Buying a PC for Your Third-World Adventure

A reader of this blog asked “What PC should I buy that can survive the erratic electricity of a third-world residency?” The answer, of course, is “It depends how much you want to spend.” But having reliable computing in a less-developed setting need not break the bank.


You’re an average, modern computer user with professional (i.e., office), social, and personal computing needs preparing to reside outside a first-world power grid. You could be in the mountains of Columbia or Colorado, or, like me, at the end of a one-kilometer driveway. You need to be able to use your PC at any time, but not necessarily all the time. You have a budget.

My previous stories on this subject are here. Your problem is spotty power that can come and go at any moment, day or night, and be off for hours. Your collateral problem is poor power with spikes, low and high voltage, surges, and intermittent on/off cycles. These can and will destroy the unprotected PC power supply in short order.


The strategy is to put as much inexpensive stored electricity (i.e., batteries) in front of the computer’s power supply as practical. Duh! The easiest implementation is to use a laptop, which comes with a built-in battery. Modern laptops have hours of self-contained power while you wait for the power grid, backup generator, or tomorrow’s sun to renew your power supply.

Still easy but more expensive choices are a desktop all-in-one (such as an Apple iMac) or a regular desktop. In both the desktop cases cases, you’ll want an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which stores AC grid power in a battery and delivers it to your electronic devices.

With those assumptions and strategy in mind, here is a prioritized list of what to buy and why to buy it:

The Basics

  • A laptop. Commercial grade (e.g., Dell XPS) has higher build quality than consumer grade (e.g., Dell Inspiron). You get what you pay for. Consider: 17″ screen-size as desktop replacement; SSD for reliability and speed. Your choice: Windows, Mac, even Chromebook.
  • A high-quality surge protector to filter as much electrical grief as possible. Mandatory unless you use a UPS.
  • A bigger and/or backup laptop battery. Greater off-grid time. More efficient than a UPS. Lowest cost when bought bundled with a new laptop.

The Upgrades

  • A powerful UPS, where power is measured in volt-amps. Over 1,000VA is better. Below 500VA is probably pointless with a laptop. The UPS has receptacles for other electrical necessities, so it becomes your electrical hub. Also, all UPS systems have power quality circuitry so your PC will always get clean power. Also, PC applications and a USB connection to the UPS can automatically and safely shut any PC down before the UPS itself exhausts its batteries.
  • A portable hard drive storage device to back up your PC. If this were me, it would rank in the Basics as a “must have”. The portable hard drives require no electrical power beyond a USB cable. With electricity (from your UPS), there are faster/greater capacity options.
  • A USB 3.0 Hub for greater I/O connectivity. Your laptop or all-in-one will never have enough USB ports for the printers, backup storage, Bluetooth speakers, and mobile devices that need charging. Your choices are four or seven ports. Go with the powered seven-port hub. After all, everyone in your house (office) will want to leech off your clean power. Plan accordingly.

The Options

Here’s where the budget goes out the window, but your level of electricity paranoia is nobody else’s business:

  • A secondary monitor scales your laptop’s screen to desktop size or becomes a second screen with more real estate.
  • Backup generator sized to your home electricity load. Best purchased locally as you will require service eventually. Requires (clean) gasoline.
  • Solar power generator requires solar panels, an AC inverter, and distribution hub. It can have its own battery for storage or use the UPS already in our specs. The money problem is a 300-400 watt solar installation can easily cost as much or more than our laptop computing device.
  • The ultimate upgrade for this scenario is a Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid car with internal 7.4 kWh batteries, 2 AC power outlets, USB charging, and 12-volt power. You can also drive it. $31,770 and up.

Is a Tablet an Alternative?

A tablet or a laptop/tablet (i.e., a two-in-one) is worth considering. Portable, mobile, self-contained cellular network option. Some have a desktop operating system. The keyboard and mouse can use easily rechargeable AA batteries. Device operating life often exceeds eight hours. Rechargeable from a small solar panel. Connects to Bluetooth peripherals and to a video monitor/TV via an HDMI cable.

Minimalist computing dramatically simplifies backup power requirements.

Consolidated electronics such as a tablet connected to the LCD monitor also used as a TV makes planning easier and redundancy less necessary.

The Network

Getting on the Internet has its own set of problems and costs. You’ll need local knowledge to make cost-effective decisions.

