Posts Tagged ‘PC’

How to buy a good laptop

I’ve had a number of people ask me recently which laptop they should buy.  While I don’t typically have specific brand and models recommendation – if that’s even possible – there are a few considerations that will make it a lot easier to pick the right laptop from the vast number of options out there.

This article is a follow-up to “How to buy a New PC” which has some basic thoughts about investing in a new computer. 

There are a couple things to think about when buying a new laptop (or PC): what you want to do with it (your intended purpose), how much you want to spend (your budget), and how long you want it to last.  You’d want to get a completely different class of machine for digital video editing than for surfing the internet. 

Most people want a good, general-purpose laptop, and have a budget of $600 to $1,000 (U.S.). If I could sum it up, they generally will say:  

I want a laptop that’s good all-around for my home, surfing the ‘net, watching videos, checking mail, and maybe occasionally working from home; and I would like it to last about five years.

For those with busy days – or who are just plain impatient — here are my general recommendations, with more detail on each in the rest of the article below. 

  • Brand: stick with major manufacturers like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – or Apple
  • Model: almost never buy the cheapest model; it’ll be limping along in a few years.
  • Operating system: Windows 7 Home 64-bit
  • Processor: dual-core, Intel “2nd Gen” mobile processor: Core i3 is great, e.g. i3-2310M and up.  Core i5 fine, too; but may be overkill.
  • RAM: 4 GB is more than enough for most
  • Hard drive: 250 GB is more than adequate; consider a solid-state drive (SSD)
  • Wireless: get 802.11 “n” not “g”
  • Screen: if you value picture quality and ability to play HD video, consider any options for better screens
  • Battery: get the highest capacity battery (e.g. 9-cell) and consider extended-life battery options if battery life/mobility are important

Brand and operating system

I don’t have a specific brand recommendation, although I have experience mostly with the Dell Latitudes (business) and Studio (home) lines.  Stick with a major manufacturer like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – and let’s not forget Apple — and you should be fine. 

If you’re going with a Windows PC, then definitely get the 64-bit version of Windows 7 – and not the older 32-bit version.  The 64-bit version makes better use of your memory, and has become the standard offering; 32-bit versions of Windows are being phased out (please correct me if I’m wrong).  I have been running Windows 7 64-bit for about a year and a half with no problems – besides it being its old creaky Windows self, that is.  (It is, however, the best desktop/home version of Windows to-date, by far.)

The major options

Let’s look at the things that dramatically affect the usability, cost, and lifespan of a laptop.

1. Processor (CPU).  The CPU (processor) is the heart of your laptop.  You won’t be able to replace or upgrade this, so your choice is important. I was going to say that the sweet spot in price+performance is a quad-core processor; but the truth is that a dual-core processor is enough horsepower for most tasks.  (Your real bottleneck is that good old spinning hard drive; see below on using solid-state drives if performance matters to you.) 

If you’re looking at laptops with Intel-based CPUs, you should most definitely get an Intel “2nd generation processor.”  These new CPUs, code-named “Sandy Bridge” in development, are significantly more power-efficient than earlier CPUs and will extend your battery life.  2nd gen CPUs are mostly the standard for most laptops these days; but I’ve seen a few models offered with older-generation processors.  So be on the lookout for that…

In this department (Intel mobile processors), I do have a specific recommendation: the Intel Core i3 series is just fine for laptops, e.g. Core i3-2310M or any Core i3-2xxxM model. When I was choosing options for my Dell Studio 15 last year, it was tough for me not to want the Core i5 instead of the Core i3: certainly the “i5” is at least 50% better than the “i3,” right?  Well, when you compare the specs for the two processors on Intel’s site – e.g. a Core i5-2540M — you’ll find that the only difference is “turbo mode,” which can take the machine over 3 GHz when called for. My take: more speed means you’ll eat your battery much faster and throw off more heat.  Again: the performance bottleneck is not typically the processor: it’s the hard drive. 

Try this: when any machine you’re using is being slow, watch the hard drive light.  If it’s flashing quickly – or is pegged “on” – then it’s your hard drive that’s slowing you down.  Consider initiating yourself into the wonderful world of solid-state drives (SSDs). 

2. Screen and graphics card. If one of your primary uses for the laptop is to watch hi-def movies – or if you’re an amateur photographer and you want your pictures to be stunningly clear — then you might want to consider any screen upgrade options, if available.  When I purchased a Dell Studio 15 laptop last year, I opted for the “True HD” screen (+$100).  Like the CPU, you’ll never be able to upgrade your screen, so this choice is important.  And if you’re planning on looking at the screen for five years or so, an extra $100 works out to $20 per year: peanuts.  But you also might be the kind of person who doesn’t care about fancy screens, too. 

