Tips on choosing the best configuration for your desktop PC

Buying a desktop PC might seem to be a straightforward process, but choosing an ideal configuration requires some important decision making.

Should you choose a SATA drive or an SAS drive? Should the PC include a Blu-ray drive? Many newer features are increasingly affordable and increasingly necessary, while others are things you can definitely wait on. To help you decide which options are must-haves, and which you can bypass, we’ve put together a checklist of options to consider. Read on for help in deciding how to configure your next desktop purchase.

Operating system: Go forward to go back

Let’s face it: Microsoft Vista has suffered some black eyes from people and businesses that have had serious trouble getting it to operate consistently, reliably, and quickly, as well as from those who simply prefer the XP interface.

That’s why you may find the option for an XP downgrade on new PCs welcome, if rather odd. You’re essentially buying Vista, but getting XP for free, and obtaining an upgrade disk for Vista when and if you want it. If you buy the Vista Business edition, models and makers that support this option will impose no additional charge; if you buy a cheaper Vista version, you may have to pay additional fees, or an XP downgrade may not be available.

Dell’s arrangement is typical: by choosing its “bonus” edition of Vista Business or better, you can opt to have the factory install Windows XP and include an upgrade DVD for that flavor of Vista. Dell offers support through the computer’s lifetime warranty for both XP and Vista. You can even downgrade back to XP if you choose.

Since most businesses haven’t standardized on Vista, you’re unlikely to have problems with coworkers or other companies you work with if you stick with XP; operating systems rarely affect compatibility, either, only tech support.

Our verdict: For your operating system, buy Vista Business with XP preinstalled for the greatest flexibility.

Upgradability: Case the case and motherboard

You will likely want to upgrade any computer you purchase, no matter what the specs are on the model you choose. With terabyte drives available today for $300, you might want to switch to the inevitable 1.5TB drives next year, or boost your 4GB of RAM to 16GB in 2010. Make sure that you can answer the following questions about any desktop you purchase:

Our verdict: Buy your computer today, but plan on needing, and choosing, an updated case and motherboard in a few years.

Optical drive: Upgrade to Blu-ray later

As DVD burners have become increasingly faster, there are fewer differentiating factors among them. You’re primarily deciding between CD/DVD burning and CD/DVD/Blu-ray burning. (You can purchase a Blu-ray drive that plays video disks and read-only Blu-ray disks, but that seems like half a loaf.) The latest generation of Blu-ray drives can burn 25GB or 50GB to a single disk. But the upgrade is pricey: Often $300 (HP) to $470 (Dell) to install a Blu-ray writer instead of a fast CD/DVD burner. Blank Blu-ray discs are ruinous: from $10 to $20 each for 25GB media and $35 to $50 each for 50GB media.

But with Blu-ray the winner in the high-definition video market, prices for both home players and PC drives will plummet this year, as will blank media, since users will buy such media in larger volumes. And most of us use hard drives for larger backups, anyway.

Our verdict: Wait for Blu-ray to become a $150-to-$200 upgrade, and for 50GB media to drop to $20. Optical drives in desktops are often a simple upgrade.

Monitor: Big LCD displays = pricey video card

You can buy stunningly large LCD displays from several PC makers–30 inches at 2560 by 1600 pixels, say–and video support for using a single one of these behemoths is typically an included cost for any business desktop. The PC will need a dual-link DVI connection for such a big display, because of the sheer number of pixels involved. If you need to use two or more monitors, especially two 30-inch beauties, costs can mount for the video card upgrade. Typically, you can manage two monitors, at least one of them 30 inches in size, with the included card or a very cheap upgrade ($15 for one Lenovo model, for instance).

Driving two 30-inch LCDs, however, means that the dollars can start to add up. Apple builds the cost of two dual-link DVI connectors into all its Mac Pro models, which tend to start with options that bring their price higher than comparable PC makers’ workstations.

Other manufacturers offer cards at an upgrade cost starting at $400 for such support, with prices that can reach into the thousands for the highest-performance cards.

Our verdict: If you consider two or more 30-inch LCDs vital to your work, you’re simply choosing how much power under the hood–from the video card–you’re going to buy.

Hard drives: SATA vs. SAS

Both SATA and SAS drives offer high performance, with transfer rates of 3 gigabytes per second. But SAS is full duplex, providing this speed in both directions. That’s why SAS drives have differentials of hundreds of dollars for higher capacities. Some PC makers offer only SATA drives for most of their midrange business models, requiring the purchase of a higher-cost workstation to upgrade to SAS storage.

Our verdict: SATA is fast enough for most business purposes, but if you read and write massive amounts of data, only SAS will meet your needs.

Hard Drives: Which flavor of RAID?

When the term RAID was originally coined, the phrase “redundant array of inexpensive disks” was a vision of the putative future. Now, with the price per megabyte in disks astoundingly low, RAID is a superb option for improving both speed and reliability in a desktop machine that has at least two hard-drive bays. The idea behind RAID is that you pick two targets, one being some combination of redundancy, speed, and reliability; the other being the total pool of storage you want to have available. Depending on the manufacturer, the drives you purchase may all have to be of the same capacity, although that’s not a strict RAID requirement.

