Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Plugged In: All you want for Christmas is a new PC?

I wrote a nice, frilly lead for these last-minute Christmas computer shopping tips, but didn’t even send it to the editor because, really, it makes more sense to cut to the chase.

It’s nearly Christmas and, if you’re reading this article, you weren’t able to get a seat on any plane out of Alaska over the holidays. You or your spouse instead have decided to buy a hot new computer to warm the cold nights and want the most for your money. What should you buy on Christmas Eve or at the post-Christmas sales? Here are some subtle hints that you can give your spouse in the form of highly detailed specification sheets.

For many years, the best deals in computing hardware have been custom-configured systems using standardized, high-grade components. Not only are custom-configured systems more tuned to your particular needs, but they’re easier to upgrade and repair later. Most brand-name computers use proprietary components that are not easily replaced by third-party parts, many of which are often as good or better than the original equipment.

In Alaska, the most common proprietary systems are Dell computers, usually purchased over the Internet, and HP computers sold at Costco, Fred Meyer stores and other retail chains. Of the two, I prefer HP for solid basic hardware. I have heard some recent service reports that suggest the potential for reliability problems on Dell systems, although they have been generally reliable. The extremely low advertised prices for Dell systems do not necessarily reflect the final price after you’ve completed the customization process and added all of the necessary (or desired) components.

There’s one other drawback to long-distance computer purchases by nontechnical users: something may go wrong, and the central Kenai Peninsula is a long way from the nearest service personnel. Overall, I believe that nontechnical users are better off buying a custom-configured “white box” system from a local computer shop, of which there are several in Soldotna and Kenai, including the source of the price quotes for these articles, Peninsula Technology in Soldotna across the Spur Highway from Beemun’s.

Here are the considerations that I would take into account when buying a new computer. I have personally built all of my own systems for the past 20 years and have had my share of both good and bad decisions, most of which linger in memory because I spent my own money on them.

Intended uses

Nearly any computer made within the last three or four years is fast enough for casual Internet use, basic word processing and basic business accounting.
Contrary to a lot of hyped advertising, these simple applications do not demand a huge amount of performance and a reliable lower-end system is quite adequate.

On the other hand, people buying computers to play video games are never content with the performance of any system costing under about $6,000. That’s partly because cutting-edge video games require extremely high performance for smooth response, and partly because some gamers don’t have much of a life when there’s a power outage. Bragging rights about whose system is minutely faster seem to count for a lot among gamers, as well. Graphic artists, multimedia authors, engineers and PhotoShop users also welcome high-end performance. Most business users are somewhere in the middle.

Operating systems

All major operating systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Both the Macintosh and Linux operating systems are probably technically superior to Microsoft’s current offerings, but there’s no realistic probability of a wholesale abandonment of the massive installed base of Windows systems. As a result, most current business and recreational software runs natively on Windows systems, and that commonality is a major benefit.

Most Windows users grew comfortable with 32-bit Windows XP, introduced in 2001 and still the most common installed version of Windows. Over the past two years, Microsoft has tried to move its installed base to the more recent Windows Vista system, but with decidedly mixed success.

There are in fact two major versions, and several sub-flavors, of Windows Vista. The 32-bit version of Vista has developed a deservedly bad reputation for poor performance and other problems, to the extent that many people actually buy a copy of Windows XP and reformat their new computer with the older XP operating system.

I did that with an HP mini-notebook computer I recently purchased. This low-power computer took over five minutes to boot with the 32-bit version of Vista, but only 45 seconds when I installed Windows XP instead. Given the choice between Windows XP and 32-bit Windows Vista, go with XP any day, even though Microsoft has been trying to kill XP for two years despite the protests of no-nonsense business users who couldn’t care less that Vista’s interface looks more like a Macintosh.

The choice is a bit more complex at the 64-bit level. All other things being equal, a 64-bit computer operating system should run faster than a 32-bit operating system because a 64-bit operating system is capable of taking better advantage of modern CPU processors and memory.

The 64-bit version of Windows Vista is actually pretty solid, fast and reliable. It’s built upon Microsoft’s less well-known, but highly stable, 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional, usually called Windows XP x64. Indeed, the commonality between these differently named operating systems is so high that 64-bit Vista “device driver” software usually works on a Windows XP x64 system. I have not encountered any unsolvable problems running regular Windows software on Windows XP x64.


DDR-type Random Access Memory is both inexpensive and one of the best ways to avoid computer performance bottlenecks, especially with demanding applications like PhotoShop or Adobe Lightroom. I suggest 2 gigabyte (2 GB) RAM for Windows XP computer systems and 4 GB for Windows 64-bit Vista and Windows XP x64 systems.

Use DDR type RAM that’s matched to the CPU and system board of your computer and that is certified to run at the full speed of your system board. RAM is pretty much a commodity anymore.

Any major brand should suffice so long as its base speed is at least equal to that required by your computer system.

Next week, I’ll discuss cost-effective CPU processors and main system boards.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.

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