Friday, July 2, 2010

. . . Modular PC Upgrading -- Introduction

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 1
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting begins the blog-based complimentary support for the series that will appear in the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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01. Preface

This article is intended to compliment the PC Upgrade Series that is running now in rotation on my column, Digital Grind, in the Cape Cod Times. You have been provided this link in addition to the information in my reply to your email in order to supplement the information published in the paper. As always, if you have questions -- or there is information that you need that has not been addressed either in the column or these complimentary postings -- please feel invited to email me. Send your email to with the topic indicating that your mail is about the Upgrade Series.

02. Introduction

Part I of the Modular PC Upgrade Series appeared in the 13 April 2010 edition of the Cape Cod Times, in the Business and Technology Section, as a regular part of the Digital Grind Column. With the publication of the first piece in the series, I will be rotating each new piece with the regular columns to add some variety to the column, which will allow the series to run through the Summer and into the Fall, when most people start to think about upgrading or replacing their PC, so regular readers should be very well equipped to tackle that issue when the time comes!

This series is a multi-part examination of the practice of adopting a "modular approach" to upgrading your personal computer. What does that mean? Sit back and relax and I will try to explain that in simple and easy to understand terms, because as complex as the personal computer can be, this part of the equation is actually pretty simple!

The upgrade path for most PC owners usually consists of replacement of a peripheral -- a new monitor, the addition of an external storage device, or adding RAM or a hard drive internally. Generally speaking, upgrades of this sort are made when the PC user is seeking to lengthen the usable lifespan of their computer, and are often the last step in the life of a personal computer before it is replaced.

With the troubled economy today, a much larger percentage of PC owners are choosing to "make do" with what they have, or look for ways to lengthen the useful lifespan of their computer by adding capacity, or new components. Generally this is a temporary approach, as they have the intention of replacing the computer eventually, with a new computer.

Roughly 70% of PC owners (7 out of every 10) choose this approach, and when the speed or performance level of their present PC finally reaches the point at which they are no longer willing to tolerate its performance, end up fully replacing it. The average cost for a new general use computer, when it is not bought on sale, runs between $700 and $2000 depending upon the various options they choose. For a dedicated Gaming PC that top end can easily surpass $3,000.

Conversely, 3 out of every 10 owners take a different approach to their PC -- what is called the "Modular Upgrade Path." Rather than completely replace their computer every year or two, they simply upgrade the parts that are causing them problems, either installing -- or paying an expert to install -- these components, and in so doing not only increase the effective use and lifespan of their computer, but save a lot of money in the process.

A modular approach to PC ownership has many benefits, including:
  • Better control of the quality of the components;
  • Doubling the average lifespan for a PC; and
  • Saving as much as 60% of the cost of a new PC
I want to underscore that last bullet-point: adopting a modular approach to PC ownership can save you as much as 60% of the cost of a new PC without sacrificing anything! In fact, by hand-selecting the components that go into your PC, you not only save money, but end up with a better PC in the process!

03. The Economics of Modular Upgrading

A new name-brand PC is built by the manufacturer in a fixed and standard pattern. Once the type of CPU and motherboard are chosen, the maker then either purchases a mass-produced case or, more often, has their in-house engineers design the case for the new model, often for the purposes of making it distinct in its appearance, and to appeal to the potential customer. Case design is actually something of a science in the PC industry -- a subject that we will examine in-depth later in this series -- but for now, the important thing to understand is that what goes inside that new model of PC may not get there, or be, what you think it is.

Once the external appearance of the computer is finalized, the name-brand computer company uses an open-bid process to find the manufacturers for the components that will go inside the computer. As a general rule they work with a set list of companies, or a consortium, so who ends up being chosen and how they end up being chosen may not completely conform to the whole open-bid process, but either way, the lowest bidder ends up making the parts.

That usually surprises most PC owners, because there is an assumption that since the brand name is stamped on the outside, what is inside is also made by that company, but this is rarely the case. In reality the company whose name is on the outside of the case only assembles the PC, they don't manufacture it.

Almost every component inside the case, from the motherboard to the power supply, are purchased based on the lowest bid, which means whatever component manufacturer bid the lowest is who ends up winning the contract. In the real world that is not always a good thing, but in the computer world, it is the normal approach to controlling the costs -- and therefore the profits -- associated with a new PC.

To make this easier to understand, let's use a hypothetical example... Let's say that you want to purchase a new computer, and you like the computers made by the Really Big Computer Company (RBC) because they have been around a long time, they have a reputation for making good computers, and you have even owned one of their computers in the past, and liked it. You use them at work, and think highly of them because they have really great advertising campaigns that use famous actors, and besides, they are a standard in the PC industry!

The model you are thinking about buying is their Supergreat PC XL, and it comes with 2GB of RAM, a 3.0GHz dual-core CPU made by Intel, and has a 1TB hard drive in it. It comes with a DVD/RW optical drive, a keyboard, mouse, and set of speakers. It has USB 2.0 ports on it, and an external eSATA port in the back. The slimline case is very nifty looking, and it seems to have plenty of available slots for expanding it later if you want to add something like a BluRay drive or an extra video card. It has built-in video, built-in sound, and a built-in Ethernet port, so it fully meets all of your needs.

