Computer Buying (& building) Advice: 2014 | Part 2 Hardware

This is an article on how to select the right hardware components for either buying or building a Windows Desktop PC

Desktop PC computer system

If You Need Help Determining What Kind of Computer You Need See Part 1 of This Tutorial | Introduction and Determining OS Platform

Hardware Considerations

If you already know what you want and just want help configuring, or picking the right hardware components for a desktop PC skip down to the section entitled Calculating your Hard Drive Requirements.

Step 2 is Finding the Best Hardware for Your Unique Situation

Once you’ve determined the best OS or platform for your needs, it’s time to move on to hardware. This can be a somewhat daunting task in 2014 given the plethora of alternatives available. While this was never an easy process for those who wanted to ‘future-proof’ their purchase, it’s become more confusing specifically because of the introduction of mobile devices, namely tablets. While a tablet, in 2014, still can’t perform many of the functions that a true computer can…the gap is closing quickly. I personally have become quite partial to them, and find myself using them almost all the time.

My background

My go to device of choice is an iPad. When I purchased our first iPad, as a Father’s Day gift for my husband, I could never have foreseen how much flexibility one little device could provide! The iPad quickly reverted to ‘ours’, and more slowly evolved into ‘mine’.

In my defense, my husband doesn’t love computers and tech things the way I do, and he really only uses them when he needs to. Whereas I love everything about them. I find a real joy in keeping in touch with friends, staying up-to-date on everything going on in the world and locally, as well as reading, creating, designing, learning, and especially making things ‘talk to’ each other, and ‘sharing data’ between devices and across platforms.

Eventually I got my own iPad…actually 2…the mini which rarely leaves my side, and the Air which I use at home for larger tasks. Then I restored his iPad to ‘new’ and gave it back to him. Along the way I also acquired an Android tablet so I could have access to the Android world and all the stuff that ios isn’t as great with.

My entry into the blogging and website creation world required a step back to my PC. But as I became confident with those two areas, I discovered the WordPress world, and how easy it is to write and create with WordPress.com on an iPad, which is what most of the content of this website has been written on.

A bit of history:   The on the evolution of computers

Office 171

The tablet and mobile device industries have unquestionably had a huge impact on computers and what is available in today’s (2014) computer marketplace.

As I began writing this article, I reviewed several recent emails that I’d written to colleagues and friends with my individualized recommendations for this process…(this was actually the main impetus for my creation of this site. I did not want to keep ‘reinventing the wheel’, yet I wanted to provide information that was applicable in a large range of user circumstances).  In doing so, I ran across this link to a really interesting article.  At least it was interesting to me :-), but you may feel differently.

The article analyzes how this change came about, and how it impacted both Apple and Microsoft. It goes on to explain exactly how and why the hardware market has so drastically changed.  It’s interesting too that the article was written in 2012…and the information and conclusions drawn were ‘spot on’, as were the predictions for how the market would evolve.  What I also found entertaining were some of the comments…especially with the benefit of today’s hindsight!

My Methodology for Hard Drive Calculations

The next steps I take in acquiring a new computer are actually relatively simple, assuming I did my homework as described in Part 1 of this tutorial. I know exactly what OS I want and which applications I will run on the new device. What I don’t know yet is how much hard drive space I will need for transferring my current data and content. But this is fairly easy to ascertain. The way I go about this is by using a free tool called Treesize, which is a Windows application my son originally taught me how to use. Here’s a link to the current version of the free version of Treesize:

The Treesize application was developed by German programmers and it’s available in English and German. It’s specifically for Windows users, and it’s an amazing application. I actually now use an upgraded paid version, but all the functionality you will need is offered in the free version I’ve linked too above. The link is to JAM’s website, where you can download a nice clean copy of the program, without the usual ‘bloat’ content which is oftentimes added to freeware. Treesize isn’t available for macs, but the link below is to a list of alternatives with discussions about each and user rankings:

What I use Treesize for is to take a very detailed look at my hard drives, to see what’s exactly there, how much space various things are using, and what duplication or miscellaneous junk is floating around my hard drives that I want to clean up and get rid of before I transfer my data to a band new computer.

