So, which personal computer is best?  Mac or PC?  Desktop or Notebook?

Unless you plan on doing a lot of video editing or composing and recording your own music, your best bet for business is a PC.  Mac makes a beautiful machine, but when it comes to business, there’s more software available for a PC than a Mac.  If you’ve got the bucks and you’re a die-hard Mac fan, make sure you get the Power PC chip which allows you to install and run Windows® applications.

Desktop or Notebook?  Let’s face it, Desktop computers are inexpensive and come with big, bright screens, full-size keyboards and lots and lots of hard drive space.  The downside to a Desktop computer is that it sits on your desk and if you want to work at home and at the office, or even at your favorite Internet Café, you’re going to need more than one (the last time I checked, Starbucks didn’t have a lot of extra outlets).  I can’t tell you how many people ask me how to synchronize data between their home computer and their office machine.  The simple answer is to use one computer for both places and skip the synchronization entirely.

Notebook computers have come a long way since my first 386, monochrome laptop with a 30-megabyte hard-drive.  Today’s notebook computers have crisp, clear screens that can be viewed from almost any angle, full-size keyboards, built-in touchpads, stereo speakers, writable DVD drives and wireless modems.  All this can be jammed into a machine the size of a notebook pad of paper less than 5 pounds.  AND, without a lot of effort, you can find a very powerful notebook computer for under a thousand dollars.  If you are running the latest Vista® operating system, let me recommend 3 Megabytes of RAM or more.  The rest of the specifications are pretty much moot when it comes to running real estate software.  In other words, most of the expense people pack into a notebook computer has little to do with business applications.  Most of the advancements in computing power really only benefit the power computer user trying to do high-end video or music editing or serious video game players.  A good rule of thumb for hardware purchases is this: Buy what everyone else is buying (you’ll get the most bang for the buck) and expect to upgrade sooner.  I try my best to get 3 years out of a notebook computer and then, because I don’t pay too much when I buy one, I don’t hesitate to buy a new machine when I need it.

Something to think about…  I listen to a syndicated weekend radio show for geeks hosted by Leo Laport.  He suggests that if you keep any computer more than three years, you should format the hard-drive and reinstall your operating system and all your programs.  It turns out that all Windows® operating systems scatter files and folders all over the hard-drive every time you boot them up, and even if you defragment your hard-drive, your computer takes longer and longer to boot up every time you use it.  I’ve never formatted a computer hard-drive, and I certainly have never re-installed my entire operating system.  Skipping both steps and just trying to transfer all my software and data to a new machine is work enough.  I’d like to at least get a cool new faster machine out of all the effort and frankly, if you use your computer to make money (which all Real Estate agents should be doing) you’ll be able to afford a new one every 3 months.

Where should I buy?  I like to test drive the keyboard and the touchpad, which means a store beats the Internet for checking out a new computer.  In seminars I jokingly refer to another benefit of buying a computer from a local retail store, I call it the “throat factor.”  I find that computer hardware works in direct relation to the distance I am from putting my hands around the throat of the salesperson who sells it to me.  The closer I am to the salesperson, the more satisfaction I get when I have problems.  Think I’m kidding?  I’ll never forget the kid who sold me a new cell phone at the Sprint store some years back.  I was emphatic that national coverage was EXTREMELY important to me and when I returned to the store two weeks later (after being on the road for 13 days in 6 different cities) He looked at my face, and before I could say anything, he said, “You went to Chicago!”  I said, “No, I didn’t, but are you telling me I wouldn’t have had coverage there, either?”  It turns out that in 3 of the 6 cities I had gone to, Sprint had NO SERVICE.  Now, this was some years ago, but it was when Sprint was promoting their “All Digital” service, back when some cities were still on Analog systems.  At least with ATT, I might not get a digital signal, but at least I had coverage.  I digress…

My wife is a writer.  She hated my laptops because of their compressed keyboards.  So, for years, when we would pack up our belongings for the summer in Minnesota, I had to disconnect her keyboard, mouse, monitor, and processor and pack it all in the car for the 2,000-mile drive from California (my daughters are actors, so you go where the work is).  Last year (2007) she finally decided she wanted a laptop (I think it was seeing me working on the dock with my wireless connection to the Internet that got her) and I took her to the store to try them out for size.  Honest to Pete, she eliminated 90% of the computers because of she, “hated” the keyboards.  So, if you are really going to commit to a computer for the next two to three years, I think you should go to a store and really get a feel for the keyboard and, equally important, the touchpad (built-in mouse).  For those of you who are dying to know, she settled on an HP Pavilion Entertainment PC which is a little larger than my notebook of the same manufacturer.  The keyboards are identical, but her computer is slightly larger with a larger screen.  She only carries it from room to room and does not have the need to fit it into a carrying case.  I like the smaller “Notebook” size of roughly 9″ x 13″ so it fits easily into my rolling computer bag and on the fold down the tray on an airplane.

One more thing…  I like the smaller notebooks because they are lighter and easier to hold on to.  Let’s face it, dropping a computer isn’t recommend or covered by most extended warranties.  So, if you are going to be hauling it from home to office to appointments, get a smaller machine.  Also, I recommend a second AC power supply, so you don’t have to keep climbing under your desk at the office or home to plug it in.  HP charges close to $100 for an AC power supply so I bought a universal power supply from iGo (available at most computer stores or worse case, Radio Shack) that I can purchase different adaptors for when I get a new machine.  The charger itself is about $60, and the different tips (adapters designed for each different computer) go for about $5, so I can simply buy a new tip when I get a new computer.

In Summary, don’t kill yourself over your decision to buy a new computer.  Frankly, all the components inside of most computers come from the same manufacturers.  Some people don’t like HP computers because to keep the prices low they load your computer up with a bunch of promotional software from retailers who pay HP for the privilege.  I’ll take the low price (my most recent computer was under $650) and ignore the free software.  Here are the specs for the machine I bought in September of 2008:

HP Pavilion dv291nr
Intel Core 2 Duo Processor (1.83 GHz)
3 Meg RAM
250 GB hard drive
LightScribe Super Multi 8X DVD +/-RW Drive
Remote control
Built-in webcam, microphone, and speakers
Windows Vista Home Premium
Price: $649

I upgraded to 4 Megs of RAM for an additional $55 and installed the card myself — The Geek Squad wanted an additional $50 to do it for me.
This is a screamin’ fast machine for just around $700.

Final thoughts… I like Intel processors over AMD, and I’ll pay a few more bucks ($100) for it.  RAM is king!  Pay a few bucks more (I paid $55 more to go from 3 Megs to 4 Megs of RAM in the above machine), and I can see the difference in everything I do on the computer.  I bought the LightScribe DVD burner because I make a lot of DVDs of family video and I found that putting paper labels on some DVDs made them unreadable in some DVD players.  LightScribe requires buying “LightScribe Compatible” DVDs for a few cents more but when you get done burning the data side of the DVD, you flip the DVD over and put it back in the DVD drive to burn the label on the top of the disk without using paper or ink.  I’m not impressed with the time it takes to burn the label side (sometimes 10-15 minutes per DVD), but they do work better in most DVD players.

Now, go out there and get that new computer, and when you’re done, share what you got and where you got it in our Forums section under Hardware-Computers.