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A Computer for College Part 2: Optimizations and Upgrades

First of all, sorry this took me so long to get out–apparently having a full time job takes quite a bit of time out of your schedule, and this went through much more rewriting and revising than my last post on this subject (with a hopefully better organized and better written result). Also, this is what was originally planned for the third post in the series, and is going to deal primarily with ways to keep your old computer running longer–both in terms of optimizing the software end, and in terms of upgrading the hardware end.

(This is the second post in a series. The first can be found here and discusses what you should look for when purchasing a computer. The third should hopefully be coming in the next week or two and will showcase some of the best deals that can be had from the various large manufacturers.)

Optimizations:

The first thing I’m going to discuss is optimization. Operating system installs (especially Windows, which this section primarily deals with) tend to become bloated over time. They’ll be filled with old programs you never use, remnants of programs you uninstalled, loads of temporary files, and possibly spyware or viruses.

Option 1: OS reinstallation

The easiest way to deal with this (in terms of time spent actually getting rid of stuff) is to reinstall. You’ll need an operating system install CD, and you’ll probably want to back up your data first, but reinstalling is otherwise the quickest and least painful (and in the case of some viruses/spyware, the only) method of making your computer run like it did when it was new. It’s a good idea to do this every year or so, even if you aren’t having problems.

You should be able to follow the instructions included with your operating system/computer or call tech support for specific instructions. The general idea is to insert the OS install media into your optical drive and then boot from the disc: from there you should be able to follow the instructions you’re presented with and things will hopefully go smoothly. If your computer is not set to boot from a CD automatically, there should be a button you can press during the initial splash screen that comes up to allow you to choose where to boot from: this is F8 in the case of many PCs.

Before you go ahead and reinstall though, you’ll probably want to back up most (or all) of your files. The best option is an external hard drive. If you don’t have one, pick one up. You should always keep a recent backup of your hard drive stored somewhere safe. If that’s outside of your means, DVDs are probably the cheapest option for physical storage media, and can hold a good deal. If you don’t have too much to back up and have a fast internet connection, (free) online backup solutions like Microsoft Live Skydrive (which gives you 5GB–about 1 DVD’s worth) of free online storage space might be a good option.

If your computer was purchased from an OEM like Dell or HP your OS installation likely came with some extra software. Manufacturers get paid to sell computers with specific software preinstalled. In most cases there’s a reason for this: there’s very little reason to use the software in the first case. You should go through and get rid of/uninstall most of it. Really the only useful stuff is the antivirus software, but there are better free (as in beer) antivirus programs–there will be a few recommendations later on.

Option 2: deep cleaning

If an OS reinstallation seems a bit daunting, reread that section anyway: it’s by far the easier (and better, in terms of the end result) option. If you are for some reason highly opposed to reinstallation, you can also go through and manually attempt to clean out most of the stuff that is causing performance issues. This is time consuming and not at all guaranteed to succeed–even if you’re quite familiar with your computer and know exactly what you’re doing. For that reason, I’m going to provide a brief summary of the steps rather than going into detail: if you have specific questions about specific steps I’ll be glad to answer them in the comments. Note that this is primarily targetted at Windows, since my experience with OS X is minimal at best (and many of these problems don’t affect OS X [or GNU/Linux] nearly as much).

Step 1: Run antivirus and anti-spyware/adware programs and get rid of the problems. (Never run more than one antivirus program at the same time–they can often conflict and Bad Things will happen. Multiple adware/spyware removers should be fine though.) Suggestions for both are listed later in the post.
Step 2: Uninstall all of the programs you don’t use or didn’t know you had installed. If you’ve forgotten about something, there’s probably a reason.
Step 3: Get rid of temporary files, remnants of uninstalled programs, and clean up unused registry entries (be careful with this). CCleaner can be a great help with this.
Step 4: Disable all but the most essential processes (antivirus, system processes, etc.) from starting on startup. You can do this in Windows with the included ‘msconfig’ module, but an easier and more powerful solution is Autoruns. There are innumerable resources online that have databases of safe and harmful processes. If you’re not sure what something is, Google is your friend.
Step 5: Defragment your hard drive. Windows’ built in defragmenter does well enough for this purpose.