The cost of the Supergreat PC XL is just $999.00 after the rebate, if you buy it from the RBC website. If you buy it in a bricks-and-mortar store, you would end up paying $1,299 for it, but then you would have a local warranty and you could get it the same day. Either way you choose to buy it, the system comes with a 90 day complete warranty, and some of the parts are covered for longer -- and besides, RBC is a reliable company, so why worry about that?

There are different options you could choose, but you go with the standard ones, because a larger hard drive or a BluRay player would significantly increase the cost of the system. It comes with Windows 7, but for an extra $50 you can downgrade that to Windows XP if you like -- but you go with Windows 7 because it is newer and, really, makes more sense. The computer is plenty fast enough to run it, and it has 2GB of RAM, which should be plenty, right?

After shipping and taxes, your order off of the RBC website totals just over $1,100 which is almost $200 less than you would have spent if you bought it at a local store, so hey, you saved some bucks! That is always something to be happy about!

Your younger brother Tim wants a new computer, and you tell him all about your new one and perhaps show it to him, demonstrating all of the cool things that it can do. It is fast, it is cool looking, and you like it! Tim likes it too, but he is a bit more tech-savvy when it comes to computers than you are, and he decides that rather than buy one like yours, he will build it himself.

You might scoff at the notion. You have heard that it can cost a lot to do that, and besides you will never end up with the same computer in the end, you explain to Tim. Yours was made by RBC - they practically invented the computer!

  • Tim's Computer

As he sets out to build his new PC, Tim sets a budget of $1,100 or about what you spent. He wants to get a comparable computer to what you have, because he likes the speed and abilities he saw, but since he is into gaming, he wants a bit more expansion capacity and needs a higher level of system cooling than you do.

After carefully evaluating the market, Tim decides to buy the following:
  • Coolermaster CM 690 Case ( $69.99)
  • Coolermaster Silent Pro M 600Watt Power Supply ( $86.99)
  • Thermaltake Frio CPU Cooling System (Thermaltake $59.99)
  • Intel Core i5-650 3.2 GHz Dual-Core CPU (Newegg $179.99)
  • ASRock P55 Motherboard (Newegg $134.99)
  • 4GB Kingston DDR3 Memory Kit (Newegg $111.99)
  • 2TB SATA 3.0GB Hitachi Hard Drive (Newegg $129.99)
  • Plextor 24x CDRW/DVDRW w/Lightscribe (Newegg $39.99)
  • GEForce 9800 GT 1GB Video Card (Newegg $109.99)
  • Logitech 920 illuminated keyboard (Newegg $59.99)
  • Logitech MX18 Gaming Mouse (Newegg $42.99)
  • Creative Inspire T3130 Speaker System (Newegg $49.99)
Total cost $1,039 after shipping $1,094.95

Like you, your brother Tim used his old monitor. Unlike you the system that Tim ended up with is slightly better than yours -- the main differences are:
  • Twice as much memory
  • Twice as much hard drive storage capacity
  • 4x the video RAM
  • A slightly faster CPU
  • Better keyboard
  • Better mouse
  • Better speakers
The one drawback is that Tim had to purchase a copy of Windows 7 because it did not come with his computer, and his old system runs Vista.

  • Quality is never an Accident

Above you note the obvious differences in the two systems. You might be thinking that since Tim spent nearly as much as you did, even if he got twice as much RAM and Hard Drive, and a slightly faster CPU as well as better video card, he still had to buy the OS so you came out ahead, right? Well, no. Not so much...

A few months down the road, both of your systems got nailed by the same virus and you both are forced to re-install the OS and apps! Tim has his set of installation discs because he bought his copy of Windows 7. You don't -- your PC came with the OS installed but no discs -- in order to get a set of discs you have to pay an extra $99.99 to RBC. You go ahead and pay that in order to get a set of discs, but you have to wait while they send them to you, whereas Tim was able to get his system back up in less than a day...

A few weeks later a new game, World of Warfighting Monkey Goats, was released, and it is a game that both you and Tim really like. According to the specifications, both of your systems are capable of running it, and in fact Tim installs the game on his PC and is playing, while you are having a small problem.

It seems that World of Warfighting Monkey Goats has a minimum requirement of 512MB of dedicated video RAM. Tim's system has 1GB so he is all set, but your system has a built-in video card that actually borrows its memory from the system RAM. It was set at 256MB but you go ahead and increase it to 512MB so that the game will run, but when you try to run the game, it will not run now for a different reason!

After carefully reading the error message, you realize that the minimum system RAM requirements for the game is 2GB -- well that is okay! You have 2GB! Ah, but you don't, because you "borrowed" 512MB of the system RAM for the video card, which means you only actually have 1.5GB of RAM available. The OS used almost 1 full GB itself, so that half a gig that is left over is simply not adequate for the game to run...

You have to make a choice -- upgrade the memory, or add a new video card with its own RAM. That means spending more money on your PC!

