter, read and respond to email, play more complex games that often use the net heavily, read and respond to Facebook, Google Hangouts, Instagram, Tinder, and so on. This means more data transmission, good cameras, and powerful software.

Business Users use their computers primarily for, you guessed it, business. This means things like Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, or their equivalents; it means more out and out computing power in order to run big calculations, and work on long documents. A subgroup of these is people whose primary job is writing; writers have similar needs, but not always identical.

Graphic Artists spend their time making attractive images. Once upon a time, this meant using the lovely old-fashioned tee-square, triangles, pencils and pens, Zip Tone and professional markers — elegant weapons for a more civilized time. Now, the tools are Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD, and SketchUp, which honestly have immense advantages over the old-fashioned days. The thing about these users and the even narrower category of people doing video is that they use lots and lots of arithmetic.

That may strike you as unexpected, but the fact is that all graphics programs use immense numbers of multiplications, usually matrix multiplications. Computers for graphics designers often include powerful Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) — and GPUs are basically computers optimized to do matrix multiplication on a 4x4 matrix. Scientists usually want computers similar to those used by graphics artists, and for the same reason: lots and lots and lots of arithmetic.

Software Developers, surprisingly, don't need a really powerful computer, but they often need a really big computer: lots of storage, fast internet access. Developers also tend to consume lots of graphics: many displays and high resolution. That's as opposed to powerful graphics; program text is trivially easy compared to, say, a game on Steam.

Gaming culminating, ne plus ultra, pinnacle, really big workload in home computers. Gaming needs the fastest graphics, fast computation, big storage, powerful networking, and customized hardware like special fast spill-proof keyboards. Just as pornography has been the bleeding-edge application for the Internet and Web, gaming is the most challenging workload for home computers.

What operating system do you need?

You have four or five major choices: Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, and Android. (There are others, but if you know enough to know you need one of them, you probably know enough to pick your own computer.)

Android and iOS are basically for phones and tablets; you choose iOS if you use an Apple product and Android otherwise. So this choice is pretty well settled.

If you are in any of the other categories, you can choose Windows, MacOS, or Linux (or other UNIX-like systems like FreeBSD, but those are primarily for software developers. And again, if you know enough to consider them, you already probably know your computer choices.

Windows, of course, is Microsoft's go-to product, and still the dominant OS for home computers.

Linux is a clone of UNIX, the operating system of choice among most technical users since at least the '80s. Linux is a project started by Linus Torvalds as his master's thesis, but has become the dominant operating system for the server-side of the Internet. It's powerful, fast, and broadly used — almost exclusively by software developers.

MacOS is the operating system used on Apple Mac computers. It's also based on the FreeBSD version of UNIX along with an experimental operating system called Mach — which only matters to developers, or if you're really interested in researching the begats of operating systems. The important difference is that MacOS is optimized to be simpler to use, and to support graphics well.

What this means is that for most people, the question is Windows or Mac?

Laptop or Desktop?

This, honestly, is a much less important question than ever before. The first portable computers, called "luggables," were underpowered and had tiny screens, but made up for it by being so heavy you risked back trouble by carrying them. Today, portable computers are called laptops, and are potentially as powerful as the most powerful desktops. Honestly, for most people, if they want a full-on computer at all, they want a laptop.

Desktop computers have real advantages for some workloads, though. If you need really big compute power, for a Gamer, Graphics Designer, or Scientist workload, you still need to go for a desktop computer.

If you spend many hours a day on a computer, you're likely to be more comfortable on a desktop; you can have bigger displays (and more of them), more comfortable keyboards, a generally more comfortable user experience.

Picking the right computer

And now, at last, we are down to it. You've identified your workload, you've thought about whether you need a real general-purpose computer or you would be happier with some other computer-like device such as a phone or tablet, and you're ready to buy. Then what?

We come back to workloads.

The casual user may very well not need a computer separate from their phone or may use a fringe almost-a-phone device like a cellular-enabled tablet.

For web denizens, I generally recommend a tablet computer or some sort: an iPad, a Windows Tablet of some sort, or a smaller all-in-one computer if you don't intend to move around much. Some examples — and these are just examples, not specific recommendations — are:

  • A Windows Tablet PC like the UltraSlim Windows Tablet PC, for $189 today at Amazon.
  • If you're an Apple fan, the choice is some iPad of course. I have a first-generation iPad pro; combine that with a stand and an inexpensive wireless keyboard and you have something that would stand up to most any desktop or laptop computer of just a few years ago.
  • If you're an Android user, there are lots of Android tablets, for example, this Lenovo 10-inch tablet for $119.99 right now at Best Buy.

A new niche that is pretty exciting are the very small desktop computers. I bought an Intel Atom the other day for $149; it comes with Windows 10 but I expect to replace that with Linux. Another interesting one I've seen today is the HP ProDesk for $150.80. It comes with a keyboard and mouse, add a display and you're in business — a good, inexpensive computer for business users.

Graphics Designers still gravitate to Apple Macs, as they have since the first Macintosh computers. Graphics Designers are all buying or wishing for an iMac, an iMac Pro, or the new Mac Pro when it comes out. Any of these would do the job of a supercomputer of just a few years ago.

The problem with Macs is that you can have as much power as you need, as long as you get a second mortgage to pay for it.

For many graphics designers, scientists, and gamers the answer is a computer explicitly designed for gaming. As long as you work with Windows, you can get power comparable to the bigger Mac computers for sometimes half the price. An example is this ASUS Gaming Desktop for $1799.99.

So what computer should I buy, really?

The answer, honestly, is that you need to buy something that suits your workload and budget and no one can really tell you more than that. But the improvement in the power you get for the price you pay means you may very possibly be able to get all the computer you need for a couple hundred dollars — or you can equip your home office with a supercomputer for a couple thousand.

Think about your workload, think about your needs, and then don't fret too much about it; they're all pretty good.