Your computer should now (hopefully) be working quite a bit faster. If it’s not you either keep very good care of it in the first place or didn’t do a very good job of cleaning it.

Upgrades:

If your computer still feels too slow for comfort, you may want to consider upgrading some of the hardware in there. This is quite truly not nearly as complicated as it may seem initially. Except for the processor, which requires a very small bit more know-how (and probably isn’t worth upgrading anyway), the general rule is to put stuff where it fits, and not to put it where it doesn’t. Your computer is composed of a motherboard that has specific slots for specific types of parts. The general layout is pretty standard. If you’re completely lost, your computer probably came with a manual (or has one available online) that can get you started on identifying specific parts and their locations. If you need to see what specific parts look like, Wikipedia is usually a pretty good bet. The harder part is what to upgrade and what to upgrade to, which is what I’ll cover here.

What to Upgrade:

You probably could replace nearly every part in your computer if you wanted, but in many cases it simply wouldn’t be worth it.

The upgrade that is almost certainly worth it is RAM–memory. It’s amazingly cheap and can make a huge difference in system performance if you currently have less than 1GB.

You might also consider adding another hard drive or replacing your current one. A faster hard drive can noticable decrease startup times and load times for applications (provided you replace the drive your operating system is on. And there’s the obvious added benefit of extra storage space, which is cheaper than ever. The best deal per gigabyte of storage space right now is

If you play games, you might want to invest in a new graphics card. Even sub-$100 cards right now can get you playing new games at lower settings–and even lower settings look fantasic for many newer games.

While other upgrades are certainly possible, I feel that these give the best balance of price to performance.

Upgrading RAM:

RAM is astoundingly cheap right now. 1GB of DDR1 memory costs about $30, 1GB of DDR2 memory costs about $20. DDR1 and 2 (and 3, although if you have DDR3 RAM you probably shouldn’t be looking to upgrade) are standards of memory and are incompatible with each other, so you need to make sure you get the right kind. Unless your computer was built sometime in the last 2-3 years you’re probably using DDR1. The easiest place to check is probably the computer or motherboard manual. It is possible that your computer may be too old to be using DDR1, and may be using plain old SDRAM (DDR1/2/3 are variations of this). While it’s still available, it’s going to be significantly more expensive, and very likely your computer is old enough that upgrading isn’t going to be worth it.

There are also different speeds of RAM, and you will also want to get the correct speed. The speed is denoted by ‘DDR XXX’ or ‘PC-XXXX’. They’re simply different ways of saying the same thing. For example, DDR 400 is PC-3200. Your motherboard/computer manual is again the best place to find this information.

Upgrading a hard drive:

Hard drives come in two flavors: IDE (or ATA) and SATA (Serial ATA). IDE cables are the big wide ribbon cables and are rarely used anymore (although IDE hard drives are still easy enough to find). SATA is the modern hard drive connection standard. The easiest way to identify which you have is to look inside your case: it should be pretty immediately obvious which you have. (Note that optical drives generally use the same cables.) If you intend to install an additional hard drive (rather than replacing an existing one) You’ll need an open IDE slot or open SATA connector on your motherboard. You’ll also need an open Molex connector if you intend to install an IDE drive, or an open SATA power connector if you intend to install a SATA drive. If you intend to have multiple IDE hard drives installed, you will likely have to configure one as a master drive, and one as a slave drive. Instructions (all you need to do is move a jumper on the back of the hard drive over a pin or two, which you can do by hand) should come with your new hard drive, or can be found easily enough online. Either type of hard drive require an open hard drive slot inside the case. If you aren’t able to satisfy these conditions you might want to check out external hard drives.

Upgrading a Graphics Card:

There are also two types of graphics card connections: AGP and PCI-Express x16. If you don’t have an AGP or PCI-E slot, you’re not going to be able to get any graphics card upgrades worth having, unfortunately. Identifying which (if any) you have can be done by checking your manual or by opening up your case and taking a look. AGP slots look like this, and PCI-E slots look like this. Because AGP is an older standard in the process of being phased out, selection is a bit limited. Your best value is probably the ATI Radeon 2600 Pro or XT. If you have PCI-E, the best value is probably the NVidia GeForce 8600 GT. All of these should be available for under $100. Unless your computer was built in the last year or two it’s probably not worth spending more than that on a new video card. If you do have a newer computer, the NVidia GeForce 9600GT (~$130-140) offers the best performance/price of any card on the market.

