What’s in an Upgrade?


I get this question a lot: “my computer is slow; how can I make it go faster?” or “should I upgrade my computer?” and the answer I always give is “it depends.”

There’s a wide variety of advice on what computer you should buy, how much to spend, what brand to buy, etc. And for those with some knowledge about computer hardware, it becomes too tricky of a question to just spout out a standard response like “Dell, 4GB RAM, 250GB Hard Drive, Core i5 Intel CPU, etc.” What people choose to eventually buy is constrained by the obvious limits imposed by their budget, but the art of picking out the right computer has a lot more to do with two different aspects:

  1. What will the computer be used for?
  2. Given the budget, what is the best balance of parts to provide the best user experience?

That first question is fairly common – you pick a ‘gaming’ computer for someone wanting to play games, or a ‘budget laptop’ for someone wanting to browse the web and use an Office suite and not much else. Recommendations of this type will typically hinge on specific parts recommendations, such as the graphics card for a gamer.

The second question is much more complicated and nuanced. OEMs (Dell, HP, Acer, Apple, etc.) all make these calculations when they put together pre-built systems. And custom PC builders make these same calculations when they put together a custom PC build. But the financial incentives behind those choices, I would argue, do not necessarily line up with what the best customer experience will be.

There’s a strong counter-argument to what I just said above. In an idealized free-market economy with a large number of mom-and-pop computer businesses, they compete with little non-economic gain (profit) and have a customer base who has symmetrical information to that of the seller (buyers know just as much about the product as the seller). The argument goes that competition would eventually lead to a happy meeting of the best customer experience at the lowest price possible.

But that idealized scenario is a far cry from what exists in the real world. We do have a lot of mom-and-pop custom computer shops out there, but as a percentage of total PC sales they are not a significant competitor to the likes, of Dell, HP, Acer, or Apple. When a PC (or Mac) is marketed to consumers (to the extent that the specs factor into the sales pitch) the selection of parts is determined by the “best specs” for the lowest price.

Here is why this is a problem: specs alone aren’t often the right consideration, and which specs are chosen to promote and highlight in a particular computer can make a big difference in the customer experience in actually using the computer. The biggest example of this is the choice between a traditional hard drive and an SSD (solid state drive). A 1 terabyte (1,024 gigabyte) 5,400 rpm hard drive certainly sounds a lot better than a paltry 250 gigabyte SSD. It’s four times larger and typically less expensive as a bonus!

But that’s where the sales pitch of the OEM and the customer experience diverge. Sure, a 1TB hard drive gives you lots of extra storage beyond what a 250GB SSD can hold, but as storage capabilities start to widely outstrip typical customer needs (250GB can serve a surprisingly large swath of typical computer users) we have to ask if capacity is really the right spec on which to focus. What about speed? What about random access times? What about performance over time (fragmentation)? The user experience over time would be a lot better served by picking the product that best addresses those questions, not the easier-to-market target of capacity.

I would argue: the right choice for the majority of customers buying a new computer is to get an SSD instead of a hard drive as the primary drive for the operating system (you can always add in a hard drive for extra storage or use an external drive). But taking into account whatever idiosyncratic tendencies I may have in preferring an SSD over a hard drive, it is still surprising how many computer manufacturers stick with much slower hard drives rather than going the route of SSDs. One has to wonder why this is the case…

Setting aside the example of SSDs in particular, the overall balance of parts in a computer is a reflection of the incentive structure for the builder of the PC. For an OEM with a fiduciary and legal duty to shareholders to maximize profits, I can’t blame them for getting the most bang for the buck out of customers. But devoid of the profit motive, how would one construct a PC to provide the best customer experience at the best price? Notice the difference: I did not say the best specs at the best price, since that is to my mind the wrong goal. Specs certainly matter, but they are only instrumental in achieving the overall experience for the customer.

So the next time you see an advertisement for a great deal on a computer at a local Best Buy (just as an example), ask yourself: “is that really such a great deal for me the customer, or a great deal for the seller?” Chances are, the answer isn’t you.

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