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How Do You Know What to Buy and When?

The Hampshire IT department will give you minimum specs on what computers to buy for word processing and email. Media folk, on the other hand, need a little more power and already have a totally different mind set, but most importantly, we need to understand how computers work and not just read specs off of some one else's list. Our goal here at Hampshire is to make you competent and confident (experienced and knowledgeable). We want you to make your own list and know why.

Personally we’re not really interested in computers--just the work they allow us to make. The important concerns are the work itself and the user experience: What are you making and are you having a good time doing it? At Hampshire we try to fuse work and play, so at some point you won't be able to tell if you’re playing or working. Yes, that’s a good thing. Philosophically, all of this is just like mowing the lawn. It’s really all about the grass, but to get a good cut you need a good lawn mower. But wait! You’ve never bought a lawn mower, have you? Maybe you’ve never even mowed the lawn. There’s your problem!

Here are the parts of a computer, and the reasons why you should pay attention to them. But wait. There's a disclaimer that you have to accept. Most of this will be out of date as soon as I write it, so don't scoff at the speeds and numbers that might be superseded by the time you read this. Those numbers change all the time. The point of this page is to allow you to see what's really important and what's not.

Processor: The processor chip (or chips now with multiple processors all working together) determines how fast computations occur. This “speed” is measured in Gigahertz (GHz). The current iMac 27” tops out at 3.4 GHz, with 2.2GHz for a MacBook Pro. Apple now has  Quad-Core, 6-core, 8-core, and 12-core processor options for towers. Wow. So it’s not just speed, but the number of processors. This is something you need to get right the first time. You can't  modify the processor stack as you could in the past, so buy what you need now. Never buy the low model, but don’t be seduced by the high one either. Generally I buy the middle one, but not always. Obviously there’s a lot of difference in speed between a machine with four processors and one with twelve processors, but not so much difference between 2.5 GHz. and 2.7 GHz. There's a bigger difference between 2.7GHz and 3.4GHz. What we’re really afraid of is that later Apple will set minimum software specs for processors just above the one you have, leaving you out in the cold. We hate that, and yes, it does happen.

You need to work your way through the Apple web pages and plot out on paper how much stuff costs for different levels of buy in: display size, processor and memory, storage, and graphics card. Look at the differences between levels. Does it make sense to pay $300 more for what you get or not?

Memory: It’s just a handful of RAM chips. This is the cheapest part of the computer, and has the biggest bang for the buck. Apple-installed RAM is always a little expensive, so you can hold off on this and add more yourself later. What you don’t want to do, however, is buy a chip that’s too small, so that later all you can do is throw it away and replace it with a larger one. The towers now have 8 slots and can take chips up to 8GB for a whopping 64GB of RAM with an equally whopping price tag. That only makes sense if you’re in business and can bill a client. You can always add more RAM later, and you probably should.

On laptops you may only have two slots for RAM, so get the largest chip you can afford. They come with 4GB, but it isn’t too expensive to bump that up to 8GB by using two 4GB chips. In our labs we've standardized on having 8GB in our iMacs and 12 GB in our towers (most of it I buy later from OWC and install it myself).

Graphics Card: With towers, you get a dual port card that can run two monitors. The more VRAM on the card, the higher the resolution you can display. More is better here. You cannot add VRAM to a card later. You have to replace the whole card with another one. For video work, this is an important choice. You should have a minimum of 512 MB of VRAM. The current tower machines now use 1GB of VRAM (as do the new iMacs). This keeps moving up.

On laptops it’s what separates a low-end machine from a high-end one. Stay away from computers that share display RAM with processing RAM, like the Mac Book. You have to move up to the Mac Book Pro to get the display performance we expect. The trend in software is to move a lot of the visual processing over onto the graphics card and free up the CPU for other things. The result is a seemingly faster machine, but the down side is that new software may not want to install if your graphics card doesn’t come up to its specifications.

Storage: It’s the size of your hard drive and the speed of it, too. 7200 RPM is the speed we want, and the size is larger than you might think. We use 1TB drives as our basic startup disk. That’s because we install a lot of software on each machine, but you will store all of your work on this drive also. In addition, we use external Firewire drives for storage; you should, too, if you’re going to do video or audio editing. Again, if you have a tower you’ll have four slots for drives; with an iMac you get one drive, as you do with a laptop. So with these last two you will definitely need an external drive. The expenses build, don't they? We seem to always need just one more thing and then another. . . at some point you just have to stop.

