What about Compaq (etc. etc.)? That’s a good name!
Many people buy a computer like they buy a stereo or TV. They look for buzzwords like “XXX Mhz”, features like “DVD player,” often what they think is a “good brand name”, then look for the best price.
You may get a good stereo that way, but not a computer. A computer is only as good as its weakest part, and that weak part can be in places you’d never think to look.
When you buy a TV or stereo, do you ask about its power supply? Of course not. You never had any reason to in the past, so why ask about a computer’s?
Unfortunately, if you later decide to add something like a new video card, you may find out that you need a new power supply, too, since your brand-name computer came with a puny power supply to save a few dollars, and it can’t run that video card reliably.
This section tells you how many OEMs (not all, we’ll talk about the good ones later), both the little guys and the big ones, cut their costs to your detriment, and what to look out for. You may think twice about wanting to buy one after reading this, and probably make some salesman wish he had thought twice about selling you one.:) You’ll have an idea of what is good and what is not, and how to get a good computer for your money.
However, just as you don’t want to pay something for nothing, getting something for nothing doesn’t work, either. After reading this, you’ll have realistic expectations and what you’ll get and not get for your money.
This looks like a lot of work; I don’t want to be bothered with all this!
That’s just what a lot of resellers are counting on. That’s why these tricks work; most people don’t want to be bothered. It’s a jungle out there, and if you don’t want to be taken advantage of, you have to be prepared.
The only reason it’s long is because people have come up with an awful lot of tricks. I don’t make up the tricks, I just count them.:)
No, I won’t, I know a lot about computers!
OK, I’ll make you a deal. Take this test. If you get a 100%, you’re right. If you didn’t, keep reading.
Why will I probably be taken advantage of?
The average person buying a computer today has no idea what is good or bad. They’ve never had to learn that for other consumer electronics items, and that’s what they think a computer is. They consider a computer to be an item, not a collection of interchangable items. They don’t ask what kind of transistors Sony uses, so why should they ask about a computer’s? It’s just supposed to work, and work well. Unfortunately, the kinds of parts in a computer can make a huge difference between a good and a bad one, and the ones trying to sell the bad ones aren’t help you figure that out. They are preying on your ignorance.
The one thing people do know is that they want to pay the lowest price possible, and there are plenty of shysters who will give them just that. The prices in the Sunday paper has become the sole research tool for many people, and they don’t want to hear about anything priced higher than what they see. Even merchants who do know how to build good computers have to cut corners because if their price isn’t low enough, people will go to the places that offer lower prices for what looks like the same to them.
Would you buy a new car with a top speed of 50 mph, or one that broke down more often, just to save a couple hundred dollars? That is exactly what happens with a lot of cheap computers. You hit a point where you’ll get a good computer for a certain amount of money, but a much worse one that will probably give you a lot more grief and expense for a couple hundred dollars less.
Why is that?
The PC market has become fiercely price-competitive. Since many people are shopping based on price, sellers are looking for any way to cut corners. What they often do is spend money on the buzzwords people pay attention to, and cut corners on everything else, like the power supply. This isn’t just Joe’s Computer Shop down the block doing this, this is Compaq and IBM and Hewlett-Packard and Gateway and Dell and Micron. The problem is “everything else” can kill the performance of your system or limit its expandability just to save twenty dollars here, thirty dollars there.
Just to give one example, many computers from the major companies, even the better ones, come with what is called a Winmodem. A lot of times, you can’t get anything better even if you want to pay more. It saves the company maybe thirty dollars, but it reduces your performance by a third while you are using the modem. However, the ad will say “56K V90 modem” just the same as it would for a real modem.
Companies routinely sell a computer with a $600 processor and a Winmodem that cuts the performance down to what you would get from a $200 or even $100 processor and a real modem. That may be a bargain for the company, but not for you.
Think the salesperson is going to tell you that? Even worse, the salesperson probably doesn’t even have to lie about it; he doesn’t know that either.
Can’t you just tell us what’s good? Do we have to read all of this?
I will have a section saying specifically what you should want in a computer, but that’s going to be long, too. Not everything in this world is simple. Buying a good computer isn’t extremely hard; just harder than you’d like it to be. 🙂
The problem you are likely to find even after getting a list of what you should want is that you are likely not to find anything that meets the bill from the major OEMs. Either it will not quite have what you want, or you’ll spend too much to get everything you do want.
Computers are not toasters. They aren’t even like TVs. I wish they were. I wish I hadn’t had to spend all this time learning all these things, either, but I had to. Some day, buying a computer will be like buying a stereo. It isn’t now.
If you read this, you’ll spend a lot less time and effort than I have, and you’ll probably save yourself a lot of time and misery and money later on by avoiding mistakes now.
I get so many letters from people who made mistakes when they initially bought their computer, and now they can’t do what they want without replacing a lot or everything. I don’t want that to happen to you. So spend a little more time now, and not spend a lot more time later.
What other ways do computer manufacturers cut corners?
Let me count the ways: 🙂
Usually, the cheaper the computer, the more of these corners will be cut. Some are bad for everyone. Some may not be so bad for you.
Here’s the biggest general cost-cutter:
No-name components: This is pretty common, even in the better machines. Of course, there are “no-name” components, and there are no-name components. A lot of people think that if they buy an IBM computer, it has IBM parts. Nope. My home-built computer has more real IBM parts than the average Aptiva. It’s not even made or designed by IBM; it’s made by Acer. Now that doesn’t mean it’s awful; Acer makes some pretty good components, but IBM basically just puts its name on it. That’s not exactly what average Aptiva owners thought they were buying. Much the same can be said for most of the other OEMs.
Then again, the average person doesn’t even really know what the real brand-names are. It’s not like these guys plaster the air with TV ads. I wouldn’t hold my hands out to get a free Intel motherboard, but give the average person a choice between one and an Asus or AOpen board? They’ve never heard of Asus or AOpen, but they’ve seen Intel mentioned a lot. Half the people who bought Packard Bell computers probably figured “Packard” was a good computer name.
A lot of American owners would be surprised to find out that most of the components in their American-sounding computer were built on a different continent, and it is far more likely to have been assembled in mainland China than the mainland US by some sub-sub-contractor, but that’s the truth.
Then we get to the REAL no-names. Sometimes, they aren’t bad at all. Sometimes they are. Usually, they will fail more often than higher-quality components. Usually, they won’t upgrade drivers or BIOSes as often. The cheaper the computer, the more likely they’ll be in there, and they aren’t put in there because they are the best.
