Steps to build the perfect desktop

Use raw processing power as your only guide and your new dream machine could be a costly headache

Speeds and feeds. That's the mantra that has guided desktop PC purchases for years. Simply buy a system with the newest, fastest CPU and pack it with memory and hard-drive capacity, and you'll have a screaming machine that will outrun obsolescence. For a few months, at least.

Unfortunately, aging is inevitable, especially in the hyper-competitive PC world, and the speed-centric approach can be costly. "People have been fed the idea of more and more speed for so long, they think it's the most important consideration," said Vic Berger, lead technologist and business development manager at CDW Government. "But only a small fraction of users ever fully test the capabilities of their desktop systems. They end up paying more for high-end capabilities without realizing their value."

Understanding that today's information technology buyers are becoming savvier about balancing price and performance considerations, desktop PC vendors are introducing new technologies that go beyond simplistic speed contests to include better manageability and lower maintenance and support costs.

"Once CPU performance reached a certain point, cooling the systems became a real challenge," said Mathew Fleming, manager of desktop products at MPC Computers. "So Intel and [Advanced Micro Devices] took their focus off faster processors and turned instead to developing features that enhance the user experience."

The rethinking also reflects economic realities that consider maintenance, support and other total-cost-of-ownership factors that represent PC expenses, said Jennifer Smith, head of federal civilian and intelligence sales at Dell. "The government tends to be very cost-conscious," she said.

As technological innovations make desktop PCs more efficient and more economical, how do buyers choose the right systems for their organizations' needs? Experts say the key is to focus on seven building blocks.

1. Processors: Something for everyone

Today's CPUs are faster than ever. But does everyone really need a champion number cruncher? For most desktop users, the answer is no, the exceptions being those whose jobs require them to build complex financial models or do computer-aided design (CAD) or similar sophisticated output.

Standard business applications, such as Microsoft Office programs, run effectively on midrange 3.4 GHz or 3.6 GHz processors, which can cost hundreds of dollars less than the higher-performing 3.8 GHz or 4 GHz processors financial analysts and engineers need.

"There's a steep price curve when you're buying at the top of the CPU market, which can almost double the cost of the machine for only an incremental increase in speed or capabilities," Berger said. "But Word is only going to run as fast as Word is going to run. The only real difference is in how fast it loads, and that's largely a factor of memory, not processor speed."

For now at least, the public sector is making a clear choice about which CPU manufacturer to choose. Although AMD receives high marks for technical innovation, it remains a distant second to Intel. "Sales are still overwhelmingly for Intel's Pentium and Celeron processors," said David Daoud, an analyst at IDC. "Can AMD gain market share in the public sector? The indications are [that] that is happening more and more as its products are recognized as being reliable."

In addition to CPU speed and vendor, Fleming advises PC buyers concerned about the consequences of virus and worm attacks to choose processors with Intel's Execute Disable Bit (EDB) or AMD's Enhanced Virus Protection (EVP). Chips with those features thwart malicious programs that attempt to create memory buffer overruns by claiming areas of memory where operating systems and applications store data. EDB is available in Intel's Pentium 4 and high-end Xeon and Itanium processors and in some of its lower-priced Celeron chips. AMD offers EVP in its Athlon 64 and Opteron processors.

For all the headlines it grabbed after announcing recently that it would adopt Intel processors, Apple Computer will remain a dark horse for desktop PC sales in the federal market.

"The decision to use mainstream chips that are well understood by the IT community was a good move for Apple, although its shipments to the federal market are minimal," Daoud said. "However, the Intel product line will provide better value propositions for when Apple competes for specific bids at the federal level. But Apple's first job is to get the application development community in line with the move to Intel."

2. Motherboards: Beat the heat

Motherboards are another somewhat arcane area where it pays to pay attention, said Don Richards, technical sales consultant at GTSI. Top vendors of enterprise-class motherboards include Asus Computer International, Intel and MSI Computer.

For PC buyers concerned about reducing hardware failures, Intel's most recent design, Balanced Technology Extended (BTX), provides a response to the rising temperatures inside PCs. BTX positions "hot" components, such as the CPU and graphics chips, to receive cooling airflow from system fans.

The new designs, which can run up to 60 percent cooler than traditional layouts, can pay off in reliability dividends, Richards said.

"BTX will become increasingly important for organizations in the public sector that are trying to get more than three years' life out of their PCs," Richards said.

The mean time between failures "goes up because of less heat," which potentially could keep machines running reliably for five years, he said. PC makers such as Dell have recently released models using BTX boards (see "Rendezvous with the future," Page 26).

3. Memory: The unsung performance booster

PC performance hinges on having adequate memory, but deciding how much is enough is always a crapshoot, especially for IT managers who try to squeeze three years or more of life from their systems. Vendors and distributors say 512M of RAM should be the minimum amount for current mainstream users.

For longevity, especially as more complex applications and operating systems come on the market, systems are comfortably served with 1G of RAM, said Greg Gibby, senior product manager for Dell's OptiPlex desktop PC line.

"If you want to deploy the system for the next three years, especially with Longhorn coming down the pike, 1G may be the best choice," he said. Longhorn is the code name for Microsoft's next major Windows release.

One gigabyte of RAM, which accounts for only about $100 to $200 of the total system price, means Microsoft Office users "can have their browser open, have Word up and running, and their applications aren't running like molasses," Berger said.

Users who often perform large calculations or work with large graphics files should consider 2G to 3G of RAM, Fleming said.

Choosing the right memory is another consideration. Most PC vendors offer double data rate (DDR) 1 or 2 technology, two higher-performing alternatives to the older SDRAM varieties. DDR2, the more recent version, provides a minimal speed advantage over its predecessor, but experts prefer it because it's newer and thus offers a hedge against obsolescence.

