Tips for buying a computer that will outlast the norm


Once upon a time, you could buy a computer that, despite being technically obsolete the minute you got it home, could still be useful for years and years to come. Lately, however, technology has been gaining speed on good judgment. Do the words “accelerated amortization” sound familiar?

Whether you’re an individual buying your own PC or an IT manager outfitting business users, it pays to plan your purchases so that your systems, whether desktop or laptop, last longer than the norm. Selecting computer hardware that will stretch two years out is easy. Making decisions that will support a three-year hardware life span takes a little more thought. But with some real fine-tuning and a well-honed knowledge of how the system will be used, you can move the marker out to four years or — if you’re both wise and exceedingly lucky — possibly even five years.

We’re here to help you sort through the bewildering array of choices when purchasing new hardware. Our basic strategy, with a few exceptions, will be to opt for components that are just under the current state of the art. We’re not thinking about resale; we’re thinking about getting our money’s worth and maximizing the system’s life span.

The Vista factor

When you stare into your crystal ball trying to divine what hardware to buy this year, you’re likely to see something odd. That 800-pound gorilla staring back from inside the globe is nothing less than Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system, and it can’t help but affect your decision.

If most accounts are to be believed, Vista is a frightening monster that will place more demands on your hardware than any other operating system you’ve ever encountered. Some analysts have claimed that you’ll be shelling out around US$3,000 for equipment to meet the formidable burden Vista will impose. They claim that practically every piece of hardware you own must be dragged down to the recycling centre and be replaced with the latest and greatest stuff from which computers are made, lest you find yourself overcome by the beast that is Vista.

Urban legends are great things, aren’t they?

Make no mistake, there is some semblance of truth wafting around inside all the hype. But, as with most legends, there’s also a significant amount of fearmongering (not to mention the hope of sparking a round of high-end PC sales).

Vista is not King Kong. It is a handful of monkeys with a couple of great apes thrown in at the high end. There’s nothing to fear when buying hardware this year — it just requires a little planning, and that’s nothing new.

Let’s take a look at Microsoft’s minimum supported hardware requirements for running Vista:

— An 800-MHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor

— 512MB of system memory

— An SVGA (800×600) graphics processor

— 64MB-256MB graphics memory with bandwidth of 1.6GB/sec.

— A 20GB hard drive with 15GB of free space

— A CD-ROM drive

(We can revise one item immediately: Vista is supplied on a DVD disc, so you’ll need a DVD-ROM drive to install or reinstall it. So much for accuracy.)

Look around you. Do you own anything that doesn’t greatly exceed the majority of those specifications — except maybe that four-year-old ThinkPad you’ve been using to even the coffee table legs or the desktop PC you “donated” to the kids in 2001 so they could shove peanut butter into the optical drive and not destroy your data?

If you ratchet up to what Microsoft calls a Vista Premium Ready PC, which can take advantage of advanced Vista features, including the Aero interface, you get this list:

— A 1-GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor

— 1GB of system memory

— Support for DirectX 9 graphics with a WDDM driver, 128MB of graphics memory (minimum), Pixel Shader 2.0 and 32 bits per pixel

— A 40GB hard drive with 15GB of free space

— A DVD-ROM drive

— Audio output capability

— Internet access capability

Again, with the graphics specification excepted, most of that still isn’t very attractive for a PC you’d like to hold on to for the next four or five years. Of course, marketing comes into play here. Microsoft wants you to purchase as many copies of Vista as you possibly can. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that position; it’s just business. Still, for it to happen, Redmond wants its product shown in its most attractive light. Translation: It shouldn’t look like it will cost you a fortune to own and use.

But there is truth in the nonthreatening system requirements Microsoft touts. Vista is self-acclimating. While everyone running Vista will benefit from its beefier security regimens, the operating system will tune its display characteristics to fit your hardware’s profile. At worst, you’ll end up running something akin to Windows XP protected by Smith & Wesson. At the upper end, you’ll experience the full range of Vista’s eye candy extraordinaire.

All of this leaves computer sellers with a great deal of room for interpretation, and that’s never a good thing for computer buyers. The moral of the story is that if you’re looking for longevity in a PC, don’t simply accept what the computer seller offers by default, even if it has “Vista Premium Ready” stamped all over it or comes with Vista preinstalled. So, now that you’re back at square one, trying to decide what your hardware configuration should be, what do you do? Obviously, you keep reading.

Starting at the core

Let’s start by tossing out all of the processor choices that include single-core CPUs — even those with hyperthreading, which let you pretend you have a two-core model. Although single-cores are getting cheaper as they’re being pushed aside, don’t succumb to the temptation. They’ll carry the weight right now, but not in a year or two.

It would also be wise to ignore the quad-cores for at least the next six months to a year. Wide-eyed gamers with slack jaws and spasmodic thumbs are always waiting to dip into the bleeding edge. More often than not, there’s no need for it until well after the fact, when software finally acknowledges the hardware’s existence. It hasn’t happened yet for the quads.

Last caveat: You might still be able to find some AMD dual-core (X2) 939-pin processors. Don’t go looking for them, and ignore them if you happen upon them. The AM2 versions (a 940-pin model, socket “AM2” device that supports DDR2 memory) are current.

As for dual-core in general, both Intel and AMD are touting performance-per-watt as the benchmark of a great CPU. Balderdash. Short pipelines, large L1 cache and a quick clock speed make fast processors. Stay as much above 2 GHz as your budget will allow. For example, the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800 (with AM2 socket) or Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, both clocked at 2.4 GHz, would make excellent choices.

You could jump up to Intel’s Extreme or AMD’s FX versions, but unless you’re doing mega graphics manipulation or video processing as more than a hobby, it’s a bit overindulgent. On the other end, processors closer to 2 GHz will get the job done, but you might start to feel the drag in 10 to 14 months as software catches up to the hardware.

(For details about all the desktop processors available today from AMD and Intel, see our CPU Buyer’s Guide.)

If you’re talking laptops, you may naturally have to make some adjustments to the suggested processor specification. We are often willing to give up performance for longer operating time before the battery goes dead, and that means slower CPU clock

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