Where to Buy:

Unless you want to pay high premiums and talk to salespeople who likely enough don’t know much more than you it’s easiest by far to shop for hardware online. Just make sure to buy from a reputable source, and make sure that source has an acceptable return/RMA policy. I buy most of my stuff from Newegg, and most of my cables/cable related stuff from Monoprice.

When buying hardware it’s also good to find a reseller that will let you return working parts (although most will charge a ~15% restocking fee), since there are times when you may purchase the wrong thing and it’s much better to eat a restocking fee than to get nothing back at all.

Other Stuff:

Software:

This list contains some of the most widely used free applications that cover what you need for general computer use pretty well. If you have suggestions for additional categories or programs to be added, leave a comment!

(All of this software is cost-free [applications with additional paid versions are denoted with an asterisk], some of it is free software, and much of it is open source.)

Web Browsing: Firefox, Opera
Productivity: OpenOffice.org, Google Docs
IM Software: Pidgin, Trillian*
Graphics: The Gimp, Irfanview, Paint.NET
Media Players:
-video focused: VLC Media Player, Media Player Classic, mplayer
-music focused: foobar2000, Songbird, Winamp*
Antivirus: Avast! Antivirus*, AVG Anti-Virus* (DO NOT HAVE MULTIPLE ANTIVIRUS PROGRAMS INSTALLED SIMULTANEOUSLY)
Anti-spyware: Ad-aware Free*
Operating Systems: Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuSE


Again, I apologize for taking so long with this. If you notice anything that’s incorrect, could be expanded, or is unclear, please let me know. I’m pretty tired at the moment and in rewriting this (which I just did) I very well could have missed some things. I may add a few more things to teh end of this as well tomorrow or the day after–I’m pretty sure I was going to write more there, but at the moment my brain isn’t working properly and I really wanted to get this out in at least a mostly-finished form.

(As always, neither I nor Wesleying holds any responsibility regarding how you spend your money.)

A Computer for College Part 1: Explanations and General Recommendations

If you’re coming to Wesleyan you’re likely getting a new computer of some kind. And if you don’t obsessively follow computer news and benchmarks you’re likely to be at least a bit out of date concerning what to get and why, so I’m going to try to help. I hope this guide can be helpful for both those coming to Wesleyan for the first time, and for those returning.

Since there’s so much to cover, I’m going to do it in three parts. The first (this one) is going to cover what the different parts are and what you’re likely to need, as well as choosing an operating system. In the second part I’m going to be going through and pricing different laptops from a variety of different manufacturers to see where the best deals may be found, as well as some general tips for keeping the price of your computer down. The third installment is going to be about things you can do to keep your current computer running longer, better if you can’t afford/don’t want to buy a new one when you come to Wes, as well as some general computing suggestions and software.

Part I:

The Parts:

  • Processor: The ‘brain’ of the computer, a processor is what does general calculations
  • Hard Drive: Long-term data storage. There are two types: mechanical hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs). SSDs are new technology and extremely expensive, but they’re also much more resistent to abuse. However, given prices, a normal mechanical hard drive is what you’ll likely be getting.
  • RAM/Memory (Random Access Memory): Short term memory for your computer, RAM access is much faster than hard drive access, and your computer will do its best to keep running programs in RAM.
  • Graphics Card: Handles the calculations that display things on your screen. These can be either integrated into the motherboard and sharing system memory or can be discrete–a separate card that’s plugged in.

