My Perspective on Personal Computers

My name is Daniel Brown, I am a PC technician.  I'm writing this article because I feel like, based on my experience, I may have some wisdom to impart regarding PCs.  I've been working with PCs for most of the last 13 years.  Even when not employed in the computer industry, I've consistently dedicated a significant portion of my own time to staying up to date with PC hardware trends and learning more about personal computers.  During my time in the IT industry, I've encountered more than my share of problems and done countless hours of troubleshooting.  In my current role as 'Lead Support Technician' here at Puget, I add to those hours of troubleshooting daily, dealing with modern PC systems.

I feel like the majority of people who work with computers today think of them as more or less a necessary evil.  I am the first one to admit that sometimes working with PCs can be a big hassle.  That said, it seems like I see exciting new applications for the PC almost daily.  Just last night I discovered a service online where you can get free topographical maps – Crazy!  Basically, the sky is the limit for the applications a creative programmer can come up with, and if you want to, you can literally find thousands of interesting free applications online.

If you don't know much about computers, and you don't own a PC, I would encourage you to at least learn a little about what you are missing.  I think you will find that owning a computer is worthwhile.  I find that many people are confused about computers, and uncertain of what kind of hardware they should buy, this guide should help answer some common questions.  You don't need an extremely expensive PC, but buying a PC with reliable hardware is a worthwhile goal.

I've gained a certain perspective on hardware reliability and certain expectations of my computer which I'd like to explain here – I've decided to drop them here as a list because I think they are suited to that format:

  1. The best thing about a computer is that it is general purpose.  The CPU in your computer is suited for handling so many different types of processes that, as I mentioned before, the only real limit to application is your creativity.
  2. The second best thing about a computer is that you can connect to the Internet.  The Internet is the 'killer-app' for PCs.
  3. Given a choice between a basic reliable PC and a high-end PC that has unproven and/or buggy hardware, the basic reliable PC is a better choice.
  4. The people you buy your hardware or computer from make a difference.  Buy hardware from a manufacturer who, if you end up with some problematic hardware, will be 'on it' and doing all they can to inform you about the problem and fix the problem.  If you are buying a complete system, the above applies to the people you are buying it from, but check the manufacturers of the parts you are buying anyway because concerns about the manufacturer can still be legitimate.
  5. You should never have to reboot unless you are installing new hardware or doing something that requires you to open the PC chassis.  The reality is if you are running Windows, you're going to have to reboot more than this, but understand that many things that Windows requires a reboot for are only because of limitations in the operating system, and are not a limitation of personal computers in general.
  6. In general, your machine should never lock up or give you a 'blue screen of death'.

Next I want to give a list of hardware for an ideal PC experience:

  • A reliable motherboard.  The motherboard is the part of your computer which is statistically most likely to fail.  Reliability should be considered above all else when choosing a motherboard.  Look for a simple motherboard (simple means less things to break and you do not want to have to replace your motherboard) with higher quality parts such as solid capacitors.  Expect to go one or two chipsets back from the most recently released to find a motherboard with a good history of reliability.  Go for something mainstream.
  • Reliable RAM.  RAM problems constitute a big percentage of the actual hardware problems we talk to customers about (excluding 'problem lies between keyboard and chair' type of issues).  Even though most RAM brands use chips from the same manufacturers, there are significant differences in failure rates from brand to brand.  Don't get the fastest speed available.  Check the 'validated memory' list for your motherboard – consider it a better reference than brand-specific 'validated memory' lists as generally the motherboard manufacturer is not trying to sell you RAM.  Plan to only populate 2 of the 4 available memory sockets on your motherboard.
  • A wired connection from your computer to your router/modem which is connected to your internet service provider.
  • A modern CPU (preferably one with the latest available architecture from your preferred vendor).
  • A 3D accelerator.  If you want to try any games, or if you work with 3D applications at all (Vista Aero, CAD, 3D modeling, etc.) you will need a 3D accelerator.  Of course if you are mainly using this machine for gaming you will want a fast 3D accelerator.  I don't do a whole lot of gaming – if gaming is your main purpose, I would recommend looking closely at modern gaming consoles before you decide to buy a PC just for gaming.  Don't go overboard here, the video card is one of the easiest internal parts of the machine to upgrade so if you need faster you can always get it later.
  • A cheap, wired keyboard with your preferred key setup.  Keyboards fail so seldom anyway that theres really no reason to try to get a higher-quality one.  You'll probably want to replace it after 6 months anyway because they generally get kind of nasty after awhile.
  • A monitor that is easy on your eyes.  Most modern LCDs meet this requirement.  Understand that whatever monitor you buy, you will probably be able to use it for much longer than your PC (because monitor technology progresses more slowly than PC technology) so its worthwhile to get the one you really want within reason.
  • A good cheap wired optical USB mouse.  Logitech is generally good.  This is another thing you'll probably want to replace after 6 months if you care about cleanliness.
  • A good area to put your PC.  Don't be afraid to spend extra on some ergonomic keyboard trays and monitor stands, or even a new computer desk – your wrists and neck will thank you.  Experiment with room lighting to find a configuration that eases eye strain.
  • Think about buying a battery backup unit.  It sucks to have your work go away when the power goes out.  If you decide to buy one, make sure its a high quality unit as low quality ones have the potential to reduce the life of your power supply.

Next, I want to give a list of hardware that is NOT conducive to an ideal PC experience:

  • The very fastest and most modern hardware available.  In general, consider the latest processor architecture, but do not get the model with the highest clock rate available.  CPUs and 3d accelerators with higher clock rates use more power and generate more heat, which will add to system fan noise and your electric bill.  Motherboards using newer chipsets often have unresolved firmware problems, and if you do encounter problems you will find less help online because with newer hardware there are fewer people who have experienced the problems before you.  You might end up being the 'guinea pig' and having to call the manufacturer trying to motivate them to fix the problem.  With CPUs, it is unlikely you will find any additional issues in higher speed models, but be aware that CPU clock frequencies are only one part of the overall performance equation for a modern PC.
  • Anything wireless.  It might not break, but there is a good chance you will have problems with it at some point.
  • TV tuners.  There may be a few that are quality, but generally its not worth trying to find them in the sea of mediocrity that is TV tuner solutions today.  Consider just downloading the shows you want to watch from the Internet or watching them on DVD season sets.  If you want to take advantage of recording shows from your digital cable subscription, just get a 'Tivo', or whatever your local cable company's equivalent is.  TV Tuners for PC can't currently do digital cable reception (not completely true, but true enough), whereas some of the standalone 'Tivo' style units can.

General guidelines:

  • Expect to have to clean the inside of your computer every 6 months or so. Use compressed air specifically made for cleaning PCs.   You can also use an air compressor if you are sure there is no water or oil running through the air hose.  Do not use a vaccuum cleaner or anything wet.
  • Think twice about purchasing anything with misspelled words such as 'xtreme' or meaningless marketing words such as 'ultra edition', or 'elite' in the name.  This should be self-explanatory.
  • Give Linux a try.  Use a 'Linux live DVD' so you don't need to install it on your computer at first.  I think you will find that newer distributions such as Kubuntu, Fedora, and SUSE all have very competitive feature sets when compared to Microsoft Windows, minus all the activation and DRM BS that Microsoft / NBC thinks you should just 'trust' them with.