Here are a few recommendations for what type of computing equipment to have if you are going to be working in West Africa. These are based on my own experience of doing IT support in Ghana and Liberia for the last six years.
1. Buy a good quality computer
The old adage of you get what you pay for seems to be even more true here. If you buy the $300 Walmart special, chances are very high that in a year, at most two, you will have a dead machine. We have had the best luck with business class machines. They may seem like overkill for your needs, but the build quality is what we are after.
My favorite are Toshiba Tecras which I have seen last as long as 8 to 10 years if they are cared for. The Toshiba Satellite Pro is acceptable, but stay well away from the plain Satellite. I am also a fan of Dell and would go with the Latitude series. Recently I have been pretty impressed with Lenovo, but would stay with the ThinkPad T and X series. You pay a premium for these models, but it will save you a lot of frustration in the long run. Stay clear of Acer and HP.
A number of people have asked me about Mac in the past. Apple does make very good hardware and it is quite tempting. There are two drawbacks: (1) There is not much language software available for Mac and (2) Their power supplies not only do not handle the power issues here very well but are quite expensive to replace.
2. Be ready for power problems
Depending on where you are going, electricity may not be very reliable. Even if it is, surges, brownouts, and other weird issues are common. Having a good surge protector can save you from a fried power supply.
I have had the most success with APC in-line surge protectors. They connect between the power cord and power supply, so you don’t have to worry about which countries they will work in. Before you make a purchase, check your power supply to see if you need the two or three pronged connector.
If you will be living in West Africa for more than a year, you may want to consider bringing along a spare power supply for your computer. I often recommend that spouses purchase either the same computer, or a similar model. If the power supply on one blows, the second can act as a spare until a replacement can be found. This can often be done as well with CD/DVD drives. If the computers are the same model, in a worst case scenario you can even switch hard drives to keep the most important computer going.
3. Protect your data
Hard drives fail at an amazing rate here. Having a good and recent backup can save you a lot of trouble. For my own computer, I also replace the hard drive every two years just to limit the chance of failure.
Don’t forget to lock down your computer. The best way to keep your data is to keep your computer. I can’t remember that last laptop I have seen without a Kensington lock slot. Just make sure you lock it to something immovable. My preference is the metal bars in the window.
For more information, I have written a whole post on Data-at-Rest Protection Strategies.
This is just a quick overview and does not cover every situation. There are a lot of choices to make when purchasing a computer. Got a question? Ask it in the comments below.