Low Hanging Fruit in Computer Hardware

by [anonymous]1 min read1st Jun 201221 comments

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Personal Blog

Introduction:

Since my fellow LWers have been making posts about shaving, dental hygiene and bedroom decorating, I thought I might as well make a post pointing out low hanging fruit in computer hardware. In this post however, I will not make value calculations. Instead, I am going to provide low-cost sampling methods and let you experiment and decide for yourself whether the gains are worthwhile. It bears pointing out we nowadays use our computers more often than we like to admit, so any small improvements in our computing experience can have tremendous value.

Notebooks

When comparison-shopping for notebooks, most consumers overlook two important aspects, namely the screen quality and the hard drive performance. In return, most manufacturers try to save costs by fitting their notebooks with the cheapest screens and hard drives they can find.

Notebook Monitors:

Low-cost sampling method: Compare the screen quality of your notebook with that of your smartphone.

Most notebook monitors are abysmal. You cannot tilt the screen a little without it shifting in colours, and the contrast ratios are so low the colours become very washed out and the blacks start looking like greys, and don't get me started on the colour accuracy. Watching a beautiful painting or high definition video on such horrible screens is like watching natural scenery through a dirty window.

There aren't many notebooks in the market with good screens. This is not necessarily bad because it is a good idea to artificially limit your choices while shoppingSome well-known notebooks with good screens at the time of writing: all Apple Macbooks, some ASUS notebooks, upgraded Dell XPS 15 and upgraded Lenovo X220. For further reading, check out Digital Versus' Notebooks: The Best 10'' to 14'' Screens and Notebooks: The Best 15’’ to 17’’ Screens. Also read the latest reviews from Anandtech and notebookreview.com

Notebook hard Drives:

Low-cost sampling method: Watch youtube videos of SSDs in action.

A slow hard drive will not necessarily slow down CPU intensive tasks like gaming or encoding, but few consumers do these tasks on their notebooks. What most consumers actually do is log in their chat client, browse the Internet and maybe listen to music or watch a movie. Their only gauge while performing these tasks is how quickly the OS and applications load, and how quickly they load is almost entirely dependent on the speed of the hard drive.

The unit you measure the snappiness of a hard drive with is called the access time. The access time of an average desktop hard drive is around 12ms. For notebook hard drives, it may reach 20ms or even more. An SSD has access times of around 0.1ms; very fast indeed and definitely worth upgrading to. SSDs are expensive for the storage they offer, but you are not buying them for their space. You are buying them for their performance.

Headphones: 

Low-cost sampling method: Buy the Koss KSC-75 for $14. You should find them vastly superior to your average cheap headphones. If not, then you are unlikely to notice a difference when you buy higher end headphones.

A good starting point when researching headphones would be the comprehensive Shootout: 102 Portable Headphones Reviewed written by ljokerl in the forums head-fi.org.
The headphones he gave a value rating of 9.5 or more at the time of writing are:
$14 - Koss KSC-75
$30 - Panasonic RP-HTF600
$50 - Superlux HD668B
$159 - Audio-Technica ATH-M50*

* lukeprog has endorsed the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 in his post Share Your Checklists.

Keyboards:

Mechanical keyboards are the way to go, or so I hear. If you type a lot, they may be worth looking at.

Low-cost sampling method: None! I have not used mechanical keyboards before.

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Here's a fruit hanging so low it sometimes touches the ground: buy a big hard drive for backup, and software configured to backup your entire main drive to it at least once a day. It doesn't have to be a fast drive but make it twice as big as your main drive.

If you're not set up with something of this sort and you do anything serious or work-related on your computer, stop reading LW right now and go shopping. It's almost impossible to spend too much on this, compared to the expected value. My baseline credence that you'll lose data at some point and direly regret it: 80%. Magnitude of the loss: between a few days and a few year's worth of work. Take your hourly rate and multiply.

