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The New Economics of Cool

There was a very funny article by Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal this morning, about a very stylish New Yorker who converted his entire family to Macs years ago because, well, they were cool. This is easy to do when you have a good job and you know your co-op will continue to appreciate at the rate of 30% a year forever. However, now that Big Media is reminding us every day that we are being crushed under the worst Depression in world history, even the cool people are buying Windows machines because the cost of cool may far outweigh its benefits.

(By the way, although Dan looks cool–click to his Web site–he is actually a highly insightful writer who could make his reputation by puncturing cool culture as his writer’s mission. Read his stuff. I think he should start by buying a suit and getting a professional publicity photo taken. At least he hasn’t shaved his head, which the majority of cool guys do, especially once they start to go bald.)

There’s nothing wrong with Macs apart from the fact that they cost too much. I have some technical quibbles about the UI–using a one-button mouse was a hideous mistake, founded in Jobs’ condescending view that All Users Are Idiots–but it’s a very solid, well-engineered box, basically a Unix system that has been beaten about the head until it learned some manners. But that’s not why people buy them, and once The New Austerity goes mainstream, either their prices will come down or they will become the next NeXT.

MAKE Magazine regularly runs articles about making furniture out of old cardboard boxes. Odd, though, that I rarely hear anybody say that used computers work just as well as new computers–better, actually, when the new runs Vista and the old runs XP.

And cheap. You want cheap? On eBay right now as I write this, there’s a used 2.8 GHz Dell SX270 with 1 GB of RAM, a keyboard, and a mouse. Starting bid is $89.95, the auction expires in an hour, and there are no bids. I can tell you from personal experience that this is a very good machine, because I have one almost exactly like it in our condo in Des Plaines, and I very happily lay out books on it and process graphics. Add an SX270 Windows install CD (which may cost you $30) and a monitor (which you may already have) and for under $200 you have a machine that is built like a tank and will do anything you need to do. The install CD is BIOS-locked to the model (not the individual machine) and you don’t have to activate it. The only thing it won’t do is be cool.

Interestingly, there are pockets of coolness in the free software world, as I’ve discovered as I’ve kicked into high gear revising my assembly language book to be all-Linux. The cool index of Karsten “Rasterman” Heitzler’s Enlightenment desktop manager is off the charts, and Raster’s been working on it for 12 years now. He himself is one of the coolest geeks I’ve ever met, and he does it without any condescension or venom. (I’ve spoken with him in person on several occasions, though it’s been awhile.) How well it works I won’t know until I try it, but that’s a separate issue. The cool is there. Few people know about it because cool is a proxy for status, and status is a proxy for money. If it doesn’t cost money, and if just anybody can get it, then in our culture it’s almost by definition not cool.

This may change. It may change in weird ways, too. It’s currently cool to live in Manhattan, but once companies move most New York jobs to Iowa, Iowa may have to become cooler. Pockets of uncool places are sometimes cool, like Boulder and Austin, but such cool places are so expensive that they may eventually share New York’s fate. You can buy a three-bedroom bungalow outside of Ogallala, Nebraska for 10% of what a similar house would cost in Santa Cruz, and you’d be closer to the beach than much of Santa Cruz. (It’s a way better beach, too.)

Jobs will eventually follow affordable housing. Are you too cool to live in Nebraska? Heh. We’ll see.


  1. Erbo says:

    Macs may only come with a one-button mouse, but if you plug a multi-button USB mouse into one, the OS knows how to use those extra buttons. But the standard Apple mice won’t be including extra buttons anytime soon, I don’t think.

    Used computers work even better when you put Linux on them. I recently refurbished an old Athlon mini-tower system with a 500 Gb hard drive, loaded CentOS 4.2 (a free clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux) on it, and set it up as a new file server and intranet system on our network. Just the thing to have if I’m doing more PHP work…

  2. Kevin says:

    I ran my last computer for over 5 years, and I do a lot of graphics work. It got so gunked up that I was looking at a total system reinstall. I figured if I was going to do that, I might as well do it on a new machine. I built a new box myself so I could have exactly what I wanted and got a killer machine for $500 bucks that should last me another 5 years.

