In the course of my work as a sales consultant here at Puget Systems, I am often asked how I recommend setting up a computer. After all, providing advice like that on hardware configurations is my job! However, there are some deeper insights into how a computer can be set up which go beyond just selecting the right hardware. There are things I don't often have the opportunity to discuss, and which aren't really within the purview of a system builder. I wanted to take some time to write about the ideas and practices I use in my own computer setups, in the hope that some of this advice will help others to get the most out of their computers.
I primarily want to share setup insights not directly related to the hardware in any given system, but in order to facilitate that advice there are a couple of basic principles of computer design I would like to encourage.
Use a Dual Hard Drive Setup - I strongly recommend having two hard drives: a smaller, fast one for Windows and applications, and a larger one for data storage. Some folks might need even more data drives (which is fine), but the important part is to separate your data from your OS installation and programs. There are several advantages to this approach, including:
- You can reinstall Windows or programs without affecting saved data files
- Data can be backed up easily and independent of application files
- The data drive could be moved to a new computer in the future
- You can invest in a high-speed drive for your OS / applications without having to buy into large capacity that might be cost-prohibitive
- You can get a large, slow data drive without having to worry as much about affecting application performance (though data stored on that drive would be slower)
- Both drives can be active and accessing data at the same time without slowing each other down
Personally, as of writing this document, I use a 80GB Intel SSD for my main drive with a 500GB data drive. I also use an external 1TB disk for backups.
If you want to make it easy to save data to your secondary drive without having to manually change where every file is saved, consider migrating your Documents folder to the drive. You can do this by opening the User folder (top-right option in Windows 7's start menu). In the window that opens, right-click on each of the folders listed there - My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, etc - and go to Properties. Select the Location tab and then click on Move to relocate the folder to your preferred drive.
Get Lots of RAM - It has always been my opinion that more RAM (random access memory) is better than faster RAM. There is anywhere from a 0 - 5% performance spread in most applications between the slowest and fastest DDR3 RAM currently available. This is very small, considering the higher cost of enthusiast memory. However, there is a massive performance difference between having enough memory for everything you are running and falling short of that amount. When you don't have enough memory, Windows will use hard drive space to make up the difference, and that is infinitely slower than RAM, causing a system to grind to a near-halt.
You do need to balance out the amount of memory you get with the cost, and while prices on memory usually trend downward over time they can fluctuate greatly in the short-term. Right now I think that 6, 8 or 12GB is reasonable, depending largely on how many slots for memory a given motherboard has. 4GB is sufficient for more basic usage, but if you tend to run multiple programs at once, I'd aim higher.