What kind of hardware do I need?
October 27, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

What kind of PC should *I* get?

"How will you use it? " you ask. Well, as an ADD person would. That is, with firefox, chrome and opera open at once, each with 17 tabs open and several half-watched videos that I plan to return to watching, while downloading a file and coverting a video to a different format, ssh-ing to some other site, and . . .

My current computer (3 year old Toshiba laptop) can't seem to handle the workload, despite a 2 gigaHz processor and 2 gigs of RAM. I imagine I need more ram and multi-processors and a bigger disk (or should I have some kind of non-spinning" storage? I don't understand what has happened to hardware lately.)

Restrictions: Well, I have a large investment in PC software and familiarity so I don't want to use Linux or a Mac (even though I have owned Macs and Linux machines in the past and even tried BeOS.)
I don't like the windows aesthetic but I can usually configure the uglier aspects away. Is 64 bits the direction of the future? Or just an unnecessary gimmick? Is there any reason not to get Window 7 home? I've discovered I don't ever leave my room so I don't really need a laptop. I don't do fancy gaming. (last game was World of Goo).

Should I have some one build it for me (e.g. computernyc.com) or should I buy from some place like Dell so I don't end up with unique problems that only the builder understands?

Should I get the very fastest processor or will it not make sufficient difference and be obsolete in a year anyway?

Is there some kind of peripheral device besides a scanner and printer that I must have?

What should I be asking that isn't occurring to me?
posted by Obscure Reference to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need more ram. Get a 64-bit OS because that will allow you to have more ram. Don't get the fastest processor, there is a premium cost for the top of the line clock speed, often getting something a bit slower is a good bargin.

What is your budget?
posted by demiurge at 9:32 AM on October 27, 2010

If I were you, I would get a Dell or a Lenovo. Absolutely no need for a custom build for your situation. Windows 7 is great, Home should work for you. Absolutely get 64 bit because it lets you have more memory (32 bit tops out at approx 3 GB on Windows), which will support your multitasking.

Good processors are cheap and will also help with your multitasking. Get at least a dual core, at least 2.8 GHz, maybe consider a quad core, there are some real bargains, e.g. Lenovo has a very cheap quad-core AMD, it's in the M series of ThinkStation desktops. You should be able to get something that will do all you need for < $600 not including the monitor.
posted by tabulem at 9:35 AM on October 27, 2010

You say you want to multitask - Get a quad core (i5 or even i7), go for 4GB ram, or 6GB if it's triple channel instead of just dual

Since you don't game really, you won't care much about the video card, but you might have to have some room to grow in your power supply, so you can always add a card later

Windows 7 home premium will do you just fine. Definitely go 64 bit, though I believe if you buy a retail copy, it comes with both versions.

Only peripheral I'd consider is maybe a card reader.

Personally, I'd build my own, but I'm that kind of nerd. It's really up to you whether or not you want to go the prebuilt route, or have someone build you a custom rig. Either way, do your research, or have tech savvy friends / mefites do it for you :)
posted by utsutsu at 9:35 AM on October 27, 2010

Watch Woot. Get the next refurbished box on sale. Pretty much any random new-ish pc will meet those requirements. I got a quad-core pc with 6gb of ram and a TB hard drive from woot for $400 and it's plenty fast for me.
posted by empath at 9:37 AM on October 27, 2010

Just had a quick nose at the Dell website:

Inspiron 580s
Intel® Core™ i3-550 processor(4MB Cache, 3.20GHz), Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium, 64bit, English, 23.0" Dell ST2310 Full HD Monitor with VGA cable, 6GB DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz- 3 DIMMs, 1TB hard drive, 16X DVD+/-RW drive, Integrated 7.1 Channel Audio, Dell 1525 Wireless-N PCIe Card, Dell USB Entry Keyboard, Dell USB Optical Mouse

You can probably do better if you play around with the initial package and then modify the components accordingly - as I took all of 10 minutes to come up with this. You may find that buying the monitor elsewhere will save you money, especially if you don't need one that is 23" big.

My only issue with this configuration is that the graphics card is integrated. Even though you don't play games, adding a graphics card is very cheap and will certainly help things such as the Windows effects, playing video and general snappiness of the PC.
posted by mr_silver at 9:49 AM on October 27, 2010

Really depends on your budget. If I was to configure a PC for myself to your specs I'd go for "low end" Core i7 or a Core i5 (like the i7-870 or the i5-760) and 8GB of ram, for PCs I also tend to build them myself.

if you have a buddy around that can help you build one I'd recommend that, it is quite informative and very useful to be able to take apart your computer with out fear when you need to upgrade or fix it. Newegg and places like that do have some barebones and mini systems that might be a good half way place to start building your own. Something like the Shuttle SH55-J2-BK-V1 ($220) will be a nice small footprint computer that can use the above CPUs. If you want a laptop then ignore everything above and just buy one, I think Dell, Asus, Toshiba and Sony (yeah, I was surprised too) had the lowest rate of warranty work in the last survey I read. HP was on the other less pleasant end of the graph. Toshiba laptops from what I have seen always seem to run slower than their specs would lead me to believe, could be their bloatware or drivers, but I have only used a few of them so my sample size is pretty small. At my company all of our PC laptops are usually Dell and the users are pretty happy with them (we had a few HP, they did not last).

