A common topic of discussion on computer users’ group mailing lists is advice on buying a PC. I think that most of the offered advice isn’t particularly useful with an excessive focus on building or upgrading PCs and on getting the latest and greatest. So I’ll blog about it instead of getting involved in more mailing-list debates.
A Historical Perspective – the PC as an Investment
In the late 80′s a reasonably high-end white-box PC cost a bit over $5,000 in Australia (or about $4,000 without a monitor). That was cheaper than name-brand PCs which cost upwards of $7,000 but was still a lot of money. $5,000 in 1988 would be comparable to $10,000 in today’s money. That made a PC a rather expensive item which needed to be preserved. There weren’t a lot of people who could just discard such an investment so a lot of thought was given to upgrading a PC.
Now a quite powerful desktop PC can be purchased for a bit under $400 (maybe $550 if you include a good monitor) and a nice laptop is about the same price as a desktop PC and monitor. Laptops are almost impossible to upgrade apart from adding more RAM or storage but hardly anyone cares because they are so cheap. Desktop PCs can be upgraded in some ways but most people don’t bother apart from RAM, storage, and sometimes a new video card.
If you have the skill required to successfully replace a CPU or motherboard then your time is probably worth enough that getting more value out of a PC that was worth $400 when new and is worth maybe $100 when it’s a couple of years old probably isn’t a good investment.
Times have changed and PCs just aren’t worth enough to be bothered upgrading. A PC is a disposable item not an investment.
Buying Something Expensive?
There are a range of things that you can buy. You can spend $200 on a second-hand PC that’s a couple of years old, $400 on a new PC that’s OK but not really fast, or you can spend $1000 or more on a very high end PC. The $1000 PC will probably perform poorly when compared to a PC that sells for $400 next year. The $400 PC will probably perform poorly when compared to the second-hand systems that are available next year.
If you spend more money to get a faster PC then you are only getting a faster PC for a year until newer cheaper systems enter the market.
As newer and better hardware is continually being released at low enough prices that make upgrades a bad deal I recommend just not buying expensive systems. For my own use I find that e-waste is a good source of hardware. If I couldn’t do that then I’d buy from an auction site that specialises in corporate sales, they have some nice name-brand systems in good condition at low prices.
One thing to note is that this is more difficult for Windows users due to “anti-piracy” features. With recent versions of Windows you can’t just put an old hard drive in a new PC and have it work. So the case for buying faster hardware is stronger for Windows than for Linux.
That said, $1,000 isn’t a lot of money. So spending more money for a high-end system isn’t necessarily a big deal. But we should keep in mind that it’s just a matter of getting a certain level of performance a year before it is available in cheaper systems. Getting a $1,000 high-end system instead of a $400 cheap system means getting that level of performance maybe a year earlier and therefore at a price premium of maybe $2 per day. I’m sure that most people spend more than $2 per day on more frivolous things than a faster PC.
Understanding How a Computer Works
As so many things are run by computers I believe that everyone should have some basic knowledge about how computers work. But a basic knowledge of computer architecture isn’t required when selecting parts to assemble to make a system, one can know all about selecting a CPU and motherboard to match without understanding what a CPU does (apart from a vague idea that it’s something to do with calculations). Also one can have a good knowledge of how computers work without knowing anything about the part numbers that could be assembled to make a working system.
If someone wants to learn about the various parts on sale then sites such as Tom’s Hardware  provide a lot of good information that allows people to learn without the risk of damaging expensive parts. In fact the people who work for Tom’s Hardware frequently test parts to destruction for the education and entertainment of readers.
But anyone who wants to understand computers would be better off spending their time using any old PC to read Wikipedia pages on the topic instead of spending their time and money assembling one PC. To learn about the basics of computer operation the Wikipedia page for “CPU” is a good place to start. Then the Wikipedia page for “hard drive” is a good start for learning about storage and the Wikipedia page for Graphics Processing Unit to learn about graphics processing. Anyone who reads those three pages as well as a selection of pages that they link to will learn a lot more than they could ever learn by assembling a PC. Of course there’s lots of other things to learn about computers but Wikipedia has pages for every topic you can imagine.
I think that the argument that people should assemble PCs to understand how they work was not well supported in 1990 and ceased to be accurate once Wikipedia became popular and well populated.
Getting a Quality System
There are a lot of arguments about quality and reliability, most without any supporting data. I believe that a system designed and manufactured by a company such as HP, Lenovo, NEC, Dell, etc is likely to be more reliable than a collection of parts uniquely assembled by a home user – but I admit to a lack of data to support this belief.
One thing that is clear however is the fact that ECC RAM can make a significant difference to system reliability as many types of error (including power problems) show up as corrupted memory. The cheapest Dell PowerEdge server (which has ECC RAM) is advertised at $699 so it’s not a feature that’s out of reach of regular users.
I think that anyone who makes claims about PC reliability and fails to mention the benefits of ECC RAM (as used in Dell PowerEdge tower systems, Dell Precision workstations, and HP XW workstations among others) hasn’t properly considered their advice.
Also when discussing overall reliability the use of RAID storage and a good backup scheme should be considered. Good backups can do more to save your data than anything else.
I think it’s best to use a system with ECC RAM as a file server. Make good backups. Use ZFS (in future BTRFS) for file storage so that data doesn’t get corrupted on disk. Use reasonably cheap systems as workstations and replace them when they become too old.
Update: I find it rather ironic when a discussion about advice on buying a PC gets significant input from people who are well paid for computer work. It doesn’t take long for such a discussion to take enough time that the people involved could spent their time working instead, put enough money in a hat to buy a new PC for the user in question, and still had money left over.