It’s been 15 years, and computer stores haven’t changed much

In the early 1990s, I learned how to fix computers because I got tired of long waits and shoddy repairs from computer stores.

Last month I took a friend to go buy a computer. I didn’t want her to get stuck with retail junk, so I took her to a computer store that I knew sold quality parts. Plus I know the owner. He wrote an O’Reilly book too. I figured it would be a smooth experience, since I knew exactly what to ask for. The salesperson said he’d get back to me within two days with a quote, then it would take about a week to build the system after we gave the OK. Seems pretty smooth and reasonable.

It turned into a nightmare. Or at least a mess.Ten days passed without a word. So I called to find out what was going on, and there was no record of us having come in, at all. So we went through the process again, with a different salesperson. This time, the guy argued with my specs. He argued about the SSD. He argued about the RAID.

Finally he relented, in such a patronizing way that he might as well have said, “I’ll pretend to listen to you, but I’m gonna build this system the way I want because you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Then, days passed, without a word.

I was uncomfortable. My friend was uncomfortable. We talked about calling the owner, but what’s the point in doing business with someplace that doesn’t give good service unless you know the owner? We ended up ordering a computer from ibuypower.com instead. Their web interface didn’t argue with me. It also wouldn’t let us order the machine when we clicked “order,” but a phone call to their 800 number remedied that. About a week later, the computer showed up.

The same day the computer showed up, she got a phone call from the computer store. The computer we’d come in and talked about, nearly three weeks before, was ready for pickup. Say what?

With all the other stuff I have going on, I don’t build PCs for other people anymore. I have enough going on these days that if I had a more viable option, I wouldn’t build for myself either. But I spent more time arguing with people than it would have taken for me to order everything from Newegg and then assemble it myself. I can probably still put a PC together in 45 minutes, especially as tightly integrated as everything is now.

I haven’t used computer stores for anything more than parts depots since 1993 or 1994. I guess there’s no reason for that to change.

So why did I want the computer built that way?

Asus motherboards. I’ve assembled hundreds of systems over the years, and I’ve had less trouble with Asus boards than with any other brand. Run them in spec (no overclocking) and you can reasonably expect them to last five years, minimum. Beyond my own experience, HP uses Asus motherboards in their business desktops, and I’ve seen very few problems with those in business environments.

I have an old AMD Socket A system still running in my basement. I built it in 2002 with an Asus motherboard I bought cheap from some online computer liquidator. It’s slow, obviously, but it keeps on running. More often than not, that’s the fate of old Asus systems.

The store didn’t argue with me on that.

Seasonic power supplies. Seasonic isn’t a big name, but they’ve been around forever. They built power supplies for Apple starting in the late 1970s and IBM starting in 1981. Today they build power supplies for most of the big name brands. Since I know Seasonic makes good stuff, and I know some Antec power supplies are good and others aren’t, I’d rather just buy something I know was made by Seasonic. Here’s how.

$100 CPUs. If I were buying for myself, I’d probably get a $60 CPU and replace it with another $60 CPU in a year or two, since 2010’s $200 CPU is 2012’s $60 CPU. But this was for someone else, and today, $100 gets you a 4-core CPU, so why not?

The store didn’t argue with me on that either.

Case. No room for argument there. If the case won’t flex, it won’t cut you either.

SSD. Of course they argued with me about the SSD. I’ve already talked at length about those, so no need to re-hash that.

RAID 1. This was where I caught lots of flack. RAID 1 is simply two mirrored drives. Install two drives, and the system makes one an identical copy of the other. If one drive fails, the system just runs on half the mirror. No worries. Replace the drive, and you’ve got your automatic protection back. Since you can get 1 TB hard drives for 70 bucks, this is cheap insurance.

It works great, unless both drives die at the same time. Which never happens, right? Well, it shouldn’t, unless there’s a design flaw or a manufacturing defect in the drive. And two drives built on the same day in the same factory are likely to have the same manufacturing defect.

The way around it is to use similar, but not identical drives. Pair a Western Digital drive with a Seagate or a Samsung. Something like that.