Likewise, there may be options to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card (also called a “video card”) such as AGP or Matrox.  If you’re going to just be surfing the web and watching movies, most likely the built-in or base graphics option will be just fine; it certainly is for the built-in Intel Graphics on my Dell.  A graphics card upgrade is most likely advisable for things like video editing or extreme gaming.

3. Battery life. I don’t know about you, but battery life on a laptop is pretty important to me.  It greatly diminishes the spirit of having a laptop to always have to be plugged in.  In addition, laptop batteries lose their punch as they get older, typically after about a year of use.  So I recommend any offered upgrades, for instance from a 6-cell to 9-cell enhanced battery.  Consider any “extended life” batteries, too: even the 9-cell battery on my Dell Studio 15 can now only really get about an hour and a half of light usage.  

Your choice of processor will greatly affect your battery life, since the CPU is the prime consumer of energy onboard a laptop. 

The simple options

With the more difficult choices out of the way, some of the remaining choices can be pretty straightforward. For example:

  • Hard drive. You DON’T typically need a huge hard drive: 500 GB is way more than enough for most people, and 250 GB is more than adequate. If it’s not already, most of your photos/videos/music will be online “in the cloud.” I’m thinking Spotify, Pandora, Dropbox, iCloud, iDrive, and all the other services that will be powered by cloud-storage providers like Amazon S3, Windows Azure, and some company that Dell bought. So you don’t need all those gigabytes; and if you decide that you do, you can always hook up a fast external drive (USB or FireWire). But if you’re performance-minded you may want to make sure you get a 7200 RPM hard drive instead of the slower 5400 RPM drives, or – like many people, like me – opt for an extremely, life-changingly awesome upgrade to solid-state drive (SSD).
  • Memory (RAM). 4 GB of RAM is more than enough for most people, and it’s the current sweet spot pricewise. 2 GB might not be enough, and the nanosecond you run out of RAM, your computer will run slower than maple syrup on a cold Vermont day.
  • Wireless connectivity (wi-fi). Your wireless connection should be “n” and not “g” – as in, you would like it to be compatible with the 802.11n wifi networking standard, not the older 802.11g. With that said, “g” is not bad – it is just a little slower and has less range.

My personal “likes”… 

That’s about it… there may be other things that affect your choice, such as sound system (I think it’s nice to have decent built-in speakers), aesthetics, ruggedness, keyboard layout, and so on.

I chose these options and features for my current laptop, and would choose them again for the next one.

  1. Backlit keyboard. Having a backlit keyboard has been fantastic, and I hope I never have a laptop without one.  Strangely enough, it seems to still be a relatively rare option on laptops. 
  2. Solid-state drive (SSD).  Personally, though it’s an expensive upgrade (~$200-$250), I always use solid-state drives (SSDs) in my machines – it’s a hard drive which uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter – because the machine overal feels soooo much quicker.  (See my article “SSDs: Are You Experienced?”)  In this space, hard drive capacity is expensive – I only use 128GB drives, which is more than enough.  256 GB is overkill and will set you back $400 to $500. My current drive of choice: Kingston SSD V+ Series 128GB (~$225). 

    This will be important for future-proofing: there are all kinds of background processes running on a typical computer, and each of them steals a little bit of processor power from what you’re doing. These include virus checkers, hard drive indexers, application helpers, and so on. (I have 83 processes running on my Windows 7 laptop as I type.)

  3. Full HD screen.  Since I want my laptop to last for five years (another four from the current date), I chose a true high-definition screen. More and more content is in HD, from Blu-Ray to YouTube, and I expect this trend will only continue. Last thing I want to be stuck with is a dull screen that can’t play video content well.

But once you’ve figured out the primary options that we’ve looked at in this article, it should be easier for you to pick the one that’s right for you.

Good luck — share your own experiences in the comments below. 

   — Keith

 

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New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Summary

After deciding to build my new computer instead of buy it (see “Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?”), the next task was to figure out which components to buy.  Armed with a thorough review of the choices and some spare PC parts, I ordered a balanced mix of new components that, for only $600, should make me the owner of one of the faster PCs on the planet.

Before you race off to build your custom PC, peek into the future to see some of the lessons I learned on my build; hopefully it will save you some time.

The Winners

I already had a spare tower case, a lightly used and excellently rated Antec 430W True Power supply, and some enterprise-class SATA hard drives.   That left me in need of a motherboard, a processor, some memory, and a graphics card.