You decide to add RAM to the system, so you go to Best Buy and purchase 2 GB of DDR3 RAM. You call Tim to come over and add the RAM to your system for you, but when he opens the case up, you discover that all of the RAM slots are already filled! Instead of using 2 1GB memory sticks in your computer, the manufacturer used 4 512MB sticks, filling up all 4 memory slots, because those cost the manufacturer less than the 1GB sticks would have.

Okay, you shrug. Pull two of the 512MB sticks and put in the two 1GB sticks -- that should give you 3GB of RAM, more than enough to run the game! Tim does as you ask, but when you turn your computer on, you get an error and it will not boot. It turns you that you cannot mix memory sizes! All the chips have to be the same size!

Frustrated, you go back to the store and purchase two more 1GB memory sticks, return home, and Tim installs them for you. You boot the system and it runs fine - no errors! Excellent! Of course you now have 2GB of memory in your hand that you paid for when you bought the PC, and that you cannot use anymore. You throw them into your desk drawer and decide to just forget about them.

You can now load the game, and you do, but when you run it, it is painfully slow and frustrating to play because of that. You cannot figure it out! Why does the game run and look great on Tim's PC but looks horrible and runs slow on YOURS?!

After a few days of frustrating web surfing, you discover that the reason that it runs so poorly on your system is because of the built-in video card in your PC. The version of the card is similar to the one Tim bought, but it is an older chipset, and does not have as robust a GPU or processor. In addition to that, the lack of dedicated RAM is also slowing the video down because it has to access the system RAM instead of using its own dedicated RAM.

You have already spent almost $250.00 on RAM, now you need to buy a video card!

Based on Tim's happiness with the card he has, you buy one of those from Newegg for 109.99 and he installs it in your PC. You run the game and it is as good as Tim's PC! Excellent! You are very happy. But then you think about something...

You originally paid $1,100 for your PC, but after the upgrades that you had to pay for, the adjusted cost for the system is now $1,459.99! That is more than Tim paid for his system even with the cost of the OS! And Tim did not have to pay an extra $99 to get the OS discs -- oh! You forgot to add that to the cost! That makes your system cost $1,558.99! Wow, that turned out to be an expensive computer!

Now fast-forward two years, and two generations of CPU. Both your PC's are now a little too slow to run the current games and software, so it is time upgrade. Tim ends up spending $300 on a new motherboard and CPU he bought as a package deal, with 4GB of RAM, and you both replaced your video cards the year before so you don't factor that cost.

But when you go to check out the package deal that Tim bought, you discover that your computer uses a special motherboard that is not the standard size, and worse, a standard sized motherboard will not fit in your case! Even if it would fit, the plugs for the power supply in your case are not the standard type, so you would need a new power supply.

You start to think that maybe you should just buy a whole new computer -- that would have to be cheaper... Right?

This is why a modular approach to PC ownership can be beneficial. This doesn't matter as much if all that you use your PC for is surfing the web and word processing, but when you start using games or programs that are resource dependent it becomes a real issue.

04. Introduction Conclusion

In the example above I highlight the most common issues associated with the two approaches. In the long run, Tim ends up saving money, not because he spent less, but because he got more for the money he spent. When it comes time to replace the components you are left with no choice but to buy a new system, or build one, where Tim already has the infrastructure in place to simply upgrade the components that need to be upgraded, without having to spend money to replace the bits that do not.

When you choose the modular approach over the packaged approach, it is often smarter to spend a little more on the various parts in order to obtain better options and features. For instance a standard mid-tower case can be had, off the shelf, for as little as $49.99 at any large computer store. That case will have a power supply, and it will accept the standard hardware. It will serve your basic computing needs, but it is constructed of sheet metal and plastic, and has an inexpensive power supply in it that usually maxes out at around 450 watts.

If you were instead to purchase a better case, from a company like Thermaltake or Coolermaster, you end up spending more money, but you get more for that money. The cheap case comes with one cooling fan, whereas the better cases from those two makers come with three to five fans, and have slots available to add additional fans if you need to.

These cases do not come with power supplies -- you purchase those separately. Instead of a cheap 450w PSU, you pay a bit more and you get a much higher quality 700w PSU that has an actual warranty and is expected to last 5 or more years without needing to be replaced. The same is not true about the cheaper PSU's that come with the standard cases. Those have no warranty associated with them, and are not expected to last much longer than the 2 year average lifespan of a computer.

By spending a little more, you end up saving money, because when it comes time to replace your motherboard and CPU, you only have to replace those and not the case and PSU! The same basic logic and economics apply to the other components in your computer, and selecting the components yourself allows you to control the quality and performance level of each.

As this series continues, we are going to examine the different components that go into the modern PC, and explore options and choices, in order to build a high-quality PC. While we are going to follow a budget, and in the end we may spend almost as much as it would cost to purchase a packaged PC from a name brand manufacturer, like Tim in the story above, we will end up getting a lot more value for each dollar that we spend than we would buying a package deal.

As each part in the series comes out I will be adding a post here to discuss the various options in some detail, so check back here regularly to follow along with the series. If you are contemplating building a new PC, or upgrading your existing one, I hope that you will consider a modular approach, because economically it makes a lot more sense.

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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.

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