Frequently Given Advice

So often, I find myself repeating over and over again the very same advice to customer after customer. Here are a few of my most often uttered, time-tested tidbits of advice. Take from them what you will… or you can always continue to listen to that friend of a friend of your neighbor’s cousin’s uncle, who once worked side by side at Microsoft with Bill Gates and also helped invent the semiconductor while working at IBM and whose advice has probably led you to this page to begin with… The choice is yours.

Build or Buy?

It depends on what you are doing or what you plan on doing with your computer. If, like 95% of computer users, your main use is E-Mail, a few websites, some online banking, an occasional letter to the lawyer and some light gaming like Solitaire or Pogo games, then my advice would be to buy an off the shelf system. Your needs will be well met by the sub $500.00 market dominated mostly by companies like Acer, E-Machine, Hewlett Packard, Compaq and to some degree Dell and Gateway.

If, on the other hand, your intention is to do heavy graphics work like photo or video editing, audio editing, CAD type work or intense 3D shoot-em-up gaming, your needs will likely NOT be met by an off the shelf system, even at much higher price points. For you, a custom machine may be the best answer as it can be built to handle specifically that which you are intending to accomplish. Better video cards or audio cards, larger hard drives or more memory may be called for, and you won’t get the opportunity to buy them that way if you purchase off the shelf. Custom builds may cost a bit more, but the performance level will be superior to the others.

Can I keep my computer safe if it’s online?

The main evils that need to be avoided online are adware, spyware and viruses. In terms of adware, this typically takes the form of pop-ups. Clever marketing companies realize that last week you did a search for “leather recliner” on Yahoo or Google and after visiting a few websites that sell leather recliners, and now it’s their turn to direct market you. Through cookies left on your computer when you were at their site, they have some basic info on your internet connection and start sending pop-ups to your machine. Not terribly harmful, mostly just annoying and handled fairly easily these days through the use of pop-up blockers like the one that comes with Internet Explorer.

Viruses, the thing most folks fear and dread the most, are not usually terribly harmful to most home computer users. For starters, many if not most computers have some form of anti-virus so that even if a virus finds it’s way onto your system, the anti-virus software finds, sequesters or eradicates it. Most viruses are hell bent on spreading from one pc to another, so their usual modus operandi is to hide stealthily in the background on your unprotected system in order to propagate, to spread or reach out to other unprotected systems and perhaps be used in the future.

Spyware, something that most folks fear the least, is actually the thing that can and does the most harm to personal computer users. Spyware is exactly what it’s name implies, it’s like having someone peering over your shoulder while you are using your pc. Think about what you type… the user names and passwords for all types of E-Mail accounts, bank sites, E-Bay, etc. Websites you visit, the account numbers of bills you may pay online, Visa numbers and expiration dates, the little three digit code on the back of your cards, and you get the picture. Just imagine someone is recording every keystroke through the use of hidden key loggers, taking that data and sending it off to people and places unknown for purposes unknown. That’s how many fall victim to identity theft and spyware is so pervasive that even protected computers, once connected to the Internet, will attract spyware within 6 or 7 minutes, a number that has steadily declined from about 10 years ago when it would take more than an hour.  There are real-time programs designed to stop all of these as well as after the fact programs designed to find and eradicate, hopefully prior to getting the computer so bound up in knots that it requires a trip to my shop.

What can I do to speed up my computer?

There may be software related things that can be done to speed up the system but for this question, I’ll focus on hardware. The best way to buy performance is by focusing on three critical components within a computer… CPU, RAM and Video Card. The CPU, or processor needs to be potent enough to provide ample horsepower to the system board, allowing the other components to run at full throttle. Dual core processors are called for these days to power systems efficiently without stressing the CPU too much. Prices range from about $50.00 up to thousands of dollars for the absolute fastest quad core, atom splitting, earth shattering ever so slightly faster clock speed processors. System memory, or RAM, is crucial as well. The general rule these days is the more the better, as long as your operating system can recognize and utilize it, DDR3 or DDR4 being the current types of RAM and 4-8GBs being standard, more for truly potent systems. Fortunately, this type of RAM is plentiful and inexpensive, with 4GB prices being $30.00 or so and 8GB or 16GB sets priced accordingly. The video card is perhaps the single biggest piece of the puzzle, but having the two previous items being of high performance level will allow the video card to really deliver it’s optimum performance level. PCI-eXpress is the current standard, with price ranges from $50.00 on the low end up to $600 or so on the high end of the scale. There is a direct correlation between money spent and overall system performance, and that relationship is most visibly seen in the video card. Simply put, the more you spend on a video card, the better your user experience is going to be. It’s kinda like we used to say in the car business… Speed = Money, how fast do you want to go?

Desktop or Laptop?

The ONLY times I would ever recommend a laptop to a customer is if the following is true; a need to be mobile and to be computing at the same time. If lots of travel is not in your future, you would likely be far better off with a desktop system than a laptop. Laptops suck. All of them. I know. I have owned them. For years. All types. I own 3 right now. They all suck. They’re great computers, but the fact that they are laptops prevents me from saying they don’t suck. Laptops are more expensive to purchase, less potent, more fragile and incredibly more expensive to work on or to replace parts for than your basic desktop computer and everyone of them is essentially one mishap away from becoming a doorstop… a paperweight… a boat anchor. Expensive ones too. They all meet the same fate… something goes wrong with a component that would be easily and inexpensively replaced with a standardized and readily available part on a desktop, but being in a laptop means that it requires sometimes an hour or more of additional labor to disassemble and then reassemble the intricately built laptop, that the parts are proprietary and non standard, thereby reducing the ability to easily and inexpensively procure them, the result being a much more expensive repair bill.
IF YOU MUST GET A LAPTOP… buy a good long extended warranty from the manufacturer to go with it, trust me, you’ll be glad you did when it hits the floor for the 3rd or 4th time.

How much for a custom built system?

$50, $75, $100, $150, $200, etc., etc., etc….
For about $50 per component, you can have a custom built system. $50 for the CPU, the motherboard, the memory, the hard drive, the case, DVD Burners and those components should work pretty well together. With CPUs, the difference in price and performance comes by way of multiple cores and higher clock speeds. With RAM, higher cost results in larger and faster pieces of RAM. With hard drives, more money equals more space and/or faster spin rates. With motherboards, more expensive boards come with more features, more lights, bells, buzzers and whistles. With Video cards, the more money spent, the faster the clock speed of the GPU, the more RAM the card will come with and a higher bit interface with the system board is what you get. You wouldn’t put a $300 CPU in a $50 motherboard any more than you would put a $50 motherboard in a $400 case. Add $100 for a copy of Windows or go with the similar, free OS Linux, whose most popular version currently is called Ubuntu and you’re all set. Same thing applies at the various levels with only a few exceptions in the upper ranges as there are no $300 DVD Burners. A $100 CPU on a $100 motherboard with a $100 of RAM and a $100 Video Card will deliver a great bang for the buck, and the addition of the Video card cost is mitigated by the fact that you’ll stil be buying the case, dvd burner and accessories for a combined $100 or so. As you climb in price, so too does your performance as a $200 CPU on a high end $200 motherboard with $200 of RAM and a $200 video card would easily deliver twice the performance level of the $100 per component system and quadruple that of the $50 per component system alluded to above. And so on and so on and so on up the line.