Thursday, June 10, 2010

. . . PC Upgrade Philosophy

I am in the process of writing a new series for the Digital Grind Column over at the Cape Cod Times on upgrading your computer -- which may seem like an obvious and predictable subject on the face of it, but it is turning out to be anything but that.

Part of the process of writing any piece is researching it to get a full and complete picture of the subject -- which as I note above in this case is upgrading your computer.

Statistically there are two groups of computer owners -- the first (and largest) is what I call the "Replacers" and the second smaller group are the "Upgraders." Both groups have distinct sub-groups within them, and I want to digress for a moment and examine those...

Replacers Group
This is the largest of the main groups, and some estimates put their number around 75% of all computer owners. The statistics I accessed represent a view of consumers rather than business and corporate owners, basically the average Joe or Jane with a computer in other words.

According to what I have learned, these people purchased their computer as a unit -- most often from a brick-and-mortar store rather than online (online purchasing of new computers is still a fairly small percentage of the consumer group excluding purchases from the websites of the PC makers, which for the purposes of the statistics I used count the same as if they bought their computer at Staples or Best Buy).

Their notion of a computer is a ready-to-use unit that comes in boxes and, save for the display, comes from a single source. When it is time to replace their computer -- whether it breaks or is too old/slow or for whatever reason -- they will repeat their choice by purchasing the new computer as a single unit. This is a comfort level choice for many, but a significant chunk of this sort of consumer believes this to be the "normal" way you buy or replace a computer.

One of the consequences of the rough economy is that this group is not following its established trends -- for example it was not uncommon for the consumers in this group to regularly replace their PC's. The average life span for their PC's was 16 months, with a significant percentage replacing their PC's annually. When the economy started to sour in 200/2001 this group delayed replacing their PC's until they felt it was absolutely necessary, which added around 3 months to the cycle. That represented something of a hiccup, but not one with an impact severe enough to dent the market.

The last major downturn in the economy a few years ago changed their pattern significantly however, and that three-month delay turned into an indefinite one for a very large percentage of these folks. The result of that was not a hiccup but a disaster, and it is largely what the statistics people are referring to when they speak of depression of the PC market.

Rather than a short delay before replacing, these folks have been holding on to and making do with what they have until they are forced to replace their PC. Performance does not seem to be the deciding factor - with the most obvious trend being that they resist replacing their PC until it breaks. That change in this groups purchasing habits had a decided impact on the industry - not a good one I should not have to add.

At least part of the concern is how this group views the PC -- as a unit rather than a device with components. An obvious side-effect of that POV is that they do not embrace the notion of upgrading their PC, as replacing is the logical -- some research suggests "the only" -- choice available to them.

Upgraders Group

The second group is the Upgraders -- among which there are a number of sub-groups, from the smallest which is the PC owners who do their own upgrading, to the largest, being those who will pay a shop or tech-savvy friend to do the upgrading for them.

When the computer component makers push products out to get them reviewed and advertise both online and in magazines, these are their primary target audience, and considering how small this group is compared to the first group, you would think that these companies would spend twice as much money trying to reach the first group as they do this one in the hopes of converting some of them. Well, if you thought that (I did) you might be surprised to learn that no, not so much really.

A Modular Approach to the PC

The primary focus of the series of columns I am writing is directed towards promoting a more modular approach to the subject. The idea is simple enough really -- while upgrading components does not give you a new PC, it can make your old one feel like it is new, or at least stretch its useful lifespan considerably.

Statistically -- if you follow those trends -- a PC owner who upgrades (whether they pay some one else to do the upgrade or do it themselves) gets more out of their PC for longer. Folks from the first group get an average of 14 to 20 months worth of use out of a PC before replacing it. Folks in the second group (Upgraders in other words) average between 26 and 40 months out of their PC before completely replacing it. That is a significant difference!

In fact the difference is even more significant when you consider that the second group tends to skip generations in PC technology. What I mean by that is that the Replacers tend to own a system from each generation, whereas the Upgraders tend to own a system from every other generation -- and in the end, even though the Upgraders seem to be spending more money because they are making regular upgrade purchases every 6 to 8 months, in the end they actually end up spending less when you look at the over-all annual cost of computer ownership!

The Upgrade Series

The idea for this series is to convince as many people as I can that a modular approach is a better way to do it. The logic of this is really very simple... Here is an example, using my own computer and my experience.

Almost 4 years ago I bought a new computer -- my old computer had died and while I could have built my own component-by-component because I was short on time and because I needed that PC right away (a lot of my work happens on it) instead I chose to purchase a bare-bones system from a company that makes its money by building those exclusively.