Drives die or at least fill up, so we expect to replace them occasionally. They get cheaper and cheaper and bigger and bigger. (Soon they’ll all be solid state, and then we’ll have other problems that we can’t even imagine yet.) Again, Apple charges a little too much for their storage drives. I think I’ve actually replaced all the start-up drives we have and also added bigger and bigger storage drives. I try to keep our storage for each computer around 2TB. That's two 1TB drives striped as a RAID for speed (not for backup). That used to sound like a lot, but it fills up fast and even faster as we move into HD video. Remember that USB drives are not acceptable for video work--they're too slow. They’re OK for a backup, but not for working from directly.

Also don’t forget that we do find flash or thumb drives to be very useful. Not for media files; they’re too slow and small, but for project files, documents and just miscellaneous items. I always buy mine on sale, usually at Staples. I used to think 16GB was large, but mine is almost full.

Monitors: For media work you can never have too big a screen nor too many of them! I love the 27” iMacs for their screen size (2560x1440). It’s the minimal acceptable size for my work. That’s why I have a hard time with laptops. They're just too small for me. On our tower stations we always have a minimum of  two HD monitors. As we move forward toward the wonderful world of HD as a lifestyle, the standard size of 1920 x 1080 will seem normal to you, too. Computers are really good at processing information, but not very good at displaying it. That’s why we like to have as many monitors as we can, just to see what’s going on. It’s when we don’t know what’s going on that things start falling apart.

You can also add a monitor to an iMac or a laptop with an adaptor. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the cost and quality of the 23” Acer LCD monitors (that also have HDMI inputs).

Ports: This is fundamental. It’s why the MacBook isn’t very good for media. There’s no Firewire port at all. On the MacBook Pro there’s a single Firewire 800 port. You have to have a least one Firewire port to do video. USB is never fast enough!

I’ve been really interested in the new USB 3, but Macs don’t seem to have them. Now we’ve just seen the new Thunderbolt port that blows all other connections out of the water with its speed. Wow, and wow again. Currently only the new MacPro laptop has one so with that computer you’re all set for quite a while (we think). We’ll have to see if there’s a speed bump for the iMac and Tower coming that will give us all Thunderbolt connections. (I wonder when I’ll have to update this and make it so.) It already happen even before I got this posted. So now all of the new computers do come with Thunderbolt. Some even with two ports.

External Storage: Not all of you need this, but the video people certainly do. It’s not desirable to store video footage on your startup drive, so you will need still yet another drive. Only Firewire and Thunderbolt connections are fast enough to work. Over the years we’ve come to believe that the drives from work the best for the money. We do see a lot of LaCie drives, but they’re frequently dead, too. It’s hardly ever the drive inside that’s the problem; it’s just the case that dies. I hate those “auto-sensing” cases that turn on and off by themselves. I like a good old switch on the thing. It’s on, it’s off. This is important particularly if you move around from computer to computer.

The minimal size we recommend is 1TB, but the good news is that size is getting cheaper and cheaper. There are two kinds of Firewire: 400 and 800. It’s the speed of the data, with 800 twice as fast as the 400 drives. Now with the “new” Thunderbolt connections we’ll see more of us migrating over to that connection. Don’t know how long that will take, but it seems likely unless we stumble over a serious technical problems with them.

Those little portable USB 2 drives sure look cute, but they run hot and slow, so I say no to them. They’re just not fast enough for real media work: USB 2 never is, except for music keyboards and flash drives. They are good for text and dead storage, but even for photo work they’re just slow at moving data from one machine to another. (I have to keep differentiating between good USB 3 and bad USB 2. USB 3, however, seems to have never taken off in the Mac world. Don’t know why.)

AppleCare: Always get the AppleCare extra warranty. It’s worth the money to not have to worry (as much) about stuff breaking too soon. Certainly true for laptops!

Laptops, iMacs, or Towers: Tower machines are much more flexible. They have a lot of slots for PCI cards, drives, and RAM, but obviously they're really big and heavy and need an attached monitor or two. Laptops are light and portable, but cost a lot for what you get. Personally I like the iMacs as a good compromise between cost and power with a monitor built in. There is no right answer here; it’s all personal preference mitigated by dollars and your lifestyle (and what you think is the right answer this year). Remember that you get an academic discount from the Apple store!