RAID 1, for instance, mirrors all data, writing the same data to each of two drives at the same time. If one drive goes south, the other is fully available. Your total storage capacity is half the total of drive space: two 500GB drives equals 500GB of storage.

RAID 0 stripes data, interleaving blocks to extract more speed out of the hard-drive bus–that is, you can use two 7200-rpm drives, but effectively have a far higher speed. RAID 0 offers the full capacity of all drives: Two 500GB drives equals 1TB of capacity.

RAID 5 stripes data and error-correction information across three or more drives. If any one drive dies, the others can reconstruct the missing details, and you lose much less storage than with simple mirroring. With RAID 5 and drives of the same capacity, you lose just the equivalent of a single drive’s worth of space in the set. With three 500GB drives, for instance, you have 1TB of storage; with four 500GB drives, you have 1.5TB.

You can combine RAID 0 and RAID 1 as 0+1, which provides both speed and backup, but RAID 5 is usually seen as a superior alternative, even though it can be more costly. It requires at least three drives, but can use many more, and you can expand sets later. If you think you’ll want a larger set of storage drives down the road, you need to make sure that your desktop has enough drive bays.

Major desktop PC makers typically include hardware support for RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 even in their less-expensive systems, but for built-in RAID 5 support, you may need to select a higher-priced business workstation; this option typically also requires a hardware RAID card–costing $650 to $800–as well.

That additional cost is partly offset for sets of four or more disks of large capacity compared to RAID 0+1, however, because you drop the cost of drives necessary for the same amount of total storage in RAID 5.

Our verdict: For best use, choosing either RAID 0+1 or RAID 5 makes sense, but RAID 5 clearly provides the best combination of speed and reliability, even at a higher cost.

Power consumption: Look at Energy Star

We’d all like to cut our power bills, and Energy Star-qualified computers could be part of that process. If you’re upgrading computers and your new machine uses more energy than your old one, you’re increasing your so-called carbon footprint; but a system that meets Energy Star guidelines at least increases your power use less than does a comparable system that hasn’t been designed to meet the marks of this Environmental Protection Agency program.

With a laptop–or a refrigerator, for that matter–a specific model with more or less the same features can be tested and its usage estimated. But when you can upgrade a processor to double the baseline model’s speed and stick in four hard drives instead of two, the baseline numbers help only a little in calculating the final energy bill.

Still, because Energy Star’s rules for desktops and workstations–tightened in 2007–require an efficient power supply and intelligent power reductions in standby and idle modes, you’re still moving in the right direction. Our verdict: Energy Star shouldn’t be the deciding factor, but it’s worth crunching numbers with your local electrical rates against other models you’d be considering.

Warranties: Check out the differences

Warranties are complicated beasts, and it’s not ideal to recommend spending several hundred dollars extra for “24-hour business day” service when that can actually be interpreted in different ways by different companies.

For on-site repair, you’ll typically see a service technician wearing a company tag just for that visit; they work for firms that contract out the local work. If you have a problem that’s beyond their ability to repair on the spot, they may lack spare parts, and you may still be out of commission for a day or two or over a weekend.

Check out the official support forums on a manufacturer’s site–Apple and Dell seem to delete few, if any, of the complaints that aren’t abusive or obscene. (If they’re removing the worst stuff, I’d be scared to see it.) Find out what each warranty option means in practice, and ask around in your area to see whether the local service techs who might appear for any maker’s model you buy are up to the task. Our verdict: You almost certainly will want to spend the few hundred dollars to get improved warranty over the included offer, but research to find out what level is worthwhile.

Preinstalled programs: Remove the bloatware

Every computer maker should offer the option to provide a computer with no comarketed, preinstalled software packages that generally serve more to slow down your new system’s performance than to enhance your computing experience. Yes, antivirus and firewall software trials can make sure you’re safe out of the box, but this is also a lock-in strategy with marketing dollars involved, not something that has your interests directly at heart.

It’s surprising that PC makers haven’t embraced such an option, despite the potential revenue loss from business partners supplying the trial apps. After all, Sony recently endured a public embarrassment when it briefly attempted to charge for removing all the trial software and Sony applications not needed for a system’s operation on one of its ultramobile PCs. (The Sony people quickly changed their minds, and you can now get the “Fresh Start” option–shades of 1984 doublespeak–on applicable laptops at no cost.) None of the major makers, including Sony, offer this option for desktops except Apple, which doesn’t install trial software from other firms, and has just one inducement for a service–its .Mac subscription hosting option–during the setup process.

Our verdict: Manufacturers should offer this software-free option, and removing bloatware should be one of your first tasks after buying a computer.

Glenn Fleishman writes the blog Glenn Fleishman on Hardware on PCWorld.com, and edits his own site, Wi-Fi Networking News.

Comment: edit@itworldcanada.com

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