How do you get up to speed on hardware?

I buy a new system once every four years or so. I usually bounce around buying wierd or oddball things because they’re CHEAP.

But lets say I wanted to build a system or upgrade and existing box. I take a look at what’s out there and find:

  1. ALL of the marketing means they’ve changed naming…is a QuadCore 6200 faster than a Core2Duo? How much slower is that 9500 vs the i7? Where, effectively, does the $100 cheaper AMD Phenom clock against it’s rivals?

  2. Video cards are even worse. There are 30 ATI cards on pricewatch (28 for nVidia), from $35 all the way to $450…and the 733t hacker game dudes will put three in a computer. Do you want a geforce 7800 or a gtx 280? It used to be that a $60 car would do 2d fine, a $120 card would to 3d well, and a $250 car would be the fastest you could possibly buy.

How do you easily come back up to speed on what site where on the price/performance curve? I keep toying with upgrading my video ripping computer (1.6Ghz e2160, 2Gb RAM, oddball videocard), but really, if it transcodes the video in an hour, rather than 90 minutes, I guess I’m really not going to notice, and thus should probably save my money.

This is really the point, and this is where a lot of the computer industry (and computer press, for that matter) are a lot like car dealers. Does your computer currently do what you want it to do in a timely enough fashion without/with minimal errors? If yes, then no upgrade is needed; if no, then it is.

However, the industry is so plugged into the “better, faster, stronger” motto, that carries over into sales - like I noted it’s like the auto industry - Let’s say you only need a car with decent gas mileage and basic amenities to get you to work and back, but when you get to the dealer, they want to sell you a brand-new 4-door sedan with a V8 and leather interior. The computer industry has this habit of not asking what you really need but instead appealing to your gadget lust (this is inherent in the job of sales regardless of industry, I understand, but it seems more prevalent in these two industries than elsewhere).

However, once you do decide to upgrade, what I usually do is hit the websites for Computer Shopper, PC Magazine (yeah, I know it’s not in print any more, but the site seems reasonably updated) along with review sites like Tom’s Hardware (there are others out there and I realize some may nit the sites I use so feel free to add your own).

This month’s Computer Shopper dead-tree edition, for instance, is doing the tried-and-true “build your own bargain/mid/top-end system” filler piece, and while there’s nothing staggeringly new about building your own, that type of article is really good for getting an idea of what is currently considered cutting-edge, mature or old-fogey :slight_smile:

Well, the problem here is that people don’t raise speed limits every time the automotive industry ups the top speed of the average new car.

Game developers, however, up the minimum requirements for new games to keep up with the rate of power/memory/storage increases.

So, a given system won’t play games developed past Year X. My current system has hit that wall (effective 2005, or so).

I kinda have the OP’s problem. The last time I was shopping for a new processor I just had to compare the Athlon 2xxx+ and the P4… somethingorother. Now, the language is all funky.

Quad-core? 64-bit? Duo? What the hell does that stuff mean?

The best way to get up to date is to read some websites that specialize in technology, and ask around in their forums. I would recommend The Techreport - they have very good articles, and a helpful community. Also, if you are looking at a new machine, their system builder guides are quite nice.

I’m at microcenter and they had three processors for sale in a range that wasn’t stupid. In a $30 spread there was a Core2Quad q6600 ($181), a q8300 ($185), and a q9300 ($205)

WTF is that $4 difference between the q6600 and q8300?

Toms hardware is also a good site with lots of articles comparing benchmarks on all sorts of equipment.

When I built my last computer, i remember finding a website where a hardware guru put together recommended component lists for various budgets, which helped narrow my focus considerably. Search around for something like that… I’ll see if I can find the one I found. Been a year and a half though, so don’t hold your breath.

Aha… here it is.

Ars Technica is quite good. They publish periodic guides for building your own PC.


I run into that every 4 or so years when my computer gets so outmoded that I can’t play any new games that are coming out.

What I generally do is research the current state of processors via any number of sources to see what the big thing is. Nowadays it’s multi-core processors, while it used to be sheer clock speed.

Then, once I have a footing, I start comparing the various makes/models- i.e. is a core 2 duo faster than an Phenom x3? Which ones? What are the prices? How does the RAM for the various processors work? Are there chipset issues for the various processors?

Once I’ve more or less narrowed my field to a pair of competing processors (usu. one AMD and one Intel) I start digging in depth- which chipsets are better? How do they do with various benchmarks? What motherboards have problems/ work well?

Then, once I’ve settled on a processor, I choose a motherboard (from a small set of manufacturers - Tyan, ASUS, Gigabyte, usually) and go about pricing the components.

I’m much less discerning about the video cards- I usually go with the highest number in the sequence with the most RAM that will fit in my budget. I’m not doing SLI yet, so that strategy seems to work. AMD or Nvidia is more of a personal choice- it seems to me that they both work well, and it’s a matter of which one you can get the best deal on.

Sites for research: Tom’s Hardware, Anand Tech, Techreport.

(the caveat to all this is that I’m a working IT professional with a computer science degree, so I’m probably more familiar with all of the concepts and issues involved than your average person would be)

Charts articles are great on helping pin down performance/value of a particular part. Tom’s hardware has CPU and GPU charts as do several other PC tech sites.

Once you can see their relative performance to each other it’s easier to decide where you should spend your dollars.

The various “system builds” articles are gold mines of information and educated suggestions as well.

I’m in IT too, I find that works to my disadvantage. I look at a modern $300 workstation and where people slam it due to having a slower FSB and crummy L2 cache, I look at it’s ability to grep 5 Gb of logs in 12 seconds and marvel at how far we’ve come.

I’m leaning towards just getting a new video card. The Nvidia GTS 250 interests me, not for the FPS in Crysis, but the offloaded transcoding for video and for potential use for Folding At Home.

Another good hardware site is AnandTech

I ended up getting a nvidia 9800 gts+, it was a good price ($125 after rebate) for a good card that supports folding at home, video conversion…and osx86. It’ll also with well if I eventually upgrade the mobo and CPU.

There’s a substantial argument to be made that you won’t really know what you want your computer to do until your computer can do it. The availability of applications that do new things is predicated on an installed base that can do those things.

Two years ago when I bought a phone, I could have gotten one with a bigger screen more optimized for use on the web. I didn’t, because why would I need that. But, now that the iPhone is out, I see that there are actually all kinds of things I could do with it. I’ve become frustrated with my current phone (but, due to my phone company, there are some odd economic incentives in the upgrade process. I’d actually have been better off buying the better phone then than now :rolleyes:)

To answer the OP: my personal route is to just buy the cheapest laptop Apple makes at the time. It’s usually a minor price premium over other alternatives, but I like the OS and the support, so it’s worth it to me. Of course, now that I’ve settled on that, I may have to reconsider in a year or so, when this laptop gives up the ghost. The netbooks are looking like they’ll do everything I want for < $400.

I’m a big mac supporter, love my mbp to death, but then again, I kinda like my aspire one, too. And my three Linux boxes (which, for what they do, don’t require frequent upgrades. The machine in the OP is currently floating between win7, Ubuntu, and OSx86.

I find I enjoy my macs the most when someone else is paying for them. :wink: