New Computer Buying Guide
April 27, 2006 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Help me spend every cent of my new job’s computer set-up budget.

I am starting a job as a professor this summer. I have a $4000 budget for computer setup in my office. I know that the school has licenses for Windows XP, Office, and most of the other basic software that I want but I will need to purchase STATA out of my budget. All of the rest ($3700) will go to hardware. I mainly do lots of reading, writing, spreadsheet manipulation, data gathering (reading through documents and pulling out data), and statistics. The school primarily buys from Gateway b/c they get a good discount, but I was told that it was not required to go through them.

One of my main questions is whether I should get a desktop or a laptop with a docking station. I only travel occasionally for work and at those times a laptop is useful but not essential. I am also thinking of getting dual monitors, but I don’t know if a laptop with a docking station can handle that.

Anyway, recommendations for hardware, accessories, whatever I can’t live without would be appreciated. I want to spend every cent because this budget is only for computer setup and so whatever I leave on the table is gone for good. I need to know what components are worth spending the big bucks on and what are not. Also, is there any importance to making sure my computer is Vista-capable?
posted by bove to Computers & Internet (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, $4000 goes INCREDIBLY far in modern day computing, let me ask this question right away: is it possible for you to get a laptop and a desktop?
posted by jedrek at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2006

MacBook Pro? CORRR! Duo!
posted by ed\26h at 9:43 AM on April 27, 2006

Subscriptions to any databases, journals, reference materials, etc. relevant to your job? Some of that data collection may be already compiled for easier searchability.
posted by desuetude at 9:45 AM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: de\26h: I am not going to buy a Mac and learn a entirely new computer system to start my first job.

desuetude: The business school already has subscriptions to those things, and I have a separate budget for that stuff. This budget is just for computer setup.

jedrek: they will let me get whatever I want, so I could get both as long as I new how to spend my money effectively.
posted by bove at 9:53 AM on April 27, 2006

I am not going to buy a Mac and learn a entirely new computer system to start my first job.

I meant for you to install XP on it, sorry.
posted by ed\26h at 9:56 AM on April 27, 2006

You can get a very good desktop computer for about $500-$1000 without monitor or software. Make sure to get at least 1GB of RAM. I'd go with an AMD dual-core processor myself. Make sure to get a video card that supports dual DVI output. The rest of the components are pretty much stock at this point since you're not doing anything that demands high performance. I wouldn't worry about Vista- it is still a year away from release so by the time your school is ready to roll it out, you'll probably have a new computer anyway.

Dual monitors are a must! You should have enough to get a couple of 24" LCD's from Dell. Once you've started working with dual monitors, it is hard to go back. I highly recommend trying it out.

You'll probably have enough left over to get a decent laptop with carrying case for when you do travel. Make sure it has built in wireless- the Intel Pentium-M based systems seem to be the best deal right now.

Another thing you might want to check out is a projector. They are nice for doing presentations, and are very portable and could be taken with you when you travel. One of my professors had one that was great when you went in for office hours- but he didn't have dual 24" LCD's!
posted by gus at 9:57 AM on April 27, 2006

Vista compatibility will only matter if you plan on using Windows.

In an academic environment, yes, it probably will matter.

I'll second the thought to get both a laptop AND a desktop. Get a really basic laptop (just enough for word processing) that's light and easily carried. If you haven't been on a campus, the laptop will be useful even around the university...nearly all uni's are wireless now, and the freedom to wander while working is amazing.

The spend the rest on a desktop with as much HD space and memory as you can afford.
posted by griffey at 9:59 AM on April 27, 2006

Take the time to buy a SILENT computer. Good computer cases have sound baffles and dampeners. A quiet power supply will have a fan that only turns on when needed, and so on. This will improve your quality of life as much as anything, especially in a small office with concrete walls like you'll probably have. Gateway may not be able to help you here, but there are plenty of places that will pre-assemble computer components for you.

I personally would spend about $2500 on a PC/monitor (big LCD monitor, middle-of-the-road quiet PC) and $1500 on a lightweight laptop (buying for battery life and lightness, not processor speed at all).
posted by jellicle at 10:05 AM on April 27, 2006

Two monitors. Two monitors. Two monitors.