The free version can save you tons of time over using Windows Explorer to accomplish the same things because when you open the utility, you designate a drive or set of files for it to analyze, and shortly thereafter, you are presented with detailed information about it, including graphs and charts showing you where potential duplication and unusable ‘excess’ data is.

The actual steps to using Treesize will require a few hours of your time to learn, and are beyond the scope of this article, but its a very worthwhile process to go through, to assure that the data you will transfer will be clean and useful to you going forward.

Of course, you can choose to skip this step using Treesize, but at a minimum you will need to ascertain how much space your data is currently using.

   Office 195 Calculating your hard drive requirements

Once you have a good handle on how much data you currently have, you can use that figure to help you calculate how much additional space you might need in the future.

For example:  If your current data takes up approximately 600 GB’s of space (it,s OK to round up here), and you’ve had your current computer for five years, you can estimate that, on average, you’re adding or acquiring around 120 GB’s per year.

After you’ve determined this number, you should seriously consider any significant changes you may be implementing in the future. Examples of this might include digitizing a childhood collection of family slides and 8mm movies, or converting to a paperless environment, whereby you’ll be adding a large number of files that are currently being housed in paper form.

I haven’t researched this aspect for paper files, but I recently did do that for converting slides and old family movies, and I found that there were several websites that can help you to figure out how much digital space this endeavor might require.

2 TB HDD

An HDD in external enclosure

There are two basic types of hard drives currently being used in computers today.  HDD’s are the one’s we’re all familiar with…the mechanical ones that read and write kind of like a CD or DVD burner does.  Then there are SSD’s, which are much newer technology.  SSD stands for Solid State Drive…which sound’s like a really old, outdated TV to me, but is actually state of the art digital storage technology.  SSD’s use the same technology as usb flash drives do.  So they are much smaller, quite a bit faster, and because they are relatively new, more expensive.  But they are coming down in price, and I really love having Windows on one, because the read speed is the fastest available for PC’s…and that’s mostly what your doing with the OS.

 RAM closeup  RAM Calculation

This calculation is less concrete and dependent on the OS you’re getting, but here are some good guidelines to follow.

Windows 7

For a Windows 7 computer, if you’re using a 32 bit version, Windows will only recognizes a maximum of 4 GB’s of RAM (really it will show a little less, but that’s complicated), so if processing speed and power are important to you get (not hotlinks) Windows 7 in a 64 bit version (because there is no upper limit for RAM with it).  Ideally, the Professional or Ultimate version, because those won’t limit your hardware choices and give you more features too.  Microsoft no longer sells Windows 7 but places like Best Buy and Amazon do.  The 64bit Professional version from Best Buy is currently $139.

Windows 8

Windows 8 has the same memory limitation that 7 does if you get the 32 bit version, which is 4GB’s.  If you get Windows 8 64bit, it really doesn’t have an upward limit, but the practical limits are higher than for Windows 7.  And like 7, the more professional, or feature filled the versions become, the higher the RAM utilizing capabilities become.

RAM is relatively inexpensive as far as computer components go, and there’s not a really solid way to calculate how much to get.  The overall general consensus seems to be among the experts is that 8 GB’s is plenty for most everyday users needs and even for many higher level needs, but my own experiences told me that 8 GB’s was not enough to render videos easily so I doubled mine for it’s original 8 to 16.  I personally think that if you get a mother board with expansion capacity for more RAM, and put in 16 GB’s to start, you will never run out of options, and quite possibly the 16 GB’s will be able to address your future processing needs for a good length of time.

