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Hardware Confusion 2009

[Page 9] My Choices (Pt.6)


My Choice: Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 7000

When it came to getting a keyboard and mouse, I had a mild dilemma. Gaming is one of the major uses to which I will be putting this new system, yet I also write lengthy documents like the 160,000-word TweakGuides Tweaking Companion. This meant finding a compromise between a dedicated 'gaming' keyboard and mouse, and an ergonomically sound combo. There's also the added complication that I want something that ideally will match my case and monitor choice, and could be considered elegant and mature. Gaming keyboards and mice might look great if you want to recreate the set of Battlestar Galactica on your desktop, but all those bright lights, garish artwork, unnecessary LCD screens and sixteen different mouse buttons really are superfluous and look tacky in my opinion. Sorry, but I'm not enough of a 'hardcore gamer' to go to such extremes.

After reading a range of reviews, and tossing up between various models, I decided upon the Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 7000. It wasn't a hard choice quite frankly because I've always had good experiences with Microsoft keyboards and mice, contrary to popular opinion. Plus I really like the way it looks; it seems to nail exactly what I'm after in terms of the overall look for my system. The reviews I read noted for the most part that it was a pleasurable keyboard to use, but the mouse may not suit everyone. However one reviewer did note that the 1000dpi mouse was quite good for gaming. I decided to take a shot in the dark and buy it online without first trying it out, although ideally if you have the opportunity, you should sample a few different keyboard and mice in person before choosing.

As I suspected however, it's a great setup. The keyboard looks very nice in the flesh, and does the job in terms of appearing stylish and elegant without being over the top. Typing on it feels extremely comfortable, the keys are soft but have enough travel in them not to feel flat like a laptop keyboard, so they're fine for both typing and gaming. I'm also used to the slightly curved layout as my previous Microsoft keyboard had an identical curve to it, but for those worried about how this will affect their usage of a 'regular' straight-layout keyboard, and vice versa, it shouldn't be a major issue. I'm able to switch back and forth between this curved layout and a straight one quite easily without noticeably affecting my typing speed, though initially it will take a few days to get used to the curved layout if you've never used it.

The mouse also looks good in my opinion, but is a bit more tricky to use, because although it's definitely ergonomic, it can also feel oddly sensitive at times. A bigger issue is that the middle mouse button can initially be hard to click, since it's narrower than some people might be used to. The mouse wheel also doesn't have defined notches, which some people may find will make it harder to judge scroll distances, though I personally haven't experienced any problems in this regard because it still has enough resistance to be able to control scrolling quite well. So overall the mouse is quite good as well in my opinion, even in gaming.

The thumb-drive sized wireless USB receiver is a welcome evolution of the old long-wired transmitter that Microsoft keyboard and mice have long had. I've plugged it into the back of the PC with no issues, despite an aluminum case and metal and glass desk between it and the keyboard and mouse. The transmitter is pretty much just plug-and-play, it dynamically adjusts its frequency to prevent major interference. The good news is that so far, after over three weeks of usage, with no exaggeration I've had literally only a couple incidences where the keyboard has missed or duplicated a keystroke due to transmission issues. It feels as robust as any wired keyboard I've used, even during gaming.

There are some strange things to note about this keyboard and mouse. The keyboard runs on two standard AA batteries (which are included), while the mouse actually uses a single AAA rechargeable NiMH battery (again also included) - it seems odd that only one component of the combo is rechargeable. Furthermore, the package has a total lack of instructions on how the recharging light works. It should be intuitive, but in my case it wasn't: there's a small light on top of the mouse which is normally off during everyday usage, but turns red when the battery is running low. When you put the mouse on its recharging cradle, the light will start to pulse green, meaning it's recharging properly. When the light turns a solid green, the mouse is fully recharged, but if the light flashes red, there's a problem. In my case the confusion was caused by the fact that every time I went to recharge the mouse, even when it had indicated it was completely drained, it would briefly pulse green or solid green before suddenly flashing red for no apparent reason, no matter how well the mouse was (re)seated in its cradle. It turns out the battery was faulty, because replacing it with a new one of the same type now means it recharges properly. A full charge takes up to 7 hours by the way, and this should last anywhere from one to two weeks or more depending on usage - for me it's about a week and a half of heavy usage between charges. Note that even towards the end of its charge, the mouse doesn't become noticeably sluggish or error-prone, so it won't suddenly die on you without any warning.

