Why buy a custom built computer?
Custom built machines out sell all the leading manufacturers combined, they define the "standard". A custom built machine will be more flexible and less expensive for upgrading in the future. It's a lot easier to spend a couple hundred dollars a year upgrading your system than to spend a couple thousand every few years for a new computer (this advice is oriented toward serious systems not entry level systems).
Right now the sweet spot for hard drives is 40 GB (as of January 2002). An IBM Deskstar 75GXP 40GB should cost less than $150 (street). The IBM Deskstar 75GXP is a 3rd generation 7200 rpm drive using glass platters and comes in capacities ranging from 20 GB to 75 GB. Anything smaller or slower will save you very little. For the average business user 10 Gig is probably fine. Home users (gaming enthusiasts) will want all the space they can get with current games now taking over 2 GB for a single game (largest game we are aware of), typical games are now installing 100 MB to 1 GB. Of course don't skimp as it is much more expensive to add capacity later (hardware is cheap, the labor to configure it is expensive). We currently use IBM hard drives (they have an excellent reputation and currently have some very well priced drives). Maxtor is another good company, we've been using them since 1989. Maxtor is an easy company to work with if you have a question or need an exchange.
Motherboards & CPUs:
Motherboard technology changes extremely rapidly. We are currently using Asus motherboards. We've used Tyan motherboards for several years and have found them to be of good quality. The most critical component of the motherboard is the "chipset". While the newest chipset might boost performance slightly there can often be compatibility problems (such as Intel's 430HX chipset and the retail version of Win95). Newer motherboards are now supporting PC133 SDRAM. Motherboards come in two types: the old standard AT layout and the newer ATX layout. ATX has almost completely replaced AT now. ATX layouts are typically easier to work with.
Currently (March 2002) we are recommending the AMD Athlon Thunderbird 1.4 Ghz CPU on an ASUS A7V266E motherboard.
RAM memory prices have fallen rapidly over the entire history of micro computers. Win9x, WinNT and OS/2, as well as memory hungry applications are creating the need for large amounts of memory to maintain high performance operation. Currently (March 2002) 256 MB (roughly $70) is the most practical amount (512 MB recommended if an extra $70 isn't a problem). There are several new memory technologies (RDRAM, PC133, VCM, DDR) - currently the most popular and cost effective is DDR2100 memory.
IDE style CD drives are very inexpensive and the "speed" has increased rapidly. We have not found a noticable difference on drives with speeds greater than 4x. The only place where faster data transfer speed becomes really noticable is on loading extremely large files or during tasks such as loading a new operating system. Right now buying anything from 12x to 48x should be fine (typical drives do not maintain their full speed at all times so a 24x is not really twice as fast as a 12x) . We have had excellent results with Sony CD drives. Kenwood is producing "TrueX" CD drives that actually maintain their full speed at all times by using multiple laser beams. Unfortunately the Kenwood drives can be a bit finicky at times.
Many people take power for granted and give it little thought. We install PC Power and Cooling power supplies to provide superior cooling and higher reliablity. Smooth power is critical for reliable operation. Effective cooling is very important for long life and fewer component failures. In some cases we recommend external PowerVar line conditioners (not just surge supressors). Also it is very important to test and insure properly grounded building wiring.
As prices have fallen 17" monitors have become the standard (and now 19" monitors are extremely reasonable). Our preferred monitors are the Hitachi SuperScan line. Hitachi delivers a high quality product at a reasonable price. Cheaper monitors typically have noticable misconvergence and some bowing and warping. LCD flat panel displays are becoming popular, but rumor is that in a couple years a new technology will make flat panel displays better and half the price.
Driver support is the most important factor for selecting a video board. NVidia currently has far and away the best video chipsets with excellent drivers. Almost all major brands produce GeForce boards now (with the notable exceptions of Matrox and ATI). A video card can make a HUGE difference to performance of 3D applications. Switching from a 3dfx Voodoo 3 to an Elsa Erazor X (GeForce 256) can nearly triple your frame rate!
Hercules produces a good GeForce 2 MX400 with 64 MB of video memory, street prices should be under $90. Top of the line (April 2002) is the GeForce 4 4600 with 128 MB of video memory with standard pricing at $400 (roughly two to three times the performance of a GeForce 2 MX).
We've found US Robotics modems to provide more reliable connections and better driver support. If you want a reliable modem buy the USR Courier (about $250), if you can't afford that try the Sportster 56K (at about $125). Other than that.... good luck... some work fine, some don't. The future however is DSL, so skip buying a modem completely if you can get DSL.
DSL and cable modem technology will rapidly make modem's obsolete. Unfortunately DSL comes in many flavors and can be very difficult to actually get installed depending on where you live. Get on a waiting list... when you do get it, you'll love it!
Name Brand Complete Systems:
We don't recommend any name brand systems however we can offer a few comments. IBM provides very good technical support and the quality of their products has increased dramatically over what they sold in the mid 1980's. Dell produces typically very good products (just don't plan to upgrade or repair them). Dell's support is good too. Gateway sells perhaps the most "standard" machine. That is extremely important to keep future upgrading costs to a minimum. Unfortunately the fluctuation from one model to another in any name brand line is so much that it is impossible to recommend any one brand. Each manufacturer tends to release some good models and some poor models.
Everything written on this page is opinion based on our business experiences
of the past 18 years. Many companies produce both excellent products and junk.
Often you won't know the difference until you encounter just the right (or wrong)
circumstances. We have encountered difficulties with almost all vendors at one
point in time or another. Every tech tends to have different experiences and
opinions too, it is unlikely that you'll find any one person that completely
agrees with our recommendations.
Contact us at:firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated: April 5, 2002