End to end...
Some longtime observers on this scene have derived a
lot of amusement over the years from the ever-changing
definition of an “entry-level” system. Through some rapid aging
process hitherto unseen since the dawn of time, last month’s
high-end specs descend to the level of something suitable “for
the kids” in less time than it takes to load a Flash animation
on a broadband Internet connection.
For the kind of work most people actually DO on these machines,
today’s low-end computers are, not only adequate, but more than
adequate. As this is written (Summer 2002), the cheapest systems
out there sport 1+ GHz processors and 20+ GB hard drives.
The only people we know who could really USE more than that are
those who are seriously into gaming, video editing, or
production level graphic arts.
And, if you’re new to this, you’ll soon realize- newer faster
models don’t create instant obsolescence. A computer that does
what you need it to is in no way obsolete. Not until it can’t do
what you need it to.
Because of these plain and simple facts, the conclusion’s pretty
clear. For the vast majority of buyers, the value’s at the low
end. After all, it was “state of the art” just a few months ago.
Until they started shipping with XP.
When a bargain doesn't seem that way...
Here’s the thing about that brand new and disappointingly slow
computer that, despite its specs, doesn’t seem like such a
bargain. It’s got a double whammy working against it- progress
on the one hand, and marketing on the other.
progress. Besides what you see that’s different in XP, there’s a
deeper and more far-reaching change. It’s something called New
Technology File System, or NTFS.
Although there’s a
lot of controversy in the newsgroups over it, with some claiming
NTFS is faster, we’re inclined to believe our eyes. We’ve built
a few XP systems, some on the lowest imaginable configurations.
Our very own senses tell us that a computer formatted with FAT
32 is visibly faster than an equivalent one with NTFS.
Common sense will tell you that the heralded advantages of NTFS
(file and folder
permissions, encryption, disk quotas, and compression) have a
price, and that price is in the form of hardware requirements.
What common sense (and the marketeers) won’t tell you is this:
you don’t necessarily need a “better” computer. What you need is
one that’s properly equipped.
Microsoft, as usual, springs the bad news slowly. XP requires a
minimum of 64 MB RAM. Uh, huh. We’ve run it on 64 MB. FAT 32. As
Douglas Adams might have said, “almost, but not quite entirely,
Most new lower priced systems ship (Summer 2002) with 128 MB of
RAM. XP itself works okay with that, even on a $30 Via C-III
running at 550 MHz. So those 1.1 GHz models ought to fly,
except, they don’t.
That’s because Microsoft encourages manufacturers to ship all
new XP equipped computers with the NTFS data storage format. The
manufacturers oblige, in part because it helps them sell more of
the higher-end computers. Any consumer standing, credit card in
hand, in a computer showroom with a helpful clerk on hand, can
easily see the difference in performance.
Packaging, the marketeer’s best weapon in the never-ending
battle for your money.
We submit that, with the exception of those groups mentioned
up-page, most people can not see the difference in performance
between a 1 and a 2 GHz system, and fewer still would notice in
their day to day activities.
All else being equal.
And the big inequality here- the one that makes the difference
you can see- is not the headlined processor. It’s RAM.
RAM is not enough...
One hundred twenty eight megabytes of RAM is not enough to run
Windows XP on an NTFS installation. The lower priced computers
are, as shipped, crippled by the manufacturers.
cure is a simple one: add more RAM to your computer. You want at
least 256 MB. More if you can swing it. We’re seeing 128 MB 133
MHz RAM chips (for the kinds of systems we’re talking about,
that’s what you’re likeliest to need) at the lowest prices ever.
They’re one of the easiest items to install in a computer, and
deliver a lot of performance boost.
Used to be, you had to check your model’s specs- what kind of
RAM does it take, and how much can it handle? If you couldn't
find the info in the manual, you had to search the
manufacturer’s web site for some kind of clue.
At our preferred online source for RAM, the process is made
easy. Just select your computer manufacturer and model
from a drop-down list- the site will automatically select the
chips guaranteed to be compatible, and even tell you how much
RAM your system will accommodate.
few dollars more...
Once upon a time, messing with RAM required a soldering iron,
nerves of steel, and considering that 256 KB of ram was composed
of eight chips which together might cost $100, a certain degree
of fatalism. Now, you get 256 MB or more on a single module that
costs half the price for 1000 times the memory and literally
snaps into a socket on the mainboard.
Really. Turn off the power. Open up the case, locate the slot,
line up the chip (it’s keyed so it can’t go in wrong), and press
it into place. You may have to move an air duct or cable, but
that’s pretty much all there is to it. (If you can’t figure out
that you should replace anything you moved, put the cover on,
and reapply the power, never mind. What you have is fine for
AOL.) The only things to watch out for are static electricity
It may require a little pressure to seat the chip, but it never
requires force. If it seems too difficult, it may not be
properly aligned. Some RAM slots are designed for vertical
insertion, others for diagonal. Examine the chip already there
to see how yours works. Sometimes it helps to remove it. It will
go back in at the same angle it comes out. Whatever else you do,
don’t get impatient! That’s how you wind up breaking something.
Windows XP is comprised of a lot of code, and the more it has in
the way of elbowroom, the better. 256 MB is a realistic working
minimum, but for a few more dollars you can add that much,
bringing your total RAM to 384. We have 512 in our main system,
which was overkill in 98 and even 2K but feels comfortable here.
So, before you strip XP and install 98 on that new computer, try
adding more RAM to it instead. We've consistently
obtained both good prices and good results with RAM from:
Our favorite source for all
types of RAM (including Compact Flash, Smart Media, and
others) makes it easy and economical to get the RAM you need for
almost any application.