Finally, as an added bonus, all of the major hotkeys on the keyboard work without the need for any additional software. I absolutely loathe installing unnecessary drivers on my system as this only adds to the number of system variables which can use resources and cause problems. I'm happy to say that the built-in Vista drivers are enough to ensure proper and full-featured operation for this keyboard and mouse. The hotkeys are actually quite useful - for example there are hotkeys allowing you to directly control any media player, with play/pause, fast forward, rewind, volume level and mute functions. A nice touch, and frankly one you'd expect from a Microsoft device used in combination with their latest OS.

I'm very happy with this keyboard and mouse combination. Whether typing long documents such as the one you're reading right now, or playing fast action games like Team Fortress 2, this setup has wound up being an excellent compromise. As a wireless device it's been almost perfect in terms of lacking any dropouts or weird connectivity issues. I can't necessarily say that it will suit everyone though. Everything from the feel of the mouse, the curved layout on the keyboard, to the slightly more soft-touch keys and even wireless functionality will require that you personally try it out first and test it under your own circumstances to decide for yourself.

Operating System

My Choice: Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit

My choice of operating system was pretty much made for me the moment I decided upon 6GB of RAM for this system. This is because there is absolutely no logic behind choosing a standard 32-bit OS when you opt for more than 4GB of RAM on your system, since a 32-bit OS cannot properly address more than 4GB of RAM. The difference between 32-bit and 64-bit is explained in this Microsoft Article. Furthermore, to properly support the latest hardware and features like AHCI, I can only recommend Windows Vista, not Windows XP. The Windows 7 Beta is another issue which I cover further below.

If I were performing my system upgrade a year ago, things would be very different. I would have deliberately stuck to purchasing 4GB as a maximum and chosen 32-bit Vista instead. This is because while 64-bit Windows Vista is superior to 32-bit Windows Vista, not only in terms of greater memory capabilities, but also through additional security features and potentially greater performance in native 64-bit applications, the support for 64-bit just wasn't as strong until recently. Drivers in particular need to be written specifically for 64-bit and be signed for security purposes, and this often means that manufacturers will not release 64-bit versions of their drivers as frequently. Within the past year in particular, the situation has changed quite a bit. Not only have the major manufacturers continued to improve their 64-bit driver releases, software developers are also jumping on board and releasing 64-bit versions of popular applications - or at least ensuring that there are no major compatibility issues with 64-bit. So the time was now ripe for me to switch over to 64-bit Vista, and as luck would have it, I have Windows Vista Ultimate - generously donated to me by a reader named Dylan Holmes back in 2007 - which is the only edition of Vista to come with both 32-bit and 64-bit installation DVDs. Unless you specifically purchase the 64-bit version of Vista, the other editions require you to order the 64-bit DVD from Microsoft, which can take time to receive.

Installation and initial setup was completely problem-free, which is always nice when installing brand new hardware. Of course I subsequently spent quite some time tweaking everything extensively using the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion. In terms of general usage, well really there's not much to say; 64-bit Vista is pretty much identical to 32-bit Vista in most every respect, the only noticeable change is that there's both a \Program Files directory and a \Program Files (x86) directory - the first is for native 64-bit programs, the second is for standard 32-bit programs. Not that it makes a huge difference as programs will run from either location if required, and almost any 32-bit program can run under 64-bit Vista without issues. The big plus is of course that with 6GB of RAM, Vista is even more responsive because it can cache a lot more of my common applications and relies less on Virtual Memory, making desktop usage and gaming incredibly smooth.

