Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Plugged In: Self configuring a good way to save on computers

This week and next, I’d like to discuss what’s cost-effective when purchasing a new Windows-based PC computer. A little care in choosing your new computer’s specifications can result in major savings without seriously compromising performance. Over the past 20 years, I have personally built a few hundred Windows-based computer systems and these articles are a distillation of that experience.

Name-brand systems are often advertised in print or Internet media with very low starting prices, but their ultimate purchase price can be just as high as locally purchased systems after fully “configuring” the system and paying freight. Aside from Costco and the now-defunct CompUSA, the retail electronics chains that I’ve shopped in Anchorage try to sell high-margin consumer electronics for full list price, which I consider ludicrous. If you do want to buy a name-brand system, then you’ll usually get the best with HP, sold by both Costco and Fred Meyer.

However, I believe that locally purchasing a “white box” computer custom-configured to your needs often makes the most sense, particularly in a less-populous area like Kenai-Soldotna where same-day manufacturer’s service is usually not available. Any prices that I mention in these articles were current in December 2008 at Soldotna’s Peninsula Technologies, where I usually buy my routine computer components, like hard disks and cases, although there are several reputable vendors in the Kenai-Soldotna area.

Don’t waste money “buying for the future.” In six months, today’s super expensive, top-end hardware will be ho-hum, and in a year it will be obsolete.
Any modern PC computer will contain the following basic components:

System case: Modern computers, especially powerful ones, generate a lot of heat, and excessive heat is the deadly enemy of computer reliability. Small cases in which components fit tightly may seem cute or easy on desktop space, but they’re not very expandable and are difficult to cool. You’ll do much better with a midsized tower case that you can put under a desk. You’ll be able to expand it much more readily and are less likely to fry internal components. Chrome, flashy designs and multicolored lights may look cool, but add nothing to performance.

On the other hand, the flash built into a lot of cases usually doesn’t cost any more, so why not? Just be sure that you get a case that is rugged, with lots of room for extra drives and that’s easy to access from both sides. A decent case will cost in the range of $80 to $90 locally, which is pretty reasonable, considering shipping costs.

Cooling fans: You will need to add some extra case ventilation fans, preferably at least one large, quiet, 120-mm fan on the back side that exhausts hot air. These are cheap insurance against hardware failure and data loss. Exhaust fans work better than fans that try to force air into the case. A second fan on the top or side of the case is a good idea. I prefer fans that plug directly into the system board and are controlled by it. Avoiding heat buildup is critical to computing reliability.

Remember to periodically remove dust and pet fur from all cooling fans, air intakes and internal components. Doing so is crucial to avoiding heat-related failures — as I know from recent personal experience. A 120-mm fan will probably cost about $12 to $15 dollars and take about three minutes to install, if you know where to plug it into the system board.

Most central processing unit processors sold in the manufacturer’s original retail packaging include a cooling fan that’s matched to the CPU when used at its rated speed. AMD seems to be particularly good about including very robust CPU cooling fans with their retail-boxed processors. However, if you plan to overclock your computer, as computer gamers are wont to do, you may need to buy a third-party cooling system. These tend to be expensive and are unnecessary for routine business use.

Power supply: Although a power supply may seem pretty boring compared to the latest and greatest Intel or AMD processor, it’s one of the single most critical components in a computer, and one of the most likely to fail. Although many computer cases include basic power supplies, these are often barely adequate, on the order of 350 to 400 watts. To ensure better internal cooling and increased reliability, spend the extra money for a decent quality, 500- to 600-watt power supply for a basic business computer and something even bigger if you are a gamer using a powerful video card. A good-quality, 500- to 600-watt power supply will cost somewhere between $55 and $80, but is money well spent if you are putting together a powerful computer.

Central processing unit: The CPU is the heart of your computer and will be built either by Intel or by AMD. Both companies make processors that are comparably reliable and fast. AMD processors tend to be exceptionally reliable and somewhat less expensive for the same performance. Cutting to the chase, I recommend a dual-core AMD Athlon X2 6000 CPU costing about $139 locally. Get the version that uses the current AM2 socket. This is neither the latest nor the greatest, but performs nearly as well in the real world for a lot less money. Here’s why:

Unless experimentally “overclocked” by a knowledgeable technician, a CPU will operate at its rated speed, usually in the range of 2 to 3 gigahertz (2 billion to 3 billion cycles per second). Overclocking, by itself, only marginally increases performance because other components like DDR memory and hard disks become bottlenecks that seriously limit any performance increases. Overclocking often introduces serious system instability problems and usually requires faster memory and expensive third-party CPU cooling fans. Business users should avoid overclocking (for one thing, it voids your warranty) but overclocking can be an interesting challenge to the technically adept who have nothing better to do at the moment.

However, just as more megapixels don’t necessarily translate into a better digital photograph, a higher CPU speed doesn’t always translate into a faster computer. In fact, even though quad core CPUs running around 3 GHz are definitely more expensive, all other things being equal, the overall performance improvement is usually only a few percent, basically unnoticeable unless you spend your work day doing nothing but playing demanding games or running synthetic performance benchmark programs. (I’ve actually been there and done that in years past when writing my Lawyers Lab technology columns for Law Office Computing Magazine.)

Much more important is a processor’s efficient internal processing. AMD Athlon X2 and Phenom quad core CPUs and the newer Intel Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors are both generally more reliable and more efficient than earlier Intel Pentiums and AMD single core Athlons of any speed. Essentially all current desktop CPUs have at least two, and often three or four, processing units located inside that single CPU chips, and even humble 32-bit Windows XP now recognizes quad core CPUs as four separate processing units.

All current desktop CPUs are inherently “64-bit” processors, which means they can be compared to a superhighway with many high-speed lanes and reduced traffic congestion in each direction. In theory, all of this should mean that a dual-core CPU arguably should be at least twice as fast, and a quad core CPU four times as fast, than earlier single-core processors. Sadly, that’s not true. You get less than you pay for and that has nothing to do with AMD or Intel and everything to do with Microsoft and application software vendors.

Windows and most current application software do not efficiently allocate processing tasks (threads) to several different processor cores, and thus do not take full advantage of the extra CPU cores. In fact, except for the newest versions of Photoshop and a few less-common application programs, most business programs, such as spreadsheets or word processors, can only use a single processing core. The remaining one to three CPU cores are basically wasted, using more electricity and producing a lot of heat but no illumination, although they do help a bit with background system chores like antivirus scans.

In addition, unless you’re using a 64-bit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista, you’ll only be processing at 32 bits, basically trying to navigate a freeway that’s become congested because half its lanes are blocked off. The 64 bit version of Windows XP is hard to find, although very reliable and quick, while the 64 bit version of Windows Vista is slowed due to fancy interface geegaws that demand a lot of processing power to look pretty, although they contribute little or nothing to efficient computing.

Next week, I’ll discuss what to look for when specifying the remaining major computer system components, including the system board, which now generally includes most of the controllers needed by a modern computer, such as audio, networking, USB, CD/DVD and hard disk controllers, video cards, DDR memory, hard disks, DVD/CD reader/writer, floppy disk drive, video monitor, keyboard, mouse and operating system.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com, along with links to legal and community resources.

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