Assuming a controllable data budget, the easiest Internet on-ramp is to use your smartphone as a hotspot and connect your laptop via Bluetooth. You won’t find unlimited data plans in the third world, so this approach needs careful usage-based planning.

A conventional desktop or laptop setup will require a network access device(s) to the cable, wireless broadband, or satellite network. Plan to power-protect these devices too by plugging them into your UPS. However, that limits PC placement to being close to the network access point.

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Note: the products linked in this blog post are not endorsed by the author. The author has no financial ties to any product mentioned in this blog post.


Two-In-One Tablet/Notebooks: Mirage or Miracle?

Intel’s sales and marketing senior executive Tom Kilroy said at Computex last week “The two-in-one concept is really going to be the new wave”, citing computers such as the Lenovo Yoga, which can be used as both a laptop, a tablet and in ‘tent’ mode with a viewing screen that stands up on its own, he said. “The days of carrying around a smartphone, a tablet, and a notebook are numbered – the discrete tablet as we know it will go by the wayside and the 2-in-1 will be the future. If you’re doing content creation it just doesn’t happen on the phone.”

We’re Heading in the Right Direction
I cannot agree more that the endpoint for all the phone, tablet, laptop/notebook convergence talk is fewer devices for most people. For one reason, cost alone prohibits many from affording three devices at a roughly $600 unsubsidized cost per device. The phone is most likely to stand alone because it is the most pocket-portable, and can do it all albeit in a tiny form factor. That leaves the battle between the tablet and laptop as the device most likely to morph dramatically this decade.

Many will settle on a converged laptop-tablet (laptab) that combines the media consumption strengths of the tablet with the data and media production strengths of the laptop/notebook. Such a laptab could do the jobs of both a laptop and a tablet with few if any compromises. Done right, the laptab will be the converged non-phone device.

Intel’s Haswell and Baytrail announcements on June 3rd set the stage for that company to rapidly become a much bigger player in the smartphone and laptop business, as well as setting the stage for Ultrabook laptops with convertible features. What’s changed with this latest generation of technology is much improved performance-per-watt, idle power, and battery life.

The mainstream laptop is now in the same ballpark as tablets with keyboards in baseline mobility and weight. Convertible laptops sans keyboards give up little to dedicated tablets in hardware. Tablets and laptops now both have adequate screen resolution, processor speed, memory and storage, and battery life for media consumption — the tablet’s tour de force.

However, while the industry is now headed in the direction of laptab convergence, I don’t think we are yet on course. As the old New England adage goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Let’s look more deeply at what a converged two-in-one should look like. We’d hate for the promise of convergence to be a mirage.

A Two-in-One Should Be Just That
Our qualitative market research shows consumers really do want one mobile device that can do the jobs now performed separately by laptops and tablets. As usual, the devil is in the details.

To the users in our research panels, converged really does mean “coming together” in hardware and software including apps. That’s not the public industry directional focus we’ve seen.

On laptops, users want to “run tablet apps on a productivity OS (like Windows or OS X). On smartphones and tablets, users want to “run productivity apps I am familiar with, and have access to my home and work data.” Queried further, users tell us they want a merged hardware feature-set  combining a tablet and laptop together with the ability to run their tablet apps on the laptop. (You gotta love non-technology users for wanting technology miracles. It’s what drives innovation.)

A converged laptab hardware set would include:

  • Processor, memory, storage, touch screen
  • All-day (and probably into the night) battery life
  • Keyboard, preferably removable for weight reasons
  • Tablet sensors: GPS, accelerometer, 1080p video/still camera
  • Radios: Bluetooth, WiFi, optional 3G/LTE cellular. NFC when retailers enables the NFC eCommerce market.

The heavy lift from these pesky consumers is in the software stack. They want to run tablet apps (e.g., Angry Birds) on a full operating system. For example, iOS apps on an OS X MacBook.

Importantly, they do not want to buy a second copy of an app (e.g., $4.99 Angry Birds for OS X) on a full operating system. “One app with one set of data” is what we heard, along with complaints about the intricacies of syncing. Now, we suggested to Apple execs five years ago this summer that running iOS apps on OS X was a good idea. They replied, “Yeah, we’ve heard that.” But not done anything about it.