4. Displays: Screen gems

Although CPUs usually get the most attention from PC buyers, a more important component for positive user experiences is the display. "It's very hard for users to see the difference in speeds between similar CPUs, but I guarantee that if you stick a 15-inch and a 19-inch monitor in front of most people, their preference will be pretty clear," Berger said.

Bigger displays mean less eyestrain, better readability and easier navigation among windows — all of which can boost productivity. The good news is that the prices for sharp displays, a market now dominated by sleek LCDs, are economical, thanks to adequate panel supplies.

Falling prices mean PC buyers can increase their display real estate. The earliest 15-inch LCDs have largely given way to 17- and 19-inch models. Seventeen-inch models sell for about $250 to $350, Richards said. Forward-thinking chief information officers should keep close tabs on prices for 19-inch displays, which could fall about $100 in the next year from their current range of $350 to $450, he added.

But don't just shop size. LCDs should also deliver performance. Compare resolution capabilities and dot-pitch ratios. Most users require displays that run at resolutions of 1,024 x 768 pixels, but for some extra headroom, opt for models that can comfortably handle the next step up: 1,280 x 1,040 pixels. And because dead pixels are a fact of life in panel manufacturing, assume that not every display in a large-volume purchase will be perfect. Consider each vendor's warranty, support and maintenance offerings carefully.

"XYZ company may offer a good price, but it's nicer to deal with a well-established manufacturer if there's a problem," Berger said. "Especially since the incremental cost differences among vendors is relatively small."

5.Storage: Right-size it

If the CPU mantra was speed, hard-drive purchases traditionally had their own truism: Bigger is better. As agencies see an explosion in the volume of data they create and software developers write ballooning programs, storage devices quickly fill to their limits.

The once voluminous 20G hard drive has little chance of functioning over the three-plus-year refresh cycles that PC buyers covet. Accordingly, hard drives for today's mainstream users should range from 40G to 60G. Fleming said the relatively new Serial Advanced Technology Attachment drives are faster than their parallel ATA cousins or IDE drives.

Serial ATA drives currently deliver data transfer rates of 150 megabits/sec; however, by fall, Serial ATA 2 drives will double transfer rates. The second-generation units will also come with enhanced security features, including a boot-up prompt that requires users to enter a password before they can access hard-drive data, Gibby said.

But to show that hard and fast rules don't always apply to storage gear, two PC experts offer exceptions to the capacity guideline. Gibby advocates equipping some users with 80G drives — not for the added capacity but for increased performance. The data burst cache in the larger drives, which reduces idle processor time, can mean a 20 percent improvement in overall performance, an important consideration for applications that frequently access data stored on the hard drive, he said.

Alternatively, public-sector CIOs should consider keeping desktop storage capacities low — at about 40G — to hold applications and store minimal data locally, while relying on centralized network-attached storage servers or storage-area networks for the bulk of the organization's storage capacity.

"I strongly disagree with organizations that give users huge hard drives and let them fill up the devices," Berger said. "You're just asking for failures." Centralized storage arrays allow administrators to add to and allocate capacity as individual or departmental needs change. Networked storage also makes it easier to initiate backup and recovery strategies, compared with keeping large amounts of data on individual desktop computers, he added.

6. Graphics: Basic needs are covered

Because chipsets integrate high-performance graphics chips directly onto PC motherboards, buyers don't have to sweat this part of the bundle for mainstream users. Chipsets such as Intel's 915 and 945 devices provide integrated graphics systems that are sufficient for most business users, PC sellers say.

Graphics renderings for CAD applications or scientific programs that plot geographic information system points, however, will need a discrete graphics system — a dedicated graphics processor and memory that reside on a board that plugs into an available motherboard expansion slot. Graphics boards with chips from manufacturers such as nVidia and ATI Technologies that have 128M to 256M of graphics memory sell for $150 to $250. Other buyers who should consider an add-in graphics board with at least 128M of memory include those planning to take advantage of the expected high-end graphics capabilities of Microsoft's forthcoming Longhorn release, Gibby said.

7. Ports: More connections, less hassle

Because of the need for USB connections to link peripheral devices and PCs, systems should come with no fewer than four USB ports. "Government users are starting to run into issues with machines that have only two USB ports," Berger said, adding that USB-connected card readers and biometric security devices are becoming common.

Richards said one answer to the USB port crunch is keyboards that offer open USB inputs on the back or sides. "This makes it easy to plug in a USB stick or other device without having to crawl under the desk to get at the main PC box," he said.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

Smart Shopper Tip

The value of stability

Many vendors offer stable image programs that guarantee that a desktop computer's core components will not change during the period that the model is sold. Such changes, which are common, can wreak havoc with system maintenance efforts. A stable image, on the other hand, can save 15 percent or more in annual maintenance costs during the life of the system.

Memory often trumps speed

The latest processors provide the fastest speeds, but their prices are steep. Users who primarily run business applications can comfortably use 3.4 GHz or 3.6 GHz processors and never miss the significantly more expensive 3.8 GHz or 4 GHz chips. A more economical performance gain can come from packing more memory into the bundle: Installing 1G of RAM will boost efficiency by helping business applications load faster, while accounting for only a fraction of the total system price.

Break the bundle

Consider buying monitors separately when specifying desktop computer configurations. Today's sharp-looking LCD displays typically last longer than the rest of the system, and falling prices could soon open up the opportunity to buy 19-inch screens at today's 17-inch prices.

Think ahead

Choose CPU, memory and storage models that are new enough to be supported for at least the next 18 months. Early replacements add to maintenance costs and generate support headaches in organizations that run multiple generations of technology components.

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