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The Multiple Computer Household

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 2008 Issue
November 3, 2008

The Multiple Computer Household

With five computers, I used to think my wife and I were unusual. We were at one time, I’m certain, but now I am finding “normal” households with even more computers.

A college professor I know had three systems for herself, one for her two children, and two for her husband. Eventually, she said with some resignation, she’ll have two teenagers and each son will want his own system.

How did this happen? It was one thing to have two kids, two cars, and two televisions. Now, we have three, four, or even five computers in a house. A September 2008 report by IDC, a technology consulting firm, suggests we should count computers per individual instead of systems per household. The average “Internet savvy” household has 3.11 computers and 2.25 people, one survey found.

We hate to part with computers that still work. Recycling a computer generally means giving it to a relative or friend. You can only give away so many systems until you end up keeping some of the older hardware. This is how my wife and I ended up with a semi-retired computer in our utility / hobby area — near the ironing board and the soothing sounds of a washer and dryer.

As strange as it sounds, you can check your e-mail while waiting for the rinse cycle to end. I’ve also checked sports scores while I was waiting for the iron to warm. My father always had a radio in his hobby area, while I have a computer.

We keep filing cabinets with old papers near the utility area. This means we can use the old computer, via our home network, to verify business, medical, and school data located on another computer in our office. Before having a computer in the utility area, we’d have to retrieve an old-fashioned hanging file folder and walk upstairs. Imagine the time we’re saving. Okay, probably next to none, but it sure feels efficient.

This “downstairs” computer was manufactured in 2002. It was our primary computer until this September. Over the years, I added memory and a new hard drive to the system. But, it finally reached a point when it could not run the latest and greatest software. The amazing thing is that according to our records we spent less than $500 over the last six years upgrading and maintaining the system. Including the purchase price, $1499, that’s $2000 for 7 years of work. For under $25 a month, that computer proved its value.

Heck, I just paid $1000 for “regularly scheduled” maintenance on a Jeep. It costs me a lot more than $25 a week and doesn’t help with the taxes, store family recipes, or surf the Web.

Replacing our retired friend is a new system with a 24-inch LCD monitor and all the latest features. I expect we might eventually add memory, but memory is a lot cheaper today than it was just four or five years ago. Cheap upgrades will keep this system running for another six to seven years.

The new system is already home to our household finances, genealogy data, recipes, and homework assignments. The system will earn its keep because without it neither of us could complete our graduate degrees. Design software my wife uses for her master’s courses and the statistical software I needed for my doctoral project each wanted (demanded) a newer computer.

If the software hadn’t required a new computer, we probably would have delayed upgrading at least another year. It was a generational shift, forced onto us by Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) and Adobe Creative Suite. Our old friend just couldn’t keep up anymore. New software seems to reveal the limits of old computers.

But that leaves three computers. Incredibly enough, I can explain why we have them.

With both of us doing homework and some freelance writing, two home systems meant we didn’t have to compete for computer time. Also, my little home office system makes use of an old keyboard and monitor we had retained from systems passed along to relatives. And I do mean “little” system. It’s a Mac mini, about the size of a textbook.

I keep my “fun money” accounting on the system along with my personal and business e-mail. My home system is where I store anything I wouldn’t want in the hands of a stranger. I would never put accounting information on a laptop computer. I’m just too paranoid to risk having personal data stolen.

Also, my wife has a rule about games and the “serious” computer. You can guess what the rule is: the office computer is not a toy. My card games, classic board games, and other amusements are on the Mac mini. I admit to a solitaire and chess addiction, fed between grading papers and writing my dissertation.

This leaves the two notebook computers.

My original PowerBook is now my wife’s “note taking” computer. It is a small, 12-inch computer that travels well to the university with her. It’s nearly five years old. Again, memory has been added and a larger hard drive installed. A laptop is almost essential for a graduate student, and this computer has now served both of us well.

Last year, I received a technology grant in return for research I conducted. Buying a second laptop was like getting a second car — we could each take one to work or school. So, we now have five computers.

The professor I mentioned at the start of this column has a similar story. A top-notch system is great, and even necessary to her work in digital media, but she can’t take a monstrous tower to class. Instead, she has a super-portable Sony that goes to class and on trips. And, like us, she couldn’t part with a loyal friend, an old tower she had used to edit audio and videotapes. You never know when someone might ask her to convert a VHS tape to DVD.

It seems we are now in the era of the multiple computer household. I guess it was only a matter time until there were more computers than people in our homes.

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