But again, if you asked the average person to choose between an Asus or a Jaton video card, that’s a coin flip.
A very good rule of thumb in looking at a computer ad is if the OEM uses a quality component, they will specifically name it, if they don’t, they won’t. If they use a Soundblaster Live! sound card, they will certainly say “Soundblaster Live! video card” in their ad. If all they say is “wavetable sound card;” it’s probably a no-name card.
If they have a name-brand video card, they will tell you. If you see something like: 8Mb video, it’s probably integrated video. If all they say is video, or not even that, it’s really lousy integrated video.
The specific brands of hard drives usually aren’t mentioned, but if they have a 7200rpm hard drive, they’ll say that. If they don’t, then it probably isn’t.
Here’s how OEMs cut corners on specific components:
- CPUs: You usually only see locals do this, but if the computer doesn’t have an Intel processor, they won’t actually tell you it has an AMD or Cyrix processor, they just give you a Mhz number.
The real problem with CPUs, though, isn’t the CPU itself, but the package you get with it. Resellers tend to sell either: a) expensive processors and expensive everything else; b) expensive processors and cut corners on the rest of the system, or c)sell cheap processors and cheap everything else.
Often, especially if you plan on overclocking, what you want is a cheap processor and a better everything else, which is just what the major OEMs DON’T sell you, not even when you’d pay extra for it.
- Integrated video:This is the first big corner to be cut when you try to make a cheap (and sometimes not so cheap) computer. What integrated video means is instead of having a slot into which you stick a separate video card, the (usually lower quality) video circuitry is built right into the motherboard. The majority of OEM computers sold nowadays probably have integrated video; it’s almost a certainty if the computer cost $1,000 or less.
Does it matter? If all you are doing is Web-browsing or doing some word processing or spreadsheets, probably not. (Though run if you see video of 4Mb or less or the term UMA, run. In new machines, that means the video card has no memory of its own and has to use the computer’s regular memory instead. This knocks about 40% off video performance to save maybe $15 over integrated video with its own 8Mb of memory. The cheapest Compaqs have this “feature.”)
If anyone in your family plays serious action games, or you are at all interested in video or graphics, it matters a lot. If you want to spruce up the video, you have to buy a new motherboard AND video card. Then you have to get the new motherboard in, which is a lot harder than just a video card.
- Monitors: So many people spend a lot of money on the rest of the computer system, then spoil it all with a cheap monitor.
What do you primarily do with a computer? YOU LOOK AT IT! Often for very long periods of time. The longer you look at it, the more suspectible you become to eyestrain and fatigue. What good is it to save a hundred dollars or two on a bargain monitor if you can only look at it for a certain length of time?
Unless the monitor is really bad, you won’t notice the difference between a marginal and a good one in the time you’ll have in a computer showroom. Especially for the cheaper computer systems, you won’t have a choice in which monitor you can get.
Even with technically superior monitors, whether you consider one good or not is a very subjective experience, because we all have different sets of eyes and brains attached. One person can love how a good monitor looks, and another can hate it. As a general rule, you shouldn’t buy a monitor until you’ve actually seen one.
Monitors are expensive, so this is a big area of cost cutting. Very often, the computers you see advertised in the papers with low prices come with a 15″ monitor, because that saves about $100 over a 17″ monitor. It’s a bad idea, because it will cramp you and make you do a lot more work scrolling up and down and sideways to see whatever it is you are doing. Some studies have shown that people are 15-20% more productive with a 19″ monitor than a 15″, for just this reason.
You’ll rarely see more than a 17″ monitor on sale with a reasonably priced computer system. That’s because a 19″ monitor costs around $200 more than a 17″.
I personally believe a 19″ monitor is worth the extra cost, but that’s arguable. However, a 17″ monitor should be the minimum you settle for.
Most OEMs will offer their own monitors. Some are pretty decent; others are not. The lower the price, the less likely it will be good.
Modems: It’s pretty tough finding a non-Winmodem (or something pretty close) in an OEM system today. Until a couple years ago, a modem basically came with the chips necessary to communicate with the outside world. This meant that modems cost something.
A Winmodem doesn’t do that. Instead, it tells the CPU to do all the work. That means the CPU spends about a third of its power doing that work when it could be doing other things, just to save thirty to fifty dollars.
As a general rule, you don’t want devices that do specialized work to hand over that work to the general-purpose CPU. It slows down your machine quite a bit just to save a little.
However, there’s a much bigger issue here than how much your modem saps your computer. If you plan to be on the Internet to any serious extent, the biggest bottleneck is your modem. Even if you buy the most expensive, fastest computer available, you will still wait around a lot for a 56K modem to download Web pages and files.
The biggest speed boost the average serious computer user can get nowadays is not a faster CPU, or any other computer part, but a faster Internet connection. If you plan on spending serious time on the Internet, you should plan on spending the money for a cable modem or DSL connection.
Neither of these may be available in your neighborhood yet. It could well be more expensive than using a modem and phone line where you live, especially DSL. The services available to you right now may stink. If all you do on the Internet is get and write email and look at a few websites, it’s probably not worth the extra cost.
But if you plan on spending a good deal of time on the Internet, that’s the biggest real speed boost/time saver you can get, and you should budget for it, even if it means spending less on the computer system.
If you decide to take this route, then your modem choice becomes a lot different. You may decide that you don’t need a modem at all. Or you might decide to get a modem just for emergencies, in which case a Winmodem would be OK. Some companies offer DSL/cable modem connections with their computers; it will depend on local circumstances whether getting it there is a good idea or not.
Power supplies: OEMs often put in the smallest power supply that will run the equipment reliably. This is not usually a problem for other consumer electronics.
However, you can add or replace items inside a computer, which is something you don’t normally do with those other devices. You don’t think about putting a bigger picture tube in your TV set, for instance.
Many OEM computers come with just a 145W power supply (until recently, some IBM Aptivas had just 95W). They rarely go over 200W.
Now if you never, ever plan to add or change anything inside your computer, it probably won’t matter. But if you start adding hard drives, or CD-RWs or DVD-ROMs, or especially the latest video cards, or get this idea you might want to overclock your computer, you could run into some big problems.
