Searching for new computer
September 15, 2006 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on what and where to look for a new PC to run graphics and art programs (Photoshop et all)

I suppose it was my own fault for getting a CS degree, but it seems I've become the defacto source for all things computer related.

A friend of mine's computer just died and they came to me for advice on what to look for in a new one. I haven't touched the computer market in a few years and its been even longer since I've bought anything premade.

The system is going to be used mainly for graphics processing and artwork. (my friend is an art major) The only stipulations that I'm aware of are that the computer needs to be $1000 or less and it can't be a Mac.

So any suggestions on systems that are worth a further look? Any recomendations as far as going Dell / Hp / Compaq / Lenovo / Gateway?
posted by ibfrog to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the Dell outlet - buy a base system for 300-400 bucks, and then throw another 100 bucks into a better graphics card, since she may need it.

I don't know what Dells come standard with these days, but another 50 bucks for more RAM might not be a bad idea either.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:30 PM on September 15, 2006

Since I'm bored:

Looks like you can get the XPS line w/ 2 gigs of RAM, 250 GB hd, DVD burner and a pretty good video card for a little over 600.

If you want to do the upgrades yourself, a dimension can be had for $350 or less with a P4, 80 GB hd, DVD-burner, and onboard graphics.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:33 PM on September 15, 2006

You sound like you are looking for the next great Dell deal that comes along, watch fatwallet (or whatever deal site, I'm in Canada, so it's redflagdeals for me). Read back in the forums a little and you should be able to learn when to jump without cluttering your mind with too many specification details - watch for the mood of the posters..

Don't pay Dell's regular prices, that is how they make money, and you lose.

Aside from the general advice.. Try to push the CPU to something dual core. The Pentium D 805 is almost as cheap as the cheapest CPU on the market, so it shouldn't increase the price too much, but in my opinion the benefit is huge.

One more thing.. Make sure the Dell you get has a PCI-E x16 port, sometimes the cheapest have onboard video only, and that is a terrible thing. The fatwallet people will probably be talking about those kinds of details, so you shouldn't have to look far to find answers..
posted by Chuckles at 11:50 PM on September 15, 2006

Yea, I would just get a dell. I've tried pricing computers time and time again, and Dell just somehow always comes out cheaper.

The only caveat would be to get a decent warranty. The other companies will have you take your computer to some service center, or they'll fix it only if you ship it back.

If you get a dell, sure, you may have to talk to india for a while, but they're really good about sending a guy the next day to fix it.

Also, don't believe the hype about all dell computers being absolutely terrible. Our entire office runs dell, and we've had 2 (out of about 100) desktops go bad. Laptops are a little more fragile (maybe 10/100?) but they get beat up alot more.
posted by unexpected at 11:50 PM on September 15, 2006

Just to clarify.. If you are into the hardware yourself, or want to be, Dell probably isn't the right answer. But if you want it to just work, or if you want to make sure your friend doesn't blame you for screwing up, then a thousand times Dell.

That must be why so many companies use them.. Memo to CEOs, IT specifies Dells because it gets them off the hook. Shouldn't they be more interested in saving the company money?
posted by Chuckles at 11:57 PM on September 15, 2006

My friend and fellow mefite Mek recommends going for a full-blown service warranty if you go with Dell. This warranty will replace your computer pretty much no matter what happens to it. This is necessary because Dell has a tendency to sell computers that are quite defective. His laptop repeatedly failed because of the same motherboard defect. He's getting a new laptop in the near future because he won a class action lawsuit because of it.

Unfortunately, it's been over a year since he replaced his laptop with a used desktop he bought on eBay, which has proven much more reliable.

That said, lawsuits are a poor substitute for effective customer support. I personally hate Dell, for reasons that should seem evident from this post by now.

Whatever you do choose, make sure it has lots of memory. As someone who uses photoshop like a junkie uses heroin, RAM is almost always the limiting factor when it comes to PS performance. Almost any decent videocard will suit the needs of a graphic artist. Avoid integrated graphics like the plague though.

As a final caveat, if you insist on going with Dell, you MUST upgrade the RAM yourself. The markup on Dell's RAM upgrades is fucking criminal.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:04 AM on September 16, 2006

Lenovo all the way.

