Best bang for the buck
When it comes to computing power, it's pretty hard to beat the traditional computer,laptop keyboard, monitor combo that's been a staple of farm offices since the 1980s. The tower setup of the computer, and the ability to position the keyboard and monitor as needed are just one aspect. The key is that you can outfit that tower with a fast computer brain (an Intel second generation i5 or i7 chip), and get a decent LED monitor (lower power use bright screen) and keep the cost below $1,000.
I avoid brand name recommendations, you'll find all the major models have good and bad days. Dell and HP have floated to the top as key suppliers of desktop computers out there. Asus and Gateway offer desktop computer options too (Compaq is a familiar brand but has been owned by HP for years).
Major retailers including Best Buy and Walmart carry desktop computers - key is knowing what will happen if something breaks down. Support is still important in the computer world and since farmers act as their own information technology departments, solid support is a must.
Apple is out there too and they've got some potent desktop machines that can handle most of your farm recordkeeping. However, most programs for agriculture still are Windows-centric, and that should be considered when you buy equipment.
For computer storage, a desktop machine has no limits, so pile on the memory, but remember the bigger the hard drive the more you'll have to back up.
Smaller approach, more options
The laptop computer has become a staple in American offices, and farm offices are no exception. The growing use of laptops allows you to take records to the bank (without paper); gather information from the combine or tractor; and keep up with email when out of the office. Sure a smart phone would do some of this, but having the full power of a computer in a compact package has value too.
Major players in the laptop market include HP, Lenovo (they bought IBM's personal computer division), Dell and Apple have some powerful laptops for around $1,000. There's a move toward a new "ultra" laptop that's lighter and thinner - but doesn't have a hard drive for data storage. Less moving parts could be a good thing for a farmer, but talk to your dealer carefully before making that move.
Again, the Intel i5 or i7 computer brain is a must (even Apple uses them).
Laptops usually top out at 500 gigabytes of memory size for the hard drives (250 gigabytes for solid-state memory drives found in ultra laptops). Getting the most storage at the initial purchase is usually the best approach. Check out the options, look at the screens, you can go from as small as a 12-inch compact laptop to a 17 laptop with a high-def video screen great for watching movies.
Tablet in your future?
The iPad is the #1 item on a lot of people's Christmas wish list. Keep in mind that while it's more possible than ever to create on a tablet computer, they remain - for the most part - excellent "consumption" devices. Whether you're reading a book, your favorite paper, a news aggregator (more about that next week), or your email, a tablet computer offers an excellent experience.
Apple owns this market, but you'll find some interesting choices this holiday season. Here's a quick rundown:
Xoom from Motorola/Galaxy tablet from Samsung - both are Android software based (from Google) - and offer a range of options. They're not as popular as the iPad, but they have fans.
iPad - the granddaddy of them all with more than 29 million sold worldwide, highest installed base, most applications available. But the starting price of $499 for a 16-gigabyte unit is a turn off for some.
Kindle Fire - if you're talking mainly consumption - and that's the idea - this may be a good choice. Coming in at $199, this unit allows you to check email, read books, watch movies and browse your favorite websites. Reviews are pretty good on the device, though some say it's a slow device.
Nook from Barnes and Noble - this tablet device is competing with the Fire with a new version that offers more features in the same price point.
You have a lot from which to choose here. Keep in mind that the more memory - either "main" memory the computer brain uses to think, or data storage, are important purchases up front. For desktop machines, putting the most on-board computer brain memory in place will maximize the machine's ability to produce and manage big graphic files, which are becoming more commonly used in ag.
Microsoft is coming out with Windows 8 next year, but if your machine can run Windows 7, you should be fine. Consider buying Windows 7 Professional, it offers the best performance on most systems.
And if you go Mac, or Apple, for that computer, talk to your accountant to make sure your bookkeeping software can produce compatible files.
Enjoy the shopping and if you have any questions, drop a note to me or leave your comment. I'll help if I can.