Cheap Laptops: Not Worth the Hassle

Buying a laptop that lasts over three years may mean spending a little more up front.

Matt Mets - Computer on Fire

A couple of years back, I was helping my parents choose a new laptop. Their one criterion was:

  • Sub $500 machine

Right there, you can see an issue. When making a large purchase, price should never be the sole determinant. There are other elements, such as reliability or speed that depending on your use case should be considered.

Needless to say, they picked up a random HP Pavilion something or other at Costco, and over the past two years, this machine has been more of a nuisance than anything else.

So far:

  • Failed battery, out of warranty, which no longer charges
  • Hard drive which is throwing errors when checked with Crystal Disk, also out of warranty

Ultimately, to save a couple hundred bucks on a computer they ended up paying more than that, in terms of cost of replacement parts and technical support time (even if they weren’t directly charged for the latter). They would have been much better served buying a higher end, more rugged machine. A Lenovo ThinkPad, or any business class laptop, really would have been much better purchases. When you put price over all else as your key purchasing determinant, your future self may be the one footing the bill. You pay less upfront, but over the long run, you’re no further ahead.

In replacement part costs, the HP Pavilion is now on par with my nine year old desktop. For a machine that is largely used for e-mail and browsing the internet, that is entirely unacceptable. If you use something daily, it might be worth considering spending more in that area. Be it shoes, a bed, a computer chair or even your laptop.

I’m not advocating consumerism, or hedonistic purchasing. Those are largely wasteful and don’t necessarily lead to increased long-term satisfaction. What I’m saying is, sometimes you have to spend a bit more to make sure you get your money’s worth.

Make your money work for you, don’t buy junk, and save the family computer technician a headache or two, or three!

Resources:

If you’re looking for a laptop, here are some useful resources:

Laptop Magazine’s Best Business Laptops

PC Magazine’s Best Business Laptops of 2017

The Wirecutter – What Laptop Should I Buy

Header image by Matt Mets – Computer on Fire // CC by 2.0

Build a Computer that Lasts: 9 Years Strong

Build a quality computer that can last you a decade. Do your research and spend your money where it matters most.

Taryn Domingos - Old School

In the age of disposable electronics, it is absolutely still possible to build a computer that you won’t have to replace every five years. I’m fairly money conscious, so making what I buy last is important. A dollar saved is a dollar earned and all that. I don’t enjoy buying things for the sake of buying things, only to have to replace them a few years later. Money earned is much better spent elsewhere, as much as I do enjoy playing with new toys. Be it my retired car, my computer, or even my bicycle that’s generally been my philosophy. Do your research, buy quality within reason, maintain it, and you’ll get your money’s worth. This is absolutely how my old car lasted nearly 18 years, despite Quebec’s salty roads and aggressive drivers.

Nine years ago, a few friends and I got together to assemble the very computer I still use daily when not working. I’ve had to replace only two components due to failure, including a hard drive and a power supply in nine years. It still runs just fine. How is a computer quite this old still useful for fairly intensive computing?

Key Areas to Focus your Money:

1) The CPU (processor): this piece can easily be replaced, though the likelihood that you’ll actually replace it is fairly low. Buy a proven performer that is well liked in the overclocking community, even if you never plan to overclock.

I picked up an Intel Q6600 which was well liked in the enthusiast community (released back in 2007). It wasn’t the cheapest option, but it still performs well today and I see no reason to upgrade. Last generation games still work just fine. Good old patient gaming I guess.

2) The motherboard: spend a little more on a quality motherboard. Don’t skimp here – this is not something you want to have to replace. Buy a quality, name brand, well reviewed motherboard that meets your needs. Do not buy the lowest cost option, unless you fancy the idea of gutting your computer to replace this eventually. I never wanted to deal with this possibility, did a ton of research, and got a motherboard that was about $50 bucks more expensive than other options. Divide that across nine years, and yeah, it was totally worth it. Rest in peace, ABIT, may my motherboard continue well beyond the end of your company. These days, this probably means looking at a board produced by Asus, Gigabyte or MSI.

3) The power supply: yes, my power supply absolutely failed spectacularly with an audible pop. However, when it went, it didn’t damage any other components in my machine. A quality power supply is an investment in the other bits of your machine and can help prevent them from premature failure or damage.

Closing Thoughts

The rest of the bits, such as memory or videocard are arguably less important to strategize over. I got a mid-range graphics card that I eventually replaced when a co-worker was selling his “old” card a few years ago. I paid $20 bucks to upgrade my mid-range graphics card to something far more modern and far more powerful. I paid about $100 for an SSD (Solid State Drive) which improved the overall feel of the machine. At those prices, why not?

