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Choosing your new computer

Choosing a PC

What's important when ordering/buying my new computer ?

There are many things to consider when ordering a new PC. If it's going to be your main** computer, it has to be a desktop or (better) a 'tower' type with lots of room for hard disks (since, ideally, you want to start with least 3 identical hard drives) and enough memory for your chosen Operating System.

**A Laptop or Tablet is not a 'main computer', even if a Laptop/Tablet is what you use most of the time. As we will see later, laptops and tablets are essentially disposable devices that will, eventually, break down loosing everything they contain.

Unless you want a computer to play GAMES on (in which case you should be buying an XBox or a Wii), one thing you REALLY DON'T need to worry about these days is Graphics capability or CPU speed

How many cores ?

Some software - such as graphics and video processing software - can make real use of multiple cores (although more advanced software uses your Graphics Card GPU instead), in most cases multiple cores just means you can 'have more things running at the same time'.

So, whilst multi-core CPU's are 'better' (and every new computer comes with a multi-core CPU these days) you are not going to see much difference between a 2, 4, 6 or 8 core - where-as the difference between a 1.8GHz and 3.8GHz CPU (or 4Gb and 8Gb of RAM) is really noticeable.
My recommendation would be 'go for the fastest speed' rather than 'go for the most cores'.

CPU cache

The problem is, that when it comes to actually running software, RAM access speeds can't keep up with CPU speeds - so 'the more CPU cache the better'.

Of course if you are processing image data, the cache won't help much (all that data has to be fetched from hard disk and/or RAM), so the '4 way interleaved' (Quad Channel) CPU's are your best choice (which means you must have 4 sticks of DDR3 RAM, or 2 sticks of dual-channel DDR4, see later)


This was once the preserve of the 'extreme gamer', however Intel now sell 'unlocked' chips and even Dell offer PC's with liquid cooling and overclocked CPU's.

'Turbo boosting' has now entered the mainstream. However you should focus on the 'base' frequency of the chip.   Turbo boost is all very well, but when it does 'kick in' the CPU heat dissipation leaps up and your cooling fan will switch from 'idle' mode to 'jet engine' mode :-)

Audio support

When it comes to decent sound output, older PC's would drive a set of directly connected 5.1 / 7.1 surround sound speakers. However more and more 'consumer' PC's have HDMI 'built in' to the motherboard and these lack the direct connection sockets (the idea being that you 'pipe' your 5.1 to your HDMI connected 'Home Cinema' system instead of using a set of directly connected PC speakers)

Note that HDMI motherboard output depends on the CPU chip - the Xeon, i3 and older i5/i7 CPU's don't generate HDMI (aka 'Intel HD 530'), you need current generation i5/i7), so the motherboard socket will be 'mute'.
Fortunately, even the cheap Graphics cards come with HDMI output, which will support 'surround sound' output (although you may have to search for how to 'enable' AC3 'pass through mode' if you want your Home Cinema system to drive your speakers).
For older Home Cinema systems, getting AC3 out of your PC via S/PDIF will put you into direct conflict with the Music Industry and their 'DRM' restrictions, although if your motherboard supports S/PDIF (many 'gaming' PC's do, even if no socket is present on the backplate) and you dig around enough, it's usually possible to find a driver. Even some Laptops support S/PDIF (see below for Dell)

(+) Dell Laptop spdif output

What Operating System ?

These days it's likely your choice will be limited to various 64bit 'versions' of Windows 10 (or 8/8.1 'core', 'Pro', 'Enterprise' = see Wikipedia for a list of Win8 features) all of which appear to be aimed at touch screens and tablets. Microsoft claims to have made more of an effort to ensure Windows is 'more secure' at 'first release' than previous, so (you might hope) it will have fewer 'Security updates'

Yeah right. Within a year of Windows 8.0 ship, a 1Gb 'upgrade' to 8.1 was released. So I (and many others) feel that the Windows 8 focus on increased support for 'on-line services' has actually degraded security (and 10 is likely no different), which makes it doubly annoying when you are 'expected' to create an on-line 'Microsoft Account' when 'logging in' for the first time