If you go with Dell your friend will not come to you for computer advice again. ;)

Don't pay Dell's regular prices, that is how they make money, and you lose.

Dell is not a charity - they make money on every PC they sell, even the 'discounted' ones. They do so by various means including cheap parts/assembly, scant quality control (judging by their failure rates), poor support and GBs of preinstalled, third-party crapware/adware/spyware.

And you 'lose' with every Dell you buy - lost productivity when it breaks down, poor performance when it is 'working' and no attention paid to energy efficiency, silence or heat dissipation.

Yea, I would just get a dell. I've tried pricing computers time and time again, and Dell just somehow always comes out cheaper.

Sure, Dell is the cheapest. Bus is also the cheapest form of transportation. If you value your time, however, you would do well to avoid both. ;)

The other companies will have you take your computer to some service center, or they'll fix it only if you ship it back.

Pray tell, what are these other companies? Tell us so we can avoid them, too.

If you get a dell, sure, you may have to talk to india for a while, but they're really good about sending a guy the next day to fix it.

Pay the extra for a Lenovo and you will not have to talk to the person in India OR wait a day for the guy to come and fix it because a quality computer generally does what it is supposed to do - work. Ask yourself if a day or two of your productivity is worth the difference in price.

Also, don't believe the hype about all dell computers being absolutely terrible.

It is not hype. It is based on experience with many companies who use Dell. Dell has a terrible reputation for a reason.

As with all things, you get what you paid for.

Your friend's livelihood depends on her PC. She needs a PC that is dependable.

Amen to everything [expletive deleted] said. Upgrade RAM yourself regardless of what you decide to buy.

Also, you want at least two HDDs. Throw Photoshop's scratch files on a separate HDD for better performance. Don't put the scratch files on a separate partition - make sure it is on a separate physical drive (or preferably drives). Windows XP Pro also enjoys having its paging files on multiple, physical drives.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by cup at 2:21 AM on September 16, 2006

RAM will be the single most important thing. Unless you go with a 64-bit edition or Server 2003, Windows doesn't deal that well with 4gb+. You can have various different issues with not all the RAM showing up or odd driver glitches. So I'd try to get a machine with 3gb instead.

He might like dual core too; Photoshop, if I remember correctly, is highly multithreaded and will take advantage of all the cores you throw at it.

If you can't squeeze in 3gig with a $1k budget, 2gig should be pretty good. I'd suggest not going under 2 if you can possibly avoid it. RAM matters more than the raw processor speed most of the time, unless you're dealing with small images.

CPUs that you can buy at present:

Pentium 4: very cheap, single core, quite slow and hot. Obsolete. Avoid.
Athlon 64 single core, including the cheapo Sempron line: Quite a bit quicker than P4s, also very cheap. Semprons cut down cache a lot and probably wouldn't be as good for Photoshop. The regular Athlon 64s are quite acceptable.
Pentium D: very cheap dual core; you can do these chips for like $90. It's very bad dual core (lots of architectural limitations), and bad for gaming, but for Photoshop it might be better than a good single core.
Athlon 64 X2s: Cheap dual core, very solid performers, only a little more than the single core chips.
Core Solo and Duo: Fast single/dual core, mostly only in laptops. Best to avoid these, as they've been superseded by the Core 2.
Core 2 Solo and Duo: Fastest CPUs on the market right now. They range from moderately to extremely expensive. Faster than AMD's best, and run cooler. These are a _large_ improvement over the last generation, but the price is much higher.

I tend to think the Athlon 64 X2 would be an excellent compromise between price and performance. With a $1k budget, you'd lose RAM by going higher on the processor curve, and that would hurt.

If for some reason you can't find an X2 machine you like, the Pentium D might be a good alternative. Those chips are badly designed, but even a bad dual core is likely to be a big win in Photoshop. If you do want to go with a Dell, I think the Pentium D would probably be your best cheap option; you could probably do a very acceptable machine for $500-$600. (Dell doesn't really do AMD... they're *just* starting to now.)

If your friends decide to go up to $1500, go for the cheapest Core 2 with 4MB of cache... I think that's the E6600. With that, and either 2 or 3gb of RAM, they'd have a SCREAMING fast machine.

The $1k X2 beast would also scream, but in lower case. :)
posted by Malor at 2:31 AM on September 16, 2006

Don't get Dell, or Sony.

I suggest a whitebox made from parts from the following manufacturers: Asus, Gigabyte, Kingston, Western Digital, Plexstor, Antec & Zalman. Best CPU at the moment is the Intel Core Duo 2. Viewsonic do good screens. I recommend either a secondhand first or second generation Microsoft Natural keyboard or a "Zboard" as the best two options for feel. I also recommend Razer for mice.
posted by krisjohn at 2:49 AM on September 16, 2006

Wow. Excellent suggestions from krisjohn!

Your list of manufacturers is spot on!

If you don't mind, I would like to add alternates to consider for PSU, HDD and keyboard.

PSU: Seasonic

I love Antec and used them religiously. Unfortunately, the poor energy efficiency of the TruePower series and the way they handled Neo HE problems put some strain on our love affair. Antec is a lot better than a no name PSU, of course, but these days I would (and always do) choose Seasonic.

HDD: Seagate

I have had excellent experiences with Seagate drives. Reliable with good heat dissipation. Western Digital are great drives, too. I would avoid Hitachi (tend to run too hot and waste energy).

Keyboard: Filco Majestouch (if they are available in North America)

Wow. Just wow. No frills, old-school, mechanical keyboard. Heavy (doesn't move or slide around), compact (compared to Microsoft/Logitech - doesn't take up too much desk space), high quality and feels so good.

While whitebox is probably the only option if you want to keep it under $1000, I find that paying extra for a well-designed aluminum case is always worth it. Heat dissipation is better (which leads to better stability) and high-quality aluminum cases tend to be quieter, too.

If you do decide to explore aluminum, Lian Li is a nice place to start but be prepared to pay for quality. :)

Sorry for wandering off-topic. Lian Li, Filco and under $1000 probably do not belong in the same sentence or thread for that matter... but if you spend most of your life in front of a computer, improvements in computing environment are worth every, single penny.

And I second krisjohn's caution about Sony. In my opinion, the only thing worse than Dell is Sony.
posted by cup at 4:09 AM on September 16, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, lots of good advice in there. I guess I didn't realize RAM was so cheap these days. The PCI-E and dual hard drives aren't a bad idea either.

I personally am not a fan of Dell and would much rather whitebox a system. But... I'm not going to be around to put it together for her so I have to go with a prefab.

That said, most of the comments here were either, "Dell is cheap" or "Dell is horrible". The only other suggestion is Lenovo. Are there anyother computer companies that make prebuilt systems that are reliable?
posted by ibfrog at 4:29 AM on September 16, 2006

The small design studio where I work uses all Dell computers, and we haven't had any major problems with hardware in several years. I also use Dell at home without problem; my refurbished 2400 from Dell Outlet has been reliable and trouble-free.

IMO, Dell offers the best bang for your buck of any of the major computer manufacturers. I'm not sure I'd recommend the Outlet right now, though. I've often checked their prices in search of bargains and found that you can usually find a comparable brand new Dell for the same price as an Outlet Dell unless there's some kind of coupon or sale going on.

Your best bet for a cheap Dell is to check out the Small Business section and click on the Smart Value deals. These typically change on Thursdays, so they always have some kind of special going on with different configurations... one week you may get a free DVD burner, the next you might get a bigger monitor, so just keep checking until you find something you like.

I'd definitely recommend loading up on RAM, too, but don't buy it from Dell.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:41 AM on September 16, 2006

I've found even budget Dells to have suprisingly good build quality, and they're pretty good about returns (UK.) One thing tho; friends don't buy IT-wary friends Dells without spending an hour (or two...) removing and neutering all of Dell's pre-installed crap. Same probably goes for most white-box PC retailers these days.
posted by Luddite at 8:55 AM on September 16, 2006

Are there any other computer companies that make prebuilt systems that are reliable?

Are Japanese manufacturers on the table? I have had good experiences with Fujitsu and Toshiba. Both are good here in Japan. Hopefully someone can offer some insight about their service/support stateside. Quality-wise they are good machines but they will probably cost a bit more than the discount machines.

NEC I would avoid and you already know how I feel about Sony. ;)

HP was a great company in the mid-nineties (as was the company they teamed up with here in Japan - Yokogawa Electric). Good corporate culture and fine machines. My experiences with HP have all been great. Unfortunately, I don't have recent experience so, as much as I would like to recommend them, it would be irresponsible to do so.
posted by cup at 10:25 AM on September 16, 2006

ummm, not to hate on cup here, but if aluminum cases do not, by virtue of materials improve heat dissipation more than a very marginal (read: not proportional to extra cost) amount. this illusion comes from the fact that lian li, and most other quality aluminum case makers, design their cases very well, for VASTly improved airflow.

also, every reputable source (silentpcreview, etc.) will tell you that a steel case is quieter

but i agree with everything else...
as far as PSUs go, antec NeoHE is the way to go...modular cabling, hilariously solid rails, and quiet like crazy

good luck
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 12:11 PM on September 16, 2006

Don't stint on the monitor.

In the past couple of years the price drop on high resolution LCD screens has made widescreen monitors feasible for the little guy, and the drop in RAM prices means you can take full advantage of the extra real estate. I know that the ability to display two full-size Word documents at the same time is a blessing; I can only imagine how much more thrilling it would be for a Photoshop junkie to be able to compare two different versions of an image side by side and make independent changes to each of them.
posted by Iridic at 12:48 PM on September 16, 2006

Hi, weaponsgradecarp. Nice nickname. :)

I wholly agree that Lian Li case cooling is a result of good design that takes airflow into consideration. I have used Japanese aluminum cases that cost a lot more than Lian Li but, although the build quality was breathtaking, I found that the cooling was nowhere near as effective for that very same reason - airflow design.

Personally, I don't like steel because steel cases tend to be heavier, uglier and I have not been able to find steel case manufacturers with the same level of quality (inside and out) that you see in the aluminum case manufacturers.

I am not averse to using steel, however, if I find something that fits my purpose. Recently, I built a Mini-ITX system using a steel case. Why? I found a steel case that was much cooler than the aluminum case I used in the past. Again, the superior cooling was a result of excellent fan placement and design, not materials.

As for SilentPCReview, I read them religiously but I challenge you to find a steel case quieter than than the PC-V1100 I am typing this post on. :)

Since this is the bedroom PC that I use while my wife is sleeping, absolute silence is a must. ;)

Speaking of which, 5:23am here in Tokyo so I best grab a few hours of sleep.


P.S. You did read the brouhaha on SilentPCReview about the Antec NeoHE, didn't you? While that seems to have been sorted out, Antec's handling of the situation sort of cooled my hot love for Antec. I used the Antec NeoHE for a while but switched to Seasonic (after experiencing the clicking noises mentioned on SilentPCReview). If you like the Antec NeoHE (and I did until the clicking started), you will LOVE the latest Seasonic with modular cabling. Sweet joy!

Nice talking to you and good night!
posted by cup at 1:45 PM on September 16, 2006

I second Fujitsu, but I didn't think you'd find a desktop system from them under US$1000.

Thanks, Cup. I've bookmarked those.

When I suggested a whitebox, I wasn't suggesting you put it together yourself. Many PC shops that would be able to supply parts to the specs I gave below would also be willing to assemble and test the PC out the back. Places near me (I'm in Australia, so that's probably not much use to you) will put together a PC free of charge if you get all the parts from them -- specifically so that someone who wouldn't want to or be able to assemble their own PC can still purchase from them. In the bottom right you can see some empty grommets where a second hard drive would be mounted, and above them where a hard drive is mounted. The noise reduction of this technique is considerable.

Oh, and as for Antec, I buy their Phantom power supplies for the noise reduction. But that will probably blow out the US$1,000 budget. Their cheapest case also has two noise reduction features: rubber grommets for mounting the hard drive (to reduce vibration) and a spot for a big 12cm fan in the back. I have a photo that I took of the inside of a PC matching the specs above that was delivered a few weeks ago. The big copper heatsink is from Zalman, case and power supply from Antec and that video card is a Gigabyte 7000-something with "Turbo Cache".
posted by krisjohn at 6:07 PM on September 16, 2006

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