Occasionally, I get the upgrade bug, but reason takes over. I’ve spent under $250 in replacement parts over the last nine years, for bits which actually broke down, which I think is pretty decent (under $28 bucks a year). I definitely haven’t had to spend $1,200 Canadian to assemble a brand new machine, harvesting old computer parts like something out of Frankenstein. I think that’s great value for my money.

Buy quality, do your research and spend your money where it matters most.

Useful Resources:

PC Part Picker Canada: Great resource when researching computer components, includes user ratings and pricing on parts, as well as suggested builds.

Reddit’s Build a PC Subreddit: Great place to see what other people are building, read feedback on suggested builds and get some advice.

Header image by Taryn Domingos – Old School / CC by 2.0

Job Satisfaction: Five Controllable Elements

Increase the likelihood you’ll enjoy going in to work each day.

Sean MacEntee - Work

I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about job satisfaction, given to a degree, it is something each of us can control. It’s important to know how to create a working environment where you’re happy, because your contentment or lack thereof, spills over into other areas of your life. Of course, if you’re underpaid, underemployed, or for any reason have an intolerable job, there’s only so much you can do.

Thinking back to my business school days, one specific employee motivation theory sticks in my mind, over a decade later:

  • Effort leads to performance: You are capable of doing the work, and applying yourself leads to successful completion of a work unit.
  • Performance leads to outcomes: Successfully doing your job leads to outcomes that you value, such as to recognition, pay bonuses, successfully solving a challenging problem and so forth.
  • Outcomes are valued: The outcomes you receive are important to you, in that they meet some need. This will be specific to you, and what you need out of your job.

If each of the three bits is true, you’re far more likely to be motivated by and enjoy the work that you do. If even one of these elements is false, you’re unlikely to enjoy your job.

There’s a ton of interesting management material on the subject, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs onward. In my experience, there are generally five elements you can take control of, to increase the likelihood that you’ll be happy at work.

Here goes:

Have challenging work: if you’re always flying on autopilot and not solving new problems your job will become boring. If you’re bored, chances are you aren’t going to be happy with the work you’re doing. If you’re bored, do something about it!

Have work that keeps you engaged: be involved in your work, and work environment, solve problems, take on new challenges. If you aren’t actively engaged in your work life, you won’t get much out of it. Sometimes, your job can be what you make of it. At my happiest, at work, I was juggling a couple of projects. This added work variety and kept me involved in the work that I was doing.

Like or at least get along with the people you work with: you will spend way more time with the people you work with than with your own friends and family. Make an effort to get to know, and get along with your coworkers. It makes even the most stressful of jobs way more tolerable. Do not skip social events – even if you’re an introvert, these are really important in getting to know your co-workers.

Have purpose: making a buck is not enough to keep you focused on your work. If you’re living pay period to pay period, sure, that’s absolutely your focus. However, if that’s not the case, money alone isn’t going keep you happy. In my case, I focus on what my work gives to other people. By focusing on creating solutions that make peoples’ jobs easier, and will hopefully remain in use for years, I get something out of the work that I do. Yes, this is totally possible, even in information management.

Manage your commute: If you’re spending huge portions of your day, say an hour or more in either direction, getting to and from work, consider that this may be having negative impacts on your enjoyment of your job. Your time commuting is worth something. Switching to bike commuting, back in my Ottawa days, dramatically increased my job satisfaction, without increasing my commute time by very much. If that’s not possible, consider whether you can move closer to your job. There are a bunch of studies that indicate that your commute has a powerful impact on job satisfaction.

In case you’d like to read more on the the impact your daily commute can have, I’ve included a few links:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/12/07/want-to-be-happier-change-your-commute-or-change-your-attitude/#5b6970225a73

https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/feb/12/how-does-commuting-affect-wellbeing

http://time.com/9912/10-things-your-commute-does-to-your-body/

Header image by Sean MacEntee: Work // CC by 2.0

Computer Won’t Boot Post Blackout? Try this.

Things to try, if following a power failure, your computer will no longer start normally.

aAdy Satria Herzegovina - Lego Computer

With the frigid temperatures in Canada’s prairies, and increased power grid demands, we’ve been experiencing power outages which last between five to fifteen minutes. One such blackout knocked my computer offline, and subsequently prevented it from booting up. It would power on, the fans would whir, but the computer would hang at the BIOS screen, without the customary beep. Effectively, the light was on, but nobody was home.

At first I celebrated, somewhat strangely I suppose, given I’ve been looking for an excuse to replace my eight year old machine (an Intel Q6600 from prehistoric times). However, frugality soon took over and I decided to try and fix it. I did build the thing after all, so I figured, why the heck not? It took about two rather frustrating hours to get running again, that I’ll never get back. C’est la vie. However, if I consider that I saved 600 – 800 bucks, by not having to buy a whole new machine, I suppose that was time well spent. My hourly pay is definitely not that high.