Only if you go to the 'Business' section of the Dell site or the 'computer store' will you find a computer with Windows 7, the direct descendant of my favourite Operating System, Windows XP

Windows XP is no longer supported - however the advantage of over 12 years of bug fixes means it's still running on many machines (including my own). When I last checked, Windows Windows XP is still running on about 1/4 of the worlds computers.
However for some time now a new 'full retail' XP license has been both expensive and hard to find (even on eBay). Fortunately, installing XP on a motherboard from any major OEM (Dell HP etc) does not require a retail licence, only the more common OEM Licence (see my Other Projects section, 'Old PC upgrade (Dell 3100 migration)' topic)

If you want to show off how much money you have, by all means buy a PC from Apple that comes with a 'Macintosh' Operating System (it's well known that a Macintosh is a 'must have' accessory for all "flashers" :-) )

How much RAM memory do I need ?

Even a low end 'starter' PC will come with 4Gb, and 8Gb is 'more than enough' for current versions of Windows. However, if you intend to process photos or video, to maximise speed you will want to use a RAM Disk for your data, so your goal will be to fit as much RAM as affordable.

Unfortunately, whilst many sellers and manufacturers (including Dell) allow you to purchase extra RAM with your new PC, they typically charge double the going rate.
Worse, just like the old days (when XP systems were common), many motherboards have only 2 RAM slots - and if your new PC comes with all the slots filled with low capacity chips, you will have to throw them away when upgrading.
So always check how many Memory (DIMM) slots the motherboard has, and how many are filled on first purchase. If you have 4 slots, (and only 2 are filled on first purchase) you have scope to upgrade at 'half the price'.
NB Watch out for the 'L' designation (as in 'DDR3L') - this means 'low profile' and is becoming common on tiny 'small form factor' desktop boxes. Since such units have no room for extra drives they are no better than laptops (indeed, many have external 'power-blocks', just like a laptop)

With the advent of the Quad Channel i7 CPU's, RAM is moving to dual channel DDR4. As a 'rule of thumb', '4 slots of DDR3 = 2 slots of DDR4'

If you can find one, opt for a 4 slot motherboard (the latest generation Core i7 CPU's (4820K, 4930K, 4960X), have support for Quad Channel DDR3 built-in) whilst the current i3 / i5 (and i7 4790) only support dual channel)
Even then, you still need to check the configuration of RAM supplied. Whilst your chosen 4 slot system may come with eg. 8Gb RAM 'as standard' do NOT assume that this will consist of 2 x 4Gb (or 1 x 8Gb) 'sticks' - more likely you will discover (after delivery) that all 4 slots are filled with cheap 2Gb sticks (especially if you opted for a 6th gen. i7)
Many vendors offer 'minimal' RAM systems at a very competitive prices in order to 'tempt you into the store'. The salesman will then 'encourage' you to buy 'extra' RAM by 'selling you up' (i.e. 'revealing' that the "Microsoft recommended RAM isn't really enough for 'power users'" (and, of course, everyone likes to think they are a 'power user')). Without doubt they will charge outrageous prices (just as some well known high street stores charge £10-£15 for a 99p USB cable (which can be found in other well known high street stores) to connect their 'cheap' printer to your computer).

RAM prices are very competitive and, so long as you get the right 'type' (eg DDR3) RAM is fully compatible across all motherboards - if you encounter a vendor that suggests otherwise, walk out immediately = at best they don't know what they are talking about, at worst they are trying to rip you off by selling you a PC that requires 'non-standard' RAM (eg 'Server ECC' RAM) and will be expensive (or even impossible) to upgrade later (the older non-PC hardware based Apple Mac's came into this category)

That's not to say you can't take advantage of the 'entry level' cheap low-end system with minimal RAM, just so long as you upgrade it yourself :-)

32bit or 64bit Windows ?

64bit, of course. All current Windows systems are 64bit. For more on this (and the 32bit application limit) click the link below

(+) 32bit software limit

What about 'bundle' or 'included' software ?

