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Five frugal foundations of computing - do you really need to replace this?

Early summer 2024

Within the tech industry, something quite interesting happened about 10 years ago that gives us fruit that we are now harvesting. Computers and other gadgets became powerful (and cheap) enough to handle just about every day to day task you will probably need in your digital part of life.

It can be argued that it happened a lot sooner, but honestly my 15-20 year old computers (yeah, they are still with me and generally in active use as well) have their own purpose but I wouldn't be happy running them as a daily driver.

It can also be argued that it isn't at all possible to use a 10 year old computer happily today. That it's too slow for XYZ and doesn't run the latest software. Both arguments true - but not contradicting the opening paragraph of this article.

A few examples

Everyday life on a computer probably involves a great variety of web browsing, from full screen video to reading heavy news sites and a lot more. You need to communicate with others, presumably via online meetings and collaboration platforms like Teams, Slack or Discord. Office stuff, e-mail, the occasional video and/or photo editing and probably a bunch of other things as well. This, at least, is close to my daily needs.

I use an iMac 27", late 2015 model as my daily stationary driver. It's a wonderful device with a gorgeous screen and I have no intention at all to stop using it for the foreseeable future. I have upgraded memory and changed the horrible hybrid hard disk to a SSD-drive, which cost me a considerable amount but saved me from a mental breakdown.

There are a few things that my computer will not handle. 4k video editing is one, I am generally able to get through it by using features in the editing software, but it really isn't funny. I don't do massive 3D rendering, so that could have been another issue but one I dodged. I also don't play games (except very occasionally) which is a dealbreaker. If you want to keep up with the latest games - I suppose a frugal approach to computing isn't going to get you where you want.

But being a tech junkie since childhood, the constant strive for new experiences and upgrades is somewhat built into the DNA. I remember the old days of my Amiga youth when advertisements in computer magazines were almost as interesting as the articles themselves - because they provided dreams of future possibilities. Unhindered and with the economy of a grown-up, this path can and will lead you into commercial heaven (or hell, depending on your deity of preference). And we don't want to go there, do we? But there's a way to both eat and keep the cookie, figuratively speaking.

The list

First - become a stubborn computer user. This is best described in the ever brilliant Datagubbe's article "The Stubborn Computing Manifesto". Basic point is - if a tool does the job, take it to your heart and never abandon it. If an upgrade takes you to a slow and sluggish experience - downgrade back to your last useful version. You most certainly didn't need those new features anyway.

Second - never go for software subscriptions. This is an obvious one. Major software companies of today have obviously agreed that buying a tool isn't going to cut holes deep enough in the users pockets. It might even seem deceivingly attractive as well - you don't have to spend an arm and a leg in a one time cost to use the same tools as professional. Trouble is of course, you'll spend two arms and 90% of your legs in the long run. The best option would almost always be a free open source software, but honestly that won't always get you where you want. I could never agree with any open source alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom or InDesign so I decided to buy the Affinity Suite at a Black Friday 50% discount. That's one of the best valued purchases I've done in years and it will keep me going for a foreseeable future at the cost of 2.5 months with Adobe. Don't be cheap when something truly useful looks you in the eye.

Third - analyze your workflow. You probably don't need to edit videos from your sofa. In fact - there's a shitload of things that can be considered a feature to not be able to do from your sofa. Like checking in on Microsoft Teams, scrolling social media, buying stuff from Amazon etc. And if you don't need to do those things - your tablet or laptop of choice can certainly be a lot cheaper (or you could skip one entirely). But I truly enjoy sitting in my armchair looking through what's happened on the BBS:es I'm active at, or write an article (such as this one), or reading through the RSS-flow. For that I use either my 20 year old PowerBook G4 running MorphOS or my dirt cheap ASUS tablet (T102H) that features a nice keyboard and is currently running Fedora Linux. The later also works great when commuting. There are plenty of options when it comes to highly useful software that will run perfectly fine on pretty much any hardware on this end of year 2000. Consider making your needs/wants a DIY non-cost-project instead of a hole in your pocket. Remember that everything doesn't have to be neither practical nor make sense for it to be worth doing. Quite often you'll stumble across a more satisfying path.

Fourth - you probably don't need an upgrade, you just want the feeling of something new. Perhaps the most important pillar. You will probably now and then crave the sensation of something new that promises an adventure and path you haven't yet walked. Do not be ashamed - you are in good company! But remember that this sensation will also be there when you dig out your fifteen year old laptop and installs a new lightweight Linux distro on it and starts exploring the joy of browsing a new software repository, configuring a window manager or playing that ancient .xm music that you haven't heard in twenty five years. Or more importantly - that you might get more sh-t done when using a notification-free device with a lightweight text based e-mail client. Once again - everything doesn't have to make sense at first glance, but eventually you might even find a new workflow that makes you creative in a way you hadn't expected.

Fifth and final - when you really need a new piece of hardware. First, there are two upgrades to any older tech that almost always will be worth your money and that's changing the hard drive to an SSD and maxing out memory. If you use something on a regular basis you should treat yourself to those two. If you need an entirely new device then start looking for those items that were truly high-end around 10-12 years ago. They will be well built, get your daily tasks done and most importantly not dig a deep hole in your pocket. I recently bought a Nikon D800 camera because I was fed up with my old DSLR in every low-light situation. D800 was Nikons flagship model released in 2012 and even if it wasn't dirt cheap by any means when I bought it in 2024, it's amazing value for your money. I just saw Action Retro's video on installing KDE Linux and upgrading memory and hard drive on a late 2012 iMac 21" making it a very useful computer even if Apple decided it was obsolete five years ago.

To conclude, frugal is not in any way a synonym to boring, rather the opposite. It might however consume more of your time, but you'll probably find that time if you cut back on some other shenanigans (social media, I'm looking at you). Good luck, and if you have a particular story on the topic, I'd be happy to read it.