There will be those who wonder why I don't install Windows 7 64-bit Beta 1 instead, and Windows 7 in general is a contentious topic on which I don't want to enter into a lengthy debate about here. Suffice it to say that because stability is my number one concern with this build, I simply won't consider installing a beta version of Windows as my daily OS. I have a strong suspicion that Windows 7 is being put on a pedestal by people who have long labelled Vista a "failure" and who now want to suggest that this next OS is somehow completely different, hence allowing them to finally move off a badly ageing XP while also saving face. Windows 7 is not significantly different from Vista, and I have no burning desire to upgrade to Windows 7 until it's finalized. For those who still insist that Vista is somehow slow or problematic, I refer you to the Vista Annoyances Resolved article I wrote a few months back and will leave it at that.

When the final version of Windows 7 comes out, I'll make the transition to it as my daily OS, but I don't expect it to be released until late 2009, possibly around the holiday season. In the meanwhile I'll install Windows 7 Beta on my spare hard drive, and eventually commence writing the Windows 7 version of the TweakGuides Tweaking Companion. For now Vista 64-bit is doing a superb job and I honestly have not a single complaint.

Ok well there you have it, a detailed rundown of all my components. Well not really, I did omit a somewhat mundane component in the form of my Billion BiPac 5200 ADSL2+ Modem/Router, connected via Ethernet cable to the LAN port on my motherboard. It's very inexpensive and provides me with my maximum ADSL2+ speeds of 1.9MB/s download, and around 100KB/s upload. Took only minutes to set up, and so far after several weeks of usage it's been completely stable and hasn't disconnected or acted up in any way. With a single PC in the house, I have no need for Wi-Fi or anything more fancy.

Anyway that brings things to a close in terms of examining individual components. I would like to point out that I understand completely if some of you are scratching your heads regarding some of my decisions, or disagree with some of my conclusions, or think that I'm just making excuses to justify my own choices. As the old saying goes, you can't please everybody all of the time; my main aim was to please myself. In any case, you will notice that I deliberately cut back on spending money in a range of areas which I considered wasteful. For example I bought a 700W PSU instead of a 1000W PSU; I bought 1333MHz instead of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM; I bought a GTX 285 instead of an HD4870 X2 or GTX 295; I bought a DVD-RW instead of a BD-RW; I bought a VelociRaptor instead of an SSD; I used stock CPU cooling instead of an aftermarket cooler. In each instance, if I'd relied on other people for advice, I have no doubt that I'd have been urged to buy the "better" component in each case. I also would have received conflicting advice which would no doubt have confused me if I didn't know better. But through research and thought, the choices I've made have resulted in saving hundreds of dollars without any major practical impact on performance, and also a reduction in potential problems as well. I feel that I've achieved the goal of creating a balanced system which is rock solid, quiet, will last for quite a while, performs well, looks good and doesn't cost the earth.

I've tried to expose my thinking and research in this article so you can see for yourself that I didn't choose everything just based on a whim, and although you can see that I did have some brand preferences, it wasn't out of 'loyalty' to any brand or out of fanboyism, but because of quality and stability reasons borne out of research and experience. The end result is that I'm extremely happy with my system, it really does exceed my expectations, especially in terms of how fast and smoothly it performs in games, and yet how quiet it remains even under full load. I did everything on my own terms and based on my own research and thinking - and that's the key. It's quite easy to get caught up in the notion that it's all too hard, that the 'experts' will advise you on what's best for you, but it's not that simple. When it's not their money that's involved, people will recommend all sorts of things that are wrong for you and your needs. They will also allow their own brand biases and common misconceptions to influence the advice they provide. If you're ready to build a great PC, you must get your hands dirty by researching it yourself. It's a pain in the backside, but proper research not only lets you buy the right parts, it also allows you to learn more about them, which is invaluable when you're installing and eventually using those components on a daily basis.

In the next section I look at the finished system, provide an HD video demonstrating system performance during high-end gaming, and give some concluding thoughts regarding future tech developments.

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