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How much processing power and capacity do you really NEED in a computer?

For someone who has for long been the geek in nearly every social group that I’ve belonged to, you’d expect that I’d be buying top-of-the-range, highest spec computers. In fact I used to. A few years ago I’d walk into one of the computer shops along Kampala Road and ask if they had a Quad Core i7 with 8GB RAM… (read the highest spec machine), then bargain like my life depended on it. I just had to have the highest specs available at time of purchase. If Intel launched a new processor the next week, I’d be depressed! If I bought a PC with 320 GB and then later found that a 500GB was now on the market, I just had to have it!

Over the last 8 years, my usage needs, habits and patterns have changed dramatically, from the guy who would be running Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere at the same time as well as many other programs, have 100 browser tabs open, and need to do a few laps of Need For Speed to let off some steam. Back then I would be using power hungry apps daily, I was learning a lot of stuff, experimenting, working and playing and I had no patience for a PC that was playing catch-up.

Fast forward to 2015, I no longer NEED the most powerful processor for most of my day to day tasks. Most of the work I do these days happens in the brain (yes my brain already has a high performance processor!) and in browser windows, documents, spreadsheets or presentations. Obviously I don’t NEED 16 GB of RAM to keep flipping between a few PowerPoint windows and an Excel sheet. I don’t NEED the i7 processor to open a few web pages. Sure it would be fun, but not really necessary.

So I confuse people these days when they call me asking which laptop they should buy and I tell them they should buy one of the cheaper ones. In the past my recommendations would stretch even the big spending person’s personal tech budget. And yet now in 2015 I am telling people they don’t need to buy the $1,000 laptop and that the $300 one will do just fine. Not only am I recommending that kind of purchase, but I’m also making them myself.

I usually tell people that buying the top of range laptop when opening several tabs in your Chrome browser is the most demanding task you’ll throw at it is like buying a 30 seater Yutong bus for your daily commute from Kiwatule to Kololo for work. Just you and your wife. 2 people in the 30 seater Pioneer Easy Bus. Sure you may one day host guests at home or give some neighbors a ride but may never use up 15 of the seats.

You don't NEED a "Retina Display" on a UGX 7,500,000 laptop to type out your office work and email.
You don’t NEED a “Retina Display” on a UGX 7,500,000 laptop to type out your office work and email.

How about buying a 600 Horse Power Mercedes with a top speed of 350 KM/H yet it will spend 99% of its time in traffic jam from Kiwatule, Ntinda, Bukoto, Kamwokya. Let’s say you make it to the Northern bypass one day and there’s no traffic jam at the Kalerwe roundabout or trucks slowing down the entire lane, you won’t have enough room to run over 150km/h for long. One may argue that they will drive up country for Christmas and the high performance car will shorten the journey. But considering that you’ll do that journey once a year, that high performance car is such a luxury!

In all the three cases, you are buying excess capacity. It’s OK if you have “arrived” and you have a generous or unlimited budget, and you’re buying the Merc or Mac for prestige but for the budget conscious buyer, where most Ugandan computer users are, you don’t need to buy capacity that you will never use.

I know there are categories of people who actually need the processing power, and my next post will detail those categories and give recommendations for each category, but for today I’m talking about the category of computer users where most of Uganda’s working class fall. Those whose computing activities are mostly inside Microsoft Office applications and a web browser.

I decided to drop by Mitsumi Computers in Kisementi to get some real life illustrations.

At UGX 1,800,000 this Lenovo laptop costs twice as much as the entry level Acer, and yet an average user won't really experience major differences between the two.
At UGX 1,800,000 this Lenovo laptop costs twice as much as the entry level Acer, and yet an average user won’t really experience major differences between the two.

At the bottom of the rung there’s a 15 inch Acer with a Celeron Processor and 2GB RAM which costs UGX 900,000 1.2m ($250) and then on the higher end of the spectrum is a Lenovo with an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB RAM, and 500GB hard disk space going for UGX 1,800,000 ($500). Now this isn’t the most powerful on the market, or the most expensive, Jumia has an Acer listed for over UGX 3m ($930), but it costs twice as much as the Celeron powered Acer, and both are sufficient for a university student writing course work and doing research or the office guy preparing a proposal and analyzing some data in a bunch of spreadsheets. For a buyer with a tight budget, or who would be happy to use any savings for something else, there’s little need to buy the Lenovo.

Sure there’s more to the deal than just the processor and RAM. For example the Lenovo has a fingerprint scanner and probably better battery life or better build quality. A UGX 7,500,000 MacBook Pro has among other niceties a Retina display. But in real life some of these differences don’t matter as much. I know people with laptops with a fingerprint scanner who have never set it up and use the default Windows login with passwords like “Uganda” or “Mengo”, so the extra money spent for that feature was wasted.

My programmer friend, James Makumbi who owns Billable Ltd was quoted in a New Vision article saying he’s mad about computers, so much that he prefers them to people!

James has a long history with computers, and also has gone through a cycle like I have, from the time of running desktop computers with System Units the size of a small fridge to a rather modestly configured laptop today.

This system unit is cooled by a fan the same size as that on an average vehicle radiator. Image Credit: TensionNot
This system unit is cooled by a fan the same size as that on an average vehicle radiator. Image Credit: TensionNot

So I dropped by his office and we had a chat about this subject. I’m not surprised that we were in agreement on most points, like the fact that many users don’t need high powered machines, and that very often users spend money on features and capacity that they will never use. We also talked about the people whose decision on which gadgets and devices to buy are based on other reasons, like “status”, not necessarily need or budget, and those who have accidentally ended up with very powerful machines.

An example is his university classmate who asked her sponsors in the UK for a laptop for school and she received a beautiful monster that was more powerful than many servers at that time. And she used it to type out her assignments, save on a USB disk and go print them out and submit in class. The laptop was powerful enough to render videos with professional grade software but was limited to Microsoft Word and PowerPoint!

So the answer to today’s question is this: If you are like the average user, and you can’t easily identify any special computing requirements that you might have, then the lower end computers will do just fine, you don’t need extra capacity and you don’t need to spend so much on a computer.

If you aren’t satisfied with this answer, then look out for my next post as we get into the details of what to consider as you buy your next laptop.


Joshua Twinamasiko G

Josh is passionate about Cybersecurity in an increasingly digital, global economy. Digital Evangelist. #DigitalFirst. Always.
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