Here were the components I picked (and bought) as a fantastic performer that should last for at least five years (prices include tax and shipping):

  Component Cost
image Core i7-860 Processor
Powerful quad-core CPU
$250
image ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard
Solid performer future-proofed with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps
$140
image G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Fast, reliable memory
$115
image XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card
Enough to get the job done well for me
$60
image LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player
With the old one a little finicky – why not?
$30
  Total: $595

Backstory

I’ll admit it: I spent a whole lot more time researching the system components than I ever thought I would.  I read hundreds of peoples’ comments on NewEgg and Amazon;  browsed a score of product reviews;  and sifted through countless conversations on top tech forums.

I included rating, cost, power, noise, reliability, efficiency, and good ol’ ease of use when looking at components.

=> It’s definitely a whole lot easier to go buy a Dell – particularly a top desktop like the XPS, and especially their PowerEdge servers.   You’ll pay for the convenience, naturally; but you’ll get a high-performance system instantly.  For me, taking the time to learn about the latest in computer technologies and hand-select a top-performing system was a lot of fun.

=> As a software architect by profession, it’s important to understand the details of computer architecture: how the components operate, communicate, and coordinate their jobs within the computer.   As a tech guy, I’m frequently asked for advice by friends and family on what systems or components to buy, so it’s nice to be informed and able to share well-reasoned advice.

Needs

If you’re trying to make sense out of this post (and a million other out there), it will surely help you to understand what I am looking for in this system.

  • I don’t need an “extreme” gaming-style rig, which would spike the price, suck more power, and almost certainly make more noise.   No super-overclocking motherboards, gotta-be-faster-than-you RAM, or frag-you-more dual Crossfire video card configurations.
  • I wanted a quiet, powerful, flexible system, just short of extreme: it would do everything well and last for about five years at least.

I wanted to be mindful of a computer’s primary performance bottlenecks, attacking them in a balanced fashion.  I would no more want to pair a world-class processor with slow memory than I would want a fancy graphics card when I really need a faster hard drive.

Without further ado, the components and their runners-up…

imageThe processor: Intel Core i7-860

The Core i7-860 is an all-around top performer that bests its close competitor the i7-920 in most benchmarks and uses less energy.  For a summary of the differences and why I chose the i7-860, read this article.

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose Core i7-860, $250 Well-loved everywhere, bests i7-920 in most benchmarks, uses less energy Costs a little more initially than i7-920
  Core i7-920, $220
Core i7-930, $250
Excellent processor, almost statistically identical to the i7-860 Uses more energy, fewer & more expensive motherboards, requires RAM in banks of three
  Core i5-750, $180 Very close to i7-920 and i7-860, while less expensive. A great option if you’re cutting costs. No hyperthreading, so appears to OS as four cores instead of eight

image The motherboard: ASUS P7P55D-E

The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard is a midrange, classic choice from a top manufacturer.  While the “midrange” designation stung for a while – who wants to be midrange? — it’s midrange only in that it lacks extra bells and whistles (dual Crossfire/SLI, dual network cards, 10-channel sound) that most of us don’t need; and it doesn’t cost as much.

This “E” series motherboard from ASUS has everything I need, plus adding a bit of future-proofing by supporting the next round of USB and SATA standards: USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0.

=> I didn’t have any problem paying for features I needed;  but I’d rather buy features that would really contribute to the overall performance of the computer.  Think fast GPU or solid-state drive (SSD).

Selecting the motherboard was the most difficult task after selecting the processor itself.  There are a myriad of options to sort through, including support for RAM, number and type of PCI card slots, max number of hard drives supported, and various permutations of audio, network, and USB/FireWire support.

My primary sources were the reviews on NewEgg.com, supplemented by expert reviews on top technical sites like AnandTech.com , TomsHardware.com , and a few others.   I looked through the NewEgg reviews and discounted boards that had too many DOA comments (board died), compatibility issues, or just too many negative ratings.

=> When it comes to user product reviews, there’s always a sprinkling of haters who are apparently never satisfied with anything.   I keep this in mind when reading product reviews.   Some people are determined not to be happy…

In the LGA 1156 arena (the socket type mandated by my choice of the Core i7-860 processor), there are a lot of choices.   Reviewing the many options, I decided that what I didn’t want was:

  • I won’t need dual GPU’s (graphics cards) running at full speed.  A major feature divide in the motherboard set is whether it supports dual Crossfire or SLI, meaning you can have two GPUs installed and running at full tilt.   Most GPUs today support dual monitors, which is fine for me.
  • I won’t need maximum overclockability.  I do definitely want to be able to play around with overclocking.  It seems like it would be fun to tweak system settings.   Some motherboards (ASUS Maximus III) have featuresets created with the extreme overclocker in mind.  Not me.
  • I won’t need anything too fancy.  Dual network interface cards (NICs), huge number of PCI Express x16 slots (the best & fastest), flashy LED lights on the motherboard, 10-channel sound – all cool, but not required.