Put your data source on one, manipulate and interpret it on the other.
posted by piro at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: ed\26h: first, I apologize for misspelling your username, and then my comment came off kind of harsh. Sorry, I just meant to say that I am a Windows guy and the idea of buying a Mac to run Windows seems a little weird to me.
posted by bove at 10:08 AM on April 27, 2006

IAAP. I have bought computers with startup money. Here is what I have learned.

The big thing to remember is that in most schools, the pc you get with your startup money is probably going to be your pc for the next 5+ years (unless you get a grant and buy a new pc out of that).

Because of this, I'd go against the advice of getting a laptop and a desktop. That way, you're likely to have two nearly useless, frustratingly slow computers in four years. Also, laptops break, and they're likely to break before you have a chance to get a new pc out of your university. So at the end of four years, you're likely to just have one slow computer on your desktop. I have gone this route. It was a Mistake.

Buy a cheap (less than $750) laptop yourself with your own money for conferences and for net-surfing on the couch.

I would just get one very good desktop. Over the long haul, this means:

(1) A fast but not bleeding-edge chip.

(2) A big fuckin' monitor. It might well be worth spending $1000--1500 on the monitor. For a nice big 1920x1080 monitor, you might also need a fairly fancy video card. Or two 1600x1200 monitors.

(3) Lots of ram. In 3 years, a lot of ram is what's going to make the difference between a machine that's still fast-enough and a doorstop. Get 2GB, and make sure there are still slots free.

(4) Unless you know that you're going to be using very large datasets, a relatively small hard drive is fine -- HD space is far more important for home PCs than it is for office ones. If it's an office PC, it's not like you're going to have a terabyte of mp3s and avis on it. You can always buy another hard drive later with your own money if you feel like it.

(5) Quiet is good.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:15 AM on April 27, 2006

Buy the most expensive computer you can with your $4k. Sell it on craisglist/ebay for 75%, leaving you with 3k. Buy a brand name, but cheap PC (which is all you need for what you've mentioned) for $1000 or so (including nice 17 or 19" flat panel. Pocket the rest.

In all seriousness, 4k is monster overkill for what you need and that's awesome. I would go to Dell and use their "configure your PC" option. Get a medium-priced PC and start configuring it. With this you can start adding a lot of peripherals, not only two monitors as mentioned above, but also things like their mp3 players and video players and wireless thingies.
posted by poppo at 10:20 AM on April 27, 2006

poppo, the college/university will almost certainly "tag" the PC as capital equipment shortly after its arrival and periodically check that it is still in possession. Selling university property on ebay is a terrible idea for anyone, much less a brand new professor.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:37 AM on April 27, 2006

For the monitor, you want a 24" widescreen in the middle, with a pair of 20" regulars on the sides - awesome!

That still leaves you with about $2000.. Maybe you need to consider not spending it all :P
posted by Chuckles at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2006

mbd, yes, hence the paragraph after it which began "In all seriousness" :)
posted by poppo at 10:55 AM on April 27, 2006

Accessories you can buy at Dell while "configuring" your PC:

Bluetooth over-ear headphones
Flash drives up to 1G
Digital cameras
mp3 players
posted by poppo at 11:02 AM on April 27, 2006

Don't get any of that crap with startup money. It will all come at the expense of a useful machine in 4 years.

If your school is at all normal, this is it for your computers for a good while. Don't plan around what sort of machine you want now. Plan on what sort of outdated machine you'll want to have on your desk in four years.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:18 AM on April 27, 2006

Derail: why does someone need more than one monitor? Do they both show the same thing? I'm confused.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:26 AM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: dpx.mfx: read this article in the NYTimes

It explains the reasons why someone might want more than one monitor.
posted by bove at 11:41 AM on April 27, 2006

dpx.mfx: Having two monitors doubles your desktop area. So if someone has two montors hooked up and configured to 1280x1024, their actual screen size is 2560x1024. It's very helpful when using applications with lots of panels, like Photoshop, as you can put your work in one window and your panels in another, etc.
posted by Meagan at 11:43 AM on April 27, 2006

15" Thinkpad T60 with a gig of RAM for $2300 (educational price)
IBM Advanced dock for $300
Another gig of memory (from Crucial) $120
Keyboard and mouse $100
Two 24' widescreen Dell monitors $1300 (look on fatwallet)
or four Dell 19" monitors and a card to drive them ($840, fatwallet, $500, eBay)

This gets you in a hair above $4,000. It's also awesome.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2006

Meh. $500 over $3700. Looks like you'll have to go with two 20" monitors instead. Sorry.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2006

I'm triple posting-- you'll also need a card to drive the dual monitor setup. Ths Advanced dock will accomodate most PCI express cards, and a dual-monitor card will set you back about $100.