The worst part of it is that a power supply that is asked to do a little too much won’t just refuse to work. It will keep on working; most of the time. Until you ask it to do too much. Then the screen blacks out and it reboots. Suddenly. Very unnerving. And because other components take varying amounts of power at varying times, it may not be obvious just why the computer does this.
So if and when you eventually find out that that is the problem, now you have to put in a new power supply, which is not why you bought a complete system in the first place.
There’s this little problem with removing power supplies from a computer. It’s no big deal if you know what you’re doing, but if you do certain things badly, there is the slight possibility it could kill you, and that is a very silly way to die.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier just to get a computer with a bigger power supply in the first place? 🙂
Motherboards: Besides using a motherboard with integrated video, an OEM can cut costs either by giving you a lousier motherboard (usually the case for locals) or a smaller one (often the case with big OEMs).
For the first, you have the brand names, and the off-brand names. The brand names are companies like Abit, AOpen, Asus, Chaintech, Epox, FIC, Gigabyte, MSI, Shuttle, Soyo, Supermicro, and Tyan. Intel is no doubt the most recognizable “name brand,” but I’m not sure their products have been good enough lately to
be called “name brand.” Definitely not for overclockers, and maybe not even for nonoverclockers who have a choice.
If you see a name like Alton, Amptron, Biostar, Eurone, or Matsonic, they come from one place, the PC Chips family of motherboards. The local computer store down the street that sells computers is likely to use these. A lot of them actually work. Some of them well. More badly. Too many not at all. Do you get the idea?
With a big-name OEM, what you are more likely to get is a “micro-ATX” board, sometimes even in their more expensive machines. That’s just what it sound like; a mini-motherboard. How do they make them “micro?” Well, instead of giving (usually) five or six PCI slots to put in various peripherals, they give you three, and then procede to fill one or two of those slots. No problem if you don’t add things later on. Big problem if you do and run out of slots. Sometimes even a problem when you just fill all of them.
- Hard drives: Sometimes you’ll see off-brands, but more often, you’ll see cheaper computers with slower hard drives: 5400rpm rather than 7200rpm, sometimes even 4500rpm (the infamous Quantum Bigfoots).
CD-ROMS/DVD-ROMS: You’ll often see a no-name put into systems. In the case of DVDs, you also have something called “software decoding.” Remember the Winmodems? Same thing, only more so, saving about $60-70 off a dedicated hardware controller.
Now you could make a pretty good argument that if you’re watching a movie, you usually aren’t doing much of anything else with your computer, but if you are downloading files with your Winmodem at the same time you’re watching the movie; you may not like what you get.
Even if you don’t do that, you may not like what you see anyway. Even for movies, DVDs have not been fully perfected yet. Some movies just don’t work right. Even good DVD setups can require a good deal of tinkering.
Many computers now come with CD-RWs. A very nice thing to have, but almost all of them are IDE drives, which don’t necessarily work well if you aren’t careful using them.
- RAM: You usually only see this on the very low end today, but don’t even consider a computer that has less than 64Mb of RAM.
The quality OEMs usually put in quality RAM, which should not be a problem unless you are thinking about overclocking (which you probably can’t do with an OEM computer anyway; see below). The locals or smaller OEMs are more likely to use generic memory, which often
won’t matter, but sometimes it might.
Floppy drives, sound cards/speakers, network cards: Often generic. Floppy drives have become commodity items and are on the way out anyway, so this is no big deal. If sound is important to you or
anyone else in your family, this is a much bigger deal. Sound is important for gaming, and a lot of teenagers like to use their computer as their own stereo system, so you might want a good deal more than you initially would have thought. There’s a lot of good cheap
network cards (essential if you are using DSL/cable modem), but some have some minor incompatibilities. Again, if it’s particularly good, the seller will brag about it, if not, the seller hopes you don’t know any better.:)
Cases: Many OEMs basically use the smallest, cheapest case they can get away with. It saves them money, but this can cause two problems.
It can get awfully hot in a cheap, poorly ventilated case, which shortens the life of what’s in there.
If you ever have to open it up, it will take a lot more time and effort to do anything in there.
If either of these notions bother you, then maybe you want a bigger, better ventilated case. Unfortunately, most big OEMs won’t sell you one.
“Free” printers, scanners, software, etc, etc, etc.: The vast majority of “free” printers and scanners are garbage. If it’s the slightest bit good, they’ll say what it is.
You should always check something like www.pricewatch.com to find out how much your “free equipment” is worth.
- “Save ($400 or more), or $799.99 (after signing up with Internet Slavery Provider, in small print 🙂 A few ISPs will give you about half your own money back if you agree to use them for three years. If you don’t use them for three years (and there’s a pretty good chance you won’t), you end up giving them back some, most, or all of the rebate, even if the reason you stop is because the service is horrible. Not a good idea for most people.
But what about warranties? You don’t get one if you build your own!
Let’s look at warranties. If you look at many OEM warranties, they last for only a year. If you want more, you usually have to pay extra for it.
The companies that make the parts have warranties, too, so if you build your own, and a part fails, you can get a replacement. Getting a replacement
from an OEM is more convenient and usually faster, though.
The OEMs offer technical support!
This is true. If you build your own, you’d generally have to contact the manufacturers, who often will blame each other for any problem
you may have. While you can certainly find just about any information or solutions you’ll need using the Internet, it does take more time and effort, no denying that.
That being said, you should nonetheless understand just what you are getting from technical support. If you expect step-by-step instruction by highly trained and experienced people for any possible problem you might have, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Most OEMs offer general tech support (by that I mean getting bundled software to run) for limited periods of time, as short as thirty days. After that, tech support is usually restricted to hardware problems. Often, they’ll handle other problems, too, for $35 or so a call, and you often have to convince them not to charge you.
Obviously, I can’t describe everyone’s policy in a couple sentences, but you should read (not hear a salesman’s pitch) and understand your OEMs policy BEFORE you buy, not after.
Nor is the average tech support center staffed with highly paid and experienced people. Usually, these are people getting paid from about $8 to $12 or so an hour to answer calls, identify problems, read answers off a computer screen, and authorize returns. Quite often,
they aren’t even employees of the company that sold you the computer; the OEMs subcontract the work out.