Above is the Hampshire page URL for IT's recommendations. You have to log in with your password to see it. Remember that these are IT’s generic recommendations for general use, not really for media people (YMMV).

When to buy:

Here’s a great URL for help in deciding when to make a purchase. Computers are just products, and have life cycles that you can predict. I always think November is the best month to buy a computer. The “rule of thumb” is to wait, wait, wait, wait, wait and then buy only when you absolutely have to turn out some work this week. The longer you can wait, the more you get for your money and the happier you will be. The other “rule of thumb” is that your computer will always do what it does, but that you will get tired of it and want another one long before it wears out. That’s why it actually doesn’t pay to get a really low end machine; it falls off the list too fast, and you have to buy another one way too soon. (As I’m revising this page I see that a lot of the posting say wait--updates coming soon. This almost always is good advice. Do what they say.) Again, even before I posted this there was a speed bump, so they were correct in their suggestions. So, now, is a good time to buy. (Until I have to change this again later.)

There are several events each year that we keep an eye on to help us figure out where the path to the future runs. The first of the year is the Consumer Electronic Show, CES. It’s not so much about computers as it is about the lay of the land, trends, directions, even what manufacturers think is important (vs. what I think is important). Then in the spring it's the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB. Apple has made a few major announcements there, but it’s also a time to see what might be coming down the technology highway even if a particular product isn't for sale this year. Red Camera made its first big release at NAB, and has radically changed the professional video world since then with their range of high-end digital cinematography cameras. Apple showed, but didn’t release the new version of Final Cut Pro this year, so we’re all waiting eagerly to see what it turns into and when.

Finally, your own personal experience is very important. How do you get that experience? By working. You’ll learn more about computers and what you like and don’t like, and what you really need and what you only lust for simply by grinding out a few projects in the labs here. Then you can form your own ideas and see what you really like instead of having to listen to other people, including me. The goal here is for you to learn enough and become wise enough that you no longer need our advise. You end up knowing the answers for yourself. You’re a Hampshire student!

But wait, there’s more: It’s amazing that it’s at the end of all of this that we finally come to our senses and notice we haven’t actually talked about the real deal--the software. The computer won’t do anything for you without it. We always tell you to get the kind of computer that runs the software you need to use. For us that’s the reason we work on Macs; we like their software the best. Why? Ease of use, sophistication, and discoverability (the ability to figure it out yourself).

So what software do you need to purchase for yourself? There’s no hurry to buy anything. For word processing try some of the open-source software that's free. All media people should use Celtx for writing scripts. For purchased software, I’m fond of Apple’s iWork collection: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Pages is a cross between Word and InDesign (writing and page layout). Numbers is similar to Excel spreadsheets, but with images. Keynote is a higher-end version of PowerPoint, and more fun. A lot more fun. For video editing, we use Final Cut Pro Studio, but that’s really a collection of applications (Final Cut Pro, DVD StudioPro, Color, Compressor, LiveType, Motion, SoundTrack) and it’s a little expensive if you’re not a hardcore filmmaker. You can get Final Cut Express for just editing video. In the labs we have all of the Adobe applications (AfterEffects, Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash), but you may never use most of them. (I try to explain to administrators that graduates will not get jobs just because they know Photoshop; however, they will not get an interview if they don't.) For audio work we use ProTools, Logic Studio, Live, SoundTrack, and Audacity (free). Then there are the good old iLife applications we also use (iPhoto, iDVD, iTunes, iMovie, iWeb, and GarageBand), which you get free with your Mac.

To repeat: Don’t rush to buy stuff you don’t need. The only way to know what you do need is to do some work and find out for yourself. The other reason I don’t want you to buy everything is that I think you miss out a lot by not working in our labs for your first semester. That’s where you can meet people and learn good work habits. If you’re off in your room, you have the illusion that you’ll get a lot more work done, but we don’t usually see that in the end. Furthermore, we still don’t know you when you do need help. At Hampshire you need to build personal relationships with staff, other students, and faculty. That means show up, say hello, talk with people and get some work done all at the same time. It’s fun.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions or if I've confused you more than helped you.

John Gunther
Manager for Advanced Media
Hampshire College


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