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Spec'ing out Pop's new PC

In which Dan assists his Pop in building a new PC

Posted May 14, 2000



Ok, so Pop's 2-year old PC is getting a little long in the tooth, and it needs an upgrade from 64mb to 128mb of RAM. But it's an IBM Aptiva, which is cleverly designed so that any memory above 64mb cannot be cached, which is one of the stupidist things I've ever heard of in PC design. Yet I find this sort of stupid design is incredibly common in most of the big brand-name computers made for home use. Compaq Presario, those HP's, does anyone remember Packard-Bell? Gateway used to be just awful about this sort of thing, though I hear they've gotten better recently.

Where does this antipathy come from? I used to work (first as a salesperson, then as a technician) at a now-defunct electronics retailer with a large computer department. (No, not Incredible Universe, Computer City, Circuit City, or the Good Guys, but you get the idea.) My customers and I were constantly struggling with computer companies who decided it was a good idea to come out with poorly-conceived "improvements" whose only real purpose was either to save a few dollars in production costs, or to saddle the PC with a "feature" the competition didn't have but looked cool on the showroom floor, despite being either unusable or of no benefit once the PC got home. Not to mention the obscure compatibility problems caused by deviating from the "standard" PC configuration, drivers, or architecture.

Because of all that, I'm a firm believer that if you are a technically-savvy person, you will be by far better served by a PC that you specify all the components in and either assemble yourself or have a competent local clone shop assemble for you. Sure, you'll save some money, but more importantly, you'll know exactly what is in your computer, and be able to choose components that are all industry standard, well supported, and high quality if you so desire.

Web resources for researching components

Some good sites to check for hardware component reviews are:


I have an ABIT BX6 rev 2.0. ABIT does good manual, and they have a very nice BIOS, which is pretty much all I'm looking for in a motherboard. If you're building a new system, think about getting a "no ISA" motherboard which has only PCI. You'll want to get USB ports, and look for one that has an ACPI (power management) feature that's compatible with Windows 2000 if you're going to be running that OS anytime in the next few years.

Robert Thompson has a fairly convincing argument in favor of the Intel BX440 chipset in a letter to Jerry Pournelle.

Case and power supply

Jerry Pournelle always swears by PC Power and Cooling, and they have a very good reputation. My next PC will probably have one. (Actually, my "next pc" will probably be my current one, upgraded one or two pieces at a time.)


Pop was asking about dual-monitor support. I asked my friend Patrick, a computer graphics artist, if there were good dual-headed video cards out there. He said

I'm looking into it.


Right now, the AMD Athlon seems to be the best bang for your buck for high-end. But I'm running an Intel Celeron 400, which I got for about $99 last summer, and it runs just fine, especially with a fast video card. I'd almost always recommend putting money into the video and disk subsystems if you're looking for performance, and staying a step or two down from the top processor speed. You can usually save several hundred dollars by getting, say, a 750mhz Athlon or a 700mhz PIII compared to a gigahertz Athlon or 850mhz PIII, and that money invested in disk speed (7200 rpm drives, then faster controllers, then RAID) and hot video cards (especially if you're going to be playing games).


Oh, fer cryin' out loud, just get a SoundBlaster and call it a day. Whatever their standard mid-range card is. At the moment, it's a SoundBlaster Live something or other. Patrick picked up an OEM one for me for $50.

Hard drive

For performance, first, get a 7200rpm drive instead of a 5400rpm drive. IBM makes very good hard drives. If you want some serious performance, go SCSI. SCSI flavors change fairly often, but I've always had good luck with Adaptec's cards. You'll need to get a SCSI hard drive as well, which are considerably more expensive than IDE (also called ATAPI, or EIDE, or Ultra-DMA) but if you're looking for performance, it's the way to go.

Not convinced? Think about how often it's the case that when you're waiting for your computer to do something, the hard drive is going like crazy. Imagine if the hard drive was twice as fast. You'd spend half as much time waiting. Pretty simple, really.


Unless you're using software that only comes on DVD (ie, you're a serious gamer) just get a generic CD-ROM drive and call it a day. Get at least a 24x drive. The speed numbers are pretty misleading, so compare actual average access times and AVERAGE throughput; ignore the specs if they don't say average because they'll just be meaningless peak times. If you're not going to be doing a lot of CD-burning, you might pass on the CD-ROM drive entirely and just get a CD-R that reads at 20x or above.

CD-R vs. CD-RW

This is really a non-issue; just get a CD-R drive that can do CD-RW as well, But feel free to get just a CD-R drive, if you can find one. However, I don't know anyone who actually uses CD-RW and gets their money's worth. Here's the difference between CD-R and CD-RW:

CD-R's are write-once (though if you don't fill up a CD-R, you can usually add more to it until it is full).

CD-RW's can be written, rewritten, and partially erased and rewritten again.

Blank CD-R's cost from $0.50 to $1. (All prices in US dollars.) Blank CD-RW's cost somewhere between $12-$25. So just get a stack of CD-R's, even if you have a CD-RW drive.

The real issue with CD-R drives is to be sure to get one that burns at at least 8x. I use an external SCSI Plextor 8x4x20 (8x CD-R burn, 4x CD-RW burn, 20x read) at work and it works great. I highly recommend any Plextor CD drive.

If you burn at 8x or even 12x, your CD-R media quality is important; lesser-quality media can't take an 8x burn. You never go wrong spending a few bucks more on quality media (though it is easy to spend a few bucks more on poor-quality media; do some research and ask people what they're using. Get brand AND model information, as all manufacturers make several different varieties of blank CD media, just like they do with blank VHS tapes and audio tapes.)

Tape Backup

Yeah, forget about Jaz and Zip disks. They are not very reliable and I do not recommend using Zip or Jaz disks for backups! Ever! Use them to carry large files from one place to another. I'll say it again: do not use Jaz or Zip disks for backups, as they can and will die completely and horribly on you without any warning whatsoever. I have seen this literally dozens of times. If you need to make archival backups, use a CD-R. If you need to make regular backups of a few gigs, there are plenty of good tape drives out there. Use Retrospect from Dantz, or use Seagate Backup Exec as your backup software. APS makes good drives and knows how to support backups.

(Update May 14, 2000) Pop wrote after taking a look at an early version of this page, and said:

No problem, Pop! Actually, I don't think you misled me; what I say is consistent with this info. In any case, it's still a stupid design, and I stand by my criticism! - online since April 1999
This page last updated May 14, 2000

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