What I did want out of the board:

  • I did want to future-proof it with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  USB 3.0 has a massive bandwidth and power increase over USB 2.0.  In three to five years, USB 3.0 devices will be cheap and plentiful.  The same can be said for SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  I could always buy a USB 3.0 card later for probably $30, but why not get it integrated now?
  • I did want RAID support.  RAID makes it easy to defend against a single hard drive failure (RAID-1, “mirroring”) , as well as increase performance (RAID-0, “striping”).  I plan to have four 500 GB drives striped and mirrored in a RAID-10 array, giving me the best of both worlds.  (Note: if you just want basic RAID variants, Windows 7 and WS 2008 have support for RAID-0, 1, 5, etc.  More advanced RAID style  like RAID+10 – mirroring and striping – require motherboard support or 3rd-party RAID adapters.)
  • I did want support for fast memory.  Today’s major computing bottleneck is not in the processor, it’s in the communication between the CPU and the memory.  While giant strides have been made in processor architectures, memory latency has seen far less improvement.  I wanted fast memory and the ability to use it;  this translated to selecting boards that supported at least DDR3 1600.  Most of the boards do support this, btw.

Here are the finalists in the motherboard category, narrowed down from many more.  They’re all top-rated boards:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose ASUS P7P55D-E, $140. Highly rated version of the P7P55D standard, but adds support for USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0. None for me!
  Asus P7P55 SuperComputer, $240. Excellently rated;  offers huge extensibility through its five PCIe x16 slots.  Reviewers raving about the excellent build quality. Relatively expensive and generally overkill. I just don’t need that much extensibility.
  Asus Maximus III, $250. Well liked, with tons of overclocking options Aimed at the enthusiast overclocker;  overkill for me.
  GIGABYTE GA-P55A-UD4P, $195. Excellently rated board with USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gb/sec, and supporting high-speed dual GPUs. None;  this was a runner-up, and in the end, I wanted to buy an Asus board because of their reputation.

I also considered other ASUS motherboards in the P7P55-E family. These included the “Pro” and “Premium” designations.   In general, they all were excellently reviewed, but simply had more features than I needed: most of the options were fast dual GPU support (e.g. dual x8 Crossfire: two PCIe x16 slots that degrade gracefully to x8 in dual GPU config); enhanced audio; more PCIe slots (and typically fewer legacy PCI slots).  In my case, I felt the extra money could better be put to use for extra RAM, another hard drive (or a faster one), or a better graphics card.

  • ASUS P7P55D-E Premium, $290.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps, 4 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 10-channel audio, dual NICs.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E Pro, $200.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E, $140.  Dual GPU-capable @ x4, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.  (This was the board I chose.)

Lastly, I ruled out all the non-“E” ASUS motherboards (e.g. P7P55D/Pro/Premium) because they did not have USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps.

image Memory (RAM): G.SKILL RipJaws

With the motherboard selection out of the way, the RAM was pretty easy.   With memory, I was looking for:

  • Compatibility.  I wanted to throw the memory in my new motherboard and have no issues or hassles.
  • Speed.  I wanted the fastest possible RAM without being “extreme” and hockey-sticking the price.  DDR3 1600 seemed to be the standard here.
  • Robustness.  While overclocking was not my prime objective, I did want the flexibility to play with it.  So I wanted RAM that would tolerate OC’ing well.

There are a ton of RAM choices out there, so feel free to browse away.  I spent the least amount of time looking at RAM options, since I just wanted it to best fast and stable.  My selection and the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose G.SKILL RipJaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB), $115. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM with heat management. Plus, they look cool. None for me!
  G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB), $105. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM. None
  Corsair Dominator 4GB (2 x 2GB), $150. Excellently reviewed, high-end RAM with great heat management for OC’ing. A little expensive

XFX Radeon HD 4650 Graphics card (GPU): XFX RADEON 4650

My goal for the graphics card was to be capable and well matched to the rest of the system.  Since I’m not a gamer or a professional videographer, I wouldn’t need a top-of-the-food-chain GPU.   But with the rise of video and the convergence of TV and the internet, I wanted to be able to at least play full-screen HD content flawlessly.  On my old PC, a Dell PowerEdge 400SC server with an aged ATI Radeon 9600 card, I couldn’t play HD content on YouTube without an occasional stutter.