Sometimes they hire “interesting” people. A little over a year ago, one of these subcontracted employees for a major PC OEM began talking quite a bit in a certain newsgroup for that OEM’s computers. He spoke pretty lucidly about how poorly they handled legitimate technical problems, not to mention their employees. After a while, someone noticed that the gentleman regularly posted about manufacturing and using methamphetamine in a drug newsgroup. He cheerfully acknowledged this, and when asked if he ever had to pass any drug tests, he said that if the OEM ever imposed such a thing, they wouldn’t have any tech support people left. He said he and his fellow co-workers often had parties which their supervisors attended.
On Christmas Day, in the spirit of the season, he explained in considerable detail how you could talk your way into getting an absolutely free computer from this OEM. A few days later, he vanished for a while, and it was presumed that he had been located and dismissed, but a few weeks later, he came back and explained he had been incommunicado due to a drug overdose. Since it had been his fourth one that year, a court decided that some drug rehab might not be a bad idea. Not that this left any impression on him, of course. I think he was dismissed around that time, but I’m not sure.
The scary part about all this was that the gentleman was a good deal better and more knowledgable on technical issues than just about any of the other (presumably not all drug-dependent) tech support people of the OEM who also posted.
I had one friend of mine destroy his modem due to tech support. The best I could figure out, the tech support person somehow got the notion that my friend had a PCMCIA modem in a desktop, and told him to yank something out. My (not too technically astute) friend tried to comply by trying to yank the biggest chip out of his modem.
These are extreme cases, and not typical. Customer service polls do indicate, though, that at least a large minority of OEM users tend to be dissatisfied with their technical support. The point to all this is not that every tech support person is bound to be an ill-paid, ignorant drug fiend; but that good technical support costs a lot of money. OEMs just don’t make a lot of money anymore on computers, so they cut costs wherever they can. They use their websites to convey a lot of technical support, but if you can understand that, it’s not much more to dig up the information yourself.
I’m sure most OEM technical support staff can handle most routine issues you are likely to have, but then, so can you. Just understand that the OEMs do not normally have armies of highly-experienced PC experts just waiting for your call, because you didn’t pay them enough to afford that. This is just as true no matter how you get your new computer. If you didn’t pay a lot for that computer or those computer parts, you’ll either have to dig up the tech support yourself; get minimal free tech support from the discount resellers that didn’t make much from you in the first place, or pay more, either in higher prices
or a support contract, from someone who does provide good tech support. It’s not free; it’s not something you are entitled to. Tech support is really “do it yourself” or pay to have someone do it for you.
Even the best OEMs have about 15% of their new computers needing replacement parts the first year, and most are a lot worse.
Some of this is bad, shoddy, or incompatible equipment. Some of it no doubt is due to inability to diagnose and solve problems (and trying to do it over the telephone is difficult to sometimes impossible). Some no doubt is due to idiot users. From my own personal experience, if you put the system together correctly in the first place with quality components, and you check for problems first before you buy, you’ll probably have far fewer problems than most people. That doesn’t mean you’ll have none.
Computers are still far, far away from being something you plug in and never have to worry about. Even though they may seem to be like another type of comsumer electronics; they just aren’t as reliable as a stereo or TV, and they may never be.
A big reason for that is that a TV or stereo is not very adaptable. It does a couple things, and that is that.
Something that just does a couple things can be designed to do those limited number of things very well. A computer is not like that. A computer is built to do practically anything someone can figure out how to make it do, which is a lot harder to get right than just a couple things.
Additionally, computers nowadays are built for a number of components that meet certain standards. On the whole, this is a great benefit. You get a whole lot of choice to suit your particular needs, and usually pretty low prices due to the competition.
However, you pay a price for this. The price you pay for choice are components that occasionally don’t quite work together correctly. Lower prices can mean shoddy equipment.
If you follow this series, you’ll end up with a computer less likely to give you problems, but still no computoaster. The beast doesn’t exist.
Is there anything else wrong with them?
Proprietary components: Compaq is infamous for this. If you ever have to replace something not under warranty, expect to pay a LOT more than you would with industry-standard parts. Others usually have generally industry standard parts, but
certain parts are not, like power supply plugs and connectors. Even when industry-standard parts are used, some OEMs tinker with them a bit. For example, Dell uses a lot of Intel parts, but come up with their own drivers and BIOSes. Dell often waits until long after Intel releases updates until they do “their” version. Dell tells you not to use Intel’s drivers or BIOSes, or you invalidate your warranty. Do the Intel updates work? Often they do; sometimes they don’t.
Unoverclockability: I get a lot of letters from people that essentially say, “I just bought a _____. How do I overclock it? The answer I usually have to give them is, “You can’t.” Oh, it’s not absolutely impossible given enough time, effort and money, but as a general rule, major OEMs don’t want you doing any such thing, and make it extremely difficult to impossible to do.
You bought an OEM computer in the first place because you didn’t want to learn about all the geeky details, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You bought it for convenience, for the warranty, for the tech support. If you were comfortable with the idea of a homebuilt system, you would have built it in the first place. I am very reluctant to advise people on what they have to do to their OEM machine to get it to overclock, because I’m essentially telling them to throw that all out the window, get themselves quite possibly over their heads, and likely spend a whole lot of money, too, for what is usually little gain for the effort and cost.
Don’t you have ANYTHING good to say about OEM computers?
From my perspective, not really. 🙂 But then, I’ve become a very picky person over the course of time. I want the best for my money; don’t you? I know when I bought OEM computers in the past, I hated figuring out the best one to buy. Nobody ever had just what I wanted.
What I’ve done here is tell you all the things you aren’t going to hear from the computer salesperson or ad. They won’t tell you any of the bad things, so I had to. 🙂 That doesn’t mean an OEM computer cannot be right for you; it just tells you what to avoid.
In the next section, I’m going to tell you what to look FOR in a computer. If there’s a major OEM out there that provides what you want, and you prefer to buy it, great. You probably got a better computer than you would have if you hadn’t read this. Building your own computer isn’t for everybody. I’m also going to talk about the amount of time and effort you need to commit if you want to build and maintain your own computer. You may not want to do that, either, but it’s better to find that out now than when you’ve bought a bunch of parts and can’t get them to work. I’ll also talk about how you can get a better computer than you can get from a big OEM, still get most of those OEM benefits, while avoiding most of the headaches of the homebuilt.
"What a Lot of Computer Makers Don’t Want You to Know: Part II – What To Want"
by Ed Stroligo – 3/20/00
I wrote this for those who need to know what features are important to have in a computer, and mostly presumes no overclocking. If you already know you’re going to overclock, read this for general information, but then go to Part IV: For Overclockers Only.
