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The modern personal computing industry disappoints me

19 Sep 2023

This post was originally written November 28th, 2022 for a Gemini capsule that still remains unpublished. I felt the urge to get something on this site today but it's 00:30 and I know better than to start working on somehting this late at night.

Someone came to me asking for computer recommendations today. They just sent an Amazon link and said "Thoughts?" I have issues with people asking questions like that, but we'll focus more on the intentions than the methods for now. We'll just pretend they wrote something more like "Hey, I was looking at this laptop and was wondering what your thoughts were on it?" instead. In any case, I responded "Definitely a laptop". Those were my thoughts on it. They came back with "A good one?" Finally, an actual question. Sort of.

The thing about "good" is that it's heavily dependent on a lot of outside factors. What is a good laptop to me may not be a good laptop to you. The only computers I've ever bought or otherwise acquired new are Raspberry Pis or other similar SBCs. Everything else has either been purchased used, or even better, given to me by someone who didn't find value in it anymore and was getting rid of it. My current desktop computer is composed of a CPU and motherboard taken from a used computer, a GPU purchased used from a friend, and some RAM salvaged from who knows where. The power supply and SSD were purchased new, but I used to use the SSD from the same computer the CPU and motherboard are from. This, to me, is a good computer. I consider it good because it serves my needs well, didn't cost me much, and isn't unnecessarily new. To someone else, this may be seen as a bad computer due to its age and inability to play modern games. The person asking for my thoughts on a laptop is in the second group.

I informed them that I think "good" doesn't communicate much and encouraged them to share more about their use case. Shortly after I came to learn that they wanted a laptop that would allow them to write documents, play games, and watch Netflix. I asked what kind of games and they listed some older titles but also some newer ones. Forza Horizon 5 was the current target and I suspect one of the main reasons for wanting to upgrade. They also told me that they wanted to make sure this computer would last them "a while". I tried to get them to provide information on how long "a while" might be for them but they didn't. For me, "a while" means somewhere in the range of 5-10 years when it comes to desktop and laptop computers. My current desktop is running a high end processor from early 2011 -- it's nearly 12 years old. I'd like to keep using it until it's at least 15 years old, maybe even 20 if I can help it. I would never recommend a typical Windows user attempt that though.

The problem is that Windows doesn't run well on any hardware more than a few years old. I had been using Linux on the side and in conjunction with Windows for many years by the time I decided to make the switch completely away from Windows in February of this year. I still keep an SSD handy with Windows installed on it in case I need or want it for something that won't run on Linux but I've booted it up less than a dozen times. It runs about as well as I could hope it would on decade old hardware. That is to say, not well but usable. It's only usable because there's nothing running on it. If I want to boot Windows to use Fusion 360 or play a game, that's all that's running. There's nothing else running in the background. No browsers, no messaging clients, nothing. Just Windows and my one piece of software. And dozens of background processes that I can't really do anything about.

Using Windows is far from a painless experience. Every time I boot it up I remember how bad it is. Every time I shut it down and boot back into Linux I feel a wave of relief as I return to an operating system that doesn't frustrate me more with every click. When I boot Windows, the first thing I'm usually greeted by is a screen saying some variety of "working on updates". This is obviously a result of the fact that I don't use it frequently. Sometimes I'll take the time to download and install any available updates, other times I won't bother. I would love to just not connect it to the internet and never worry about it bothering me for updates but Fusion 360 requires a network connection and I don't think I keep many games installed on that drive. Even if I do spend sometimes as much as multiple hours installing updates though, the pain doesn't stop. Those dozens of background processes I mentioned add up, and they can't really be disabled. It feels like at least half the time I use Windows Skype is somehow running as a background process. Uninstalling Skype doesn't seem to be much more than a temporary solution. Maybe I'm misremembering because of how infrequently I use Windows though. I hope that's the case.

Why is Skype even installed by default in the first place though? I haven't used Skype in at least 4 or 5 years and I don't intend to use it again any time soon. If you ask me, something like Skype shouldn't be installed by default. Simple software like a calculator, or a text editor, or a simple game, those can be installed by default. A browser... I would like to say these shouldn't be bundled but I can understand why this is a good thing. I may not like Edge but it gives me a way to download something I actually intend to use. (Of course if Windows had a package manager this wouldn't be an issue but I don't want to find out how badly that would go if they did it.) Something like Skype though, that doesn't sound like something I want preinstalled. I think a good rule of thumb would be if it has a EULA or privacy policy it shouldn't come preinstalled.

