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?


  1. My computers aren’t custom built, Rich, but I use the same base strategy as you. I’m running a business and I need equipment that allows me to my job. If, say, the screen starts to flicker or there’s not enough memory to run editorial tools effectively, or there is over-heating that might lead to a melt-down, etc., it’s time to make repairs or buy new kit. My previous laptop lasted 3 years. It’s not dead yet, but it no longer enables me to work in the way I want to for my proofreading business. Looking at the investment I’ve made on hardware and software in the past ten years, I know I need to build in an annual investment cost of approximately £250 to keep me on top of my game in terms of productivity.

    As my business has developed and I’ve taken on new client types, I’ve invested in additional hardware based on the ROI. I need a Kindle for my business because some of my clients pay me to format Word documents so that they’re KDP- or Smashwords-ready. That means I need the tool to check the output. I want to recoup the cost of my investment within 6 months. On the other hand, there is software that I’ve considered investing in that I don’t think, with my business model and target client base, will provide an acceptable return on investment at this point in time. So that’s on the back-burner.

    Great post and a solid reminder that as editorial professionals we need to invest wisely in the acquisition and maintenance of whatever tools we need to do the job. I wouldn’t want a tree surgeon turning up at my house with a rusty chainsaw, and I wouldn’t take my dog to a veterinary surgeon whose needles were blunt. My computing kit has to work for me so that I can work for my clients.


    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — July 29, 2013 @ 5:12 am | Reply

  2. I buy on a similar rationale with fewer numbers attached. In other words, do I need it, and it will it make me more productive? In some cases I add this question: Am I likely to need it in the very near future?

    I do not upgrade at the pace that hardware and software develop, first because I can’t afford to do so, and second because I don’t need to. I got along just fine on “old” computers for years and years, mainly because my clients were clunking along on same or worse. Finally, though, enough work started arriving in next-generation Word, and my equipment started getting erratic, so when a chunk of money came my way in an inheritance, I not only upgraded my working system but all electronics in the house. We had multiple generations of daisy-chained, quasi-compatible devices jerry-rigged together. Yeah, they worked, but the PIA and reliability factors were escalating. So it was clean sweep time, putting me into the current era. (Of course, at the rate things change, I was behind the day I began!) Nevertheless, this setup ought to hold me for many more years, especially since I seem to get much better mileage out of my machines than other people do.

    One thing doesn’t change, though: The operator. I can have the fastest, most efficient system in the world but if my work habits aren’t so great, then better tools don’t make me more productive.


    Comment by Carolyn — July 29, 2013 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  3. Another aspect of keeping equipment up to date is having a backup – not just a way to backup and save files, but a backup computer. I’ve ended up with two laptops; I got one originally to use when traveling, so I can keep up with work and messages while out of town, and bought the second one when the first one got spilled on and looked like it might not survive. It did, but the new one is lighter and faster, so I kept the first one in case anything should happen to the newer one. Either one involved a substantial expense (luckily at times when the funds were available to pay cash) and both have more than earned their keep.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 29, 2013 @ 8:57 am | Reply

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