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Daniel Brown (Customer Service)

My Perspective on Personal Computers

Written on March 20, 2008 by Daniel Brown
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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.

While, I'll agree with Dan on most all of his points, I do want to point out that I've been using Wireless networking cards and devices since 802.11b came out (when every nerd was out "war driving") and consider any minute wireless issues to be well worth the benefits of wireless.

Posted on 2008-03-21 23:58:41

Perry: You are one of a small percentage of people who knows how to configure and troubleshoot a wireless access point yourself. Even so, I bet you've had problems with it that many people would consider unacceptable. Personally I like my computer and Internet connection to work as reliably as possible.

Posted on 2008-03-22 03:17:45

Wifi has always been a pain for me in the beginning but it's a lot easier now... :)

However, I think Power Supplies deserve some attention as well. My experience is that PSUs are often the area that people skimp the most on. The get high end stuff else where but then buy a cheap $30 '800w' PSU. After a while they complain about stability on load and I usually ask them, what are your rails like under load? Does it go out of range that is the standard?

http://www.formfactors.org/...

Power deprivation can potentially be damaging to hardware as well as lack of protection (my PSU trips if the power is a bit wonky - and no I have not gotten myself a UPS yet :p - been meaning to though).

Just my 2 cents.

Posted on 2008-03-22 17:21:36

OMG I need to wake up before posting anywhere (just woke up 10 mins ago lol).

"The get high end stuff else where but then buy a cheap $30 ‘800w’ PSU." = They get high end stuff for all of their parts but then buy a cheap PSU.

Posted on 2008-03-22 17:23:05
Daniel

Scott: You make a great point, this is an important part of the PC that I did not address.

Posted on 2008-03-22 21:00:37
John Doe

Okay...So first off, Since when has the phrase "Killer-App" ever been recognized as a professional term by anyone except wanna be gamers. On that same note, The internet has been accessible to everyone since the early 1990's, it is not a new invention. Third, the only thing that requires a reboot running windows XP is third party software that interferes with the programming....this is also known as spyware in the modern world. Fourth, why would you even mention that a reliable motherboard and RAM is necessary, i certainly hope that you have the same expectations for the rest of the hardware. All hardware should be reliable therefore your comment was erroneous. Last, you mention that anything spelled incorrectly should not be purchased, well in that case i will never buy a product from this company because at this page http://www.pugetsystems.com... there is an option for a "MIS GeForce 8400GS 256MB QUIET PCI-E". Well last time i checked MIS is not in the business of making graphics cards.
P.S. Replace my mouse every 6 months? Yes, because i sure do wanna throw out my old logitech G5 that cost me $70 and buy a new one every 6 months.

Posted on 2008-03-31 01:35:59
A Confused Soul

I never knew that the fastest and most modern hardware was bad for your computer! Wow, all this time I've been trying to get a fast video card! Boy was I wrong, thanks for this advice.

But then why do you advertise a "NEW - XFX GeForce 9800GX2 1024MB" Video Card with your $5,0000 dollar system? Because that sound like "the very fastest and most modern hardware" to me. And why does your previous point recommend "A modern CPU," I thought modern things were buggy, and raised the electric bill? So I don't understand whether your saying modern hardware is good or bad...

Lastly, how can you say "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." and then sell a computer for $5,000??

Posted on 2008-03-31 01:51:05
Daniel Brown

I'm glad we've got some discussion going on here, although it seems the recent comments are less constructive debate and more personal attacks. I will address a few of the points brought up here:

John Doe: Check 'Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English', or 'Investopedia', or 'Jargon file' or just hit dictionary.com for a definition of 'killer app'. I never said the Internet was a recent invention. My point is that use of the Internet is, in general, a good reason to own a computer. Your point labeled 'third' is incorrect - Windows often requires a reboot to install first party (Microsoft) updates. In your point labeled 'fourth', you seem to be explaining that by saying something true, I am incorrect. Thanks for the correction on our mislabeled video card, but you've misunderstood my point about misspelled hardware names - I was talking about part names which are intentionally and officially misspelled, not the occasional mistake in ad copy. I have certain perspectives on computer hardware, if you find yourself in disagreement, feel free to give constructive feedback or to disregard my opinion and go back to reading the opinions you agree with.

A Confused Soul: When you say, "why do you advertise...", understand I am a tech who works for Puget Systems, I am not its sole proprietor. In addition, just like many of you who are reading this, I really enjoy playing with the latest computer hardware. Even so, I understand that at the end of the day I want a computer that has the best chance of reliably and consistently doing what I need it to do. I am confident that you can buy such a computer from Puget. If you are seriously considering purchasing a machine from us, talk to one of our sales reps and tell them in particular what you most value in a computer. I'm confident you will at least come away with a better idea of what available hardware is most appropriate for your application(s), if not with a new PC.

Posted on 2008-03-31 04:45:04