    Although I’ve never done it myself, I’ve seen some pretty cool case mods that would make any windows box the envy of a mac user.

    Maybe I’m totally off base, but Windows machines to me are like Ford pickups, while Macs are like Priuses.

  3. Darrin Chandler says:

    Old computers do work well. I’m writing this from a 400MHz Sun Ultra 5 with 256MB RAM. Firefox is a bit sluggish, but that’s to be expected. Otherwise it does fine as a development machine and general purpose workstation. I’m running OpenBSD, which works very well.

    As for Enlightenment, it was cool and cutting edge in the 90s. When I first tried it it was impressive, fast, and just looked so danged nice. Since then it’s evolved into something permanently a few steps away of being revolutionary, and the promise of revolution just around the corner, for many years, has kept it from being worthwhile NOW. Yawn.

    Macs… I’m no fan of the one button mouse idea, but it’s simply not a show stopper. And the iMac I use at work has an Apple mouse with left AND right buttons, plus a wheel that’s not a wheel but a tiny trackball so I can scroll horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. I bought Macbooks for my daughter for college, my wife, and myself. It certainly wasn’t for the Mac coolness. It was a practical matter of ease of use and the “It Just Works” factor. I spend a LOT less time playing IT support at home than I used to do. The price difference isn’t so big if you compare, er, apples to apples, and take support into account.

    I suspect more people than you think like Macs because of the UNIX aspects. At least computer people. Attending some Ruby on Rails user group meetings, for instance, I see a LOT of Macbooks, and people are using the command line a lot. And I mean a LOT. They get the pretty hardware, a GUI by the company that brought GUI to the mainstream (and still does it better), and they can do whatever the Linux geeks are doing.

  4. Rich Dailey, N8UX says:

    Economical computing power has always been cool in my book. My new Dell/Ubuntu combo that I recently purchased was my first truly *new* computer. Everything else has been donated to me, or cobbled from donated/swapfest parts. That sx-270 is a looker. i was in a 200 seat call center a couple weeks ago that used those (or a similar model). The PCs were tie-wrapped to the back of the LCD displays.


  5. I bought three Dell SX-260 machines via E-bay for around $200 each, including keyboard, mouse and Windows XP restoration disks. I also increased the RAM to 2 GB. They are nice machines and I like them a great deal. Very quiet and a small footprint.

    The one drawback on the 260, and I believe it also applies to the 270, is that Dell skimped on the video — the video circuit does not have dedicated memory but rather grabs 32 MB from the main memory. This means that graphics intensive programs are quite a bit slower than on machines with dedicated graphics memory as graphic memory access is shuffled through the CPU. (These machines do not have expansion slots, so you can’t substitute a different graphics card.)

    In my case, the graphics problem shows up when running programs for the Softrock type receivers, where the computer does heavy duty DSP work and fast screen updates for a spectrum analyzer type display. Some programs grab nearly 100% of CPU resources on my 260 but only 10-15% on a Dell laptop with separate video memory. I’ve written about the Softrock and SX260 CPU issues at

    I understand the difference between the SX260 and 270 as relating only to how the video monitor connects. The 260 has a conventional VGA analog output. The 270 has a digital video output. From what I can tell, without owning a 270, the video memory configuration is identical between the two models.

    In normal web browsing or word processing use, you never notice the graphics compromise. I’m not a computer game player, so I can’t comment on graphics performance when running games.

    Jack K8ZOA

  6. bcl says:

    I’m a converted Mac user. Coming from the Linux world it is a breath of fresh air to have a Unix system that ‘JustWorks’ and has a viable software marketplace.

    Mac’s are more than some rich kid’s cool toy. They are well engineered, solid computing systems that last far longer than most PC based systems. Compare the engineering of a MacBook to a Dell. They are in a whole different universe with their solid construction, well fitting parts and long battery life.

    As for price, Macs are not that much more expensive than a comparable PC systems. I’m typing this on a 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook with 4G of RAM. I paid about $1100 for it last March as a Refurbished Apple product with full Warranty.

    As for the 1-button mouse red herring, I don’t think Apple makes a 1-button mouse anymore. On the desktop you have the Mighty Mouse, and on the MacBook you have the 2 finger tap for right select.

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