I would like to take a moment to complain about something even worse though. When I install a brand new, fresh copy of Windows 10, the first thing I do is open up the start menu and begin unpinning and uninstalling the games, apps, and other things that companies have paid Microsoft to bundle and advertise with Windows. I don't care how much money you have, you shouldn't be allowed to get Microsoft to preinstall Candy Crush or pin an ad to the start menu for it or whatever. Candy Crush, Netflix, Spotify, etc. None of these should ever be bundled with Windows, full stop. There is no excuse, ever.

Sorry, I got a bit carried away. The basic complaint against Windows is this: it is in Microsoft's best interest to pay no attention to hardware older than a few years because they have a direct profit incentive to encourage you to buy a new computer, and they accomplish this by deliberately bloating Windows to the point where trying to get any real work done on a computer more than 5 years old is a bad experience. This is the part where the author proceeds to say something along the lines of "but it's okay! Just switch to Linux!" If you ask me though, this isn't how it should go. While it is true that switching to Linux will let you use your computer for a few more years, I wouldn't expect you to get more than just a few more years out of it if you don't change the way you do things too.

In my opinion, which may or may not be valid, the solution is less about simply switching to Linux and more about switching to a different mindset and method of computing. Google Docs is still the same Google Docs on Windows and Linux, and it might run better under Linux on older hardware, but do you even need Google Docs in the first place? I apologize for using Google Docs as my example then immediately taking this in another direction, but I used to use Notion for notes. Notion provides a web app and a Desktop app, which is probably just the web app but packaged up with Electron. I have complaints about Electron but that's not specifically what this is about. Notion also provides mobile apps but I don't think I'l be covering mobile today. After suffering with the performance issues of Notion for far too long I decided to switch to something else. I found that for my use cases this neat little thing called Obsidian would be worth trying. Obsidian, at least how I use it, is just a glorified text editor. It has other features that I don't mean to discount but for my uses it's a text editor with a file browser that can render markdown nicely. And wouldn't you know it, no performance issues. I have never once had Obsidian lag. It just works. One other huge upside to using Obsidian over Notion is that it stores all your notes on your computer as markdown files in a folder you specify, accessible and editable with any text editor. The switching cost is effectively zero.

Switching cost is a big problem. All my old notes are still in Notion because I haven't taken the time to export them and sort them all out and shove them into Obsidian. I rarely need to reference them, else I would probably have at least looked into migrating them by now, but the fact that there's friction at all annoys me. If Obsidian started giving me trouble I could just stop using it and instead access my notes from a regular text editor or another piece of note taking software. I can't do that with Notion. Notion at least allows you to export things. When I wanted to switch away from OneDrive the only way to download all my data was to spin up a Windows 10 VM and coax the OneDrive desktop app into downloading every file one by one to a hard drive I passed through to the VM over USB. Microsoft is aware this is a pain point for users but they have incentive specifically not do anything about it because it keeps some people on the platform. I had wanted to move away from OneDrive for years before finally doing something about it.

The person who was asking me about the laptop is aware that I don't use Windows and would love to suggest switching to Linux if only it were a practical suggestion. They brought it up, saying they would consider switching to Linux if it meant getting more than 3 to 5 years out of the laptop they were about to buy. After I told them that it's less about switching to Linux and more about switching to a new way of doing things they said something along the lines of "good, I wasn't going to switch to Linux anyway". Your typical Windows user won't switch to Linux. They want an OS they're familiar with that does things how they expect it to, even if it's a bit slow sometimes. They want an OS that runs all the software they expect it to without any fuss. They want an OS they can ask the nearest person for help with whenever they need to. At the end of the day I have to recommend using Windows and replacing your computer every 3 to 5 years unless someone comes to me already enthusiastic about this different way of computing and asking me for advice on how to get into Linux.

Next time you want someone's opinion on a specific thing, maybe consider asking with more words than just "thoughts?" or you might risk spawning a 2000 word essay on the state of the modern personal computing industry.