Yes, I know what the name of the website is. 🙂 Yes, I also know Part IV doesn’t exist yet (neither does Part III, which will deal with “How to Buy,” or Part V, which is “How to Build.”)
I’m doing it this way because there are only a few differences between a good computer system and a good overclocked computer system, and you need to know the first before you can have the second.
All these parts are eventually going to become one comprehensive, regularly updated “What to do” reference that you’ll be able to look up whenever you are ready to buy or upgrade a system.
It’s a lot of material to cover, and I’m plugging away at it, piece by piece. Please bear with me if you already know a lot of what I’m saying or if some of it seems obvious or silly, because it may not be obvious or silly to others, especially those just starting. Patience, please. It’s one of the best things to have when you do this. 🙂
Before going into specifics, I’d like to talk a bit about the value of planning the future of your computer system, and how that can save you in the long run. If you just want to see what you should buy, skip down to “Enough already.”
How to look at your computer
A computer system can be divided into three parts:
The core: These are: the CPU, the motherboard and the memory. These are the guts of your computer, and they change with each major generation of computer system. You can rarely
carry these parts on to the next major generation to another.
You can upgrade your computer without replacing the entire core, but you usually can’t in a major shift. For instance, if you have a PII/Celeron system, you usually don’t
have to replace everything to go to a Coppermine/Celeron II system, but you will for an Athlon Thunderbird DDR or Sledgehammer or Willamette system.
The semi-core: They are the video card and the hard drive(s). These items are very important to your computer, but are less likely to go immediately obsolete due to a core change.
Everything else: These items do not usually need to be upgraded because of a core change. Usually, you’ll only upgrade these as better components become available and you feel the need for them. Some can last for generations of core changes. These items are: monitors, CD-ROMs/DVDs, modems,
PCI controllers, network cards, floppies, mice, printers, scanners, cases.
Certain parts of your computer have more longevity than others. However, when you just buy a computer every few years, you don’t take advantage of that and end up buying some items again and again when the old ones were still perfectly good.
Now there are some good reasons to look upon it that way (see below), but if they don’t apply to you, you can take a different approach.
Computer longevity: Better than milk, worse than cheese.
Many people look upon a computer as a major asset, like a car. You buy it, you use it, you usually get a good chunk of your money back when you get rid of it, you go buy another one. Or you use it for a long time until it breaks, and then you get a new one.
Compared to most other major purchases, a computer is a terrible asset. They drop in value rapidly. Even worse, the more you spend, the faster they drop. People are stunned when they find out how much their two or three year-old computer is worth.
Generally, no matter what you buy, no matter what you spend, the core and semi-core components of a computer as a whole are (from a resale/state of the art perspective) junk three years after you buy it. If you spend a ton on things like processors, you just end up with slightly better junk that isn’t worth much more than the regular junk.
When you buy a computer, you should try to get the best bang for the buck when you buy it, and hold off the inevitable day when you say “my computer sucks.”
With some planning, you can often stretch that period out from three years to four.
Sure, you could use a computer for a lot longer than that, just as you can drive an old car around. However, even the cheapest person doesn’t keep using the car when it can’t go over fifteen miles an hour, or won’t drive where you want to go.
That’s what happens with computers when they get old. New programs run very slowly, or not at all. If you want to stay reasonably current, four years is about the most you can expect.
A different way to look at computers
Consider a computer as a work-in-progress, something you update parts of regularly, rather than buying and dumping the whole kit and kaboodle every three or four years.
There are three advantages to this:
- You’ll stay closer to the state of the art than you would otherwise.
- You’ll lay out less money in one shot for each minor upgrade, which is very good for those of you on a budget.
- You’ll probably be willing to spend more money on those items that you know will probably have a longer useful life than others.
There are two big exceptions to this:
- The hand-me-down: If you pass older computers down to your kids, or other relatives, you’ll want to give them functional computers. Even here, though, a little planning and upgrading can give those beneficiaries a better hand-me-down at minimal cost.
- Wheeling and dealing: Some of you have pointed out to me that you buy new components, then get rid of them while they still retain most of their value to get something new. In which case, you already know about this, and you can just skim this part for applicable tips. Maybe you might want to write a section on how you do it.
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
When I put a computer system together, I like to put together what I call a “one and out” system. What that means is that I put together a system where I can get one significant processor upgrade for a performance boost before I know I have to replace the core.
Over the past year, I’ve built a number of BX systems, all of which were planned to have Coppermines or Celeron 2s put in them eventually. This fall or winter, I will replace most of the current processors with .18 micron chips; leaving the rest of
the equipment alone. At most, I might have to replace a motherboard, too, but these systems will get upgraded from 450-550Mhz to about 900Mhz for relatively minimal cost.
Now what have I done? I’ve put together systems with a planned upgrade from day one. That upgrade is meant to extend the useful life of that computer by about a year for relatively little money. I really don’t have to upgrade at that point, none of them are slow; but what I’m doing is getting a speed boost at the point where it will be quite affordable.
None of the machines were quite on the cutting edge when built, nor will be after the upgrade, but they’ll all be in shouting distance of it for a longer period of time and for less money than if I just bought a high-end processor in the first place.
Since none of them have huge processing needs, none of these should start looking slow until 2002 or 2003. By then, we should be well into 64-bit computing, and serial ATA and new PCI and memory standards, and then I’ll look into a core/semi-core replacement. I believe many of the new standards will be much more firmly in place in 2002/2003 than they’ll be in 2001/2002; certainly they’ll be cheaper.
But even in 2002/2003, there will be parts of the old system I can choose to continue using. I generally spent good money on big monitors; they should last into the next generation. I may hang on to the full tower cases I bought and a few other things. Even if that doesn’t happen, if it becomes a hand-me-down, it’s a better hand-me-down for something I didn’t spend much to upgrade, and got plenty of use from.
In contrast, if I had just bought something very good from the getgo, and expected it to last for four years, I would have spent more money to start off with, and things would have started sucking sooner, right when I don’t want to make certain big choices.
Now this doesn’t work all the time. For instance, if you are buying from scratch today and you overclock, you will not be able to get a significant upgrade just by changing a processor (you may if you don’t, though, especially if you take the “disposable CPU” route I talk about below). In that case, then you might want to consider buying just enough core and semicore components to cover you for a couple years, and plan a major revision then.