I managed to fix the issues through a combination of investigation and voodoo. Well, it felt like voodoo to me. Here’s what I did:

1) Unplug the computer from the wall, and turn the power supply to the off position. My goal was effectively to discharge the motherboard capacitors, incase there was any weird buildup. How’s that for  a scientific explanation?

2) Reset the CMOS (BIOS data). In my case, the power outage had actually corrupted the BIOS data, which loads prior to your computer booting into an operating system. I did this by opening the case and removing the CMOS battery (it looks like a large watch battery). I waited a couple of seconds, then replaced it.

How did I know to try this? My computer has a fancy motherboard LED indicator which shows you boot and error codes. I cross referenced the code it was throwing against the manual, which mentioned CMOS/BIOS issues. A shame ABIT no longer makes motherboards.

After doing all this, I put the computer back together and tried powering it on. This introduced another issue, where the computer was no longer outputting video. I was able to fix this issue doing the following:

1) The ram dance: Basically, unsocket your ram, remove any dust in the sockets, and replace your ram. Usually this involves actually moving ram to other sockets, but in this case, given I had a known working ram configuration, I skipped that bit.

2) Disconnect and reconnect connections from the power supply to the motherboard. Clear out the dust in the sockets and replace the cables. I can’t explain why this would make a difference, but this was the last step I took before things magically started working again. More voodoo.

3) If the above fails, try booting with less devices connected to the power supply. Try booting with only your C drive connected to a power source, for instance. This can help rule out specific hardware failure, interfering with the boot process.

Finally, you will need to reset your BIOS settings to whatever you had configured before the outage. Taking out the CMOS battery will effectively lose all your boot settings. So much for replacing my eight year old machine!

To avoid this scenario in the future, I’m going to spend the big money and buy an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). It seems worth the piece of mind, when using your computer on a somewhat unpredictable power system. With a UPS, I can safely power down the machine, instead of letting it forcefully turn off. No more worrying that a power outage may fry my computer hardware. It’s a much cheaper solution then replacing bits that are damaged due to power surges or voltage drops.

Header image by Ady Satria Herzegovina // CC0

Canadian Personal Finance Blogs, Books, Videos and Podcasts

Great resources to start learning about Canadian Personal Finance. Blogs, books, podcasts and videos.

Sean MacEntee - Education

There are a ton of resources available to help you learn about investing in Canada. It can be tricky to separate the good from the bad with limited time, so I’ve put together a list that should be a great starting point.

Blogs

Canadian Couch Potato: a site authored by Dan Bortolotti, a financial planner and writer for MoneySense magazine. He’s an outspoken proponent of index investing in Canada. The idea behind the couch potato portfolio is, set-up index investments, adjust periodically, sit back and watch your investments appreciate over time. Dan also has a great podcast which I highly recommend.

CanadianCapitalist: this site isn’t quite updated as much as it once was, but is still a great resource for Canadian investors interested in personal finance and index investing.

Books

I could suggest books that are hundreds of pages long and densely packed with material and personal finance philosophy. There are some really good, really deep reads. However, I’m not going to do that. Most people have neither the attention nor the interest. Instead, just read these two short books on finance:

Bogle - Common Sense InvestingJohn Bogle – The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns 

John Bogle, founder of Vanguard, created the world’s first index fund. If you want to understand index investing, and why it can work, in simple language that you don’t need a business degree to decode, make this your first stop. It’s 240 pages with fairly large print.

Hallam - Millionaire TeacherAndrew Hallam – Millionaire Teacher

Andrew Hallam set out with the goal of writing a personal finance book targeted towards teachers. The book is written in extremely understandable language, structured rather well and provides a ton of useful, straightforward personal finance information. The book ranges from constructing an index portfolio, to behavioural pitfalls in investing. He also has specific information for Canadians, which is a nice touch. The second edition is 256 pages, with graphs.

Podcasts

CanadianCouchPotato: this is by far, the most informative Canadian personal finance podcast to date. Yeah, I’m a bit of a fan. I’ve been following the blog for years, and the podcast hits all the points. If you have time to check out just one podcast, make it this. The podcast is split into a few sections: general Canadian personal finance issues, reader questions and bad investment advice. This last segment, in specific, is amusing and informative in equal parts. They just released their third episode, so it shouldn’t take all that long to catch up.

Mostly Money Mostly Canadian with Preet Banerjee: Preet is a Canadian personal finance consultant and writes for publications including The Globe and Mail as well as MoneySense. His podcast is less succinct than CanadianCouchPotato, and less focused on index investing. However, he has interesting expert interviews and segments which are worth a listen, if you have the time.

