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Hardware Confusion

[Page 3] Choosing the Right Components

I guess the big question on most people's lips is "How do I choose the right components for my machine?" Sure, it's simple to choose the very best if you're loaded with cash and a real tech-head. But how does the average person go about choosing the right stuff. The trick is to balance getting the best possible components while keeping prices sane, while at the same time keeping in mind that there's no point upgrading if your new system performs only slightly better than your existing one - we want the best 'bang for the buck', and we want it to last a while otherwise we have to go through the same upgrade cycle all over again in 6 months' time. Lastly, that all-important word 'bottleneck' keeps popping up...what exactly is a bottleneck and how do we avoid them?

In my case, both for my old and new systems I made the decision that future-proofing and reliability were my main considerations, then came gaming performance, and finally although cost was a consideration, I decided that I was willing to pay extra to get all of the above. The basic rules I held in the back of my mind when shopping for parts were:

Do lots of research

Yes, I know research is a dirty word for most people. It's tedious, you often find contradictory reviews of the same hardware, and worst of all many reviews are just full of hype (or inaccurate results) instead of actual facts. However there is no way around it - you need to do your research. I personally rely on reviews from reputable sites like: AnandTech, HardOCP, Tom's Hardware, Guru3D and X-Bit Labs - just to name a few. Generally speaking I do a Google search on a product and then read as many reviews as possible - even the bad ones. The underlying trend soon comes out.

I then combine this with plenty of searching around on the forums of these sites, and any other tech forums I'm a member of or familiar with, to see the general user feedback/thoughts on various products. Often I'll find that a particular user has had significant problems with a product, none of which is ever mentioned in a review. If anything, even if the problems are the user's own fault, it gives me an insight into the sorts of things I need to be prepared for when I first go to use the same components (i.e. which BIOS/Driver version to use, any quirks or oddities I need to keep an eye out for, etc.).

As for the issue of bias in reviews, just remember, all big review sites receive free samples and/or sponsorship from hardware companies. Hence they are all biased in one way or another. They have a major incentive not to completely rubbish a product, even if it's bad. A tech site would be cutting its own throat if it didn't maintain a good relationship with several hardware manufacturers - how else do you think they get early samples of products before they're released into the retail market? You need to read between the lines and compare several reviews, combined with any user opinion posted on various forums around the net. Don't ever rely on one single review or a single site, whether good or bad.

Try to buy reputable brands

Components with established brand histories, combined with appropriate research of the brand on the Internet is really the only way you'll know if the parts you buy will be reliable and if anything stops working whether the company will support you properly. Sometimes you pay extra for a reputable brand, but if you want something to last more than a few months it's cheap insurance to pay extra for it. Once again research is the key - don't listen to a few peoples' advice about a brand, they may be speaking from bad experience years ago, not the recent performance of a brand. Good companies can turn bad, and bad companies can eventually come good.

Don't have a rigid budget

I know people say "make sure you don't spend a cent more than you want", but in this case I recommend the exact opposite. Obviously you need a ballpark figure to work with as to what you can afford, but if necessary stretch that extra few hundred dollars if need be - it is truly false economy to buy cheap and/or outdated and/or poor-performing parts because within a few months you either have to pay to replace them when they fail, or they just won't cut the mustard as new games come out. The classic example is cheap video cards - anything with MX/LE/SE on the end of it is just worthless for gaming. Buy one and you'll soon find you have to replace it when the next big game comes out and your card doesn't work with it.

For the same reason, I also urge caution when buying second hand PC gear. Unlike mechanical equipment, electronic equipment often does not show signs of wear and tear or overclocking, and that shiny second-hand CPU you bought may konk out in a months' time because the previous owner had run it with a massive overclock and overvolt. Overclocking does reduce the lifespan of a component - that is fact. If you decide to buy second hand, make sure it is from a reputable seller, and try to avoid buying from someone who you know would have flogged their components, no matter how hard they try to convince you that the parts were cooled properly or that all due care was taken. Once again, this kind of purchase is false economy, because manufacturers' warranty doesn't cover overclock-related damage, so if the part dies you lose all your money.

Decide what old parts you can keep, and what you shouldn't keep

There are times when you can save a fair bit of money by holding on to old components and upgrading others. At other times however it is worth realising that you've had several years of faithful service from your existing component(s), and trying to stretch it out further may result in bottlenecks in your new system, or failed components down the track. I personally try to keep all the components around the same age for these reasons. Obviously durable mechanical components like cases, fans, keyboards and mice are OK to keep if they're in good condition.

In my case, as I mentioned earlier, I value stability and reliability above everything else. My component choices therefore were based firmly on reliable brands which had no known compatibility issues, with performance a close second consideration. Also, the fact that I was quite lucky in having a fairly future-proof system before meant that I wanted to repeat that successful choice in my latest upgrade, and buy something which would remain competitive over the next couple of years.

On the next page is a component-by-component breakdown of my choices for my new system and some general tips about these types of components.

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