Desktop GPUs have become big business:  modern GPUs are basically little computers-on-a-card.  They have dedicated processors on them, up to 1 GB RAM, dedicated cooling systems, and in some cases, even require dedicated connections from the power supply.

In fact, there are a ton of cards out there which are power hogs and can significantly increase the energy consumption of the entire PC.  The high-end graphics market seems to be dominated by gamers (more power to you), who are typically playing mano-a-mano first-person combat games with each other over the internet.  They need high frame rates and blazing graphics speed.   But some of these top-end graphics cards explicitly require 500-watt or 600-watt power supplies.

What I personally wanted of out a graphics card:

  • Dual monitor outputs. If you haven’t experienced the joy of a dual-monitor setup, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The good news is that most cards out there today support dual outputs.
  • DVI interface. There are two basic types of connections from a PC’s graphics card: VGA (older; analog) and DVI (newer; digital).  Moving forward, I won’t be needing the older analog VGA connections.  If you have digital displays, e.g. an LCD or other non-tube display, there’s little sense in sending anything but a digital signal to it.  With a VGA signal, the GPU card has to first convert the digital info (from the computer) to an analog signal (the VGA output), then the monitor has to take the analog VGA signal and convert it back into digital form again.
  • Ability to play full-screen HD content. There’s a tsunami of HD content on the way, but even watching YouTube videos at HD is fun now.
  • Reasonable power consumption. No power hogs.
  • Quiet. I didn’t want a GPU with a noisy fan.  Silence is golden.

There are a ton of highly rated choices out there between $100 and $200.  The NewEgg crowd seemed to especially like cards by XFX and EVO.   I chose the XFX because it seemed to have everything I wanted.  At the very worst, I could buy a more capable card if needed, and I’d have a spare graphics card.

My choice, with the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose XFX Radeon HD 4650, $55. Very capable, very quiet, and very affordable. Reviewers seemed to love it; they confirmed that  it could run full 1080P HD content (1920 x 1280), and many mentioned it did fine with gaming. This is a budget card as GPUs go
  XFX Radeon HD 4850, $140. Highly rated, a ton of memory (1 GB), quiet, reasonably priced, and moderate energy requirements (450W power supply).  Looks beastly cool. More expensive
  EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX, $135. Similar to the XFX HD 4850 (above). Fast and powerful.  NewEggers bought this in droves, judging by the number of reviews (900+). More expensive; half the memory (512 MB) of the XFX HD 4850; more noisy than the XFX card?

Power supply

I had a relatively new Antec True Power 430W lying around; after doing a little research on the web, it turns out the Antec 430W supply is an excellent, high-quality, low noise power supply (if you’re interested, you can see AnandTech’s review from 2003).   It seemed like a waste to just leave it sitting around, so I decided to try it.  If the Antec reviews had been anything but stellar, I would have invested in a new supply.

Getting a good power supply is important for the life of a computer: it has to provide clean, stable power to the sensitive system components.  If you want your home-built system to last, don’t scrimp on the power supply.  Apparently most RAM failures are due to electrical overvoltage issues.  It has a reasonably tough task to do: converting the oscillating 120V signal (in the US) from the wall into varying DC voltages of 3.3V, 5V, and 12V.

=> It’s highly recommended you use some form of UPS, battery backup or power conditioning to protect your system.  For my critical servers, I have an APC Smart-UPS, which provides backup battery and power conditioning;  but at minimum, use something like a APC Back-UPS, which provides outage, surge and spike protection.

A power supply should be rated to support the maximum demands of your system at full load.  If the power supply cannot keep up, it will just shut down the system.  The main power-hungry components by far are the CPU and the graphics card.  Reasonable guidelines today would seem to be 450W (minimum), 500W to 650W (mid-range), and 700W to 1000W for the high end.

=> When in doubt, buy more power supply than less.  A high-rated power supply does not use more energy than a lower-rated supply for the same load, in general.  E.g. a 650W supply doesn’t use more electricity than a 450W supply.