It doesn’t matter when you buy, there’s always something better
A huge fallacy. Of course, there is steady improvement, but there are major changes, and there are minor changes. Buying a 600Mhz Katmai five or six months ago was a bad idea, because you could get something not much less slower for a lot less money. Buying a 600Mhz Coppermine now is a better idea, and will get even better shortly.
Buying (as opposed to using) a BX board now to run a Coppermine is probably a bad idea, but buying a good one to run a Celeron2 may be a good one. If you can at all wait, buying an 800Mhz Athlon now is probably a bad idea. Buying a Thunderbird four to six months from now is probably a much better one. Buying a .18 micron Willamette will probably be a bad idea, but buying a .13 micron one in due time will probably be good.
Generally, you shouldn’t buy when something much better is going to be around in a couple months, and you can’t get something close very cheaply. The 600Mhz Katmai was a bad idea, but a 366 Celeron o/cd to 550Mhz was a very good idea at that time.
A good time to buy is when your current computer is getting close to sucking or is already there, when you can get something that’s fairly close to the best relatively cheaply, and the next big improvement is six months away or more.
"What a Lot of Computer Makers Don’t Want You to Know: Part III – What To Buy – Page 3"
by Ed Stroligo
Enough already! What should I buy now?
OK, OK, just one last item: 🙂
One of the best ways to check out computer equipment you want to buy is Deja. What Deja (formerly known as DejaNews) does is compile postings in Usenet newsgroups and lets you retrieve them by keyword. If you are interested in something, go to http://www.deja.com/home_ps.shtml and just type the name of it in. If you want to find out about problmes about something, just type in: “problems something”. If a lot of people are having a particular problem with a piece of equipment, you’ll find out fast enough. 🙂
- CPUs: The first thing you need to decide is how much you want to pay for your CPU.
You basically have two choices: more or less.
“More” means $200-300. Don’t spend more than that unless you make a lot of money from your computer and a faster one will make you more. Otherwise, spending more is an expensive ego boost. An $800 chip usually turns into a $200 chip in six to eight months.
On the other hand, premium chips (Athlon or PIII) are usually discontinued when they hit about $180-200. They continue to depreciate, but at a slower pace.
What can you do if you want the speed but not the price tag? You can either a) find out if you can overclock the chip or b) if you don’t want to do that, just wait a few months until the chip at the speed you want costs $200-300.
Consider the possibility of a “disposable CPU.” If you need a computer now, and your heart is set on a 1Ghz Coppermine, but your wallet isn’t, why not buy a Celeron 500 to tide you over until a 1Ghz Coppermine is affordable?
Some consider that “wasteful.” But why? The damn things are primarily made of sand, we have plenty of that. If you spend $100 now, and $250 six months from now, it’s a lot less wasteful on your wallet than $800 now. Sell or even better give the Celeron to someone or some school or charity that could really use it.
If you plan on buying a complete machine, you won’t see the price of the CPU. However, you can check a website like www.pricewatch.com to see what a CPU costs, and that will be reflected in the price of the computer you buy. Or you can check here for future estimated pricing on CPUs.
Also, if you ever think you want to overclock, don’t buy a machine from a big OEM. Just don’t.
Which CPU should you buy: PIII or Athlon?
If you are not going to overclock your machine, neither is a bad choice. The Athlons will probably cost you less than the PIIIs, so it would be a better buy for most people. The only real exception to this is if you use applications or games that use SSE and don’t use 3DNow, in which case, the PIII is probably the better bet.
If you decide on buying a PIII, you should buy a Coppermine PIII, and not a Katmai PIII. The Coppermine is newer, and has a number of improvements. If you NEVER, EVER, EVER are going to overclock a Coppermine, buy a Coppermine “EB” chip and a Via board (see below). Otherwise, buy a Coppermine “E” (and see Part IV).
If, however, you’ve decided not to buy an OEM computer and plan to overclock the CPU, then a Coppermine PIII is a better bet for the next few months. See Part IV for more details.
I don’t want to spend that kind of money on the CPU. What are my options?
If you don’t want to spend that amount of money, then your choices are basically between Intel’s Celeron and AMD’s K6-2/K6-3. Generally, you should expect to pay between $60-100 for the CPU.
That’s a lot cheaper. What don’t I get for my money?
The Intel processors run at slower speeds than the more expensive processors, and are a little bit slower at the same speed than the premium processors. However, there isn’t much difference, and for most people, the additional $100-200 dollars isn’t worth it. This is a good way for most people to save a couple hundred dollars, but unfortunately, big OEMs don’t build systems that take this into account.
The K6-2 is an earlier generation processor than the Athlon running on an older system of motherboards. You can’t put an Athlon in a motherboard meant for the K6-2. I would not buy a new K6-2 system at this point in time; but I would certainly consider a K6-2 as a processor upgrade to an older system.
What Mhz should I be looking for?
If you aren’t going to overclock, you should get around 500Mhz in a new system. You just aren’t going to save much money getting less.
Which is better: Celeron or K6-2?
The K6-2 is cheaper, but the Celeron is a good deal better for handling graphics and video. For most people, the Celeron is a better choice.
Very shortly, both companies will have new generations of cheap chips. Intel should debut the next Celeron generation within a month. AMD will release its cheap version of the Athlon, code name “Spitfire” this summer. I expect the Spitfire to be very competitive against the Celeron competition.
Can you overclock these chips?
You can overclock the K6-2 a bit, but SOME Celerons (not all) are very overclockable. See Part IV for a discussion of this.
The next generation of Celeron may also be very overclockable. We don’t know about the Spitfires yet.
If you are thinking about overclocking, you really should wait until we see what the new Celerons can do. If you’re not, then it doesn’t make much difference buying now.
- Motherboards: If you are building an Athlon system, you want a KX133 motherboard. Since they are just starting to come out, no recommendations quite yet.
If you want an Intel chip, you have a lot more choices, and most of them are bad. To keep this simple:
Do not buy an 810 or 820 board. Succinctly, they are too slow and/or expensive.
If you are going to buy a Coppermine shortly, and you are not going to overclock, buy an Apollo Pro 133+ motherboard. They aren’t quite perfect yet, either, more are continuing to come out, and I might recommend something else next week, but if you can’t wait, look at the Tyan Trinity 400, the MSI-6309 and the Asus P3V4X. If you are going to overclock, see Part IV.