So, consider consumers with jobs who need to stay compatible with applications and files they use at work. Think Microsoft Office. These folks can’t give up the laptop and its office-productivity OS for a consumption-oriented tablet in an either-or decision. Let’s call this the business laptab market.

Conversely, tablets are go-to devices for video watchers, Internet surfers, email and readers but few book writers or budget spreadsheet accountants. It’s the consume(r) market.

How the tech industry responds to the above specs for the two divergent markets will dictate the course and duration of converged laptab demand.

There are two positive signs we’ve noticed recently, both involving Intel. First, the company acquired ST-Ericsson’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS) business. That will bring GPS capabilities to Intel’s communications chip business, and hence to Intel mobile products like tablets and laptops. Second, the Silvermont architecture that includes the Baytrail tablet chip supports virtualization, so hypothetically Android could run along side Windows or iOS along side OS X. Just a  small matter of programming and licensing.

On the negative side, a number of products have been announced with dual-boot capabilities, especially Android and Windows. This plays to the “laptop converts to tablet” form of convertibles. However, our research says dual-boot is not the destination.

To watch laptab convergence play out, keep an eye on the three OS players: Microsoft Windows, Apple’s iOS and OS X, and Google. We view Google as a wild card because it could rather easily merge Chrome OS and Android with Google apps (but has said that won’t happen over the next two years.) The hardware industry really cannot deliver the converged laptab described above without the active support of the OS players.

Laptab users may want to think through their long-term options. Browser-based apps, especially those using HTML5 and the cloud, are quite interchangeable. The trend is towards cross-OS applications. Apple’s iWork office apps will soon run on iOS, OS X, and Windows. Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365 are available in the cloud. Microsoft just delivered Office for iPhone.

Summary Observations
The direction of laptab convergence we’ve seen to date is headed in the right direction, but the finish line is not in sight.

Real consumers with experience in tablets and laptops see the need to bring all the sensor and media hardware in tablets to laptops; convertible laptops with removable keyboards do not go far enough into the desired experience to replace and substitute for tablets.

The convergence miracle is a combined tablet and notebook OS software and user apps. The hardware to do this is now close at hand. But the willingness of the industry to push the software, licensing, and marketing investment is not apparent.

Thus, widespread laptab substitution for tablets and laptops is not in the foreseeable future. The market, especially the business laptab market, will remain additive.

Follow @peterskastner on Twitter

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga convertible laptop

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga convertible laptop

Computing in the Third World: A Success Story

I just got back from my third trip to Haiti, a third-world country hampered by numerous problems. Nevertheless, after two years in operation, our school installation is reporting 100% uptime. Careful planning on electrical infrastructure proved to be worth every penny.

The First Problem is Power

Funny how AC power, which in the U.S. we take so for granted, is completely problematical in the third world. Endemic power problems are the worst threat to achieving widespread computer adoption in the third world.

