Tom’s Hardware asks: Is an SSD the best upgrade for a slightly old PC?

Not surprisingly, they find the answer is yes. Specifically, that a PC equipped with an SSD gets about a 30% across-the-board performance increase.

I don’t agree with everything Tom’s Hardware say in the conclusion, namely, that it’s pointless to put an SSD in a netbook. Indeed, when you put an SSD in a netbook, you get several benefits: improved latency, improved battery life, and much faster boot/resume times, all of which are useful.
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Tradeoffs at the low end: Cores or Cache?

I’m looking at building myself a new PC for the first time in years. That’s a little bit of a misnomer though. Today, building a PC can mean bolting as few as two components into a case and connecting four cables. Building PCs in the 1990s was a lot more difficult. I remember in 1994, during one of my first builds, someone walking past in the hall, looking at the mess of cards and cables, and asking, “How do you know which one goes where?”

Today, the assembly is pretty easy. Figuring out what to buy is harder. In 1994, the differences between the various flavors of 386 and 486 chips available was confusing, but it all fit on an index card. Mainly the difference came down to the amount of memory the chip could address (386) and whether it had a math coprocessor (486). Beyond that all you really had to worry about was clock speed. Back then the research took 30 minutes and the system took hours to build.

Today there are two chip manufacturers (down from four) but they both have half a dozen product lines. And nobody really talks about clock speed anymore. That’s fine because clock speed was a crude measure of performance, but is throwing numbers like 560 or 840 or 965 on the chips really any better? Today the research takes hours (if not days) and the system goes together in about 5 minutes. Shake the bag right and it could just come out of the bag fully assembled.
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Upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 with USB media

I wasn’t in any hurry to switch to Windows 7, but when several places put the Windows 7 family pack on sale for $125 or thereabouts, I figured I’d better get it. The normal price on three upgrades is $100-$110 a pop. And you know how it goes. Once you get something, you really don’t want it to just sit on the shelf. Why let the software collect dust while I wait for 64-bit Firefox to arrive?

So I want to install it off USB. It’s easy, right? Well, it’s easy if you’re running Vista. But the instructions floating around for making bootable Windows 7 installation USB media don’t work if you’re running XP. At least they didn’t work from any of my XP machines. Read more

The first PC I ever built

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Everyone who built his own PC knows everything. Just ask him.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s admirable to build your own PC rather than just buying Dell’s special of the week (although some people would be better off just doing exactly that), and it does require at least skill with handling a screwdriver. But it’s not what it used to be. Today, building a PC makes you know something. It no longer makes you an expert.

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Power supply secrets

A good question came up here yesterday: How do you know when your power supply is causing problems? There may be many power supply secrets, but that’s the one most important to know.

There are lots of symptoms of an under-rated power supply: frequent BSODs, spontaneous reboots for no reason, and the screen going black and the system crashing. A failing power supply can also cause other components in the system to fail much more frequently than they should. But generally you’ll see those other symptoms earlier.

Have you ever heard those horror stories about a lemon PC that’s had virtually every component inside it replaced at least once and it still doesn’t work right? Usually you can head off those kinds of problems. The trick is to replace the power supply after seeing two components fail.

In the previous story here, reader Glaurung asked if his IBM Aptiva’s 100-watt power supply might be causing him problems. He observed that two CD-ROM drives died in the system. I think it is.

IBM had a bad habit of skimping too much on the power supplies in its Aptiva and PS/1 lines. The business-class IBM PC line, in my experience, is good quality.

I don’t want to claim to know more about building a PC than IBM. But in that case I’d be replacing that power supply with something bigger. First check to make sure factory power supply doesn’t have any funky auxiliary connectors on it. A small few, especially those that mount their expansion slots on riser boards, do. Assuming yours doesn’t, a 400W unit from a reputable maker like Antec or Sparkle should only run $35 and prevent future peripheral death.

