What’s The Problem?: Buying the Right Computer Guide

As the Q&A Editor for this very website, I receive hundreds of emails every week about various computer problems. Sometimes it’s a video card problem, sometimes a sound card, sometimes an upgrade and sometimes it’s something I can’t possibly begin to answer. However, the most common questions come from those who have prefab computers. By this, I mean that they went to their local computer store and bought a preassembled machine off the shelf. As convenient as this is, it’s often the source of the problem as well.

Obviously, everybody cannot be expected to know how to buy their own parts and put everything together properly. It takes technical know-how, some experience in electronics and a willingness to experiment, and many just don’t have the time necessary for this. That, however, is not the point of this column. Instead, the idea is to educate the consumer on a more general level. What features should the consumer look for? What should be avoided? How can one avoid being suckered into something that will be a $1500+ doorstop in under a year? Read on and learn how to buy a machine that has lasting value and future upgradeability.

First, never buy a computer because of an in-store instant rebate that forces a two-year commitment to something. Circuit City, Radio Shack, Best Buy, CompUSA — most major stores have deals like this. Avoid them. Computers offered in promotions like this are usually underpowered machines that would go unshipped otherwise, taking up warehouse space somewhere. If that weren’t bad enough, the two-year commitment is usually to something like AOL, CompuServe or Prodigy. From a game player’s perspective, these are three evil words. Content providers like this use proprietary software for their connections to the Internet that automatically route data through their servers before hitting the Internet. While this may be okay for the occasional browsing and some email, it’s the kiss of death for online games but not Clash Royale.

Next, do not sign up for a deal whereby payments are made for a few years with some option to upgrade after that initial commitment. Again, this is typically an underpowered computer, and now it’ll be around for 24 months or longer. As most game players know, there’s usually a required once-a-year upgrade to keep up with the latest technology. Sometimes it’s more memory; sometimes it’s a new video card; sometimes it’s additional hard drive space — there’s always a part of a computer to upgrade or expand over the course of a year if playing the latest games is a priority. Computers with “upgrade deals,” including PeoplePC, Gateway, E-Machines and others, typically sell consumers a middle-of-the-road machine that cannot be upgraded for 24 months. (The upgrading of most of these machines is prohibited in the contract.) It would take a bleeding edge top-of-the-line machine to last a full two years without longing for an upgrade. Keep Moore’s Law in mind here. It states that every 12-18 months, the future top-of-the-line machine will be twice as fast and half as expensive as it is now, and this has held true for at least the last decade. This translates into today’s $1000 1GHz chip leading to a $500 2GHz chip in 12-18 months. Is that 500MHz machine with 64MB RAM still a good deal for two years?

Finally, avoid “closeouts” or “discontinued” models. These are computers, not toasters. While last year’s toaster will still brown bread for years to come, computers advance and evolve like nothing else. Their lifespan is usually extremely short (2-3 years), but their usefulness is ever expanding. Buying a closeout or discontinued model is asking for disappointment. Its useful lifespan, at least as far as games are concerned, will probably be six months or less. It may provide some instant gratification, but in the long run, it will lead to disappointment.

Now that we know what to avoid in general, here’s what to look for when shopping for a new computer. First, make sure that any included components are separate, removable parts. Avoid “on-board” items, including modems, sound cards and video cards. While it may seem convenient to have these items on the motherboard — it frees up expansion slots, right? — it limits the upgradeability of the machine. Often, especially with on-board video cards, upgrading can be a nightmare. While they can usually be disabled, that process can sometimes be more complicated than it should be. On-board video cards also often share system memory, meaning that the 64MB of RAM in the computer is actually 56MB (or less), because the on-board video card is taking a certain amount of it (usually 8MB). If that isn’t bad enough, on-board video usually means there’s no AGP slot. This is huge, as AGP is the foreseeable future of video cards. On-board sound and modem connections don’t suffer quite as badly, but they can be equally confusing to upgrade. If, for example, a game sounds great with the latest environmental audio turned on, chances are that the on-board sound will not support it. Want to upgrade that on-board modem? Better hope it isn’t part of the on-board sound card, which is usually the situation.

The next thing to shop for is non-proprietary parts. Judging from the Q&A letters I receive, the single biggest culprit here is Compaq. While a few have emailed to say that they’ve had few or no problems with their Compaqs, the overwhelming majority of email I get concerning Compaq is about upgrade nightmares and other hardware-related problems. This is not to say that an out-of-the-box Compaq will perform poorly — far from it. The problem comes when upgrading. The parts for a Compaq are usually about twice the cost of nonproprietary parts, and often off-the-shelf parts will not perform as expected. Compaq is not the only one guilty of this — HPs, Packard Bells, IBMs (although they don’t really make consumer PCs anymore), Dells, Gateways — they all do this to a certain degree. While none of these machines are complete junk, their lifespan is typically shorter than that of nonproprietary machines, mainly because of upgrade difficulties. Split motherboards, nonstandard power supplies, cases that won’t hold standard motherboards — they’re all common in these machines, and in the long run, they become upgrade bottlenecks.

So if there are all these potential problems and pitfalls, where does Joe Consumer go to get a good machine with future upgradeability? There are several online options, including Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Hypersonic, IBuyPower and Canadian system builder Voodoo. (Voodoo is in no way related to 3Dfx.) All of these companies will build high quality, custom computers, to the buyer’s specifications. If online shopping isn’t an option, then most cities have at least one local computer shop that will build to spec. Larger cities obviously have many local shops, and the prices are usually better because of the competition.

As a final aid for computer shoppers, here’s a laundry list of what to get. Note that this isn’t a recommendation of AMD over Intel, or nVidia over 3Dfx; rather, it’s a list of the basic components required for a good computer with easily upgradeable parts.

A name-brand motherboard with an AGP slot and upgradeable/flashable BIOS, along with the ability to accept faster processors in the future. These are usually about $100-$130, but it’s worth it. Try to get one without onboard parts. If the motherboard simply doesn’t come without them, make sure onboard parts (sound, video, etc.) are easy to disable and will not cause hassles.
Standard DIMM RAM. Make sure that off-the-shelf RAM will work in this machine. Do not buy a computer that absolutely requires a specific type or brand of RAM.
A standard case and power supply. Nothing’s more frustrating (well, okay, some things are more frustrating) than discovering that the recently purchased new power supply or motherboard will not fit or work in the existing case.
A minimum one-year warranty. Most things computer will last a lot longer than this, but the occasional lemon slips through.
Primary and secondary IDE controllers compatible with ATA/66 or ATA/100 standards. Without them, the computer can only handle the hard drive and CD-ROM that it ships with. The proliferation of CD-RWs, DVD-ROMs, and other drives demands more than one IDE controller, and pretty much every new hard drive will utilize ATA/66. ATA/100 is just becoming available.
128MB RAM and a 15GB hard drive minimum. It sounds like overkill, but 128MB of RAM will soon be the norm, and that 15GB will be used faster than may be thought. Many new games require 1GB or more for a full install, and that’s not going to lower anytime soon.
700MHz minimum speed. Whether it’s Intel or AMD, these chips are inexpensive enough and fast enough to be useful for the foreseeable future.

That’s it. Do some homework here. It may seem complicated, but a weekend spent investigating the different machines and specifications will save months of frustration. No one wants to waste money on a machine that will be worthless in a year, and the guidelines provided here should prevent that from happening.