- Walt Mossberg, The Wall Street Journal
Every year, a handful of students ask for advice about what they should buy to replace ailing computers. The best I can offer are generalities: know how much you can spend and what you plan to use it for; after that, it's a bunch of tradeoffs among important alternatives. It should be thin and light but with a big screen and long battery life. It has to be cheap but have lots of features. And so on. The only thing you can be sure of is that you won't be happy once you get it.
Recently I found myself on the other side of the question when a dear member of my family, who shall remain nameless here, spilled a glass of milk on the keyboard of the main laptop that I use at home. This proved to be almost the coup de grace - most keys did nothing, random keys became permanently stuck, and the touchpad didn't work at all. The machine is too old to repair but it holds so much useful data and programs that I couldn't just toss it. I managed to get it limping along with outboard support systems - a keyboard, a mouse and an external drive, rather like a heart-lung bypass machine - but now it's making ominous groaning noises, which I hope come from the fan and not the internal disk. Either way, it has to be replaced.
I wasted a month surfing sites like amazon.com and cruising big-box stores like Best Buy, trying to find the right balance among utterly unsatisfactory compromises. In spite of the many advantages of a Mac, they cost too much and it really seemed necessary to get a Windows PC for compatibility with everything I already have. But I kept getting stuck on one crucial point: new computers only come with Vista, Microsoft's latest operating system.
My first encounter with Vista last fall was traumatic: I discovered only a day or two before the first lab in my course that all the public cluster machines had been surgically altered to run Vista, and that the computers offered to incoming freshmen came with Vista as well. My carefully crafted lab instructions were just plain wrong, because Vista was different from XP in so many little ways.
With a lot of work, I managed to find a path through the maze of differences, but it left me with a bad impression. My enthusiasm was not increased by endless stories about incompatibilities and lack of drivers, so severe that even senior Microsoft people were taken by surprise when they tried to eat their own dog food by using Vista. (A recent class action lawsuit alleges that Microsoft misled consumers about Vista's hardware requirements and compatibility; the email exchanges among company executives that form part of the case make interesting reading.)
Microsoft will eventually work through the technical issues and in a year or two Vista will be fine, but I needed a new machine right away. XP is about to be discontinued, and most computer manufacturers sell only Vista machines. Fortunately there are still a handful on the market that come with XP; indeed, the number may be growing, at least while Microsoft smoothes out some of Vista's rough edges. So I bought one of these trailing edge computers, thus confirming my standing as a technology "late follower."
The good news is that Moore's Law continues to operate: every year or two technology advances enough that we can get roughly twice as much computing power for the same price. For a modest sum, I bought a machine that's more powerful than any other I own, except maybe the MacBook Pro that cost four times as much. It runs the old familiar XP. It only took me a couple of days to install the programs that I need, while carefully excising the unwanted trial versions of software that Mossberg calls "craplets," though I am still trying to defeat whatever turns the fan on and off every minute.
The bad news is that I now have yet another computer to look after. A quick count reveals 8 working laptops scattered between home and office; my office looks vaguely like a higher-tech version of one of those places with rusting cars in the back yard. It seems a shame to just discard perfectly good computers, and I have grand plans to use them for experiments with operating systems and networks, but somehow there's never enough time. So I predict that sometime next year, I'll have to add laptop number nine. Will it run Vista or Mac OS X or none of the above? Yes, though I don't know which. Will it still be "confusing, unpredictable and unreliable"? That you can be sure of.
Brian Kernighan GS '69is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.