Select Your CPU | Updated October 2014

The cpu (also called the processor, and I sometimes call it a chip)  is the heart and brain of your computer.  Get the absolute best one you can.  It’s not an easy task to upgrade your cpu, but if you have a great one, you can swap in better components like more RAM, more HDD’s and SSD’s etc…if you have the framework to support them.

The two most significant indicators for comparison are the number of cores (8 is newest), the speed of the chip (also called clock speed, shown in GHz, higher is better),  and the amount of on-board RAM or the chips cache size (bigger is better).  The type of graphics processing the cpu chip uses is also important, but I don’t really know enough to give advice here…other than to compare the specs for those too and pick the one with the highest RAM cache and speed.

core refers to the number of simultaneous operations the cpu can be running at once…sort of.  Mathematically it’s much more complicated, but its best to get a high number because then your PC can be running many different applications or very cpu intensive applications without getting slow.

I use an Intel i7 core cpu.  I started out with an i5, but found my PC got either really bogged down or just completely crashed when doing any video editing.  I don’t do a lot of that on a PC, I prefer my iPad for simple video work, but I do need the ability to do this occasionally without crashing my desktop.  So I upgraded in January 2014, and it was definitely worth it!

Here are my suggestions for CPU’s, from a very generic standpoint:

  • Intel Core i7 (mine, purchased from NewEgg early 2014) Get the fastest one you can afford (3.8GHz refers to speed)
  • Other Core i7’s  – if you’re buying for longevity look for the best speed with the highest number of cores you can get for the best price. The different generations, like Sandy Bridge, and Haswell, as well as a the socket types are topics too complex for discussion for here.  Chances are if you need to figure these out, you’re probably building or upgrading your own PC which means you have much better resources available to you than my advice!  Dad, look at NewEgg’s 6 Core i7’s which are around $500, or possibly the Quad Core ones too.
  • Intel Core i5 – this isn’t a bad processor for everyday use like word processing, web surfing, and even photo editing.  If you want to do anything more ‘action’ oriented like gaming, flight simulators, and video rendering, I stick with the i7.
  • Intel Core i3 – I’d only put this in a low end laptop or a budget desktop that isn’t going to get heavy usage.
  • AMD CPU’s – there are some really good AMD processors available too, but I don’t know much about them.  The article I link to below by Tom’s Hardware discusses some of the current high end gaming models.

Links for researching CPU’s:

Intel’s website is a great place to get details and specs.  The links below bring you to current lists of all cpus in a given category.  Included within the list is the Suggested Retail Price, the number of cores the cpu has (higher is better, oftentimes a lot better so go for high), when it was first launched, how much power in watts it uses, and the type of graphics processing  it uses (which is a subcategory requiring additional research).

If you are building your own computer, you’ll need to know more about the number of pins the cpu has to plug in your mother board, and the generation information becomes more important, because you’ll need to select all of your components so that they’re compatible with each other, both from a software standpoint (so they can talk to each other)and from a hardware perspective (so that they are able to physically connect to each other).

Intel’s Current List of Core i7 cpus (called 4th generation)

Tom’s Hardware Article Discussing the Best CPU’s for Gaming PC’s September, 2014

Office 256 Graphics Cards, Mother Boards & A Case to Put Everything In

Graphics boards are really, really complicated.  If you’ll be doing anything with your computer that’s video driven or game driven, where speed and responsiveness are concerns then you’ll want to supplement your cpu with a standalone graphics board too.  But since I don’t know much about them I can’t really recommend how to go about figuring out what you need.  Below I’ve listed the graphics board I added in early 21014, but how I arrived at that one, is a bit vague.  I just remember spending days reading about the features, and watching demos of them and asking people that knew more than me for their opinion.

Mother Boards are oftentimes dictated by the CPU you’ll be using and the degree of expansion capability you’ll need.  In my case, my original mother board would have been fine. but I decided to upgrade it when I upgraded the cpu because there were some flaky things going on with my whole system, and there was a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that the mother board was the culprit, and that the model I originally used started failing at the 2 year mark, so I chose to swap it out.

