Time to buy a new computer -- but why?

To the dismay of PC makers, the old knee-jerk desktop upgrade has lost its allure.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published April 23, 2001 6:00PM (EDT)

Every three or four years a little alarm bell goes off in my cerebellum: Time to buy a new computer.

I'm fully aware that this alarm's existence demonstrates that my brain has been colonized by high-tech marketing. And though I might take some solace in noting that at least my alarm doesn't go off every year or two, the way it would if I really believed the hype, the fact of my indoctrination is unavoidable. More megahertz! More gigabytes! Cheaper every year! What a steal!

This year, though, when the alarm went off, something strange happened: I woke up, took a look around at both my current computer of choice and the possible replacements, hit the snooze alarm and went back to sleep. Maybe next year.

Multiply my lack of purchasing enthusiasm by the millions and you have a recipe for the kind of inventory backlog and industry slowdown that's hit the entire computer industry this year like, well, a Bengali typhoon. Last week industry research firm Gartner Dataquest reported that the U.S. PC market actually contracted by 3.5 percent in the first quarter of this year.

New-economy theorists hypothesized that the upward curve of technological innovation and the inexorable logic of Moore's Law would consign the old business cycle to history's ash heap. But the personal computer industry has always been enslaved to its own unique cycle: There's a periodic lag between the amount of computing power the industry can pump into users' hands and the number of useful things the software industry can devise for us to do that actually require an investment in that kind of power.

So even though that watchdog of digital consumerism, the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, has announced that "this is a great time to buy a PC" -- and thanks to recent price cuts by inventory-overloaded manufacturers and resellers, I'm sure he's right -- I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out why I should bother.

Let's look at the reasons people buy new PCs:

1. They don't already have one. With well over half the households in the United States now owning at least one computer, this reason, while still occasionally relevant, drives less and less purchasing.

2. The one they have doesn't work anymore. It's true -- over time PCs (particularly those that have suffered through operating-system upgrades) sometimes get so gummed up with multiple installations of software and corrupted system files and such that they just stop working right. And the hapless consumer realizes that for the money and time he could spend trying to fix the damn thing, he could probably buy a snazzier new computer. This used to be a surprisingly common occurrence, but Microsoft has gradually improved Windows over the years so that even the most wretchedly decayed PC today usually manages to limp along rather than going totally kaput.

3. Their old computer's hard disk has filled up. Each generation of software expands to fill the newer, bigger hard drives available. So if you've got an older computer that you keep cramming new software onto, you will eventually run out of space. (And then of course there are those 10,000 MP3 files you downloaded from Napster.) Sure, you could clean out your directories, or move the files to some other storage medium, or fuss with installing a new drive in your old box -- but it's easier to just take the 10 gigabytes from your old computer and dump them into your brand-new computer, whose 40-gigabyte drive will hardly feel what hit it. While I bet there are more computer purchasers out there who buy for this reason than you'd think, they are going to be reluctant to admit it, and they're going to feel guilty afterward: It just seems wasteful and self-indulgent -- like buying an SUV because you don't feel like changing the oil in your subcompact.

4. Their old computer isn't capable of doing something they desperately want to do. This is the industry's classic "killer app" scenario, in which the technological demands of some vital new business or consumer application drive massive new purchasing of hardware. The last "killer app" with any kind of legs was the Internet itself, and the cheapest PC on the market today can do a decent job of delivering the bounties of the Net to users. But if there's another "killer app" out there, Silicon Valley hasn't found it yet -- not even after the most extraordinary burst of venture capital investment in history.

5. Their old computer isn't as cool-looking/fast/capacious as the one they see in the ads. This rationale -- long a sales strategy for a computer industry that has refined planned obsolescence to high art -- is increasingly the only one PC makers can count on to fuel sales. Though Apple has had considerable success peddling cool looks as reason enough to open your wallet, most computer companies are still desperately pumping out spec sheets and number-laden ads to try to stoke our interest.

Today an increasingly vocal corps of high-tech consumer columnists works overtime to dispel common misconceptions about computer power -- like the understandable but unfounded assumption that your 1.2 gigahertz Athlon or your 1.5 gigahertz Pentium 4 processor must automatically make your new computer four or five times faster than your old 300 megahertz Pentium II. But these public information efforts struggle against a torrent of marketing dollars and a now-entrenched belief in the unstoppable march of computing progress that every year -- hell, every month -- brings you more for less.

But more of what? No question, if you buy a computer today you will get a speedier processor, more memory, more storage space and pretty much more of everything for less money than you'd have paid one or two or three years ago for a comparably loaded system. Still, even if you don't fully understand the specs game and believe that gigahertz are next to godliness -- in other words, even if, pardon me, you are a sucker -- you're likely to sit back and ask, So what? What am I supposed to do with that processor power?

Most personal computing today is Internet computing. And even those of us who have hooked up to the Internet at home via high-speed DSL or cable-modem connections understand that there's not a whole lot a faster computer can do to speed or otherwise enable e-mail and Web pages -- and even downloading or streaming audio and video files.

Sure, the usual caveats apply: If you're a gaming freak the game companies will always be happy to give you an excuse for purchasing a new computer by developing software with exorbitant hardware requirements. If you're a home-video maker then you can use all the power Moore's Law endows you with -- and even buying a new PC every year or two may feel like a bargain, compared with the cost of high-end digital video hardware.

That leaves the rest of us. At the moment, the computer industry is still searching in vain for a good excuse to sell us computers. Gigaboffo processors! DVDs! Anyone for Firewire? Er, maybe you'd like a subwoofer thrown in?

But if we want to watch DVDs, there's no sense buying a new computer -- it's a lot cheaper to just buy a DVD player and plug it into our TVs. If we want convenience, we're more likely to invest in a PalmPilot or some other kind of personal-digital-assistant gadget. We may finally be waking up to the fact that, for most of us, our computers are already far more powerful than we need.

It's no coincidence that the last couple of years have seen a mini-explosion of "distributed computing" projects, like the popular SETI@Home venture, which lets you donate your computer's spare time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Or that some innovative start-ups are trying to spark a market in unused CPU cycles.

Look, I'm as glad to contribute to the discovery of alien life forms as any "Star Trek" fan. It just doesn't seem like a very good reason to spring a grand or two for a whole new computer.

In fact, I don't see any good reasons right now. The computer biz runs in cycles, and no doubt next year or the year after this, too, will pass. But right now, that "buy a new computer" alarm can just buzz off.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------