Besides providing adequate power to run the computer, here are some desirable features in power supplies today:

  • Active PFC. I don’t understand all the details of active PFC, but it seems to enable more efficient power supplies. Widely available today.
  • Quiet operation. Achieved mainly through the use of fans designed for silent operation.
  • Modular cables. Prevents case clutter:  unneeded modular cables can be detached and stored, whereas non-modular cables must be tied and otherwise managed within the case.
  • Under/overvoltage protection.  Protects the system against sudden spikes or drops in AC voltage.  Like when you turn the vacuum cleaner on.
  • Energy efficiency. A power supply is converting from AC voltage to DC voltage, and the conversion is not perfect. The higher the efficiency, the less power wasted (and heat generated).  Greener power supplies will have a Bronze, Silver, or Gold energy certification, but will cost more than non-certified PS’s.
  • Connectors.  How many SATA hard drive power plugs are there, or fan plugs, etc. coming off the PS?  Not really a big issue, since the real issue is power, and cheap adapters can easily easily be bought to provide more plugs of any type.  Be aware that some of the mid- to high-end graphics cards require a direct four- or six-pin connection from the power supply.

Antec BP550 is a great value There are a lot of choices out there.  A basic i7-860 system (or other Core i3/i5/i7 system, such as a i7-920 or i5-750) without an over-torqued graphics card will probably never use more than about 200-250W;  but to be safe and to enable extensibility, it seems prudent to pair it with a 450W or so power supply, minimum.

So I began my search for power supplies with active PFC and 500-600 watts of power.  Some of the favorites the NewEggers love include Corsairs (voted “Best Power Supply Manufacturer in 2009” by PC Magazine) and Antecs (“Most Reliable Power Supply Brand,” PC World France), Zalman, and Rosewill, among others.

In the mid-range arena, these were the most highly rated, reliable, and quiet power supplies that I found.

    Pros Cons
  Antec BP550 Plus 550W, $70. Highly rated, modular cables.  Not advertised as having a quiet fan, but reviewers’ consensus was “very quiet.”   (I bought this one for my next build) Not energy certified – but seems close enough.
  Antec earthwatts EA500 500W, $70. Highly rated, 80 PLUS-certified energy efficiency, low noise cooling fan. Non-modular cables.
  Corsair CMPSU-650TX 650W, $100. Very highly rated, thermally controlled fan, 80 PLUS-certified, lots of cables. Slightly more expensive; non-modular cables.

Conclusions

I sifted through hundreds of user feedback comments, scores of products, and a lot of detailed product reviews on the web to build a stable, powerful, quiet, affordable supercomputer based around an Intel Core i7-860 processor.

There are a ton of computer components out there with every conceivable option you could want.   When I chose this system, I wanted to make sure I had the dollars invested in all the right places to end up with a balanced set of matched components without any major bottlenecks.  Since I had some spare parts available, I was able to put together for around only $600.

Hopefully this article will help you save some time!

=> In the next article:  I’ll provide an update on the actual build experience.

image


References

Power Supplies

Graphics Cards (GPUs)

Additional Notes

In browsing and selecting from the many components available, I made heavy use of NewEgg’s wish lists.  I created a wishlist for each of the system component types: motherboard, RAM, GPU, and power supplies.  As I searched through products and read reviews, I would add leading contenders to the wish list for later consideration. This way, I could efficiently narrow down my search.

What NewEgg could really use is a product feature comparator to compare similar products side-by-side.  For example, Intel’s CPU comparison wizard is great.  Are you listening, NewEgg?

How to Buy a New PC, Part 1

Summary

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This article is for non-technical folks who want to buy an affordable new computer that will perform well for around three to five years.  How do you figure out which is the right new computer for you with all the confusing options available today?   While I can’t tell you exactly what to buy, I can show you how to greatly simplify your search.

=> In the next article (Part 2), I’ll go over guidelines for the minimum component configurations, including how much RAM to get, how big a hard drive, and so on.

So you need a new computer…

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Very exciting, isn’t it?  But today’s computer technology is mind-boggling for the average person.

Which multi-core, hyper-threaded, obscurely-named processor to get with the new system?   The Core 2 Duo T6600 or the dual-core Pentium T4400?   The i5-650, the i7-860, or the i7-920?    Do you need a graphics card with a 512 MB GDDR3 and a 128-bit data path, or the one with 1024 MB GDDR5 and a 256-bit data path?   You might need an advanced degree in physics just to figure it all out.

But by applying a few basic concepts – and perhaps doing a little research — you can simplify the choices to two or three potential systems.

=> I’m assuming you have a reasonable budget to play with. If you feel that you must buy a true budget PC at the current time, then just go to your local trusted retailer or online computer vendor and pick a system!  Any modern computer will likely run circles around your old one.