Whilst it would be nice to have a fully licenced MS Office package 'thrown in' for free, what you will get instead is a pile of 'trial-ware' that's worth a lot LESS than what you pay for it (i.e. less than nothing :-) )

Modern computers are typically delivered with all sorts of 'pre-installed' garbage just waiting to 'launch' in 'auto-configuration' mode when you first turn on your new PC. This means that crap commercial 'free trials' will take over your PC as soon as you first turn it on, filling up your RAM with 'load at power on' components and loading your Internet connection with 'update checkers'.

So DON'T just power-up and let it run, because if you do, the only way to 'go back' and change your mind is via a 'Factory Restore'.

Always remember, 'free trials' modify your Registry in ways that cannot be easily undone (if you could 'undo' the changes, you could simply 'reinstall' to get multiple 'free trials' :-) ). Instead, on 'first boot', go into 'Safe Mode' and remove the 'crap traps' waiting to be sprung (see my Preventing software takeover section, later)

If you are lucky, your PC will come with a cut down version of MS Office called 'MS Works'. Often this is even a fully licensed version (rather than just another useless time limited trial). If you can't afford to buy MS Office (and don't want to download and install the free alternative, Open Office), 'MS Works' is worth keeping.

Where's the Operating System and Drivers back-up 'media' for my new PC ?

Most manufacturers no longer ship the Operating System and Driver CD/DVD's with new PCs. Instead they point to the OS and Drivers installed on a hidden 'Factory Restore' partition of your hard drive. This is fine, EXCEPT for one thing ... the MOST LIKELY part of your PC that's going to fail is the hard disk ! .. and when it does, you will have lost the Operating System 'backup' (along with everything else)

Most modern computers come with a utility that allows you to generate your own 'Operating System Recovery media'. This may be a 'one time only' option (i.e. the utility might 'self destruct' after you 'burn' one DVD), although there is nothing to stop you manually copying the first :-).
If your computer has this option, you should create the 'recovery media' (DVD, USB stick) as soon as possible after configuring the computer the way you want it.
Needless to say, DVD+/-R media has a limited life (especially if you leave it out in the sunlight :-) ), so making a second copy and storing this away somewhere 'safe' is a good idea
Of course, many modern 'Recovery' partitions are much bigger than a single DVD. Rather than 'get clever' (and split the data across multiple DVD's) most manufacturers utilities will demand you use a USB memory stick instead (eg Dell Windows 8 PC's typically demand a 16Gb stick).

This is 'fine', except that USB sticks are more expensive (and easier to loose) than DVD's :-)

It's still worth checking to see if you can get the 'Operating System media' with the PC by paying extra for the discs (Dell typically charge £5, but it's only available for their 'small business' computers). If the sales staff assure you that 'the Operating System media is included' write the words "MS WINDOWS OPERATING SYSTEM PHYSICAL MEDIA DVD INCLUDED" on the Sales Receipt and get them to initial it = then, when you get it home and open the box to find no DVD, you can pressure the shop into supplying the missing media at no extra cost :-)

Those with Windows 7 can download a legal copy of the 'OEM compatible' version from Microsoft's 'distribution partner' Digital River (this was only guaranteed to March 2014, however as of Aug 2014 the links were still working)

WARNING: Never be tempted to download 'cracked' software from some 'torrent'. Any 'kracked' OS software will contain embedded Key Logger and Root Kit (Bot Net software designed to take over control of your PC) Trojans. Software 'kracks' are just another way for the enterprising 'phishing' criminal to gain 'ownership' of some moron's computer (so don't be 'some moron')

If you have Win 7, go to the Aug 2014 links page and download and burn Win7 with sp1 to DVD RIGHT NOW, before your PC hard drive fails and you loose everything

Can I buy the media disks after buying the computer ?

These days, no. The most you can expect is to be given a link to a web site where you might be able to find what you need & download it = not very helpful if your PC is 'bust' :-)

You may find vendors who (also) sell "Business PC's" are willing sell you a 'System Restore' disk later (i.e. after your hard disk has crashed), however this will at 'Corporate client' spare part cost (i.e. a proper rip-off price) and may take some weeks to be delivered. Many manufacturers also make money selling 'support service' contracts to the corporate world .. so you will discover that it's virtually impossible to obtain drivers for their 'enhanced' Hardware designs = Compaq 'led the way' in 'customising' Windows in various non-standard ways and then charging an arm & a leg for 'support', and all these money making tricks were purchased by HP (which is why you should never, ever be tempted to buy an old Compaq / HP 'Server' on eBay, except for 'spare parts' ..)