[-][anonymous]9y 4

If you do photo editing, I agree. If you do not do photo editing, then your most vital files should not be more than few gigabytes in size, in which case, the more convenient solution is backing up to the cloud. You can even sign up to multiple services and add the same files to them for added redundancy. For example, I use Dropbox, Skydrive Sugarsync, multiple google accounts (which can be managed simultaneously on the same computer using InSync) all for free. Some of these services even allow me to recover deleted files or previous versions of them.

The only reason you might still want to back up your entire hard drive is if you are too lazy to reinstall the OS and the applications in the unlikely event your OS crashes, but the inconvenience of regularly backing up is worse IMO.

Edit: You can unsync from some accounts so you can have backup ability to a certain point of time.

backing up to the cloud

That's "something of this sort". :) On the other hand, you might ask yourself how much time you'd actually lose to a total drive failure.

the inconvenience of regularly backing up

Happens every morning while I sleep without intervention on my part.

This particularly applies when using SSDs. The things just ... die, in a way hard disks don't. You'll get another one, because they're that damn cool. But BE BACKED UP.

I agree with everything mentioned, but I'd like to add one thing:

If you use your computer a lot and you have money, don't hesitate to buy something expensive. The cost per hour ends up being ridiculously low. I've said this for years, but many of my peers are still averse to spending "too much" on computer equipment.

I bought a MacBook Air for these reasons - great screen quality, SSD, scissor-switch keyboard (instead of the soft-dome approach. It's not as good as proper mechanical switches, but the response curve is still far better than soft-dome.). Added nebulous benefit: form factor. With these qualities, the baseline 11" model was actually quite cheap (less than $1000 - the amount of time I've spent using it, this cost is approximately 50c an hour, which I would gladly pay over the 25c an hour of a cheaper laptop).

Mechanical keyboards: Low-cost sampling method: find a friend who has a mechanical keyboard, type out a status update on Facebook or make a Google search.

Even lower hanging fruit. My netbook's HDD died, again, so this time I booted Puppy Linux from an old 4GB USB stick lying around, and now the machine is faster than it ever was with XP on it. No installation required, all the config/data are magically saved back on the stick periodically, and all the hardware was supported out of the box (in the Debian version, not the Slackware one). Who needs a hard drive, anyway.

That's the first time for me that a complete Linux setup was less painful than a Windows one.

Someone convince me not to spend $4000 on the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display and a 27" Thunderbolt Display to go with it, to replace my current Macbook Air and Custom-built Desktop.

I should really spend money on exercise instead. That would be the proper direction to improve my future. Maybe a cross trainer (elliptical), treadmill, or rowing machine (ergometer).

I unexpectedly found and repaired a treadmill last night; I figure I'll incorporate it into my big sleep-productivity experiment. Judging from my legs, it's making a good start on 'exercise'.

EDIT: treadmill desks don't work for me. Too distracting.

Sure. Don't spend $4000, spend $4000-X, where X is what you can sell the Air and the desktop machine for.

Don't spend $4000 on the new Macbook Pro to replace your current Macbook Air. Something better will come out next year and you'll regret not being able to afford it then.

I would be able to afford it, though waiting a year might be a good idea to give software time to catch up with the retina display.

What I really want is a Thunderbolt docking station with a PCIe x16 2.1 slot large enough for a full-size GPU for my current Macbook Air.

Don't spend $4000 on the new Macbook Pro to replace your current Macbook Air. Something better will come out next year and you'll want to buy that but you'll feel bad for spending so much money on a new computer when you have a perfectly serviceable computer only a year old, rather than spending it on something more important, like donating it to Research to Cure Extremely Rare Diseases in Cute Puppies.

On keyboard utility: I've been using the a mechanical keyboard for 3 years and enjoy typing on it more than a membrane switch (generic). Prior to this one regular keyboard lasted me about 8 months; at maybe $15 for a cheap keyboard compared to $70 for this, $15/8 months - $80/x months gives a breakeven time of 3.5 years. (IBM/unicomp Model M keyboards can last for decades)

If you have a problem with keyboard durability then mechanical keyboards have slight positive utility, otherwise I would only recommend them if you noticeably preferred typing on one.