One advantage to this approach is that drive makers go through hot streaks and slumps. So who cares who’s hot and who’s not right now? There are four drive makers: Hitachi, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital. Pick two. When one drive dies, replace it with one from one of the other guys. Just rotate through all four. At least one of the drives will keep running and keep your data intact.

His objection was that since the drives aren’t absolutely identical, they won’t finish writing at exactly the same time.

That’s a problem in theory. In practice, I’ve never seen it. I’ve mixed old 7200 RPM drive and new 10,000 RPM drives in RAID arrays and they worked fine. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but HP couldn’t get me a matching drive. HP field technicians mix and match RAID drives all the time.

So if I can RAID together two drives that have a performance differential of over 25%, I can RAID together two that have a differential of closer to 5%. And I have. That works fine too.

If there’s no way around using identical drives (and performance even on “identical” drives can vary a few percent), at least make sure they were made at different times. Use one drive from last week’s shipment, and one from next week’s shipment. Or if you’re ordering online, order one from Newegg and one from Mwave. That way, if something was going wrong in the factory on a particular week, only one drive will have that defect.

I suggested using drives from two different weeks’ shipments as a possible compromise. “All our drives have unique serial numbers,” he said.

As do everyone else’s. My logic was lost on him. That’s fine; he just won’t be selling me any computers.

He’d be telling me a different story in two years when I came back to get a drive replaced after one failed, and he can’t get any Seagate Barracuda 7200.12s to match the surviving drive. Something like, “Well, RAID works OK with dissimilar drives; we’ve never seen any problems.”

One solution is to deliberately crash one of the drives after a couple of weeks or months, if the store won’t sell you dissimilar drives or at least mix up the serial numbers. But that’s dishonest. I’d rather buy from a store with cooperative employees.

So, what to do if you want a good computer? Order parts from Newegg. Or order from ibuypower if you don’t want to assemble it yourself.

2 thoughts on “It’s been 15 years, and computer stores haven’t changed much

  • November 4, 2010 at 3:26 pm
    Permalink

    If you’re in the mood, I wish you’d write a bit more about RAID, esp. RAID_1 since it seems to be becoming commonplace these days, even among mainstream PC vendors.

    I’m just now building my first system with RAID, but my cousin recently bought an HP with RAID, and I doubt he even knows what the acronym stands for.

    I know just enough to tell the difference between RAID_0 and RAID_1, but what I don’t know are the specifics of everyday operation.

    For example, if I have a RAID_1 array consisting of 2 x 1Tb drives on my main box, can I take one out and read the files on it from another machine as just an ordinary drive?

    If I change a file and put it back in the original array, what happens?

    Can I build/configure a RAID_1 array with a drive full of data and a new, empty drive of appx same size and keep the data?

    More questions if you want them.

    Love the new layout and glad to see you posting about anything/everthing more frequently.

    Regards,

    Jim

    PS — You’ll laugh at this — How many volts to a train transformer, and how many amps does an average one carry? I want to mess around with LED lighting, and think a train transformer might work really well, and look uber-cool, too.

    • November 4, 2010 at 6:48 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks, Jim. Sure, I can talk about RAID some more. Yes, you can read half of a RAID 1 as an ordinary drive. But when you put it back in, the undisturbed half of the mirror will overwrite the drive you removed, since the system will assume it’s a replacement for a failed drive. So you’ll lose any changes you make.

      Usually you can turn an existing drive into a RAID array. Configure the drive as RAID, reboot, watch for the warning that you have a failed drive in the array, then add a second drive.

      I’ll think some more, but yes, RAID would be a great topic to go deeper on.

      As for the train transformer, it varies. The variable output usually tops out at 18-20 volts. Amperage varies widely. If it’s a transformer from an HO or N scale starter set, not much. My wild guess would be 2 amps, tops. My old-school Lionel transformers go a lot higher. I’ve got a 75 watt unit, which most people consider unusable (that would be what, 4 amps?), and I’ve got a 270-watt unit that’s pretty much a requirement to be taken seriously as a hobbyist. If I’m remembering the math right, that would be 15 amps. The other question is AC vs. DC. Lionel used AC; the more common HO and N scale trains use DC. But yes, LEDs will work just fine off a train transformer. Using LEDs to light train layouts is becoming very common.

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