In Haiti, my recorded observations in two cities posit total AC power grid failures at least once a day, and at random times.  Duration is from several minutes to several hours.  In addition, power spikes and voltage problems are common.  The results to personal computers are predictable: premature failure.
For example, I am involved in a 2008 project that put PCs into a K-12 school and teacher’s college in the city of Jacmel, on the Caribbean.  To overcome the unacceptable mains power problems, our technology team undertook the following infrastructure to support a 20-PC classroom:
– Industrial window air conditioners to cool and dehumidify classroom air
– Roof-mounted solar panels, lead-acid batteries, and an AC inverter
– 35 Kw diesel generator for backup power when solar is not available
– Installed costs including freight and duties were US$35,000; the PCs represent 40% of the total cost.
Side-by-Side Test: Protected Power PCs Keep Running
Five, unprotected, three-year old Dell Dimension computers in another classroom at the same Jacmel school are all dead with motherboard failures.  The capital is not available to replace these computers which failed well before expected useful life end.
The solar-to-battery classroom has 20 PCs that are all operating after tow years of operation that includes a Category 4 hurricane and a devastating earthquake.
PC Education Starts With the Basics
It is common for first-world students to get hands-on PC experience during their K-12 years, and to expect college-level students to have basic computer competency.  In the third world, it is common for even college-level students to have essentially no hands-on PC experience.  Therefore, education needs to start with basics like mouse movement, menus, folders and all the UI concepts needed as a base for application-level experience.
At the Jacmel school, hands-on computer training starts at age 10 with a classroom-hour a week. Teacher training receives extensive computer familiarization. However, the school population has doubled in the two years since the computer room was opened. Up to fifty students at a time now use the twenty PCs, so actual hand-eye skill training are not ideal.
Microsoft Has an Important Place in the Third World
Outside the U.S., it is common in the first and second world to see deliberate moves away from Microsoft operating systems and applications (e.g., EC).  I am quite surprised at the third world demand for Microsoft software.  The key reason is job skill development.  K-12 education is much more aimed at building usable work skills than in the first world, and here Microsoft operating systems and applications are — and buyers expect will continue — thoroughly embedded in business, commerce, and government.
Do Child Laptops have Limited Interest?
I have evaluated EePC, Intel Classmate, and OLPC laptops and extensively discussed the pros and cons with prospective buyers.  Some observations:
– The screen size is only personal; a plurality want desktops with large (19″) LCDs in order to sit two students per PC to maximize equipment utilization.
– Microsoft applications and Windows (see above).
– Concern for theft and loss.  Lack of capital for loss replacement.
– In general, laptops were of lower demand/interest than desktops.
In spite of these objections from Haiti and Brazil, Intel is making slow progress convincing governments to invest in country-wide child laptop deployments. Haiti, which lacks a fully functional government, is a poor candidate for country-wide PC deployments.
Classroom PCs Must Come Without IT Infrastructure
Classroom PCs need the same backup, anti-virus, software update, and other mundane but necessary care and feeding as a small business.  However, the lack of IT personnel skills and availability makes even routine IT infrastructure and management exercises difficult.  In short, a server is not much good if there is no administrator or operator trained and certified to keep the infrastructure running.  Our solution to date is to use LAN-level automated backup products.  I think it is a chicken and egg problem where lack of interest in learning about proper IT infrastructure management is tied to a lack of jobs related to IT infrastructure management.
By focusing 60% of our infrastructure investment on clean, reliable electrical power, our PCs are delivering the uptime needed to meet a demanding 14-hour-per-day usage schedule. The feared infant mortality was averted. The costs of that electrical infrastructure, which took an exorbitant 60% of the overall budget, are projected to support at least a decade of operations. That translates into about two generations of PCs.
The doubling of the school size was not forecast. Nor was the growth through success; adding more student classes to younger grades based on early success and the installation’s reliability. We’ll put in another six PCs this year to lower the students-per-PC ratio. However, the situation will never be ideal.
Looking to the Future
The rapid decline in desktop electrical usage makes it possible, in a couple of years, to think about doubling the number of PCs into an adjacent classroom — without increasing the solar-battery infrastructure. Stretching that existing solar-battery infrastructure is the obvious lever.
Netbooks are another future alternative for the classroom. At another Haiti project, a jobs-creating business was started with a pallet of 24 netbooks costing about $10,000. With wireless LAN and a router, this computer services business was in business in hours. However, unlike the take-it-home approach Intel advocates with the Classmate PC, these netbooks stay on the desks at night.

2nd Generation Intel Core Processors

Sandy Bridge is a microprocessor architecture that Intel is rolling out across three chipsets and a couple dozen microprocessors.  It is the best mainstream chip family Intel has introduced since the Centrino in 2003.

YouTube – Tech Analyst Peter Kastner on 2nd Generation Intel Core Processors.

Sandy Bridge is a microprocessor architecture that Intel is rolling out across three chipsets and a couple dozen microprocessors.  It is the best mainstream chip family Intel has introduced since the Centrino in 2003.

Sandy Bridge brings quad-core processors to mainstream, everyday computing. This keeps the hardware capacity up with the increasing multi-tasking load caused by always-on Internet, social networking, chat and instant messaging, emails, and all the background tasks supported by the operating system.

Sandy Bridge graphics is about twice the performance of the 2010 version on integrated graphics. This means a large proportion of casual gamers (Farmville, World of Warfare) won’t have to buy up for a discrete graphics card.

SB graphics shine at video rendering, such as TV and BluRay DVD playback compared to previous generations. Sandy Bridge chips also have industry-leading video transcoding performance, making conversions from TV-optimized to smartphone-optimized video in seconds instead of overnight. This technology will make just-in-time video conversion a must-have feature going forward.

