How to Choose a PC

5:27:00 PM |

Choosing a PC can be tricky because of all the confusing information made available. I know most of you are not going to read all my articles on components, but I suggest reading Buss Speed and Motherboards, as they are very relevant and informative to choosing a new PC. Your goal is a well balanced PC. By balance I mean that the transfers inside the computer are all the correct speeds to make sure the information from component to component can flow smoothly and not get stuck, causing bottlenecks, backups and lag. Picture your PC as a network of pipes. What will happen if you have a big 4" pipe flowing at full capacity into a small 2" pipe? It will not slow down for the 2" pipe, it will backup and flood. Same with PCs, the data will flood the components and finally cause them to freeze, cause blue screens and other critical errors. 

This article is going to teach you two things:

One of them is that ANY PC can do the basic features. Trading pictures, photo editing, music etc... I will show you the statistics that determine how well they do these functions and what software and operating systems control the features. Also a PC, even purpose built, can and will do other things, it just may perform better at its purpose.

The other is how to identify and buy a well balanced PC that will lower the total cost of ownership. What this means is that I will show you how to build a PC that will last upwards of five to seven years (over the two year average of most proprietary builders) before it becomes "to slow". 

We will start with a question. What do you use your PC for? 

Gaming Computers:

This is the majority of our customers. You want fast, high resolution gaming for cheap. But you also seem to want bragging rights. We see the component lists and wish lists on the forums showing your builds and the choices are made almost strictly on model numbers and marketing, instead of performance. This is bad. 

We also see you make huge cuts in components to make room for a video card that is way too large for the PC. This will NOT get you more performance. It will actually overwork the rest of your choking components and lag you more. We constantly see computers with some fast components built at home that get lower FPS then our Gamer LvL 1 in modern games. This is because of the dangers of a build at home environment versus a clean room, and the fact that you are not choosing balanced components.

Business Computers:

This is where we see a lot of people get victimized. Business PCs do not have to be that powerful in most cases, but they need to be reliable and able to stand up to constant data changing, long hours and multiple users with little or no updates. You want a tank, not a Ferrari. Keep in mind tanks can cruise at 40-60 miles per hour on any terrain, so they are not slow. You also want to lower your total cost of ownership with low electric usage from computers that will last for years and offer low cost upgrading options. 

Home Computers:

Home users actually have it easy. Most component makers are so caught up in the war to be the fastest, you can use almost anything and be very happy with the performance. The problem lies when companies sell low priced stuff targeted to your market. This is usually "to good to be true" items. There is a minimum cost for building a PC, anything less is a lot less then you want. Component prices usually only change three times. They come out priced high, then settle when their competitor releases a competing product, then finally go to their final pricing when newer technology replaces it. That's where they sit for about a year or two until they become obsolete. When this happens any leftover components are sold at an extremely reduced cost to free up space. This is not a bargain sale! This is outdated stuff that cannot survive in today's environment, if it could, it would still be on the shelf! I know it sounds like I contradicted myself because L2 claims our computers last 5-7 years, but our components choice usually stay on the shelf for 3-5 years. See the problem here? You are buying almost a decade old component! 

This is the danger with proprietary builders. They have no competition. They use their components until they physically won't work anymore and technology forces them to upgrade.
Ok we are ready to choose our new PC!

Click here for our menu of articles on components - Use this as a reference should you not understand something or want to look more in depth at a component.

The basis for any good PC is a solid motherboard and PSU (power supply unit). You should demand a specification sheet on the motherboard to see if supports the processor that is included with the PC. Motherboards will run faster processors then they can support, but only at the maximum supported speed. So if you buy a computer with 3.2MHz processor and a 1333FSB (Front Side Bus) and the motherboard only supports 2.8 with a 1066FSB, it will run the 3.2, but at 2.8/1066. 

Is the PSU that important if I don't plan to upgrade? Yes! This is a common belief that is very wrong. While it is true you should plan ahead if you ever want to upgrade, making sure the PSU has enough power and the proper connections, it is also true you should check it out even if you don't plan to upgrade. A lot of companies just assume you will never push your PC hard enough make the PSU work. But over time as the PC gets bogged down and/or the internet updates the latest java or flash programs you use every day while browsing, the PSU is now stressed all the time. As the PSU becomes stressed it will cause locking, freezing, lagging etc., and it is extremely hard to trace these symptoms back to the PSU. This will seriously decrease the time you own the PC. 