Needless to say, high street shops will be rather less accommodating - few of their sales staff will even know if the system disks are 'in the box' when you buy and even fewer will know if they are available later (most likely they are not - Dixons does not make money by stocking parts for computers they sold last year, let alone one they sold 4 or 5 years ago - instead it's all 'sub-contracted out' to some rip-off 'support' organisation).

It is to be noted that eBay is full of vendors selling '(XP) System Recovery' CD/DVD's. These ALL contain some version of a bootable LINUX system, designed to 'recover' a 'crashed' system (i.e. a 'corrupted', but still 'file system intact', hard drive) and DO NOT contain a 'pirate copy' (or indeed, any copy) of Microsoft Windows XP (in other words, they are totally useless if your hard drive is actually 'dead' i.e. not even 'seen' by the BIOS)

Yes, many sellers prominently display 'Windows XP 32bit System Disk' etc. in their 'title' - but read on into the 'small print' before getting ripped off (any that are selling 'real' (i.e. pirate) copies of Windows XP will be quickly shut down by the eBay authorities)

Very occasionally you will find a genuine copy of a manufacturers 'OEM' Windows XP System CD/DVD for sale. Note that the OEM XP System CD's are SPECIFIC to the Manufacturer (don't expect a Dell OEM XP CD to load Windows onto a HP or Gateway PC - or vise-versa (at least not without a lot of mucking around with the 'OEM.bin' files)

Be aware that the last version of XP Pro is 'sp3' (Service Pack 3 - although an unofficial 'sp4' does exist, containing sp3 with a 'roll up' of all MS updates to the 'end of support') and that your XP Operating System Disk should thus have sp3 'built in'. Be warned that the older 'pre-sp3' XP Pro CD's (which you might find on eBay) may not even be 'bootable' !

If you end up with a valid but non-bootable System CD, you might want to think about creating a bootable system CD (with sp3 'slipstreamed'** or in a separate folder) now (before your PC stops booting from the hard disk).

**Essentially, you copy the contents of your Windows System Disk to a temp folder (eg XP_inst), download the 'Network Install' version of sp3 from the MS web site, put it in a separate folder (eg sp3) and then, from a command prompt, 'run' the Service Pack with the command :-

c:\sp3\WindowsXP-KB936929-SP3-x86-ENU.exe /integrate:c:\XP_inst

Once you have updated the standard system, it is easy to make bootable CD's / DVD's using ImgBurn. All you need to do is extract the 'Boot Sector' w2ksect.bin from an existing bootable CD (or you can download wxp10.zip which contains both the boot sector and the CD/DVD 'ID' files that the Windows installer will look for) and place it somewhere (eg C:) for ImgBurn to find. ImgBurn control parameters (from .ibb project file) are as follows :-


What else do I need when buying my new PC ?

All the 'included' application software License Keys, of course. If you are lucky, and have managed to get some real software included with your PC (rather than the usual useless 'trialware'), you should receive the media disks and the Licence Key 'certificates'. Of course these days, most software will come pre-installed, so you will need to 'extract' the keys after boot (and before the hard drive fails).

How do I discover my Licence Keys ?

Your Windows Licence Key should be found on a 'sticker' on the back of the computer. Other licence keys may be more difficult to find, however utilities exist (such as the Magic Jelly Bean Keyfinder or CD Key Reader ) that will allow you to recover all the Licence Keys installed on your computer.

One problems with the many 'on-line' Licencing systems is that 'Licence Keys' have become 'use once' i.e. after 'registering' your PC you may discover later that the 'on-line' system refuses to let you re-register after a hard-disk or motherboard replacement. Worse, some vendors (eg Adobe) are actually 'switching off' the 'Licence Servers' for their older products (although, at least in the case of Adobe Photoshop CS2 they have made PhotoShop CS2 available for download to customers and even provide a 'generic' Licence code for Windows (Serial number: 1045-1412-5685-1654-6343-1431) that does no need to be 'registered')

How do I protect my desktop system against a disk failure ?