By eschewing the brand name PC makers, I was able to obtain a basic and reasonably fast modern computer for about a third the cost of one from HP, for example. The system I bought was basic indeed -- consisting of the following:

  • A generic mid-tower case
  • An Intel Dual-Core 3.0 GHz CPU
  • A bog-standard motherboard with onboard sound, video, and ethernet
  • 1GB of RAM
  • A 320GB SATA2 Hard Drive
  • A bog-standard EIDE CD/CDR/DVD/DVDR all-in-one drive
  • A cheap wired keyboard
  • A cheap wired mouse
  • A mouse pad with the bare bones company name on it.
  • An ethernet cable.
I got all of that, shipped out to me in a matter of days for just under $400. At the time that was a good price for what I got!

When the system arrived I set it up where my old system used to be, using my old systems flatscreen monitor, ethernet connection, mouse, and keyboard. Using my licensed copy of Windows XP Pro, I spent a day installing and patching the OS, installing all my apps, and restoring all my data from our Network Accessible Storage Device, and I was back up and running with minimal fuss.

For what it was, it was good. In that configuration I did not run into problems with speed or capability for nearly 8 months, but around 8 months into the new PC, some of the new software that I was using wanted more resources than I had available. It was not a question of the system itself -- the CPU was plenty fast enough, but it became obvious that I needed to do some upgrading.

As I was running a 32-bit version of Microsoft Windows, adding any more than another GB of RAM would have been a waste of money -- for the most part 2GB of RAM is all that the 32 bit version of Windows can practically use, but there were other considerations when it comes to RAM to bear in mind.

The First Upgrade: RAM

If you were to go to a reputable computer shop or technician and tell them that you wanted to upgrade your RAM, and they learned that you were running a 32 but version of Windows and currently had 1 GB of RAM, they will likely suggest that you add another Gig of RAM.

Doing this *can* double the amount of memory in your system -- but I emphasized with the word "can" because that is not always true! Sometimes going from 1GB to 2GB does not equal doubling your systems RAM, and here is why...

Folks knowledgeable in the care and feeding of the PC will tell you that for a Windows XP/2000 system, 1GB of RAM is the minimum you should shoot for, and 2GB is better. For Windows Vista and now, Windows 7, 2GB of system RAM is the minimum amount you should have, and 4GB would be better. The thing is, when I upgraded my system to 2GB, what I ended up with was around 1.5GB of system RAM, whereas prior to the upgrade of the RAM even though there was 1GB installed, what I really had was 768MB not 1GB. Why?

The on-board video card that is built into the motherboard I have has a small amount of RAM that is all its own -- 128MB -- but because a lot of software needs a minimum of 256MB of RAM for video, the board borrows some of the system RAM for the video card! In my case it was borrowing an additional 128MB, and one of the programs that I regularly use borrows a small amount of system RAM and turns it into an imaginary scratch disk.

So even though I had a physical 1GB of RAM, once the system was fully booted and I was logged into the OS, I really had access to only 70% of that RAM. When I upgraded to 2GB that setup carried forward -- though the software side of the video card, noticing that there was more RAM available, added a little to the amount of RAM it was borrowing from the system.

Still that upgrade of an additional 1GB of system RAM did the trick, things went back to a usable state, and I was happy! About four months later I started running low on resources again -- it was time for some tweaking and another upgrade.

The Second Upgrade: A New Video Card

Adding RAM was an option - but if I had the 2GB of physical RAM that was in the system available to the OS that would solve me problem, I knew that. And adding more RAM beyond the 2GB that was in the system was not going to solve my new problem -- which had to do with slow video speed.

This new set of problems related to the fact that I needed to be able to shoot and edit video on my PC -- something I had never needed to do prior to this, but the nature of some of my writing had changed. Just writing using a word processing program and adding screen shots to illustrate the pieces was not enough, I was told. I needed to provide video illustrations with sound, I was told. But my system was not doing that very well!

The RAM that was borrowed from the system for the video card combined with a small amount of RAM that was borrowed by the mixing software for the sound side of the process was removing more RAM than the minimum spec's required by the mixing software -- and the end result was that I could not use that software at all to do what it was designed to do! I had to find a solution.

Faced with this situation, the average PC owner would have simply replaced the PC at this point, even though the CPU was more than adequate for what I needed. Adding RAM was not going to solve the problems I had -- sure it would have returned a small amount to the system as the program that I was using for mixing and editing WAS able to see RAM beyond the limit of the OS, but the video card would still be taking more than I could afford to lose from the RAM that the OS could see. The obvious solution was to replace the video card with one that had enough of its own RAM so that it would not need to borrow RAM from the system!

