Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 2/3/06 Are you ready for Windows Vista?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) February 2, 2006 9:40 AM PST

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2/3/06 Are you ready for Windows Vista?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 2/2/06 9:40 AM

Question:

I'm currently getting ready to either buy or build a new home computer. However, in anticipation of Windows' new operating system, Vista, to be released later this year--what is the best hardware to have inside the case that will prepare me for this? I'm wondering about not only the CPU, but motherboard, graphics board, fans, cases, power supply, single or dual hard drives (RAID), monitors, and so on. Or would it be wise to wait until the release of this new OS before getting this new system?

Submitted by: George L. of Sarasota, FL

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Answer:


George, the answer depends largely on your needs. If you're buying/building a system because your old one is on its proverbial last leg, then sooner would be obviously better than waiting for Vista's final release. On the other hand, if you're just bored silly with your old system and it's perfectly fine otherwise, waiting may not be such a bad thing.

Buying now will give you that instant gratification; waiting will go a long way toward insuring that the system is Vista certified or at least compliant. Of course, you can buy now, while keeping in mind the system requirements for Vista in mind.

Prices will fall on the current cream of the crop as newer, faster, more powerful components will arrive on the market. The machine you buy today will be considerably cheaper in 8-9 months when Vista becomes available. It's a sad, ugly truth behind computers - they don't hold their resale value for very long.

A lot of what you will want to get will largely depend on what your needs are. Either way, I would seriously recommend going with an AMD processor. AMD (as you may have read) ate Intel's best and brightest for lunch in CNET's recent shootout. In fact, the slowest AMD processor beat the top of the line Intel chip in a number of the tests. Read more about it at http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-10442_7-6389077-1.html

If you're a gamer, video editor, or uber-geek who has to have the latest and greatest hardware, THE chip to get would be the AMD Athlon64 4800+ X2 chip. This is the dual core Athlon64 model that's currently the top of the line. However, coming very soon, AMD is supposed to be releasing a 5000+ chip. Who knows what will be top of the heap when Vista finally ships.

If you're just going to do the basics, surf the web, e-mail, the occasional letter to be banged out in Word (or whatever word processor you happen to like), I'd still stick with at the VERY least, an Athlon64 single core chip based system. The reasoning behind this - 32 bit chips, while adequate for the tasks mentioned above, will be lacking in the performance department when Vista arrives.

As far as motherboards go, I've had my eye on a Gigabyte GA-K8U-939 board. It seems to have most everything I could possibly need or will be wanting in the foreseeable future - with only one exception - it doesn't have any firewire ports. However, given the K8U board has five PCI slots, finding room for expansion is not a problem.

The only other possible weakness this board may have is in that it has an AGP video slot instead of the newer PCIe (PCI Express) slot. For what it's worth, unless you're into heavy gaming or video editing the AGP based slots are more than adequate for the immediate task.

Power Supply: For what it's worth, your best bet is to get one that's at least 450 to 500 watts. Visit your local computer hardware superstore (CompUSA, Frys, Circuit City, etc...) and look at the power supplies. Lift the individual unit and see how heavy it is. The heavier it is for its size, the better. Cheaper power supplies tend to be fairly lightweight and tend to be a bit weak and underpowered. A power supply is merely a transformer that converts 120 volt AC current to 12 volt and 5 volt DC current. You want a heavy duty power supply with lots of heft.

Case: Get one that you like - but keep in mind that many cases ship with a power supply - consider what it comes with and how much it will cost to replace the PSU should the one in the case be underpowered.

RAM: Get as much of it as you can afford onto the motherboard. The more RAM you have available, the less Windows has to use a swap file and the snappier your system will be. I would go with a minimum of 1 GB. Given Windows' track record in the past few versions, 512 MB is probably going to seem to be a bit underpowered when you go with Windows Vista.

Hard drives: A lot of what sort of disk subsystem you get will depend largely on what you're planning on doing with your system. If you're the type who just does a few letters here and there, web surfing and email, you probably won't need a huge hard drive. On the other hand, if you're into video editing or other projects that take up a lot of disk space, plan accordingly. Either way, figure out what you're going to need and then at least double the value. I would go with at least a 160 GB or larger drive to start. One more thing to consider on hard drive choice - spindle speed. Your older drives are typically 5400 RPM or slower. Newer drives tend to spin at 7200 RPM or faster. Faster is better. The same is true of cache. Many drives these days sport anywhere from 2 MB to 16 MB worth of cache. The more the better - and more expensive. Stick with 7200 RPM or faster drives with at least 8 MB cache.