Look for a PSU that is 80+ certified, or use the Thermaltake power supply calculator HERE and add about 40% if it's not 80+ certified (80+ means that is 80% efficient or better). So if it says 500watts you get 400, unlike some lesser quality PSU's that will give much less. 

Other notable statistics:

Processing power measured in MHz. For example: 3.2MHz.
Reference: Processors - Bus Speed
How important is processing power? The sad answer is not very for most users. While it is the heart of the computer because everything does need to be processed at some point, it is not what I call a "choke point". A choke point is my name for the weakest part of the component or PC, that part that is most likely to cause lag and delays. 

Processing speed has not changed for some time. What has changed is how many cores (or mini processors are inside one physical chip). We see dual and quad core a lot now. So that same 3.2 MHz processor is essentially two 3.2 MHz processors or a 6.4 in the case of dual core. This is still not the most important statistic. The FSB (Front Side Buss) is by far the most important and most crucial decision. Also the cache (pronounced cash) will speed up processes, but only if your RAM can support it (I will explain later).

The FSB is how much information your processor can accept at one time. The more information that comes in, the more information that is processed and sent out, then the faster the rest of your components can do their job. The processor can be as fast as it wants, but if you can't get the information into the processor then you are wasting your money. 

RAM measured in MB or GB (GB = 1000MB) and shown as 2GB of RAM or 512MB for example.
Reference: RAM
This is the director of traffic for your PC. This has to be fast enough to transfer all the internal information to where it needs to go, while having enough power to make sure it reads the data and sends it to the right place. This is where a lot of people get cheap, especially gamers. People want the highest quad core processor, with a massive FSB and cache, but no RAM to get the data to it. The most notable statistics of RAM are the MHz, CL and DDR rating (example: 2 GB of 800 MHz CL3 DDR2). 

Ram is extremely technical, so I will oversimplify this. The DDR can be thought of as a bandwidth benchmark. DDR stands for double data rate, so it is essentially double the bandwidth, or transfer rate, of the previous model that was SDR (Single Data Rate). DDR2 is another improvement to bandwidth, as is DDR3. There are changes to voltage and architecture, but for the sake of just choosing a PC, I will stick to the easy meat and potatoes of the deal. 

So the higher the DDR number and the MHz the better right? No, sorry, not that easy. There is the CL to consider also. The CL is the amount of time it takes to get information into the chip, process it and get it back out. So we need to factor four variables. Cost, bandwidth, processing power and CL. 

The best general advice is to have enough of it. This would be a budget minded decision. Gamers need to pay closer attention to CL, although it still should be a factor for everyone else. I usually recommend half of the motherboards maximum RAM. So if your motherboard can handle 8GB, I would recommend 4GB. This is very general, but a good guideline.

Video Card
Reference: Video Card - Bus Speed
Is a video card necessary? The answer is no. If your processor and RAM are strong enough and your onboard video chip has the proper drivers, shaders, DX level etc., you can replicate the results of a video card. Gamers and home users are the ones that get victimized by this the most. Yes, home users. Just because you don't play games, doesn't mean you don't want to pay attention to graphics, and gamers put all their emphasis on the video card, which is also wrong. 

A video card is a small computer that is dedicated to rendering video and video effects. The problem is that this information must still be processed by the rest of the computer. If you were to take the fastest video card out and put it in a mid level computer, your PC would choke and be very slow. 

The key to choosing the proper video card is balance. For a home user, you want to make sure you have good drivers, features and capable resolution. Think about how many monitors you will be running also, make sure your video can handle it and can handle the resolution. 

For gamers: Pay attention to the specs, not the model number. Stop buying a video card that is more than the PC can handle. Pick a budget and pay attention to RAM and the FSB of the processor, not the processing power itself as this means very little to a gamer. Then fit a video card with good transfers into the budget last to assist those components. A video card is made to assist, not dominate. 

Hard Drive
Reference: HDD - Bus Speed
Hard drive usually gets some attention because most people want to be able to store all their information. However, even the most famous online builders, ignore speed. The things we pay attention to are the RPMs of the drive (7200RPM for example), but ignore the transfer rate and cache of the drive. Everything you load comes from the HDD and goes into the RAM, no exceptions. Look for a fast transfer and nice buffer on the HDD, this, in some cases, will be faster than platter speed.