Divide and conquer

Yes, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you look at today’s computer technology, even for me – and I have thirty years’ of experience in technology!  But you can cut through a lot of the confusion by taking a divide-and-conquer approach.

Simply look at the purpose, budget, and desired lifespan for your new computer.   You’ll need a general idea of how you want to use it, how much you want to spend on it, and how long you want to have it.

Then follow a few simple rules. Chances are decent that you’ll end up with a system that will perform well for years to come.

Rule #1: Treat it as an investment

image34Your computer is what a business would call capital equipment: a physical item that delivers certain value to the business, has an associated cost, and has an expected lifespan.   If you just look at the computer as a big, expensive purchase today, then you may scrimp & cut corners – and the system you get may not live up to your expectations in three years.

To get the proper perspective, amortize the cost of the computer over its intended lifespan.  This may be a rather ugly, Latinate word with roots in death (a + mortire, meaning “to die”), but that’s exactly the point.  If you want the computer to last five years, for example, then divide the cost of new system (or any extra options or upgrades) by the lifespan to get the cost per time.

This big-picture view will make it easier to make the right choices and justify your investment.  You’ll see that an extra $100 on a faster processor, more RAM, or a bigger monitor amounts to barely pocket change every month.

Don’t handicap yourself from the start by being penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Take a strategic viewpoint if you want your new system to last.

Example 1:  You’re considering spending $1,000 on a new system.  For most people, that’s a lot of money.  But over a five-year lifespan, that’s $200 per year, $17 per month, or about fifty cents a day.   There are a lot of things you could do to save $17 a month, if you had to…  but how cool will you feel every day with an awesome new laptop?

Example 2: You’ve narrowed it down to an affordable desktop computer for $600. But you’d really like to future-proof it; Dell offers an upgrade to the “i7-860” processor for $149.  You’ve done your research and consulted your local tech guru, but this still seems like a large premium for a $600 system.    If you’re hoping for a five-year lifespan, then this extra $149 is only $30 per year, a $2.50 per month, or around a dime a day.  Choosing meditation over your Starbucks no-foam caramel soy latte for just one day will buy you about two months of the the premium processor.

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Choose wisely in life

Rule #2: Set out your goals

What do you want to do with the system?   This is the first question you should ask, and it’s the one that can save you the most time and effort.   Knowing what you want to get out of a system immediately narrows down the field.

When you’re thinking about what you want the computer to do, remember to fast forward a few years and imagine what you might be doing in three to five years.  Streaming high-definition video content comes to mind, for instance.

Here are a few general examples, along with the category or class of computer you’ll need, in ascending cost order.   When you go to select a specific computer, you’ll start in the category that fits you (e.g. Multimedia PC).

  • Surf the web, read e-mail, do light document work: Budget PC. Browsing the web or editing documents are not demanding tasks for modern computers.  Almost any PC will do this with ease, from a budget PC to a netbook on up.
    Price range: $350 to $500    Examples: netbooks / budget desktopslaptops
  • Surf, docs, plus… watch video programming:  Multimedia PC. In case you haven’t heard, video is on the rise.  Within 3-5 years, we’ll surely see much more HD content available from providers like YouTube.  As more and more internet-connected personal computers are capable of displaying high-definition video, TV programming will make rapid moves online.  ;  see Hulu, etc.  “Multimedia PCs”  are equipped with better graphics cards and better audio, and generally be hooked up to a home theater setup.  Which is very cool.
    Price range: $500 to $1000   Example: Dell Inspiron 560
  • Surf, docs, plus…  high performance: Workstation PC. If you don’t really care about home theater and you do want a more powerful computer,  look at the workstation category.  These computers will be able to do more computationally intensive tasks, and typically have more memory, a faster processor, and often more expandability.  Workstation PCs are a very good future-proofed choice:  they do everything well and are more likely to perform well for quite a while.
    Price range: $650 to $1000
  • I want it all!  Performance PC. If you want a computer that can do it all, then you’re in the performance PC category…  bless your heart.
    Price range: $800 to $1500
    image54The other question you should be asking is: laptop or desktop?
    A laptop is a quintessentially modern choice. It has clear advantages: It’s wonderful to not be chained to a desk:  with a laptop, you can compute anywhere.   Think kitchen, couch, bed,coffee shop, library, hotel room.  But it also has distinct disadvantages:  you’ll pay a premium for a laptop, and lifespan in general is not as good as a desktop’s.
    The netbook is just a smaller, less powerful and less expandable laptop. It’s a great example of why you need to pin down your goals:  if all you need to do is surf the web, check your mail, and do light document work, consider a netbook.  But don’t expect it to be too fast, or to have as long a lifetime.

image60A regular desktop computer on the other hand – also variously known as a studio, mini-tower, or tower computer, depending on the size of its case –  will give you more performance for your dollar, as well as increased expandability and upgradability.   This is why desktops generally last longer than laptops, too.