As I mentioned before, the "video card" is built into the motherboard, so turning it off was simply a matter of going into the PC Bios configuration menu prior to it fully booting into the OS. Knowing that, I spent a few days reviewing the currently available video card tech, and made a list of all of the cards that would work with the different software that I was using at the time.

Bear in mind that I was, at that time, still playing some MMO's that had very limiting requirements with respect to what video card chipsets that I could use. Add to that that I had to be able to use Direct-X 9 as a minimum (it was required by some of the games and one of the apps that I used) and that set out my path for me.

The onboard video was an Intel-based chipset. The way I saw it, I had to choose between ATI and Nvidia, as that was the core group that was dictated by the needs of the programs I was running. I knew that 256MB of video RAM was the *minimum* that I could have, and that much of the software I was running would happily take advantage of as much over that base amount as I could give it.

When it comes to upgrading your computer to increase speed, performance, capability, and reliability, upgrading your video card is right at the top of the list. The thing was, I needed to spend as little as I could get away with and still meet the requirements that were necessary for using the video editing software.

Luckily for me, just prior to the circumstances that prompted the need for another upgrade was when a new generation of video card chip technology was released, and as a result, most of the cards from the previous generation were now on sale at considerably slashed prices. I was in a good position!

After reviewing the market, I ended up selecting an Nvidia card that had a whopping 768MB of video RAM for what amounted to spare change compared to what a similarly-placed card would have cost from the new generation.

Having decided on the card that I wanted, I shopped around and found the best deal that I could on it online, paying $50 less than I would have spent buying it at Best Buy -- and when the card arrived I turned off the on-board video in the bios, installed the new card, and then booted up and downloaded the latest set of drivers and software for it from the makers website.

The difference was incredible and easy to see. It really did feel like I now had a new computer! I now had more system RAM, a much faster video display, way more video RAM, and a computer that felt like it was different -- like it was brand new.

One Upgrade Causes Another

Unfortunately there was an unforeseen problem waiting for me when I tried to make my first video... Remember that before I did not have enough system resources to make a video that was longer than 30 seconds. Now I could make videos as long as I wanted -- or at least as long as the available disc space would permit.

But when I made my first video under the new setup, I discovered that something was wrong with the audio side of the recording. There was a static-like background noise, and nothing that I could do with the configuration, or updating the drivers, or the software itself seemed to fix it!

It was a very frustrating situation.

After struggling with and trying different solutions -- and one of which might have worked -- I ended up researching the issue online, and quickly learned what the problem was. It turned out that the on-board sound card was not really a very high-quality setup. That alone meant nothing really, since I did not need to emulate the London Symphony, but I learned that the addition of the new video card was likely the source of the problem, because the sound card built into the motherboard was using a small section of memory that it should not really have been using, and THAT was what was causing the trouble!

Consider for a moment that previously it was not a problem -- but then I was using the on-board sound with the on-board video then, so of course there was no problem. The folks that made the motherboard had engineered it to work fluidly in that configuration, but here I had upset the apple cart, and was now using a configuration that they had not designed into the board when they built it.

Did they know that the sound card built into the board was using a small section of memory that it should not have been using? Yeah, probably. Did they have a fix I could apply? A patch? Some way to make the built-in sound card work with my screaming new video card? No. Uh-uh. They did not.

I had a choice to make -- and going back to using the built-in video was NOT on the table.

It was time for another upgrade!

The Third Upgrade: A New Sound Card

The choice was simple and painless. A quick look online and I was able to find a Sound Blaster Audigy card for $19 online that not only fixed the problem, but that expanded the sound capability of my PC!

When the card arrived in the mail, I shut off the ob-board sound card, installed the new one, downloaded and applied the newest drivers and software from Creative Labs, and was up and running flawlessly, with a minimum of tweaking to get the performance I needed.

The Fourth Upgrade: USB 2.0

As I began to use the PC for this new purpose, shooting and editing video to illustrate pieces I was writing for the web, I learned all sorts of new skills. Eventually though, I ended up needing to shoot longer videos, and needing to record play sessions in video games to use as source material for the video illustrations, which required me to get a capture device that I could use to connect my TV to the computer.

Despite the fact that my PC was, at this point, over 3 years old, I knew that its specifications included USB 2.0 and that was a good thing, because the capture device required USB 2.0 to function. The thing is, when I hooked it up, the first thing it did was tell me that it could not function, because I did not have it plugged into a USB 2.0 port.

"?!" thought I.

After carefully checking the motherboard spec's again, I knew that it was equipped with USB 2.0 ports. So why wasn't the capture card detecting that?!

I will save you a long description of all of the hassles and solutions that I attempted from drivers to software and everything in between and tell you what the actual problem was -- but I want to note that it took me a week to actually figure it out mostly because I had presumed something that I should not have presumed...