Other Things to watch:

  • Screen Size: Laptop screens generally range in size from 11-19″. If you’re looking for any kind of portability get something with a 15.4″ screen or smaller. Size is measured along the diagonal. Computer screens are either in a 4:3 (standard) or 16:10 (widescreen) aspect ratio–widescreen offers slightly less screen space for the same diagonal size, but lots of people (me included) prefer it. Screens also come in different resolutions, as well, which denote the number of pixels on the screen (pixels being the little dots of color that form the picture you see). Dimensions are width * length. A common standard aspect ratio resolution is 1280×1024, common widescreen resolutions are 1440×900 and 1680×1050 (although there are many, many more). What you get is your preference and is based mostly on the size of screen you get. Higher resolutions mean smaller, clearer pictures.
  • Weight: Your preference. The lighter, the easier it’s going to be to carry around.
  • Battery Life: How much you want to focus on this is again your preference. But the more the better.
  • Warranty: this is pretty self explanatory. The longer, obviously the better, but it’s not necessarily worth it to spend extra on longer warranties. Accidental damage protection is also something you may want to get–some manufacturers (ASUS) offer this free for a while, which is very nice.

What to Get:

General User:
This is most people. If you do mostly web browsing and word documents, this is where you should be. If you play only older games (WoW, WCIII, Source engine games, etc.) something with these specs and one of the lower-end graphics cards I suggested here should be fine.

  • Processor: Any dual core mobile offering by Intel or AMD should be fine. These will generally range from 1.6 to 2.4GHz. Higher numbers will generally get you better performance, but if you’re just performing basic tasks, you’re not going to notice it. Note that Intel’s processor’s will outperform AMD’s processors in terms of performance, but AMD’s processors are usually cheaper and with any of today’s modern processors can handle basic applications like web browsing easily.
  • Hard Drive: Everyone’s needs are different. However, I’d recommend that you stick with a 5400RPM hard drive (rather than 7200RPM) to keep power consumption and heat down. Size is your choice. 80GB should be the absolute minimum in size, but that will fill up pretty quickly if you plan on storing much media.
  • RAM: If you’re going Windows Vista get 2gb. If you’re going XP, OS X, or any Linux distro you can make do with 1gb. More RAM is nicer, but again, if you’re doing basic tasks, you probably won’t see any benefit with more than 2gb, even on Vista. Note that you won’t be able to use more than 4gb with a 32-bit operating system, which is what you’ll almost certainly be getting (see section on OS’s below for more on this)
  • Graphics Card: Stay with integrated graphics unless you plan on playing games. In that case, I would recommend something like an NVidia 8400GS, 9300GS, or an AMD Mobility Radeon HD 3400, all of which should run older games acceptably (although not always on the highest settings). If you’re looking into more serious gaming, you’re in the wrong category.
  • Screen Size: Under NO circumstances should you go over 15.4″ in terms of screen size–there simply is no point based on what you’re putting into the computer.
  • Battery Life: I would try to buy something with at least 2.5-3 hours. If you’re really set on all-day computing without a cord, there are laptops that get 8 or more hours of battery life–although you’ll obviously pay a premium.

Prices you can expect:

  • You can find a typical basic laptop that will meet most people’s needs for $500-1000
  • Higher priced units will get you things like smaller size, better battery life, and better support


Power User:
If you’re playing newer games, doing photo or video manipulation and editing, rendering 3D scenes, or other computation-intensive work you’re going to want something more from a computer than a machine created from the specs above is going to give you.

