An American Editor

July 29, 2013

Making the Decision to Move to Lightspeed

The one thing that is true about technology is that obsolescence is built-in. Whatever you buy today will, after a manufacturer-predefined time, begin to turn to dust.

Before we go further into my tale, let’s sidestep for this bit of music:

As I have mentioned in other posts, I have my computers custom built locally. That allows me to choose higher-quality components from manufacturers that I prefer. One part from here, one from there. More importantly, my local computer shop warrants those components for 3 years.

For years, I replaced our computers every 18 to 24 months. The technology was changing rapidly and by the time 2 years had passed, it was like moving from the paleolithic era of computing to the future. And the more complex my macros became and the more I wanted them to do, the greater the computing power I needed and wanted. The one thing I didn’t want was to have time to twiddle my thumbs while waiting for my macros to do their tasks.

About 6 years ago that changed with the building of our current computers. I had finally hit the top of the hill. Sure changes continued to occur and components continued to improve, but none of them would have had much of an impact on my needs. The machine I had custom built would outlive my editing career — or so I hoped.

As with all such wishes, there was something I forgot: components are designed to fail. Manufacturers don’t want things to live forever, so obsolescence is built-in.

This past week, my boot drive began to fail. I could tell because it took longer and longer to boot up my computer each morning; because where once the computer easily handled a dozen open applications simultaneously, now it struggled to hand three or four; because I would be working and suddenly everything would freeze for a few seconds.

I also began to notice that my data drive also was generating errors. Reads and writes to the data drive (a separate physical drive from my boot drive) took a little bit longer; instructions weren’t being carried out quite as fast (or so it seemed) as in previous times.

Although these two hard drives were high-quality drives when purchased, time had passed them by. All traditional-type hard drives have moving parts, parts that eventually wear out. The one thing I didn’t want to happen was for the drive to start writing data to bad sectors, causing corruption, so I took the hints I was being given and called my local computer shop.

It took 3 hours of downtime, but in that time, I went from what now seems like crawling to near the speed of light. It previously took a little more than 90 seconds to boot up; now it takes less than 20 seconds. The cure was not only new drives but going to solid-state drives (SSDs).

Unfortunately, SSDs are expensive, at least double the price of traditional drives. But with that increased price comes compactness (four SSDs fit within the same space as one traditional drive), no moving parts to wear out (although these drives do eventually lose the ability to write to the disks, they, supposedly, never lose the ability to read from them), no heat generation, and no noise (no moving parts to make noise).

An advantage of custom building my computers is the ease with which these types of repairs can be made. As I have noted previously, all of my hard drives are hot swappable, which means that I can pull them out of their slot without turning off and opening the computer, and I can put a different hard drive in the slot and access it. It makes for great backup and for easy storage when I travel. It also means that my computer shop could do the repair in my office — I didn’t need to be without the computer for more than a few hours. (Most of the time I was “down” was spent cloning my old drives to the new SSDs. The physical replacement of the drives and getting Windows to recognize the new drives took only a few minutes.)

Now that I have new primary hard drives, I am thinking about updating my remaining traditional hard drives (six of them: one for storage of completed projects; one to hold my imaging backups; four in my NAS [network-attached storage] box for my daily backups) to SSDs. I am unlikely to do that upgrade soon because of the cost and the lack of real need. None of those drives get the use that my two primary drives receive.

The upgrades I will be doing in the coming few months are upgrades to my motherboard, processor, RAM, and video cards. With the new SSDs, my Journals macro that took nearly 26 minutes to run through 15,000 dataset entries on a list of 500+ references now takes closer to 11 minutes (see Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects). It will be even faster once I upgrade the motherboard, processor, and RAM to ones that can take full advantage of the SSDs.

With my computer working great with just the SSD upgrade, why would I consider spending even more money to upgrade these other components? Because I will get a high return on my investment — I will make back the cost of the upgrade in just a couple of projects. Remember, I charge by the page so that the faster and more efficiently I can process data, the higher my effective hourly rate will be (see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand).

In other words, I am investing in my business. My pre-SSD computer configuration performed well for about 6 years. I received an excellent rate of return on that investment. Now it is time to invest for the next 6 years (or longer). When I make decisions about whether to buy new equipment/components, the biggest factors in my decision-making process are the answers to these questions: “Will it help to increase my effective hourly rate?” and “If it will, how quickly will it do so?”

If the answer to the first question is no, then I proceed no further. The only time I will buy is when I must because of, for example, a component failure. I haven’t bought a tablet for work because a tablet can neither improve my speed/efficiency nor positively affect my effective hourly rate. If the answer to the first question is yes, but the answer to the second question is a time frame that I think is too long, such as 20 or more projects or 1 year or longer, then I also do not buy. The return on investment is not sufficient to justify the investment. I need to wait for further technological improvements.

In the case of the hard drives, the decision had to be made whether to buy traditional drives or the SSDs. I decided to buy the SSDs because the answer to the first question was yes and to the second it was no more than 2 projects to recoup the price differential; in other words, it made fiscal sense to spend more now to reap long-term benefits.

What analysis do you do when deciding whether to buy new equipment or to upgrade your current equipment or even what type of equipment to buy?

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