Because all the processor, memory controller, and graphics logic is on a single 32 nm chip with Sandy Bridge, energy efficiency is excellent. That bodes well for good battery life in quad-core Sandy Bridge notebooks that will arrive over the next couple of months.

Corporate buyers face the triple-play this year of Microsoft’s Windows 7 SP1, Sandy Bridge’s excellent and efficient quad-core platform, and much improved Intel vPro administration, especially remote provisioning. 2011 is the year to accelerate PC and laptop replacements that were deferred during the recession, while reducing Total Cost of Ownership by several hundred dollars per PC per year compared with the in-service PCs. That’s worth crunching the numbers on.

Bottom Line: Core 2 Duo owners should look to Sandy Bridge immediately for 2011 replacements. Video-oriented families will especially enjoy Sandy Bridge.  But these are mainstream processors that bring big computing steps forward with this generation. Personally, I’d pass on the 2010 leftovers now being swept out of inventory.

The PC Soft-Hardware Upgrade: Now in Trials

Intel today began a trial of “softSKUing”, technology that allows silicon upgrades to be turned on by software after the chip has left the factory. Acer’s Gateway division is providing the consumer desktop trial product and 280 Best Buy stores in the U. S. provide the consumer market testbed.

For a $50 manufacturer’s suggested retail price (split by Intel, Acer, and Best Buy), a consumer buying the low-end Pentium desktop used in the trial gets an upgrade in cache memory and Hyper-Threading that boost performance by about 20%, according to Intel. The upgrade is done online using an unlock code provided on a gift-card-like point-of-sale transaction card. Either the consumer at home or Best Buy’s geek squad services can activate the upgrade card and perform the soft-upgrade in minutes. The upgrade potential could be easily extended to other Intel desktop and laptop processors, so the pilot is more a marketing trial than a technology test.

The idea of up-selling is not new.  Auto dealers advertise stripped cars at low prices every weekend to get customers to come in the door.  We all know what happens next — the up-sell. Until now, PCs were no different than cars on the lot. You bought what the factory made and the dealer had on the shelf. For PC retailers like Best Buy, and small systems builders overseas, having the wrong PC mix on the shelf has numerous negative consequences, starting with the need to stock many different stock-keeping units (SKU’s) at a comparatively high inventory cost.

The softSKU trial will see whether, say, one in eight consumers can be sold an upgrade on the spot. If the trial is successful, and I think it will be, the way we buy and use PCs may change dramatically this decade.

From a technology and marketing standpoint, Intel’s softSKUing hardware upgrades program is a mash-up of mainframe upgrades and the Apple iTunes store. Hear me out. For decades, IBM mainframe customers have been able to call up IBM and turn on processors to boost throughput during peak periods such as this week, the first week of a quarter when quarter-end accounting and reporting is done. The iTunes store allows consumers to buy music or rent videos.

Where Intel could easily take the current pilot program this decade is to allow consumers to go online and get a permanent upgrade (e.g., buy music at iTunes) or even rent a performance upgrade for a few hours or days (e.g., rent videos). Would you rent a CPU upgrade for, say, $4 an evening to beat your gaming friends at World of Warcraft? Or unlock your laptop for a few weeks during budget season when big spreadsheets are the norm? Thus, both consumer and enterprise PCs could benefit from the ability to upgrade-on-demand.

There’s a market opportunity here to turn the now one-time sale of a processor into a lifecycle revenue stream, newly found money for Intel and its partners.

Fact is, most processor chips are born today able to run at high-end performance levels. Most get performance-reduced at the factory to meet market demands for a wide range of price and performance profiles. So the potential exists for Intel to unlock these more-capable chips to do more at little technology cost. The technology to securely deliver upgrades will be field-tested in the current trial. So, I guess all we need to talk about is the price of the upgrade?

The blogosphere absolutely hates the idea of buying a processor with unlockable potential performance upgrades. But these ranting people have little to say about the electronic speed governor commonly found on most automobiles. I reject the Internet mob’s argument that Intel should sell a $1,000 worth of extreme microprocessor performance for $100. That’s a sure way to kill the golden goose of technology innovation.

So, if the Intel pilot is successful, look for a broad range of upgrade opportunities with the 2012 generation of desktop and laptop processors. Whether Intel and its partners create a lifecycle revenue stream model built on soft upgrades will unfold later in the decade, or not.