Usually, a low-power power supply becomes a problem when you start expanding. If you start with a system from a reputable maker (particularly a business-class system), the power supply ought to have enough juice to power everything they put in the box. You’re more likely to run into problems once you add a second hard drive and a CD burner. Some clone shops skimp on the power supply to save costs. The consumer machines you see in retail stores (like Compaq Presarios) typically have skimpier power supplies than business desktops (like Compaq Deskpros).

Whitebox systems built by your friendly neighborhood local clone shop vary. A lot of clone shops pride themselves on quality and build better computers than any of the big name brands. Other clone shops pride themselves on being cheap and cut every corner imaginable. The power supply is usually first.

While there are some really nasty motherboards out they aren’t as bad as they were in the past. Most causes of poor reliability in recent systems are due to cheap, commodity power supplies or cheap, commodity memory. PC Chips is notorious for making bottom-feeder motherboards. But given the choice between a computer with a PC Chips board and a quality power supply and quality memory or a computer with an Asus board with a no-name power supply and memory, I’d take my chances with the PC Chips.

Building with the Antec SLK2600AMB

The Antec SLK2600AMB is the nicest case for the money I think I’ve ever seen.
Gatermann and another friend are building a PC today. Last night, he and I gave the components a once-over, to make sure they’d be building a PC today and not troubleshooting bad components. Good thing, because the video card was bad. It’d power up and display and sometimes the display was even readable through the gibberish. Bad memory chip.

So it was a good thing we did some investigating beforehand. And I was glad to see this case. They paid $59 for it at has it for $67. There are lots of places I’ve never heard of on Pricewatch that have it, some for a little less, some for a little more.

In the picture it looks silver, but it isn’t. It’s dark gray. It has a glossy, metallic finish. (Antec calls it “metallic bronze,” but it’s much more of a gray than a bronze.) You’ll never match the color of your drives to the case, but that’s OK because it has a door that covers the drive bays. If you can find some light gray drives, like the OEM-for-Compaq drives Compgeeks carries sometimes, or like Yamaha’s CD-RW drives, they’ll look fine in it. Black will look even better in it–the case is just about the same color as the ancient 486 server I have in my basement that has black drives. It’s really sharp.

This case, with black drives and a black monitor and keyboard and whatever mouse you prefer, will give you a distinctive-looking system that looks classy, not tacky.

There’s only one removable panel, on the side. That’s OK; the case is spacious enough inside to drop in a motherboard without troubles. The side on this particular case took a little effort to remove, so be careful with it. If I’d had a flat, non-metal object (like a paint stick) to pry it open with, I would have. Don’t use a slotted screwdriver, as you’ll probably scratch the case.

Inside, you’ll find a 300W Antec power supply. Good stuff for the price, and more than adequate for any mainstream PC. People intending to build a computer with multi-drive RAID and top-end CPUs and video cards and ground effects will be springing for something other than this case.

It has real slot covers, and not the bend-out metal cutouts that are all too common in less-expensive cases anymore. The only problem with the slot covers is they tend to interfere with the card just above them, so if you’re removing a card and can’t get it free, pull the slot cover below it.

There’s a little storage compartment above the slots for the case accessories. This is nice if you’re like some people (ahem, I won’t mention any names, Steve) who have a tendency to lose the extra screws and standoffs that come with a case. Pop ’em in the storage compartment, and when upgrade time comes, they’re there.

The other nice thing is the ease with which 5.25″ form-factor drives go into the case. Pop out the front cover using its clip, then pull out the drive rail behind it. The drive rail clips onto the right side of the drive (use the lower holes) and the drive slides in. Use the slider on the other side of the drive, inside the case, to hold the drive in place. You can fully populate the case in the time it would normally take to bolt one drive in. Very nice. I could live without the bright purple color of the rails, but at least they’re inside.

You get four external 5.25″ bays, one external 3.5″ bay for a floppy drive (or if you want something even more useless and unreliable, a Zip drive), and three internal 3.5″ bays for hard drives. There are mounts for two case fans (none included).

It costs $20 more than the Foxconn case I looked at a couple of weeks ago. But it’s also a tier above it. If you’re on a budget but not trying to squeeze every penny, this case is a good one to get.