Edited to add: The research on repetitive strain injury (thanks wgd!) along with anecdotes of faster typing definitely make this low hanging fruit. Updated to strong recommendation.

I'm going to disagree with the weakness of your recommendation. I may be falling prey to the typical mind fallacy here, but I feel that everyone who types for a significant fraction of their day (programming, writing, etc) should at least strongly consider getting a mechanical keyboard. In addition to feeling nicer to type on, there's some weak evidence that buckling-spring keyboards can lower your risk of various hand injuries down the line, and even a slightly lessened risk of RSI is probably worth the $60 or so more that a mechanical keyboard costs, even ignoring the greater durability.

I have no idea if I'm a special snowflake or not, but FWIW, I do spend a significant fraction of my day typing...and have no preference between a good membrane or mechanical keyboard.

I would be interested in reading more of the evidence about RSI reductions, though.

I realized upon further consideration that I don't actually have any evidence regarding keyboards and RSI, so here are the most relevant results of my brief research:

  • Effects of keyboard keyswitch design: A review of the current literature
    The abstract states that "Due to the ballistic nature of typing, new keyswitch designs should be aimed at reducing impact forces." This is a task which mechanical keyboards can potentially achieve more effectively than membrane ones because you can stop pushing on the key before it bottoms out. Later on in the paper they discuss results which seem to show that the loud noise of mechanical keyboards may actually be their best feature, as a silent keyboard with 0.28N of force causes about the same amount of finger effort as a clicky keyboard requiring 0.72N.
  • Computer key switch force-displacement characteristics and short-term effects on localized fatigue
    I'm unclear how much this paper is worth, as their methodology seems unlikely to produce situations like those encountered in real life. Assuming their conclusions are correct, they appear to indicate that keyswitches requiring lower actuation forces will lead to lower strike force when they hit the keyboard backing, which I believe would tend to mean that membrane keyboards are better for you if you can't train yourself not to shove the key into the keyboard backplane. However, they do indicate that longer overtravel (the length the key can be pressed after it activates) will reduce the striking force, so I'm not sure whether membrane keyboards come out ahead overall as they have quite a bit less overtravel.
  • Toward a more humane keyboard
    Light on details, but states that from their research one of the design goals of an improved ergonomic keyboard should be to optimize tactile feedback (among other things). This paper was co-written by the president of Kinesis (in 1992), and it's worth noting that at least the modern Kinesis ergonomic keyboards use mechanical keyswitches with 45g of operating force (lower than the 50-65g typical of Cherry keyswitches), and have around 4mm of overtravel.

There's about 4 or 5 additional promising results from Google Scholar, but I think I've learned as much about keyboards as I care to at the moment. If you want to read further I found that the most promising search terms were "buckling spring carpal tunnel", and "effects of keyboard keyswitch design".

Overall the evidence seems to vaguely back up the folk wisdom that mechanical keyboards can help to lessen one's chances of getting a hand injury like carpal tunnel, but there doesn't appear to be anything conclusive enough to warrant using a mechanical keyboard for that alone (and there's probably a lot more benefit to be had from an ergonomic layout than from the keyswitches). I still judge it worth the $60 extra in my own case, but that's probably just the sunk costs and techno-hipsterism talking.

I had an 80$ logitech keyboard (the illuminating short-stroke like a notebook variety), and when it began to deteriorate I swapped it with a 10$ Walmart special that was a slightly curved Microsoft one. I had been playing around on this typing speed site and was surprised to find that on the 5th attempt I had beaten my previous record with this new keyboard.

If I had a variety of keyboards at my disposable I think it would be an interesting exercise to test them in this fashion.

Part of the problem with mass market products (electronic or otherwise) is the multitude of tradeoffs that designers need to make. Anyone whose requirements are very different from the median is going to have to do a good bit of shopping around, and probably some mix-and-match, to get what they want. And this is not going to change unless you can convince some manufacturer that you represent a large and stable enough niche market for them to make money from.