How to build a reliable PC.

We touched on the topic of reliability last week. I figure I might as well give a more thorough discussion of what makes a PC reliable.
1. Power supply. I see more power supply failures than any other single component. Good power supplies fail without a whimper and don’t damage the rest of your equipment. Bad power supplies take other stuff with ’em when they die. Antec and Sparkle are examples of good basic power supplies. The power supplies that come in InWin and other brand-name cases tend to be fine as well. A notch above that is Enermax, maker of the ultimate in show-off power supplies, with plated finger guards and odd colors. Top-tier is PC Power and Cooling. If I wanted to build a computer and have absolute assurance it would still work in five years, I’d start with a PCP&C or at the very least, an Enermax.

Buy more wattage than you think you need. The power supply will run cooler and last longer if you do. Besides, you never know what you’ll want to stick in the case down the road.

2. Memory. Last time I checked, you could get 64-meg PC133 sticks for under $5. I wouldn’t trust ’em with my archenemy’s work though. Cheap memory may be untested, the PCB may not be a good design, or even worse, it may have chips that were tested and deemed unsuitable for use in PCs (but fine in other less-demanding devices). Unscrupulous makers sometimes buy up these chips and take their chances. It may seem foolhardy to pay $100 for a 256-meg stick from Crucial, but I haven’t just heard horror stories about commodity memory. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve had more than 1,000 brand-name modules cross my desk. Three were defective. I’ve had fewer than 50 commodity modules cross my desk. More than half proved defective. Some wouldn’t even work–the system would just beep at you. The worse ones appeared to work for a while, but the system was always crashing. Don’t take chances on your memory. I tend to buy my memory over-spec as well. Even if a motherboard takes PC100 memory, I go ahead and buy PC133 CAS2 memory. The chips will run just fine at a lower speed, so I have an overengineered system for a while, and if I ever upgrade I’m more likely to be able to take the memory with me.

3. Motherboards. Buy brand-name boards. I’ve never had an Asus board fail. (Watch one fail next week now that I’ve said that. But I’m happy with the reliability and longevity of Asus boards.) I’ve done well with other brands too, like AOpen, Abit, FIC, and Tyan. I know MSI boards are popular but I don’t have any personal experience with them. Asus has impressed me with their farsighted engineering–in my experience, you’re more likely to be able to upgrade an Asus board in three or four years than others.

Most people know to check the hardware enthusiast sites when researching a board. I urge you to also check the Usenet newsgroups. You’ll find some good advice. Finding very little on a board can be a good sign too-it’s an indication that a board doesn’t have many problems. Years ago, I was researching the Asus SP97V motherboard, because it was dirt cheap, but it was an Asus. I searched on Usenet and found very little about it–maybe a half-dozen messages. Most of it was just idle chatter. One message was talking about various boards, including the offhanded comment, “The SP97V is a good board for the money, BTW. I’ve used three of them.” That clinched it. Nobody was talking bad about the thing. I had one positive, and very little talk overall, which generally indicates satisfaction. Satisfied people rarely talk about stuff unless its quality blows them away.

4. CPU fans. Never go cheap on CPU fans. There’s a humongous roundup of currently available fans. Get a heavy-duty fan, even if you don’t overclock. Remember, the CPU you’re protecting is a lot more valuable than the fan. A good fan will keep your CPU well within its specified operating temperature range, and I’d like to think that the pricier fans will have a longer life. Get a ball-bearing fan rather than a sleeve-bearing fan; a cheap sleeve-bearing fan is quieter but it’s also likely to conk out on you in a couple of years if you leave your systems on 24/7.

Bookmark that site, by the way. Dan’s one of the better technology writers out there today, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s an entertaining read, explains things well, knows what he’s doing (and he’s pretty open about his methodology), and he’s probably a certifiable genius, but he’s not pretentious. In fact, he seems to enjoy making people think he’s not quite sane. I make sure I pay that site a visit at least twice a week.

5. Case fans. It’s a good idea to put a supplemental fan in the machine. Two is usually overkill unless you’ve got some really hot hard drives, and it’ll make your computer louder. You can quiet them by manipulating the voltage. Dan’s Data talks a lot about them too, including how to slow them down. For typical users, a simple ball-bearing case fan is sufficient.

6. Hard drives. IBM currently recommends you not run their drives more than 8 hours a day. So that eliminates IBM from the running. That’s a shame, because they used to make spectacular drives. (I still like their laptop drives better than any others I’ve seen though, and I’m not the only one.) I’ve seen fewer dead Quantum and Maxtor drives than any other brand, although Samsung really has surprised me with their reliability, and the drives are cheap. Seagate has a good reputation but I have very limited experience with their recent drives. Maxtor’s a safe choice at the mid range and high end, while Samsung is tough to beat for the low end.

7. Cabling. The cables that come with brand-name PC motherboards seem to be of good quality, as are the cables I’ve seen bundled in Maxtor retail kits. If an IDE cable looks flimsy, don’t buy it. Problematic cables slow you down due to the need to retransmit data. Also never buy an IDE cable that’s longer than 18 inches. Longer cables are available, but IDE specs state 18 inches as the maximum. Longer cables may work, but it’s questionable. If you have to reach the top bays in a tall tower case, you’ll have to go SCSI. Sorry.

Rounded cables will improve airflow, but be careful. Rounding shortens cables, so the wires inside a long rounded cable are even longer than stated. While a relatively new practice on the desktop, I saw rounded SCSI cables in IBM servers and workstations as long ago as 1995.

3 thoughts on “How to build a reliable PC.

  • March 11, 2002 at 11:28 am

    Dansdata is GREAT! What a fun site. Thanks for recommending it.

    Where did you hear of IBM’s 8 hour restriction? (I’m too lazy to search myself. Sorry!)

  • March 12, 2002 at 3:19 am

    Sounds more like legal a "Cover Your Ass" than a technical warning, but bears keeping an eye out for. Thanks.

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