Are you in the market for a new computer? Or for a few hundred computers? Are you looking for a productive system with great performance?
It is all about the cache. That is cache, not cash. But more cache costs more cash. Through all computing history this has always been the case. There is cache on the CPU, cache on the Hard Drive, and the RAM is basically cache. The average computer owner is going to call dell or hp and order a system. They wont get as much specific input on the components as the owner who builds a system from parts. For example, you couldn’t request dell to put at hard drive in the system with 32mb of cache. All you get to pick is the size of the hard drive. But the fastest hard drives and cpus will have a sufficient amount of cache on them. What does cache do? It basically makes the CPU or Hard Drive able to have data waiting and ready. The CPU wont have to wait for soemthing to process as much, and the Hard Drive wont have to wait for the arm and platter to fetch the data.
The following suggestions don’t necessarily apply to a gaming, multimedia or server based system. These specifications are for the average computer use who just wants to get their work done and do a little computer based recreation. I’ll add amendments to the end for other system specifications.
It is first important to understand how a computer’s components work. I like to make an analogy of preparing a meal.
I should point out that right now I’m using an old iBook I got out of the recycle bin with an 800Mhz CPU and 640Mb of RAM. Do you notice the unusualy ratio of RAM to CPU?
The CPU hype
Vendors like to sell you on the CPU. Don’t let them. For most workstations, the CPU is a minor factor on the computer system. Overall speed and enjoyable experience will have very little to do with the CPU. Running a web browser and office suite will only tax the CPU for a short time while loading. If you kept open a CPU monitor while doing your usual work, you would see few spikes of activity with an excessive amount of idle time. And with multi-core CPUs, this is more apparent as 1 core will spike and the other(s) will remain idle. In fact, you are very unlikely to notice a bit of difference between a 1.6Ghz dual core and a 2.2Ghz dual core.
Multi core systems are the latest hype. There is a misconceptions about multi-core systems. Most programs don’t support multi-threading, so they will only be handled by a single core while the remaining cores remain idle. The only times you’d benefit from having multiple cores is if you’re doing a whole lot of multitasking, or you’re using programs that are actually designed for multiple core usage and most consumer programs aren’t.
Why then does an older computer system slow down?
The Hard Drive
Unless you do lots of multimedia or gaming, then the cheapest Hard Drive (aka HDD) sold with a system will probably be sufficient. When dealing with complete system vendors, like dell, My advise is to skimp on the HDD and spend the money on more RAM. If you are purchasing a replacement HDD or are custom building a system, you should look at the HDD’s cache and its rotation speed. Again, I’m going to favor cache over rotation. Both are going to drive up the cost, but rotation speed is also going to increase heat and power consumption and cache will not. These are particularly important features with a laptop or small form factor desktop.
Solid State Hard Drive (SSD) are he fastest, coolest, and least power consuming type of hard drive. They are basically, a hard drive built entirely from cache. Basically. They are also the most expensive per Gigabyte. The price is always coming down. But if you are in the market for a hard drive, particularly for an older laptop who’s battery isn’t as strong as it once was, a SSD is a good idea. But due to their limited size they are not ideal for systems with a need for a lot of storage. Normal Documents and ‘work’ data don’t take up a lot of space, Boot times, Games and multimedia will be much faster on an SSD system, but you won’t be able to store much.
Windows booting hard drives suffer from file fragmentation over time. I won’t get into the details of what that is, but a defrag will help an older system.
RAM is Random Access Memory. Most often it is just called Memory. I’ve been called a RAM junky. I like to cram as much RAM in a system as its motherboard will hold. I advise everyone else to do the same. I’d sacrifice CPU speed, and Hard Drive Size for more RAM. With more RAM the system will perform better, will be able to multi task more, and it will swap less. Programs will load faster, the Hard Drive will need to work less, and this all will increase the physical life expectancy of the computer. With a better performing system, the owner is less inclined to desire to buy a new system. The number one slowdown of a system is a lack of RAM which forces the computer to use the hard drive for memory which is hundreds of times slower than RAM. This is called swapping or using swap space. The less RAM a system has, the more it needs to swap. The more it swaps, the slower the overall performance of the system. When an owner complains that “It just isn’t as fast as it used to be.” Lack of RAM is the reason.
Some computer shoppers skimp on RAM expecting to upgrade later, but they never do. The first reason is, that RAM is cheaper in smaller sticks. So a computer vendor will most likely sell you 2 gigs of RAM, but in four 512Mb Sticks. If your motherboard only has four RAM slots, then you are forced to replace some sticks and discard the old. To get to 3Gigs in total on such a system, you would be able to keep two of the 512Mb sticks and replace two of the 512Mb stick with two 1Gig sticks. Then you’d have two 512Mb sticks with nothing to do with them. If you purchased the sytem with 3Gigs, then you would have not wasted two of the 512Mb sticks. Second, upgrading RAM is easy, for a trained tech, but it is not advisable for the average person. So after purchasing a computer, and determining it needs more RAM, an owner is forced to pay a technician to upgrade the RAM which may cost more than the RAM its self. (Unless you hire me!) This may turn the owner off to the idea of upgrading and keeping the system, and the price of a new system looks more attractive.
Form follows function and comfort over speed
Some of the best features in a computer are those that allow you to get as much work done as possible. A lot of the times work volume isn’t always about speed. But a productive, comfortable and enjoyable workspace. One of the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of a computer system is the monitor. A monitor capable of displaying a comfortable resolution at a comfortable distance is a very important feature on any system. And I’ve noticed a great increase in my productivity and multi task-ability with multiple monitors. You must be certain that your graphics card supports multiple monitors in dual display mode. Rarely hyped, but very important to productivity are comfortable keyboards and mice.
Laptops and Warranties
Most laptop parts are vendor specific. That is, when you dump coffee on your dell laptop keyboard, you will be calling dell to get a new one. (I doubt the spilled coffee will be covered under the warranty, but I once got dell to warranty it, once ) And since dell has the market on that keyboard, and would rather you buy a new computer than replacement parts, that keyboard is going to cost you a large fraction of the overall cost of the laptop. Laptops are portable devices. As such, they are more prone to impact damage. For these reasons, I always urge laptop buyers to get as long a warranty as they can afford. I don’t normally recommend the extended warranty, but I would with a laptop. Also, read the fine print for the battery warranty. Normally, regardless of the laptop’s warranty, the battery will only have 1 year. Why? Because everyone knows, laptop batteries suck. Since you already plan to have the extended warranty for the laptop you should consider purchasing a spare battery. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a spare battery charged and ready to go. But at the very least, expect to replace the battery before the laptop’s life ends.
(aka GPU) These GPU suggestions are based on what you plan to do with the system. If you plan to do just general web surfing and emailling and whatnot, then the on board GPU should be fine. (On board means ‘on the motherboard’.) If you plan to do some light media such as playing DVDs/Movies you’ll want at least 256Mb GPU. For more advanced media or light gaming you are going to want 512Mb. For more advanced gaming or dazzling effects, you are going to want 756Mb to 1Gb, or more depending on how graphically intense their games are and how hard core you are. For any modern card over 256Mb, avoid “silent” GPU cards. You will want a fan to help disperse heat generated by the GPU.