Sooner or later any hard disk is going to fail. This is guaranteed = a good hard disk guarantee is 5 years, so you can expect it to fail one day after 5 years :-)

It should be noted that many of todays hard disk vendors only guarantee them for 3 years - and on some models only 2 years (so draw you own conclusions)

To reduce the chances of loosing your system and all your installed software, you should ALWAYS configure your desktop PC with two or, better, 3, identical disk drives and use a RAID-1 (MIRROR) configuration for your system (C:) disk

Modern** laptops, of course, have no room inside for a second drive, let alone a 3rd. So when your laptop hard disk fails, that's it, the system is gone and so has all your data (unless you remembered to back it up). Even if you replace the hard drive, you can only get your system back to when you last remembered to do a 'drive copy' ('clone' or 'ghost') style back-up. This makes a laptop computer (and the data on it) effectively 'disposable'
** As with all things, that's not entirely true = older laptops typically came with a 'removable' DVD drive - mounted in a 'standard' laptop DVD 'caddy' - and it is possible to replace the DVD caddy with one containing a hard drive (look on eBay for 'DVD hard drive caddy'). If the DVD drive is a SATA type, it would then be possible to configure your laptop in RAID mirror mode (at the cost of rather shorter battery life)

How do I get the extra hard drives I need for RAID ?

Many on-line vendors will add a pair** of extra hard drives for a price similar to what it would cost to buy and fit them yourself (especially after adding in the cost of the drive mounting 'rails' and the extra data & power cables needed, even from eBay) although you may have to choose a 'Small Business' configuration to get the 'add an extra disk' option (eg Dell).

Other vendors (e.g. HP and all the high street stores, such as PC World etc) see 'extras' as a way of making massive profits - even to the extent of offering systems with inadequate RAM and low capacity hard drives, at a 'loss leader' price, in the expectation that you can be 'sold up' to a mega-expensive 'reasonable' sized drive and extra RAM. So check the 'upgrade' prices very carefully before ordering any.

** why add a pair ? Well you need 2 drives for your RAID MIRROR operating system (C:) and a separate (D:) drive for your data / backups. Having an identical 3rd drive is also very useful in an emergency (such as when you discover your remaining RAID disk won't actually boot 'on it's own' after the first fails), especially if you copy the hidden Operating System Restore partition onto that drive (and make it bootable as well).

What are my RAID options ?

AVOID any but 'standard Microsoft RAID-1 Mirror'. All those fancy 'add in RAID 5' etc. cards supporting 3+ drives might seem like a 'good idea', however they all have their own unique way of handling the data. Further, few (if any) have a fully tested 'Data rebuild/restore' function = so when one drive fails, and you plug in a replacement, most will only offer to wipe everything !

Worse, chances are that the 'drive set' they have created will ONLY work with that card (so too bad if it's the card that's failed), which means you can't even take the remaining 'good' drives and rebuild the RAID using Windows software (unlike RAID-1 Mirror drive, where changing a single byte on a surviving drive allows Windows to access it a 'single' (non-RAID) disk)

Your 'system disk' should always be a RAID-1 Mirror, which requires 2 drives configured to hold identical data. All MS Operating Systems incorporate a software RAID-1 Mirror function, although you will have to 'enable' it yourself on XP Pro.

Some motherboards come with RAID-1 Mirror capability 'built in'. The problem with this is that you can discover that ONLY that EXACT model of motherboard can 'read' the drives - not much good when the motherboard 'blows' or you want to move the drives to a new system (after upgrading)

In the 'old days', software RAID would slow your system, however today's CPU's are so fast that there is essentially no performance differences between hardware based and software 'emulated' RAID-1 Mirror.

