01/27/2001

More reviews of reviews. I liked how yesterday went, and I found some really good stuff yesterday, so let’s continue on and see what’s good and why.

2001 Upgrade Guide (Ace’s Hardware)

This is an outstanding upgrade guide, working from the assumption that you have an older system (a K6-2 or Celeron with a TNT2 board, which is a pretty common setup), then they test a number of upgrades so you can see what makes a difference. Unfortunately these upgrade candidates already have a modern hard disk and sound card, so they don’t closely simulate a real-world system, but they do isolate the components, so while these upgraded systems will outperform yours, you can see precisely what effect upgrading the video card will have.

For example, you can see right away from their graphs that replacing a K6-2’s TNT2 video card with a GeForce 2 GTS will only improve Half-Life frame rates slightly (up to 25.5 from 22.1), while trading up to a Duron 850 while keeping all the same peripherals increases rates to 51.8 from 22.1. How valuable is that information? I found a GTS card for $229. The same place has a Duron 850/Gigabyte 7ZX-1 bundle for $222. The upgrades cost the same amount, yet one of them increases performance significantly while the other just barely helps. It’s the difference between throwing away $240 and spending $235 wisely (after shipping).

The other great thing about this guide is that it tests more than just first-person shooters. For FPS, DDR gives marginal improvements indeed, but for other types of games, its improvement can be immense. Mercedes-Benz Truck Racing and Formula One 2000, for instance, are faster with a DDR-equipped Duron 850 than it is with a PC133-equipped Athlon 1100.

This guide shows when a GHz+ CPU and new memory technology makes sense, and when it doesn’t, letting you decide when it makes sense to buy the latest and greatest.

Overall: great methodology, nice balance of real-world tests (assuming gaming’s your thang, which it probably is if you read this stuff, since you won’t see much difference between a Celeron 667 and a 1.2 GHz Athlon for office apps). A lot of work goes into guides like this, but it’s worth it. Maybe someday articles like this will be the norm on the hardware sites, rather than the exception. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

VIA Apollo Pro 266 (THG)

This is an analysis piece combined with a preview of VIA’s Apollo Pro 266 chipset. Good explanation of PC architecture for one who doesn’t understand what the north bridge and south bridge are, plus the benchmarks are using boards you can actually buy, rather than reference designs.

Tom Pabst takes his usual swipes at Rambus, and points out that the Pentium III isn’t really able to take advantage of DDR, as evidenced by its similar performance to Rambus- and PC133-equipped systems. Pabst concludes with an assertion that a DDR Pentium 4 chipset would prove how terrible Rambus really is, since the bottleneck with DDR seems to be the CPU, rather than the memory itself. Unfortuantely, he doesn’t provide anything at all to back up this claim, so he comes off as an anti-Rambus bigot. Has he seen a P4 run with DDR? Maybe he’s under NDA, but if he is, he can at least say, “I can’t tell you why I know this, but DDR chipsets for the P4 will prove how worthless Rambus is,” and it would be better than what he wrote. But his speculation of DDR performance with the P4 and how it will compare is no more valuable than yours.

This article does give the useful information that DDR on the Pentium III probably isn’t worth the bother.

Value Biz PC Guide (Sharky Extreme)

Unusual for hardware sites, good focus on what’s necessary for business. No benchmarks; I’d have liked to have seen illustrations of why CPU speed isn’t as important as, say, disk speed, for business apps. Hardware recommendations are solid, and I’m happy to see they don’t assume businesses overclock. They don’t. I disagree with the $100 CD-R recommendation; you’re better off with a Plextor drive with Burn-Proof, especially since such a drive will allow you to multitask. Since time is money, businesses can’t afford to waste time burning coasters. If a slower, cheaper CPU is necessary in order to afford a better CD-R, then so be it.

Some discussion of when SCSI would be appropriate on the desktop also would have been nice, as SCSI does have its place in the office.

But overall, this is a solid guide. By blindly following its advice, you’ll build a better PC than you’ll get from many of the direct PC vendors.

Internet Connection Sharing (Dan’s Data)

Nice, down-to-earth, and pretty thorough overview of what it takes to share an Internet connection whose primary target is people who are less ambitious than me–an old 386 or 486 running Linux isn’t among the options he presents. I guess he could have titled it “ICS for the Rest of Us.”

This is thorough without getting too bogged down in particulars, and it’s cross-referenced with an outstanding Networking 101 piece by the same author, and weird jargon is cross-referenced with an online dictionary. Some reviews of the various options would be nice, but he gives a good thumbnail sketch of each option’s advantages and drawbacks. The author, Dan Rutter, is a mainstream computer journalist in Australia who seems to have a very high standard for his work.

Definitely bookmark his networking piece, http://www.dansdata.com/network.htm , and if you keep a notebook, print out a copy to put there as well, as it’s an outstanding overview that answers most of the common networking questions like the difference between a hub and a switch. You may find yourself referring back to this one as well, but it’s more specialized and as such, not as generally useful.

His other stuff is useful, well-written, and downright entertaining. Few computer writers are fun to read. Dan Rutter usually is. Many people consider Ace’s Hardware the best of the hardware sites, but I really think Dan’s Data gives Ace’s a big-time run for the money.

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