Rednecks, old computers, and TCO

Ever watch Blue Collar TV? Remember those pictures of the redneck's backyard with the junk automobiles and other rusty stuff that's too good to just throw out? Yeah? good! Come with me on a tour of home PC user garages, closets, and remote African desktops..
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

Uhuh, I hate to admit this, but it seems I have a problem: an inability to throw old computers away.

I have an Ultra2, purchased as dual 167s and since upgraded to a righteous 2 x 296Mhz, sitting in the garage. Now, in its defence: as recently as 2006 it spent a glorious eight months running a production Solaris 10 application where more than x86 security was needed and the client's staff didn't know how to not buy x86 - but really I think it's probably seen its best days.

On the other hand, it still works, and someday I may need it.

There's an old Mac in the garage too - a 1Ghz G4 Titanium whose graphics controller didn't survive an accelerated encounter with a sidewalk. Someday I'm going to fix it. Or maybe not.

When we were moving here I thought about throwing this stuff away - but in Ontario they have this wonderful greenie gag going: you're required to render used electronics to a speciality used electronics disposal depot which charges you a special disposal fee for taking out anything valuable to them and then trucking the rest to the same landfill everything else goes to. Kinda like tire recycling here in sunny Alberta: you pay green levies coming and going, but the only things growing faster than recycling costs are the stockpiles of unrecycled tires.

The reason I mention all this is that ever since I got Mr. Jordan's letter about home TCO on Wintel7 I've been asking various people about the PCs they own at home. The record holder, so far, is a Wintel true believer from the NT era who claims to have every PC he's ever bought: a total of 23, fourteen of them laptops - apparently running everything from Windows 95 to the Windows 7 beta he's now using.

It's a small sample, and certainly neither random nor representative, but I'm getting some amazing numbers: an average of more than three PCs per family member and a sharp difference between Mac users, who tend to dispose of old gear, and PC users who don't.

As a result my mental image of the typical PC household is starting to form as a new machine, often a laptop and usually clearly marked as belonging only to one person; a couple of older machines with XP or 2000 used by younger kids (older ones seem to get shiny and new); an XP file server that started as a 2000 desktop somewhere; a linksys or similar wireless network; and, a bunch of deaders hidden away somewhere with some vague thought of current backup and future rehabilitation.

Look inside the survivors and you see weird third party peripheral and application clutters - my own local printer is a QMS 420 from the early ninties - and there's some really weird and dated stuff out there in daily use.

Talk about the cost of upgrading to current gear and you get very different reactions from the PC and Mac camps. The Mac people mostly just say they'll eventually have to buy a new one, but the PC people I've talked to seem to split between two forms of denial: those who deny they'll have to change, and those who deny it'll cost anything to change.

In reality, however, the costs of change are really the costs of complete renewal: so if you go with mid range Dell gear running Vista with MS Office lite, it'll run you about $750 per desktop or $850 per laptop after Dell's current super duper discounts (unless, of course, you're a PC hobbyist, then you can build your own for $8.93 including the cost of a processor wholesaling at $659 in lots of 10,000.)

Sadly, however, machine costs are only the obvious part of the cost picture: you'll also have to upgrade your wireless router, pay for support and/or security subscriptions, and pay for whatever your "personal critical" third party applications or devices are -and then you can relearn just about everything you thought you knew about running Windows because now you can license the primary desktop as the family file server, fight the driver or replacement battle for printing and/or multi-media display, and find space in the garage for all the old junkers you can't quite bring yourself to get rid of.

All in, costs to the PC people I talked to are probably in the $1,200 per machine range exclusive of stress and time costs - and that's before any consideration of information security, backup, and data transfer issues beyond the default stuff you get with the box and/or your subscriptions.


Editorial standards