If you are going to buy a Celeron, never plan on buying a Coppermine, and do not ever plan to overclock, buy a BX board. Get one from a company known for stable motherboards, like AOpen or MSI or Asus. See Part IV if you plan to overclock.
Don’t buy computer parts (with the exception of memory) if you can’t immediately use them. Salesmen sometimes try to sell CPUs that way. Don’t be fooled. So what if a 500E is going to go away? You’ll just buy a 550E or 600E for the same price later on. For other items, they aren’t going to go away, they aren’t going to go up in price (except for memory, and you usually can use that right away), and you’ll usually get better for the same price when you are ready.
- Video: First you have to decide whether or not integrated video is acceptable to you. If you are on a budget, and do not plan on spending a lot of time playing games or using video or graphics program, integrated video with 8Mb of dedicated video is OK. Do not get anything less than this.
Otherwise, you should plan on spending around $100 more to get a motherboard with an AGP slot and a decent video card. If you aren’t particularly interested in gaming, but want very good image quality, a Matrox G400 is a good choice.
If you are more interested in games, but can’t spend a whole lot, you should look for a TNT2, or Voodoo 3 video card.
If you don’t feel right until you’ve had your recommended daily allowance of genocide; and can spend $200 or more, you are looking at a video card like the GeForce. However, two things you should keep in mind:
- These cards don’t necessarily have all their features enabled, particularly on Via boards, and
- If you are getting a processor running at over 600Mhz, the card doesn’t put out any more above that speed.
Most gamers should probably hold off on a processor upgrade/new system until there’s a video card that can take advantage of it, and that is beginning to look like an expensive proposition. The GeForce pushed the price envelope to about $300; we could see almost double that for some cards this year. So maybe you shouldn’t be so willing to upgrade the other things so fast, you might need that money. 🙂
- Monitors: This is what you do for a monitor:
- Don’t buy a 15-inch.
- Buy a 19″ monitor if you can afford it; more than that is a luxury. Buy at least a 17″ monitor.
- Don’t buy a monitor until you’ve gotten a chance to look at it, and looked at quality monitors, too.
- Here’s how you look at a monitor: one way or another, look at something with a lot of text, then look at a picture you know is high-quality. If you can’t do that, go to http://www.deja.com/home_ps.shtml, type in the model of the monitor, and see what people have to say about it. Do not expect to see everyone like or dislike a monitor, no matter how expensive or cheap it is. If you have no other choice, pretend it’s Family Feud. 🙂
- If the monitor you want happens to be a Trinitron monitor; take a look at a Trinitron monitor. Any Trinitron monitor. Every Trinitron monitor shows two little lines across the screen. You will either hardly notice it (like me), or it will drive you stark raving mad. It’s like combat; you don’t know if you’re a hero or coward until you’ve experienced it.
- Look at the technical specs at the company’s website, but don’t worry, this is easy. If this is not a Trinitron, try to get something with less than a .27 dot pitch unless you are really on a budget. If it is a Trinitron, you want a .25 pitch or less. You also want to see what the refresh rate of the monitor is at 1024X768. If it is not over 100Mhz, cross it off your list.
- Neither of these measurements gets you a good monitor, it just gets rid of the obvious old stuff/garbage. It may not be very good even if it meets both, but that’s why I had you looking at monitors.:)
- You are going to have a rough time finding a good 17″ monitor for less than $250 or 19″ for less than $350. $300/$400 is probably more like it.
- I’m not going to recommend names because monitors are so subjective, but go to the website of your favorite computer magazine, look at a survey of monitors, and you’ll get plenty of prospects. Do not assume that if one particular model of a brand is good, that they are all good. Manufacturers can be pretty erratic.
- If you would like to buy a big monitor (more than 19″), but your budget is a little too tight, consider buying a recent model refurbished unit. I’ll talk more about this in the next section.
- Modems: If you are going to be using a 56K modem regularly, Winmodems are bad. Get a modem that does its own work. If you plan on serious Internet use with your modem, you can hardly go wrong buying a U.S. Robotics Sportster for $80-90.
However, if at all possible, you really don’t want a 56K if cable modem or DSL are viable options. They are just so much faster; it’s the biggest speed boost you can give yourself. If your regular connection is cable modem or DSL, then you can get a cheap Winmodem to use in case of emergencies (and there will be emergencies).
Power supplies: This one is getting a little tricky for looking to the future. The reason for that is both video cards and especially CPUs are on an upward power trend. The upcoming AGP Pro standard will chew up as much as 110 watts of power. The Athlons are already chewing up 35-65W, depending on the configuration; and while the Intel chips aren’t as bad, they can grab 30W or so in an overclocked environment.
I’m seeing more and more cases where gamers are fixing their computer problems just by putting in a beefed-up power supply, and we’re not talking about replacing 145W units, but 235W, 250W and even occasionally 300W.
There is not much cost difference in power supplies up to 300W. More than that used to be astronomical, but gamers are beginning to buy them, so prices are coming down, but they still are at quite a premium.
If you have to buy an OEM machine, get at least 200W. Otherwise, if you aren’t interested in gaming or Athlons, get 235/250W. If you are interested in either, buy 300W, and don’t be shocked if you’ll need more down the road.
Hard drives: Not too big, not too small, and Noah’s Ark for adventure seekers: SCSI hard drives are overkill and not cost-effective for most people with a desktop computer. If you aren’t one of them, you already know that.:)
Storage Review is the place to find out about hard drives and to find out how the hard drive you are interested in compares to others. Bookmark it.
Buy 7200rpm drives. 5400rpm is old hat.
ATA66 pretty much comes standard on new drives. The standard itself practically makes no real life difference with current drives, but steady improvements mean that a new 7200rpm ATA66 drive will be faster than an older 7200rpm ATA33 drive. ATA100 is coming, but if ATA66 makes no real difference now; ATA100 won’t either.
Figure you are going to spend at least $120-180 for a hard drive. There are very few new hard drives available for less than $100, and it’s no real economy to spend $90 on a 4Gb hard drive when you can get 13Gb for $130-150. The best bang for the buck looks to be at 20Gb at about $170.
Don’t buy more than that unless you are absolutely sure you’ll need the space. If you run out of space, just buy another, it will probably cost a good deal less per gigabyte when you do.
You used to have to worry about buying a second hard drive if you used an IDE CD-ROM, but with add-on controllers costing practically nothing, this is no longer a big deal. Just make sure you have a lot of PCI slots when you buy your motherboard.
