Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Plugged in: With computers, more money doesn’t always mean more speed

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about making smart PC purchases.

Warning: Spending more money does not necessarily buy you greater useful computing power and reliability. Any computer is only as fast as its slowest bottleneck, rather like a chain’s weakest link, and each computer should be carefully balanced for cost-effective performance.

DRAM memory is the very high-speed “volatile” electronic chip memory that holds programs and data only so long as a computer is powered up. When the computer is turned off, whatever unsaved data remains in volatile DRAM memory disappears.

DRAM memory retrieves and manipulates data far faster than your spinning mechanical hard disk but the hard disk retains its data as a magnetic recording when powered down and holds hundreds of times more data. Not having enough DRAM forces your computer to frequently use the slow mechanical hard disk for primary computing, which greatly slows down any computer. DRAM memory is now very inexpensive.

One of the first and most inexpensive ways to often improve computer performance is to add additional memory, particularly if you are using the computer for memory-intensive tasks such as processing photos or videos. Ordinary 32-bit Windows XP computers should be upgraded by installing at least 2 gigabytes (GB) DRAM if the computer exhibits any slowdowns that coincide with heavy hard disk activity. (Check to see if your hard disk indicator light is on most of the time and under what circumstances.) Sixty-four-bit Vista and Windows XP x 64 computers should have at least 4 GB of installed DRAM. Adding more than 4 GB DRAM to a computer using a 32-bit operating system like Windows XP is a waste — the computer can’t even recognize that it’s installed. This is not a limitation with 64-bit operating systems.

There are several types of DRAM, usually designated DDR, DDR2 and DDR3, along with the DRAM’s speed ratings. The correct type and speed for each CPU processor and system board must be installed. Tests show that adding DRAM whose rated external speed is significantly faster than the minimum specified for your system board and CPU is a lot more expensive but only provides a very slight performance advantage. That’s because current DRAM technologies can only go so fast internally before becoming unreliable. When the external speed (the bus speed) is increased, something that makes marketing departments happy, the internal chips can’t really keep up and provide data all that much faster. In order to avoid crashing, high speed DDR memory inserts internal “wait states” that slow the data transfer rate. The net result is that there’s only a very modest improvement in overall system performance. One real benefit of AMD CPU processors, by the way, is that they include the DRAM memory controller directly on the CPU and the memory controller runs at full CPU speed, which does result in better DRAM performance under most circumstances.

When you upgrade the amount of DRAM in your computer, replace all of the DRAM at the same time, adding two matched sticks at a time in each DRAM channel. All installed DRAM needs to be matched in order to avoid instability and to maximize performance.

When you’re adding DRAM, be sure that its rated speed is at least as fast as the standard for that system board and installed CPU; I prefer to install DRAM that is rated for one speed increment faster than the minimum required for a particular CPU and system board. Slower DRAM is slightly cheaper but more prone to instability or slower performance. Using DRAM that’s rated as faster than the minimum required usually results in a more reliable system, provided you operate the computer at its default memory speed. That gives you a little in reserve.

There’s a really useful program, CPUID, that will give you a wealth of information about your installed processor, your system board and your DRAM memory. It’s a free download from www.cpuid.com. This free diagnostic is recommended.

Also recommended when you’re trying to balance the performance of your computer system is a benchmark program called “Performance Test”, now in version 6.1. Although the software license activation for Performance Test costs $24, a very reasonable price, you can get a 30-day, full-function download from the vendor’s Web site, www.passmark.com. Passmark also sells a “burn-in” program to stress test new hardware and provides a 30-day, full-function trial of that program, as well.

I’ve used Performance Test for many years as a means for identifying the weak points in my computer systems. For example, I recently found that my law office file server had quite adequate CPU and network performance but that the hard disk performance was very much sub-par, even though I had installed a RAID disk array of 10,000 rpm Western Digital Raptor SATA hard disks, some of the faster hard disks available. Raptor hard disks should be capable of reading and writing 100 to 200 megabytes of data per second. I was getting between 4 MB and 7 MB per second. Spending hundreds of dollars to replace these fast hard disks was obviously not the answer. That brings us to our next low-cost means of improving computer performance.

Driver Software: Software “drivers” are the bits of programming code that allow any attached hardware to work properly with the Windows operating system. Microsoft provides a lot of the basic driver software needed to get Windows installed and running but the Microsoft drivers, although generally pretty reliable and stable, are necessarily generic and do not always provide the best performance with specific computing hardware. This is particularly true for high-end video cards, fast hard disk controller chips, scanners and network connections.

Updating the “driver” software for too-slow computer components is one of the best ways to improve the system performance and stability of an unbalanced computer system, and it’s usually free. My own file server’s hard disk performance tripled after I updated the driver software for the hard disk controllers. It’s still not really good enough, but three times faster than before. That’s a good start for a 10-minute process that cost me nothing.

When you buy new computer hardware that requires some sort of driver software, the hardware vendor usually provides their optimized driver software on a disk or CD. However, the optimized vendor software is not always installed when a new computer is set up and vendors constantly update their software drivers to reduce bugs and improve performance, posting new driver software to their Web sites. So, your next step after identifying specific performance weaknesses is to update the drivers for the related hardware. For example, if hard disk performance seems weak, update the IDE and SATA disk controller driver software.

There are several ways to update the driver software for balky hardware. You can do so within the Windows Control Panel system tab or using Windows Update over the Web. You can use the vendor’s CD that came with your computer or go directly to the hardware vendor’s Web site. Some Web sites include Internet-based scans and automatic updating while others require you to know what’s installed and manually choose and download updated driver software.

You must be very careful, though, when updating driver software. If the new software is not stable, then your system will crash. Before you update driver software, be sure that you completely back up your computer system. Also, use the Windows System Restore function to set a restore point with known good driver software, so that you can roll your system back in the event of instability.

Finally, don’t install a driver that the vendor just posted for the first time last week. Unless you’re in a critical situation, don’t be a test pilot — let some other eager fellow take the first risks. Wait a few weeks before updating to new driver software so that the vendor has a chance to correct any problems. The slowest computer of all is one that won’t even work.

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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