Standard Parallel ATA (aka EIDE) drives are generally adequate for most users - unless you're into video editing or heavy gaming. These two tasks are quite disk intensive and the faster the drive, the better. If you're into gaming and video editing, you should definitely think about getting a SATA (Serial ATA) drive. SATA has the benefit of having faster throughput.

It's also possible to use both EIDE/ATA133 and SATA drives in the same computer. Most of the mainstream motherboards on the market now will support both types. And if it says it supports SATA, it will also have EIDE/ATA100/133 support. Feel free to get say, a 60 or 80 GB EIDE drive to boot the computer and a nice big fat SATA drive for your data drive.

To RAID or not to RAID? That is the question...

RAID (Redundant Array of Independent (or Inexpensive - depending on who you ask) Disks) is a number of techniques for either speeding up data access or creating what's called "fault tolerance" - meaning if you've got multiple drives and one fails, you've still got your data or at least can rebuild it without having to dig through your backups... (You DO back up your data, right?) There are a number of different types of RAID. Read more about RAID types at http://www.bytepile.com/raid_class.php

Now then, the big question you need to ask yourself is do you really need it? How important, or better yet, how irreplaceable is the data in question? Is it just a place to store jokes and other misc. files that people send you via e-mail? Or are you running a business and your client list, inventory database, and other mission critical files are going to be stored on that machine? Another question is how often do you back up? Weekly? Daily? Monthly? Whenever you feel you're in the mood?

RAID 0 or a striped data set is great for those who need high performance - gamers and video editors. Raid 1 or a mirrored drive array is great for those who want a back up of their data without having to back up. Most of your typical motherboards that have RAID capability will offer those two types. Most of the other RAID types require specialized hardware and drivers.

Optical drive: As you're going to need one to install Windows and most other software, you might as well get a decent drive. Fortunately, DVD +/-RW burner drives are getting to the point of being dirt cheap. The drive I got about 6 months ago for about $60 is now selling for about $22. There's no real excuse for not having one of them any longer. Avoid Sony and Plextor - they're actually the same drive and the drive quality tends to be weak. The drives wear out fairly quickly.

As far as other components go:

Monitors: There are two main classifications for video output devices - old fashioned CRTs and the newer LCDs. Both have advantages. CRTs still have a slightly better picture and in my opinion, look better than the vast majority of flat panel LCDs. LCDs, on the other hand, are lighter and take up a LOT less desktop real estate. A large CRT monitor can also give you a hernia as they tend to weigh quite a bit. Of course, you probably won't be moving the monitor around that much. It will more than likely stay in one place until it drops dead and gets replaced. CRTs also tend to be cheaper than the flat panel equivalent.

Which one to get? Go to Best Buy, CompUSA, Circuit City, Frys, or any other computer superstore in your area and LOOK at the ones on display. Have the salesman give you a mixed demo of the capabilities of the monitors on display. It's something that you'll have to be looking at for 3-5 years so you want to be sure you're going to be comfortable with the unit. Get one that you feel comfortable looking at. No sense in going blind. Now, keep in mind you don't HAVE to buy the monitor at the superstore - be sure to shop around once you've got an idea of what you want to get.

Keyboard, Mice, etc... Once again, while you're looking at the monitors, look at the keyboards, mice and other devices you want on your system. Find a keyboard and mouse that you find comfortable and go for one of them.

Windows XP: The last big question here is the operating system. You can, of course, go with Windows XP Home, Professional, Media Center Edition and of course the 64 Bit variety.

Home and Professional are more or less identical in so far as the underlying guts go. The only difference is in the networking components and capabilities. Home will allow you to connect 5 computers to the host computer while Pro will let you connect 10. Pro will also let you connect to Windows domain controllers.

Media Center will allow you to watch TV, provided you've got a TV Tuner card built in. It's usually also configured with a remote control so you can kick back and watch TV, DVD movies, or other media.

The good, the bad and the ugly facts about Windows XP 64 bit edition...

The good: It allows you to take full advantage of 64 bit processors. Certain applications WILL run MUCH faster. But mundane tasks like word processing, email, etc..won't benefit much from XP 64

The Bad and The Ugly: Driver support, from what I've heard, is still lacking. Not having 64 bit drivers for your peripherals means you can't use those devices. Drivers are supposed to be coming but...

All in all, your best bet is to figure out what you plan on doing with your new computer. Consider your needs and double them. Shop around! Decide on whether you want to build your own computer or buy a complete system. Visit discount search engines like http://www.pricewatch.com to find good deals on the components you want to buy if you're building your own. Visit computer shows in your area (if available). The vendors there tend to have "Massive Price Wars" in order to outsell the guy in the next cubicle and there can be good bargains to be had if you shop around.

Submitted by: Pete Z.




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