The onboard graphics also allow you to use two monitors at once, as long as one of them is your laptop.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2006

Yes, definitely get a 2nd and/or 3rd monitor. Nice big LCDs with high contrast.

Spreadsheet/data manipulation heaven. It's also handy having a browser window/other documents and you're writing papers.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:29 PM on April 27, 2006

No-one has suggested printers or scanners. Be sure to figure out if your department expects you to have your own.

Be sure to get a DVD writer so you can make your own backups, given how hands-off the department seems to be.

That said, $4000 seems so high that I'd be double-checking with my colleagues to make sure there aren't any other maintenance or software expenses you're expected to cover.
posted by mendel at 12:43 PM on April 27, 2006

Bove: Thanks. I get it now.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:48 PM on April 27, 2006

How about a PC and a mac mini on a kvm switch?
Or a pc and tablet computer? I recently saw a chemistry seminar where a guy used the pen in powerpoint to good effect on a tablet.
What really makes a computer useful is not how fast it is but a) software and b) input/output. I don't know your field, but you may want Endnote, Kaleidagraph, matlab, labveiw, mathmatica, etc. Now is the time to make sure you're never stuck with data and no way to transfer it, color laser printer, projector, firewire, usb drives, external harddrive for backup, dvd/cd burner, floppy (even if it's a usb floppy), scanner, digital camera, wireless networking...
posted by 445supermag at 12:58 PM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great advice and suggestions so far. I am definitely convinced I will get 2 big monitors. The main issue I am struggling with is whether to go with the top of the line laptop/docking station solution, or go with the top of the line desktop w/cheap laptop solution.

It seems like I could afford to do either. The desktop solution would give me a better hedge against obsolescence and I really don’t travel or use a laptop that much (even though I have one now).

I also will be getting my own printer, but the department has a high volume printer, so I don’t need anything fancy.

Anyway, any additional thoughts would still be appreciated.
posted by bove at 1:07 PM on April 27, 2006

Buy the best monitor you can afford, then the best keyboard, then the best mouse.

THEN spend what's left on a computer.

The first three items aren't likely to be outdated as quickly. The last one will be replaced soonest.

//typing on a keyboard from 1990, the Apple Extended Keyboard II. Still haven't found anything as nice.
posted by Wild_Eep at 1:23 PM on April 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a drawing tablet from Wacom and that ilk? That and a nice illustration program.

I presume from a discussion we've been in before that you're involved in the physical sciences. Having prepped more than a few presentations and figures for papers, I've always wondered why researchers continue to struggle with their mouse to make drawings. Graphics really sell posters, presentations, papers, and grant proposals, so why not make them pretty?
posted by Mercaptan at 1:24 PM on April 27, 2006

Oh, and congratulations on the new job!
posted by Mercaptan at 1:26 PM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: Mercaptan: Thanks. Actually, I am in the social sciences. I am starting a job as an business school at the University of Arizona.
posted by bove at 1:29 PM on April 27, 2006

Response by poster: Although you would think that I would be able to generate a coherent sentence. It was meant to read: I am starting a job in the business school at the University of Arizona.
posted by bove at 1:30 PM on April 27, 2006

I have a Gateway laptop at work, attached to a keyboard, mouse, and 19" Dell flat panel LCD. The laptop sits next to the LCD monitor, so I effectively have two monitors with a big desktop.
I don't travel much, but I do occasionally need to work at home, and being able to just unplug and go is awesome. No worries about synchronizing data or forgetting something that's on the other machine.
The only (miniscule) complaint I have is that I don't have a docking station, so it takes me maybe 12 seconds to unplug the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and network.
YMMV, as they say, but I love the ability to relocate myself and my work at a moment's notice.
posted by ChromeDome at 1:38 PM on April 27, 2006

LarryC asked about buying a tablet pc for use in his classroom a few months ago.
posted by blag at 1:56 PM on April 27, 2006

The main issue I am struggling with is whether to go with the top of the line laptop/docking station solution, or go with the top of the line desktop w/cheap laptop solution.


