How to build a stable computerWritten on July 29, 2008 by Jon Bach
Choosing the right hardware to go into your next computer can be challenging! It isn't enough to simply make sure that all your parts are compatible: a few bad choices can mean the difference between having a machine you can rely on for years to come, and having a machine you're perpetually troubleshooting and fixing...and wishing you could smash to pieces! If you buy a computer off the shelf, you have to go with what you're given. If you build your own computer, or have one custom built, you have the power to build a great solid machine, but you also have the power to configure a machine that is prone to problems. With experience building thousands of machines, and being in direct control of our product line, I want to share some tips about how to make sure your next computer is rock solid.
- Simplify! Many people think that having a custom computer means you can have every bell and whistle. I say that the beauty of a custom computer is that you can take away the features you don't need. Not only is it cheaper, but a simpler computer means there are less things to fail, less variables to consider, and less combinations to interact in unexpected ways. That is why I recommend against RAID and SLI, all other things equal. There are definitely times when they are needed to achieve a goal, but if you are given the choice between two low end video cards in SLI, and one high end video card alone -- go with the single card!
- Research your choices, and pick the items with best reviews. Do not believe the manufacturers, they will all tell you their product is best. Look at sites like NewEgg.com, and read their customer reviews. Look specifically at the problems. Don't be concerned with isolated reports -- you'll find people reporting problems with just about any product, and isolated reports are usually user error. Look for trends or repeat problem reports.
- Make sure you adequately cool the computer. Don't stop with just the CPU, motherboard chipset, and video card. Some components are made to run at higher temperatures, but the general rule of thumb is that the hotter any component is, the faster it will fail. Try letting your system get up to peak temperature with a few hours of gaming, then quickly shut it down and open up the side panel. Are there hot spots? How can you adjust the fans to better cover them? At Puget Systems, we do this with a laser temperature probe, scanning for any hot spot that might bring a computer to an early death.
- Use low power components. One of the easiest ways to cool a computer is to generate less heat to begin with! Lower power means that the components will be easier to cool, which is fundamentally better. Keep in mind that low power does not equal low performance. Often times it is the newest technology that is the lowest power, but not always. Look for a wattage rating, or a power supply recommendation. The larger the number, the harder it will be to keep cool!
- Use modern generation technology, but don't be fooled. Manufacturers like to put out "new" products that are just old products on steroids. These products simply cram more transistors onto the same card, which does make it faster, but also makes it much higher power and harder to cool. Some culprits to look out for are the extreme high end video cards and CPUs. Truly new techology will contain a new core type or manufacturing process.
- Avoid products with crazy names. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but in general I have found that companies that allow their marketing departments to create names like "XZY Platinum Fata1ity Pro Series" have forgotten that their true purpose is to engineer quality hardware.
- Talk to someone with experience. This is actually part of your research step, but can be a little tougher if you don't know the right person. Companies like Puget Systems have a huge wealth of information at their fingertips, and are usually happy to share information. Ask for failure rates, and the opinions of their support staff (which often means more than the opinions of the sales staff!).
- Make sure the warranty is comprehensive if you're buying a custom computer. If the company is unwilling to protect you from the risk of hardware failure, its probably because its too expensive for them to offer! That's a big red flag that they're not selling you what is best, but rather are catering to the hype of the industry (giving people exactly what they think they want).
I hope these thoughts help you with the design of your next machine! If you have other ideas, please do post them in the comments below. And of course, feel free to email us anytime if you're specing out a custom machine and need guidance -- that's what we do!