If you know you’ll need a whole lot of space and are a speed demon, consider playing Noah’s Ark and buy a pair of smaller ones rather than one big one, even though it will cost more.
There are two reasons to do this:
1) You’ll improve performance by putting the space on the hard drive designated as Virtual RAM on the second hard drive. That way, you don’t have to wait for the IDE drive to handle that before handling anything else. (This isn’t a bad thing to do with older drives, either.)
2) IDE RAID is becoming affordable. If you don’t know what it is, read my upcoming review.:) All you need to know right now is that it’s a way to get multiple drives to work faster than one (among other things). I’ll be testing a unit shortly, but from other reviews I’ve read, it does make a noticeable difference. Either now or later, it should become a good performance booster.
CD-ROMs: What are you going to do with it? If you are just going to install programs or listen to the occasional CD with it, a decent name brand CD-ROM for $40-50 will do fine (though Creative’s CD-ROMs often have problems.)
Do not be impressed with cited speed. With one exception (the Kenwood models, which are far more complicated, expensive, and prone to breakdwon), the 44X or 52X or even 72X figure you see measures only the absolute top speed on the very edge of the CD. The average is much lower, and all you do is occasionally install a CD, it really doesn’t matter.
If, however, you are interested in digital audio extraction (and I don’t want to know why you would be); you want accuracy. What is good enough for data is not good enough for sound. If this is important to do, bite the bullet and spend the $100 for a Plextor UltraPlex and another $50 or less for a SCSI-2 or 3 controller to go with it.
CD-R/CD-RW: The Bible on this one is McFadden. Just a couple points:
CD-R or CD-RW? What do you want to do with it? If you just want to back up data and reuse the backup media, buy CD-RW. If you want a permanent record for whatever it is you are doing, buy a CD-R.
I have a personal preference for SCSI drives. IDE doesn’t do a lot of things at one time well, and while that situation has improved quite a bit, you really don’t want a CD-RW sharing the same IDE channel with a hard drive it is recording from. A SCSI-2 controller is cheap and perfectly suitable for CDs; a few months ago, I got a used one for someone for a big $12.
DVDs: Hardware decoding is better than software decoding. If you have less than a 500Mhz processor, software decoding may not work too well. A couple months ago, I took a very close look at DVDs in the newsgroups, and it was pretty clear that this technology was not quite ready for prime time yet, not even for movies. A lot of installation problems; some titles simply didn’t work right no matter what you did. You might want to wait a bit longer until this matures a bit more.
DVD-RAM is still very early in the development cycle.
I know DVDs will eventually replace CD-ROM; the question is not if, but when, but when hasn’t arrived yet.
How much?128Mb. Give 256Mb serious consideration if you plan to use Windows 2000 and you use heavy applications.
When RAMBUS pricing stops being a joke, I’ll take it seriously. More promising candidates like Virtual Channel and DDR aren’t realistically available yet.
PC133 costs about $10 more than PC100. Even if you don’t plan to run at 133Mhz initially, buy it. A little later on, you might change your mind or put it in a system that does.
RAM is one of the few computer items that don’t invariably go down over the course of time, and sometimes go up, rather dramatically, in fact. Most RAM gets bought directly by the big computer OEMs. The rest gets sold to everyone else. If there’s a lot of RAM around, you’ll pay less than the big OEMs. If there isn’t, you’ll pay more.
Last August, I paid about $120 for a 128Mb stick of Siemens PC100 RAM. Then the Taiwan earthquake and Christmas season came along. Within a month, it was $250. It then slipped back, and now it’s about $120 again.
Now is probably a good time to buy RAM; prices may drop a little more, but should head back up as the year progresses; though not as dramatically as last year.
- Floppy drives: I wish you still didn’t have to buy the things. You can get a name-brand one for about $15; but nowadays, it will be of only occasional (but critical) use. Not big on Zip drives; I use a CD-R when I have to transfer files nowadays. It carries six times more data, and blanks cost about fifty cents-a dollar compared to $7-8 for Zip disks.
Sound cards/speakers: The universal choice among gamers is the SoundBlaster Live, and it may well deserve it for gaming. I’m not so sure it’s right for everyone else. I personally use an Ensoniq AudioPCI card, which you can still find for about $20. If you want a good site to go over sound cards, visit http://www.pcavtech.com/soundcards/ .
For speakers, I cannot tell a lie; I just don’t feel qualified to recommend anything. I only suggest that if your children decide to use their computer as their own stereo system, you might want to spend more than a few dollars on speakers, or maybe just hook the sound card into an old stereo you might have.
Network cards:You’ll need an Ethernet card for cable modem or DSL, you also will if you have more than one computer in your house and you want them to communicate with each other. The stores are filled with the latter; somebody must be buying them.
This is one of those areas where you can spend $50-60 for the best, but likely will do fine with something that’s $10-20. Get yourself a PCI 10/100 card, they behave better than ISA cards. I’ve had no problems with Hawking cards in several setups. If you find a card you like, check it out on Deja, and if no one has had a compatibility disaster with it, you’ll probably be fine.
Cases:Once you get the power supply issue (see above) settled, buy at least a mid-tower case, and, especially if you plan to fiddle around a lot, a full-tower case. Yes, they’re big. Yes, they take up space. But if you want fashion over function, go buy an iMac.:)
If cost is no object, the Supermicro cases are great, but I’ve found the Inwin full towers good enough for a good deal less. The HX08 is often recommended, but I used one and did not particularly like it. You can check a place like www.reviewclick.com for reviews of cases (and quite a few other things). Look for what the reviewer has to say about ease of use.
The real problem with cases is not so much deciding which one to get, but how to get it. Besides a monitor, it’s easily the heaviest, bulkiest item you’ll order, and one of the few items where you might want to buy local even though you’re buying everything else via mail-order/Internet.
- Printers: Do you want speed or color? If the first, look into laser printers. If the second, inkjets. If both, look into getting more money.:) Laser printers generally cost more, but cost less per page than inkjets. Laser color printers are still awfully expensive.
OS Software:If you don’t know what you want, you want Windows 98. If you don’t want Windows 98, you want Windows 2000. If you hate wimpy Windows, you may want Linux. If you hate war-crimes Windows, you’re in the wrong place and may want MacOS.
If you just want a computer that works all the time without you knowing much about it, it’s none of the above. Come back in ten years. 🙂