YouTube/Videos

Lars Kroijer – Investing Demystified: Lars Kroijer, a former hedge fund manager, put out a series of five short videos discussing how to invest, if you can’t hope to beat the market. They’re well produced, well written and easy to understand. Lars talks about a two fund solution, a world index fund and a bond fund, which simplifies index investing.

Do-it-Yourself Investing with Justin Bender: If you’re interested in ETF investing in Canada, Justin will show you how to get started, with major discount brokerage platforms in Canada (including: TD Direct Investing, BMO Investorline, CIBC Investor’s Edge, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTrade and National Bank Direct Brokerage).

Bonus: Reddit

Reddit also has a great community under the PersonalFinanceCanada subreddit. I follow it pretty regularly and haven’t been disappointed.

Summary

There are a wide variety of ways you can get informed on managing your Canadian personal finances. With the internet, it’s easier than ever before, even if you aren’t a book reader (though I would suggest checking out those two titles – they’re a solid investment in your future).

Header image by Sean MacEntee – Education // CC by 2.0

Managing Your Investments: Self-Surgery?

Can you really manage your own investments, or should you just leave it to the experts?

Andreas Poike - Stock Market Quotes

In a comment to my recent post, one interesting response I got, was that with a larger portfolio, you might not want to take the risk of managing your own money. Leave it to the experts, the argument went, who are better qualified and have your best interests at heart. I would partly agree: there are absolutely qualified people who help (SteadyHand comes to mind), the problem is, how do you distinguish them from salespeople who are just out to make money off your hard earned cash?

This is effectively an argument, at its heart, that you should trust experts, because well, they’re experts. I’ve spent enough time around experts of various sorts to in general say, that they’re just people like you and I who are completely fallible, subject to biases and yes, conflicts of interest.

So what’s a guy (or gal) to do?

Educate Yourself

Even if, in the end, you don’t want to manage your own money, by understanding how things work in the general, you’ll know whether the expert’s advice actually makes sense. I had an investment plan created by our lovely Canadian green bank a couple of years ago, after having managed my own investments for quite a while. The plan looked good on paper, including tons of information which actually made it confusing, but the plan increased my fund holding from four low cost index funds to fifteen high cost mutual funds. It all sounded very impressive, and were I not self-educating on personal finance, I might have gone along with it. The problem? The fees were upwards of two percent. Meaning, to keep up with the market, their fancy portfolio would have to outperform by on average, 2 percent. Highly unlikely. One of the key elements to successful long term investing is keeping costs down.

Find a Fee Based Advisor

If you don’t understand how an advisor is being paid, ask. Some of the best advisors charge a flat fee for their advice. Yes, we are talking hundreds of dollars here. However, by paying them for advice in this way, they aren’t necessarily compensated by commission on the funds they suggest, avoiding that specific conflict of interest.

Don’t Buy the Argument from Fear

Oh you can’t conceivably figure all this out. There are really smart people who spend years learning the market! Why bother? The answer to this is simple: you can get the average market return. The really smart people who manage things like hedge funds? They’re trying to *beat* the market. You absolutely should not be doing that.

About ten years ago, I met with a snazzy sounding insurance/investment firm. They put together client portfolios, bundling investments and insurance. The crux of their argument went as follows:

“Sydney, what part of your body could you not do without?”

At first, I thought, what the hell? What that specific insurance broker was doing, was making an argument to emotion, or fear, in the hopes of selling insurance. Sure, I might one day lose a hand. How high was that probability though, really? Needless to say, following that, as a rule, I tend not to trust insurance brokers where investments are concerned. In making commission on selling insurance, they were driven to sell specific insurance products, which in my early 20’s, I definitely didn’t need.

Summary

By educating yourself, finding an advisor who has your best interests at heart, and not falling to fear based arguments, can you be more likely to be a successful investor. To me, success means retiring comfortably. Avoiding that old age cat food meal is what it’s about. I once thought I wasn’t capable of repairing my own bike. Who knew, that once you spent the time to figure it out, it wasn’t really all that daunting?

You don’t need to manage your own investments to follow a logical investment strategy. Sure the do-it-yourself approach of buying and selling mutual index funds, or index ETFs may not be for everyone. I would argue however, that buying mutual funds, based on a set plan, is pretty simple. ETF’s less so. There are absolutely other options, like robo-advisors (see WealthSimple) that will do it for you, once you create a risk profile. The costs will be higher, when compared with a do-it-yourself approach, but that’s the price you pay for convenience. There’s also Tangerine, although with a market expense ratio of 1.07%, they are definitely not cheap. They’re probably at the higher end of what I’d pay.

Header image by Andreas Poike  // CC by 2.0