The problem was that even though the motherboard did indeed have USB 2.0 built into it, the case that the company that built my bare-bones PC had used was... Wait for it... Not wired for USB 2.o!

Seriously -- the wiring on the inside of the case was bog-standard USB 1.0 wiring, and while you can plug USB 1.0 wiring into the 2.0 slots on the motherboard, without that all-important extra wire that 2.0 uses, the motherboard can only deliver 1.0 spec if that wire is missing, and that was what was happening.

At this point I would forgive anyone for simply throwing their hands up and buying a new PC -- after all mine was well over 3 years old at this point, and there had been two new generations of CPU released by this point, so maybe replacing it was the way to go? Or maybe not. After all, this PC still had way more power than I was using or needed -- it was not an issue of it not being fast enough or able to run the programs that I needed to run -- it was a question of it not being ABLE to use the hardware that I needed to use.

So yes, I could have justified replacing the PC at that point -- but I did not want to. It is still a good system after all! Another option would have been to replace the case with one that has the modern wiring -- and I could have done that, but it would not have been a generic off-the-shelf $40 case, I have standards when it comes to cases (something I will be covering in the upgrade series).

Replacing the case would have meant spending anywhere from $100 to $175 not including the cost of the power supply -- and a quick check of the power supply in my existing case revealed that it was underpowered and of an odd construct, which meant it would not be a candidate for moving into a new case with the rest of the components.

I could have purchased some wire and tried to re-wire the case myself -- that was almost what I chose to do, but when I checked the price of wiring I discovered that it would cost around $35 to do it right. Why did I choose not to spend that $35 to re-wire the case? Simple, really -- a USB 2.0 add-on expansion card could be had online for less than $20 including shipping!

When the card came in the mail, I installed it, downloaded the drivers for it from the manufacturer, installed those, and I was back in business.

Upgrading the USB ports did not really have a noticeable impact on the system speed or anything, but I was now able to use the hardware that I needed to use, and everything was running smooth as silk! Problem solved! Mischief Managed!

But what is the point of all this?

Upgraded vs. Replaced

The point to this is simple enough, really. Despite having to upgrade this system four times in as many years, I still spent less money than I would have if I had replaced it at any point in this narrative -- and more significantly I still have a viable PC!

At this stage the system has some weaknesses, sure. There is software -- and games -- that I am reasonably sure it cannot run, but happily none of those are among the programs (and games) that I presently run or need to run. So in practical terms, this 4-year-old computer is still a fully functional and working system that meets my present needs.

I do plan on replacing it soon, as I plan to build a new system for myself, but my replacing this system will not end its usefulness at all! In fact, when I replace it in a few months that will be the trigger for a fifth upgrade!

I do not know what I will replace it with yet -- I have not walked down that path -- but when I replace it, I will be passing it on to one of my kids to use as their desktop PC. Before I do that, I will determine what the hottest fastest and most capable CPU is that its motherboard can use, and I will be purchasing it. Yes, it is two generations old -- which means it will not cost a lot of money -- and upgrading its CPU will very likely add 2 or more years to its potential life-span.

Its purpose will be for doing homework, playing games, and surfing the web -- all of which it can do as-is, so the upgrading will be purely to maximize its potential and make it as useful as it can be for one of my kids. That is pretty cool when you consider that it is so old that it is supposed to be useless by now, right?

Join the Upgraders

When you view a PC from a modular approach you expand its capability simply by changing that POV. Rather than save a long time to purchase a new system, you can budget your upgrades and, over the course of a year, end up with a new system that stays near the cutting edge without having to fork over money for the bits you do not need to replace.

Modular upgrading is more than just how you own a computer, it is a computing lifestyle choice. It also allows you to do things with your PC you cannot do with an out-of-the-box name brand system.

The upgrade series I am in the process of writing will cover all of that --- and if you are interested in changing your POV on computers, you should read it! The most significant change starts with the foundation of the PC, which in simple terms is its Case and Power Supply. With so wide a selection covering a variety of concentrations, selecting a case to use as the foundation for a new modular PC is not a decision that should be made lightly, either.

The case you choose should be the last case you will ever need to purchase, and it is the one part of your PC where cost should not be a consideration at all! Selecting the right case -- the right foundation -- is key to the whole process, and that is going to be the next piece in the series. I hope you will read it -- I hope to convert you to my way of looking at this subject -- and I welcome questions or thoughts on it.

This blog is going to be featured more prominently on my website soon, and I hope to use it as the main comment and reply venue -- so consider this an open invitation to you to ask questions or offer your own opinions, starting with this question: What do you think is the most important function of a PC case?



No comments: