Softstepping Hardware

You've got only an hour left before you must get your design and bid to the customer, and your computer crashes. Fatally. You have lost all your data. Such a scenario happens all too often, but it need not happen to you. Computer hardware is often a hodgepodge of mismatched components. Computers often crash or slow down inexplicably. There is a connection between these two facts. People also spend

You've got only an hour left before you must get your design and bid to the customer, and your computer crashes. Fatally. You have lost all your data. Such a scenario happens all too often, but it need not happen to you.

Computer hardware is often a hodgepodge of mismatched components. Computers often crash or slow down inexplicably. There is a connection between these two facts. People also spend an awful lot of money on computers, getting enormous frustration instead of task automation. Let's look at how to minimize the cost, nearly eliminate the crashes, and be happy computer campers. We'll run the gamut from first purchase through upgrades.

Before even considering hardware, you must decide two things. First, what activities will you do? Make a list. Second, what software will you run? Make another list. Once you have your lists, you must decide on an operating system, only then should you buy hardware.

Typically, you'll run Windows NT, or possibly Windows 95/98. For either, make sure your motherboard and central processing unit (CPU) will run reliably on either system. Your vendor can tell you this. If you buy computers on-line, make sure to use a large vendor, such as an on-line superstore (you can search the Internet for "on-line superstore" to find these, or look at the ads on the EC&M website). These companies live and die based on service, so they will help you make the correct decisions upfront. Let's look at hardware, starting with fundamental decisions and then moving on to the less critical ones.

Consider which CPU you need. Once you know that, then you can buy the motherboard to match it. If you are going to run Windows NT, make sure both your board and CPU carry NT certification. Intel boards and CPUs automatically carry this certification, but Intel is not the only player in the board and CPU game who can do that. You'll soon face Celeron, which is a Pentium II that runs slower than a Pentium of lower clock speed. Celeron lacks cache, among other important things. When you specify a CPU, spend your dollars on cache first, then clock speed.

Data ports are becoming an issue, with Microsoft and other key players just hoping for the death of ISA. ISA is an old serial bus that is much slower than the newer buses, such as VESA (superceded by PCI when the Pentium superceded the 486) firewire, and USB (the emerging standard). You want USB on your computer, even if you have no USB devices now. If speed is important to you, don't buy ISA devices. All scanners and CD-writers are SCSI, as are some high-end printers and other high-end peripherals. You specify data ports when you specify your motherboard.

When it comes to monitors, every study in the computer magazines supports the claim that bigger is better. The 17-in. monitor is pretty much the standard, and these monitors run as low as $300. The 19-in., 20-in., and 21-in. monitors are also below $1000.

Size isn't everything, though. You must also consider the dot-pitch (dp) spec. A dp of .028 mm is the "worst" you want to go-the lower the number, the better. Your monitor must be capable of a 72 Hz refresh rate at its high resolutions. Anything less, and you are talking about fatigue and lost productivity. Similarly, you need a video card to drive your monitor. Get a card with some horsepower, or you'll wait all day for the screen to refresh. A 128-bit card works well, and so does almost anything with at least 4 MB of RAM onboard. Make sure you get a PCI-based card. The ISA cards will slow your system down.

Hard drives come in many sizes. The most economical way to buy a drive is to look at where the price makes a major jump. Earlier this year, a 6.4 GB hard drive was $20 more than a 4 GB hard drive, which was $20 more than a 2 GB hard drive. Moving up to an 8.4 GB added over $100 to the price. The most economical size to buy was a 6.4 GB. This pricing "sweet spot" changes over time. As of this writing, the sweet spot is now the 8.4, and the EIDE version runs about $200; you'll pay another $100 to go to a 9.1 GB.

A fundamental decision on drives revolves around the Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) versus Enhanced Intregated Drive Electronics (EIDE) question. A common misperception, propagated in some computer magazines, is EIDE drives are as fast as SCSI drives because the seek times are about the same. Seek time is only part of the equation. A SCSI drive (or CD-ROM) uses a tenth of the resources an EIDE does. For overall system speed, SCSI is the hare to the EIDE snail. If you are going to run a CD-writer or a scanner, you should buy a SCSI adapter. You can run seven devices off of it, using only one Interrupt Request (IRQ): an advantage as you start adding peripherals. Running out of IRQs is becoming the norm, not the exception.

How much RAM do you need? A good rule of thumb is to install as much RAM as your motherboard can hold. RAM has gone from being the $45/MB item it was a few years ago to being $1/MB today. The 60 nanosecond RAM in the Single Inline Memory Module (SIMM) package is now museum material, thanks to the cheaper and faster 10 nanosecond RAM that comes in a Dual Inline Memory Module (DIMM). You can get a single 64 MB DIMM for under $70, and a 128 MB DIMM for under $200 (June 98 prices).

The sheer variety of RAM makes buying it a chore. Not only is there an alphabet soup, but you have single- and two-sided DIMMs. Not all RAM is interchangeable. Never buy RAM without your motherboard manual in your hand, unless you buy your RAM and motherboard from the same vendor. Now, let's look at the less fundamental components.

Printers come in laser and ink technologies. The lasers cost much more, but they run much faster than ink printers do. Hewlett Packard makes some high-end color inkjet printers capable of network use, but they pale next to laser speed and quality. If you print a lot, go laser. If you go through less than a ream of paper a week, go ink. Make sure your printer is Windows NT compatible (this also applies to scanners, as most scanners don't run on NT) if you are going to use it with an engineering station.

Multimedia was cute when it came out, but now it is essential. Lack of a sound card will lock you out of much of the information contained on many CDs. A headphone jack is essential for a business-environment, and most cards have these. Buy a PCI-based card. A computer with no modem or network card is not only an oddity today; it's a liability. Make sure your card is PCI. The actual speed of your modem will depend on how close you are to your telephone switching station. Because modem technology is living on borrowed time, don't splurge here.

Table 1 (of original article) shows some common hardware problems, and how to resolve them. Most hardware problems that affect system speed result from mismatched or undersized components. A $2500 Pentium II-400 system with 32 MB of RAM will run slower than a $1250 Pentium-200 with 128 MB of RAM. A $4000 Pentium II-400 with 256 MB of RAM and all high-end components except an ISA modem will download your Internet pages slower than will a $300 Pentium-100 with 48 MB of RAM and a PCI modem. Such problems as frequent crashes, data loss, fuzzy displays, and frequent hard drive failure indicate the need to do a little system redesign.

Backup media are essential, today. All such media must be removable: anything that can cause a hard drive to fail can cause a backup to fail if it's in your machine. For small files, you can still use the venerable floppy disk, but it's not a backup medium. You'd need roughly 8,500 floppies to back up the typical drive that comes with mid-level computers today. Until recently, the standard medium was the tape drive. Most workstations now use removable hard drives (Jazz, Iomega, and SyQuest are the leaders here), but this is emerging technology with no media standards. You'll need to determine what is most common among people you share large files with. You may need more than one medium.

Power protection can keep your computer dollars from going up in smoke. You need to look at the whole infrastructure of the building where your PC resides. You need some sort of surge protection, sag protection, and power conditioning. The standard desktop UPS provides these. This UPS is for the desktop, but it should not sit on the desktop. Its purpose is to provide you with glitch ride-through and an orderly shutdown on loss of power. It is not a secondary power source, nor is it a magic box that cures all power system problems. Make sure you have surge protection on any modem lines, especially in a networked environment.

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