=> The section at the end titled “Laptops vs. Desktops” compares the major pros and cons of each.   Generally, you will know in your heart whether you want a laptop or a desktop.  Go on…  look in your heart.

=> Laptop advice.  I personally would avoid laptops with HUGE screen sizes like 17” or 18”.   I’ve seen a few folks with these, and they just look too bulky.   Unless you feel compelled by a special need, stick to a standard 14” or 15” screen.

Rule #3: Expand your horizons

Invest in computers and learn to use them well. Technology is awesome and we’re lucky to be living in this age.  An investment in technology is an investment in yourself – and indirectly your family, friends, co-workers, and so on.   Get a good system that won’t be frustratingly slow in two years!

Conclusion

That’s the basic formula. A little forethought will make selecting a new computer much easier, and increase the chances that it will serve you well for a good number of years.

A quick recap:

  • Understand that buying a computer is a strategic investment. This will enable you to see the big picture.  Realize that an extra $100 or $200 for the right option is not really a lot over five years.
  • Know what you want to use it for. Among all the choices you’ll face, this will enable you to narrow down the field quickly and focus on a few select systems.   It will also help you get the proper advice from more technical folks.
  • Expand your horizons. An investment in a computer is far different from an investment in almost every other thing you’ll buy; get a good computer and explore!

image If you need a place to start, here’s your homework:

  1. Figure out purpose, budget, and desired lifespan. You should come out of this knowing the category of PC you want, e.g.. budget, multimedia, performance, etc.
  2. Narrow down the choices to a couple that are within your budget. Browse your favorite online vendor or local store; start your search in the PC category you’ve identified.  If you have questions about technology choices (you will), then do at least some light research on them: read any help pages offered by your online vendor of choice, and Google the technologies you have questions about.  You’re looking to triangulate a handful of strong, consistent opinions from folks who seem to know what they’re talking about.  If there’s no consensus, or few results, then either you’re asking the wrong question (rephrase it?) or it doesn’t matter.
  3. Optional but recommended:  bounce the final choices you’re considering off your favorite tech buddy. Do your homework first and pick a few decent finalists before asking, and typically people are happy to help and pleased that you thought of them.   DON’T ask silly, open-ended questions like “I’m looking for a new computer, are there any you can recommend?”  This is like saying “I’m looking for a car, are there any you can recommend?”     And if you get good advice from your tech, remember to follow up with a choice six-pack of handcrafted brew or a pound of premium coffee.

=> As one of those “techs” myself, I love it when people take the time to put their thoughts and candidate systems in an e-mail.  It makes it so much easier to come up with a good answer.  Recap your fundamentals, e.g. “my budget is $800, I want a multimedia PC, and I want it to last five years.”  E-mail your tech as complete as possible a description of your systems;  many online vendors these days will allow you to e-mail a wish list or shopping cart (Dell certainly offers this  option).  At the very least provide links to the web pages with the computers on them.

Have fun selecting your new computer and I hope this guide has been of help to you. If you have your own advice or there’s something you think I’ve missed, I’d love to hear it in the comments.


Laptops/notebooks/netbooks vs. desktops

This mini-guide should give you a decent idea of the major pros & cons of the two types of computer.

Laptop Desktop Comments
Portable Fixed location  
More expensive Less expensive Miniaturization has its costs
Runs on batteries No battery needed Lithium notebook batteries are good for around 2-3 years, tops.  It’ll cost you ~$100 to $150 for a new one.
Uses less power Uses more power A desktop might be around $50 more per year in energy costs.
Generally slower processors Generally faster processors Laptop CPUs are designed to save power but give up performance in return
Generally smaller and slower hard drives Excellent hard drive capacities Unless you take a lot of video, hard drive sizes are large enough today for most apps
Minimally expandable Can add expansion cards, memory, and additional hard drives more easily The expandability of desktop systems is typically related to the physical size of its case:  more room to put stuff.
Monitor is built-in Needs a separate monitor You may have a monitor that will work;  but consider a bright, large new monitor (at least 19”) as part of the investment.

imageReferences and more reading

Choosing a laptop vs. a desktop:

General system help:

  • Dell Computer Selector Dell.com
    A very nice wizard-style approach.  Enables you to select system type (laptop or desktop), budget, and intended use.  Sounds familiar…