Again, laptops break, and break often. And just because your laptop has broken does not mean you will get a new computer from your school. It will almost certainly mean you get a machine that's new to you, but it might be a P3 from 1998.

Also, you're paying for portability. If you're not going to use the portability, don't pay for it, because it's going to come at the expense of your desktop. And word-processing, email, and driving presentations don't count as using the portability -- any cheap-ass used laptop can do that, so get a cheap-ass used laptop. Using the portability means using the machine to its limits when you're traveling; it means that you're honestly going to use the laptop for to run MCMC models all weekend when you're at a conference, or take it home to run multilevel multinomial probit models that take a day and a half to run.

Unless you know for a fact that you're going to be getting another machine from your school in the next 4 years -- as in, it is in a written and enforceable contract -- you need to be thinking several years ahead.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:04 PM on April 27, 2006

I'd take it a step furthur, and think about buying a projector. If this is for your office, a very high-res projector on a wall would be pretty damn nice.

Anyway, the more monitors you can get, the better. I also like having two machines around... my idea setup (which may be more than 4k) would be:

1 fast workstation. lots of ram, good vid card, etc. 22" CRT monitor (CRT).
1 slow workstation. dual LCD monitors. (LCD1, LCD2)
1 laptop (LT).
and, since I do digital drawing stuff, a large-format wacom tablet (WAC).

keep the keyboard/mouse on a pullout tray. ideally, you'd also have a desk to your left that would hold papers, coffee, etc. possibly even the laptop, depending on space.

arranged like:


(dots because spaces don't show up)

a KVM switch (just the K & the M, though) for the desktops would be nice, so you only need one mouse/keyboard pair.
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:17 PM on April 27, 2006

Can't believe no one has suggested it, but find out if you can bank any savings for a future purchase, get a solid $2000 setup (more than adequate, laptop or desktop) and in two years upgrade with your remaining $2K, so you're on a corporate rather than university upgrade cycle. It's amazing how much unused computing power sits around colleges and universities because people buy everything at one time and their stomachs are smaller than their eyeballs. Oooh, I might need a tabloid scanner! And bluetooth!

The single best investment you can make is a backup system for whatever computer you buy. This could be as simple as a pair of firewire or usb2 harddrives -- one goes to a different location and gets rotated with the other, on a regular schedule, as the backups are updated. I have heard of academic careers RUINED by data loss because universities provide little tech support, less storage support, and are rampant environments for theft. If you need what's on your computer for your work, you need a failsafe, offsite, constantly updated backup system that gets you back in business the next day. Two monitors (a huge improvement, I admit -- it's changed my life) are sweet. But not if you're staring at an empty screen after an internet worm or a thief or a power surge has eaten your entire career. Bank on this. Everything else is replaceable, cheap.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:39 PM on April 27, 2006

The point being that the best computer will always be the one you buy later. Defer until you need. Sorry to double post.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:32 PM on April 27, 2006

I'd take it a step furthur, and think about buying a projector

That seems a bad idea to me, unless bove is willing to spring for a new bulb him/herself at least once a year.

but find out if you can bank any savings for a future purchase

At a public university? HA!

But a good backup system -- especially one that can automate itself -- is a very good addition. I don't have one, but only because my data usually exist on my home machine, my work machine, and a thumb drive at any given time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:25 PM on April 27, 2006

If you do get a laptop, get a dock, wireless keyboard, mouse and a big monitor. Personally I still have much love for my 19" flat CRT, but any big monitor is good. Also, get a hard drive in a cage - your laptop harddrive will fill up pretty quickly.
posted by twine42 at 3:23 AM on April 28, 2006

Definitely get two monitors. This is one the biggest productivity enhancers for many office workers.

And then, to hold them, get an ergotron, desk-mount or wall-mount bracket set. These are great and let you position the monitors for correct ergonomics (and they can even get out of your way if you need that too). We have an "information cockpit" at my office -- 3 20" monitors and a 42" plasma above them and the mounting was all done with their gear.
posted by zpousman at 7:14 AM on April 28, 2006

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