  • Processor: get an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Extreme, or Core 2 Quad running at at least 2GHz. 2.4GHz is a good compromise between performance and cost in my opinion. AMD’s mobile processors are unfortunately don’t perform well enough for me to consider them for gaming or other heavy processor work. Note that getting a Core 2 Quad over a Core 2 Duo is probably going to take bad battery life and make it absolutely dismal–for the vast, vast majority of people, a Core 2 Duo (or dual core Core 2 Extreme) should be fine. Processor performance is especially important for picture and video work, although unless you’re doing some very serious editing, it’s still probably not worth it to take the jump to the much more expensive Core 2 Extreme processor line.
  • Hard Drive: You can go either 5400 or 7200RPM–higher hard drive speeds will generally get you faster loading (and booting) times, but will run hotter, be louder, and cost more. I do a decent amount of gaming and have run into no problems with a 5400RPM hard drive. Size is up to you here as well. If you have lots of large files you may want to look into an external hard drive with Firewire or eSATA (and buy a laptop with corresponding connections), both of which are much faster than USB 2.0.
  • RAM: 2GB is the minimum, more is good (although more than 4GB is probably excessive for most gaming use). Keep in mind that if you’re running a 32-bit OS, you’ll only be able to use 4GB (and this is COMBINED system memory AND graphics card memory). If you want to use more, you may want to look into a 64-bit OS. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see the ‘Operating Systems’ section below). If you’re doing graphics work, you’ll want lots–4GB or possibly more (which again, ties you into a 64-bit OS).
  • Graphics Card: This is the most important part of your computer if you’re looking at gaming performance, bar absolutely nothing. Models that will give at least decent performance on newer games are: NVidia GeForce 8600M GS < gt =" 9500M" gt =" 9650M"> 512mb GDDR2. If you’re doing other 3D work (AutoCAD, etc.) you’re probably going to want a workstation-level graphics card, either from NVidia’s Quadro line or AMD’s FireGL line. If you’re doing video/audio/graphics work, your applications are almost certainly not dependent on a graphics card for performance, and a lower end graphics card, such as an NVidia GeForce 8400M GS or 9300M GS should be fine.
  • Screen Size: You probably won’t be able to get a decent laptop with these kinds of specs in anything smaller than a 15.4″ package. I personally recommend very strongly you don’t go over 15.4″ either–anything larger and mobility will be very much at stake.
  • Battery Life: I wouldn’t go below 1.5 hours–more is obviously better, but not always feasible given what you’re putting into the computer.

Prices to expect:

  • $1300-1600: medium settings on newer games
  • $1600-$2000: high settings on most newer games
  • $2000+: high to very high settings on almost everything (I make no promises about Crysis)

Other Notes:

  • Since Macs now have Intel processors, gaming on Macs is now feasible. If you’re interested, you’ll want a MacBook Pro with a dedicated graphics card. To get games to run, you can use Boot Camp or VMWare Fusion or Parrallels Desktop–this will let you install Windows XP or Vista to play games on. You can also try using applications like Wine or Cider to let you play games straight from your OS X install.
  • Speaking as someone who has a 15.4″ notebook, I can say that if you live close enough that transportation isn’t much of a problem, getting both a desktop for gaming and a subnotebook (think EeePC or similar) for taking to class is something you should seriously consider. An $800-1000 desktop will get you gaming performance equivalent or better than a $2000+ notebook, and you can get an EeePC or something like it for ~$400. You’ll spend less money, get better gaming performance, and have a much more portable notebook. The only real disadvantages are space (which isn’t a huge issue in my opinion) and transportation. If you’re going to be flying, taking a desktop isn’t going to work. Getting desktops to the LAN parties we hold can be a bit of a pain too, although plenty of people do it.

Operating Systems:
Most people will be going with either Windows Vista, Windows XP, or Macintosh OS X 10.5. This is mostly a matter of personal preference. I personally prefer Vista over XP, but lots of people disagree with me. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get better performance with XP–although realize that the last day XP will be available to be sold is June 30th, 2008, so if you want XP, don’t wait too long. If you’re unsure, but buying a mid-high range laptop, I would say go with Vista.

Windows or OS X is most certainly a matter of preference–I use Windows, and I think the split is something like 50/50 on campus–both are fully supported by the ITS Helpdesk.

Linux, BSD, or something else is an option as well, but if you’re considering any of these, there are much better sources than me for the information–I will say that dual-booting one (or more) of these with either Windows or OS X would be best if you’re new to it.

If you’re looking at getting 4GB of RAM or more, you’re going to want to make sure you get a 64-bit version of whatever operating system you’re using. OS’s have until recently been built primarily on a 32-bit architecture. However, limitations on that architecture prevent the operating system from addressing more than 4GB of RAM total. To address this (and other issues) 64-bit versions of operating systems are now available and are becoming more widely used. Any modern processor should be capable of running either 32 or 64-bit versions of Windows or any other OS. 64-bit driver support has gotten pretty good lately, and so the only problems you’re likely to have are with very old hardware. (OS X is completely 64-bit, and so this is only something you need to worry about with Windows or GNU/Linux.)

If anyone has suggestions, questions, comments, or corrections, please post in the comments. Given the rapidly changing nature of the computer market, this will remain a work in progress!

As a final note, remember that these are simply recommendations and explanations, and neither I nor Wesleying are responsible for what you do with your money.