Software RAID does require more configuration work, especially as some XP Pro system files have to be 'hand-modified' to enable RAID support. However it has MASSIVE advantage that you can 'move' the drives to another motherboard and (after sorting out any Microsoft Licence problems), they will 'boot' back into Windows

Those who wish to avoid the configuration and have a motherboard with built-in Hardware RAID support can use that instead. However the disadvantage is that if the motherboard fails, you have to replace it with an 'identical' type or your drives may be totally inaccessible. PCI RAID cards add cost (and often come with the same disadvantage, i.e a refusal to 'work' when moved to another PC/motherboard).

How do I configure my system for Hardware RAID operation ?

If you don't want to modify your system files to use software RAID, and your Motherboard has Intel's 865 or 875 chip-set, you have built-in Hardware support for RAID-1. If not, you can purchase a dedicated RAID plug-in (PCI) card.

Most vendors regard RAID as a 'server level' function - so will typically try to charge you an arm & a leg for a separate PCI RAID card. A basic '2 port' (i.e. supporting 2 disks for MIRROR operation) card should cost you no more than £20 (I found the best deal at eBuyer, however if you are also buying hard drives at the same time (a good idea if you want to avoid compatibility problems) you should always check 'bundle' prices with at least 2 vendors before buying).

Be aware that hard drives come in different sizes and 'speed' ratings (SATA-III or 6gbs being the latest). The cheaper RAID cards won't actually support the 'latest and greatest' drives, however, since drives are capable of 'falling back' to the previous speed (and a drive of capacity >2.2Tb can (usually) be formatted to 2048Gb), vendors selling older RAID cards supporting the previous speeds (eg 3gbs (SATA-II)) can 'claim' that they 'support SATA-III drives' (or 'supports 3Tb drives'). Whilst this may be 'true' it is misleading - the drives will 'fall back' (and run at 3gbs not 6gbs) and only the first 2048Gb of a 3Tb will be usable.

For more on drive capacity limits, see my Data Preservation topic, Using drives over 2Tb with Windows XP page

If you are ordering your system with Hardware RAID, some vendors (eg Dell) will pre-configure 2 drives as a RAID MIRROR for you. However that will always cost you extra, and you really should learn how to configure your computer RAID yourself, especially as you will be on your own when a drive fails later - so you should learn now, when mistakes are not going to cost you 5 years worth of irreplaceable photos / music / video files !

To configure a Hardware RAID system, all you have to do is enter the RAID BIOS at power-on and instruct it to setup the RAID. Even so, I highly recommend making a 'drive image' file copy of C: BEFORE using the RAID BIOS (just in case you manage to mix up the 'source' and 'destination' and wipe out your original C:).

For details on how to configure software RAID-1 for a new PC, see my "Next >>" page

Dual Monitors

Many 'dual monitor' capable Graphics cards (eg GT 610) are equipped with VGA, HDMI and DVI sockets. Whilst you might think that HDMI and DVI are 'interchangeable' they are not - the 610 (for example) limits HDMI to a maximum of 1920 x 1200, whilst DVI goes to 2560 x 1600 (and VGA to 2048 x 1536). What this means for dual monitors, is that IF you use the HDMI socket for one monitor, your maximum 'height' FOR BOTH will be limited to 1200 (i.e. the HDMI limit)

Dual Task Bar

It's very annoying to find the task bar stretched right across both monitors - plainly what the 'average' user would expect is for each monitor to have it's own Task Bar (and each Task Bar to show only the windows open on that monitor). Especially annoying is the way the System Tray is thrown to the far right .. whilst the Start button is on the far left ...

Of course if you are using a NVIDIA graphics card on Windows 7 (or 8), chances are you already discovered the nView Desktop Management Software - however that's not going to help us Windows XP users

Open Source choices for XP users are Dual Monitor Taskbar (DualMonitor 1.22 Setup.exe) and Zbar. The free version of MultiMon TaskBar (Free v2.1) will also 'do the job'. If none of these suit you, by all means pay through the nose for some 'clever' commercial 'package' that comes with lots of additional pointless utilities to 'bulk out' the Task Bar function

The pages in this topic are :-

  + RAID setup - (new PC) == Latest changes (modified 27th Jul 2016 03:18.)

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