Cases don’t have a lot of requirements, therefore that was really about the only thing I got to pick out when my son built my first computer for me many years ago.  It needs to be big enough to fit everything inside, and that’s about it!

Extra Things You’ll Need if You’re Building Your Own Computer

There are a few additional things you’ll need to build a computer.  some SATA cables to connect the hard drives, some thermal paste to seat the cpu, a power supply to power everything and a static mat or wrist band to keep you ‘shock free’ while assembling everything.

My Computer's Standup Monitor

My Standing Desk

Links to the NewEgg components I used:

CPU: Mine is Quad Core and is currently $314, but I paid $299 because NewEgg gives you bundled price discounts when your buying a lot of components at one time.

Intel Core i7-3820 Sandy Bridge-E Quad-Core 3.6GHz (3.8GHz Turbo Boost) LGA 2011 130W Desktop Processor BX80619i73820

RAM: This link is for 2 4GB sticks of RAM for a total of 8GB’s. I added this to my existing 8GB’s so I now have 16GB’s total.

G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1866 (PC3 14900) Desktop Memory Model F3-14900CL9D-8GBXL

Hard Drives:  Use my methodology above for calculating how much space you currently use and how to forecast what you” need in the future.  At a minimum put in 2 hard drives, one smaller SSD (flash technology) drive for your OS because it will be really fast, and one slower, but much larger traditional HDD of at least 1 TB.  I have 4 total:  2 HDD’s, 1 TB and 3 TB’s and 2 SSD’s sized at 180 GB’s and 512 GB’s.  Windows is on my 180 GB drive and in retrospect I wish I’d put it one the 512 GB drive, because I use a lot of Apple things and Apple automatically puts things like your Photostream and your iTunes backups on the C: drive.  You can change some of this, but not all, so I end up having to create SymLinks to keeps my C: drive free enough to operate smoothly and quickly.  It’s a frequent source of frustration and that I have to mess around with about every 6 months.

HDD:  When I went back to my NewEgg order to look up the HDD they informed me that there’s a newer version of the hard drive, but here’ the link to the the actual one I got which is 3 TB’s and currently $141.

Western Digital WD AV-GP WD30EURS 3TB 64MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5″ Internal Hard Drive Bare Drive

SSD:  My new 512 GB SSD is a refurbished one from Crucial.  SSD’s are still expensive, although coming down in prices, but the one I got from NewEgg was a good deal ($269) and it’s been great!

Manufacturer Re-certified Crucial M4 CT512M4SSD2 2.5″ 512GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)

Motherboard:  Mine was $225, it’s currently $242 on NewEgg (I probably got it on sale or bundled).

GIGABYTE GA-X79-UP4 LGA 2011 Intel X79 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard

Graphics Card:  Mine is now $139 on NewEgg.  I paid $165 for it.

NVIDIA® Quadro® K600 VCQK600-PB 1GB GDDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 Low Profile Workstation Video Card

Case:  My case is no longer sold but here’s a link to it anyway.  I got it because everything fit in it and it has pretty red lights!  It was $49.99 about 4 years ago.

Rosewill RANGER Gaming ATX Mid Tower Computer Case,two-toned interior coating,come with Three Fans,Support up to 7 Fans, w/ Window Side Panel

Summing it all up:  There’s a lot more I could write about some of the components, and I probably will at some point, but I needed to get this done now for my Dad who’s designing his computer.  Building a computer is fun, but it’s really great to watch someone else build it once or twice first, which is what I did.  But at some point you’re ready to dive in and try it yourself and if you are interested there are plenty of how to videos on NewEgg to get you started.  Back in the day, NewEgg was the best place to get computer components individually, which is why I got everything there, and they are still great.  But Amazon now has a lot of things too at competitive prices, as well as whole stand-alone systems, so there are definitely more options available today.

Newest Links:

Engadget’s end of the year (2014) Guide to some of the newest laptops currently available

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