For storage Seagate makes a nice series of hybrid SSD/Rotational disks, the Momentus XT line. They should give you about, IIRC, 80% of SSD speed at 15% of the price for the equivalent capacity. They are both 2.5" drives so they'll fit in most any computer.
posted by cftarnas at 10:07 AM on October 27, 2010

If you bump up the processor speed, then the only way it'll affect you is the speed at which you convert a video into another format. My 2.3GHz Core2Duo converts an hour long XviD into an MP4 (for use on my iPod) in about 25 minutes.

I tend to batch up a load to convert, run it and then go make dinner and watch TV. As such, the fact that it is "slow" compared to others is pretty immaterial to me.

Don't get me wrong, an i5 or i7 would be fantastic. However by the sounds of it, the best it'll do for your specific usage pattern is shave a couple of minutes off video conversion.

As such, I'm not entirely convinced that the extra money would be worth it.
posted by mr_silver at 10:27 AM on October 27, 2010

>Just had a quick nose at the Dell website:

Dell has big quality and reliability problems. Please, you will thank yourself for not getting a Dell.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:51 AM on October 27, 2010


The computer I got from Woot had pretty much the same specs and was over $300 cheaper. Newegg would also be better than Dell, if you don't mind putting it together yourself. I wouldn't buy from Dell unless I had a business account with them and was ordering in bulk.
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on October 27, 2010

If you're not afraid of building your own, Ars Technica periodically puts out a "System Builder's Guide" with the intent of giving the reader a starting point with non-crap hardware.

There are 3 levels: "Budget Box" ($600-$800), "Hot Rod" ($1200-1400) and "God Box" (usually $10k+).
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:17 PM on October 27, 2010

Response by poster: My hardware building days are behind me. My eyes and my small muscle coordination aren't great so I tend to drop many little screws where I can no longer find them. Also, I haven't recovered from the time I fried a motherboard, probably by mis-jumpering a disk but I never knew for sure.

What exactly is the difference between these different processors? Is it just clock speed or something more? Core 2 quad, i3, i5, i7? Should I get as much RAM as possible?
What about things like s-video out or is that just a board to throw in? (I'm willing to install boards.)

I've lived through Dells and know how to complain enough for them to replace them when broken. I know nothing about Lenovo (looking at site now).
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:32 PM on October 27, 2010

Based on your usage (lots of apps open simultaneously) I'd go for as about 8GB. The Core2 Quad is the previous generation Intel CPU (Its a 4 core version of the Core 2 Duo). The Core i3, i5 and i7 are the current generation Nehalem architecture based CPUs with the i3 being the entry level and i7 being the top end. Intel has screwed a bit with their naming schemes as well and the mobile versions are quite a bit different than the desktop versions.

For the desktop the i5 and i7 are quad core, and the core i7 also features a pretty decent hyperthreading so it can run 8 processes simultaneously (there are some caveats to that, its not as good as a having 8 cores but much better than the pentium 4 implementation). The latest and greatest very expensive Core i7s also now have more than 4 cores but for a desktop that is way overkill.

The wikipedia gives a decent breakdown. Ars has a much more in depth look.

IMHO a Core i5 or low end Core i7 should be great, budget allowing. I tend to like to get mid to high mid computers as they have a longer useable life. Yes, a core i3 or Core 2 quad might work well for you now, but it always seems that everything bloats and takes more CPU and RAM as time goes on.

I'll also second ArgentCorvid recommendation of Ars' guide although it doesn't sound like you are interested. Looking there now it looks like their "Hot Rod" is roughly what I was recommending sans the pricey graphics card and with more RAM, the Dell Studio XPS 8100 with a lower end graphics card (unless you decide to do 3D games) looks good from a specs point of view.

As for S-Video that would be dependent on your graphics card, and you might need to go aftermarket if you by a prebuilt computer. Most new graphics cards will do HDMI though and if your TV can support it, that is way better.
posted by cftarnas at 10:11 PM on October 27, 2010

Dell has big quality and reliability problems.

To be fair, if you look hard enough, you can find the same thing said about every single other manufacturer. Different people have different experiences. Although I went for a Shuttle, the GF and parents Dells have been chugging along just fine.
posted by mr_silver at 4:30 AM on October 28, 2010

Speaking here as Obscure Reference's partner, a.k.a. "wife," here are a few more data points:

1- I am buying him the computer for a birthday present, and it's quite a Big birthday (Hint: this birthday comes with a Medicare card) so money is essentially no object (within reason, ha);

2- He occasionally does a little video editing, attempting to use Sony Vegas. When I (attempt to) use Sony Vegas on my machine I have awful stop-and-start problems and have been told that a quad core would help a lot in that regard, so maybe that is a good idea?

3- I think, all in all, it would be best if he got this pre-made from a manufacturer with relatively good customer support.
posted by DMelanogaster at 10:22 AM on October 28, 2010

If you do video editing then you could definitely use the faster Core i5 CPU or Core i7 and 8+GB of RAM, so something like an upgraded Dell Studio XPS 8100* would fit the bill (if you get a Core i5 go for one with 8MB of cache, not the lower end ones with 4MB).

*I have no direct experience with that computer, the opinion is just based on specs.
posted by cftarnas at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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