5 min read

In Quad-Core PCs, Processor Isn't The Whole Story

I feel like a recovering Dr. Phil guest: My admission that my "build a quad-core PC project" didn't go off without a hitch has resonated with readers who've inundated me with stories about hard-to-fit motherboards, missing drivers, and other tales of woe.
I feel like a recovering Dr. Phil guest: My admission that my "build a quad-core PC project" didn't go off without a hitch has resonated with readers who've inundated me with stories about hard-to-fit motherboards, missing drivers, and other tales of woe.Many of the comments gave a nod to the big eye-opener, which struck me during my project. That was the often-neglected importance of components apart from the processor.

Most important is the graphics card. Okay, maybe this gets a little bit of attention, though I'm betting that many folks buy based on price. (That's what I did; NVidia didn't respond to my request for a review unit.) But the hard drive, memory, and other stuff are pretty much left out in the cold.

Consultant Owen Stevens picked up on that point in his email to me:

"I would suggest a better brand name power supply in addition to the upgraded hard drive and video card. I suggest this because it has been my experience that the rated power on most generic power supplies is dubious at best. I just built a system for my best friend (it's his returning-from-Iraq present) and I used a Corsair VX450W. It was only around $80 and is a strong performer as tested. People tend to think that power supplies are a cheap component because they come free in a lot of cases. I have found that you get what you pay for. I've had a number of them smoke due to overloading, so it's a safety concern as well. It would be tragic to ruin an expensive CPU like your quad core with an inexpensive power supply."

Reader Henry Roberts caught my attention when he emailed me with the subject line " I liked your review and it resonates." Okay, so I was predisposed to view whatever he said as intelligent. He raised the interesting (and rather philosophical) question of just how much is enough--something I quite frankly haven't thought much about in my pursuit of dual-core PCs, and now a quad-core project. Writes Roberts:

"What I really wonder is what the hardware manufacturers are going to find for us to do that justifies the increased power they are selling? I have an AMD FX-60 CPU and a 7950 video card with 2 GB of Ram. What is out there that I am going to do that I will find myself lacking? In the business side, virtualization has justified the excessive hardware requirements, but there is little else to do so.

For 85% of users out there, Windows XP, a 2.0-GHz processor and 1-GB f RAM is more than enough. Microsoft is trying to ram down our throats increasing hardware requirements with Vista but so far the market is voting with their dollars. The first thing I and every admin I know do with a new machine is image it with XP."

Personally, I think requirements-creep is a valid issue for businesses. There's no reason to spend money on IT if there's no productivity benefit. There's a strong argument to be made that consumers benefit from the progression of features introduced in Windows 98, then XP, and now Vista. However, even if all things are equal, there's the automotive analogy: it's always nice to have the latest and greatest .

David Krings emailed me a litany of woes, which calls to mind the real problem with most published tech reviews (other than mine, of course). Namely, they present every project as smooth sailing. No stripped screws, curses muttered under the builder's breath, or components that crap out.

One fun exception is the story "$500 PC Building Challenge" in the October issue of Maximum PC. Unfortunately, it's not online yet--yes, I actually read it in print. The highlight is the guy who didn't have enough money left in his $500 budget to buy a case, so he put the PC together in a cardboard box.

Krings didn't stoop that low. Rather, his travails highlighted the fact that putting together any PC on your own isn't for the faint of heart. That's because, while many projects present trivial challenges, other will tax even experienced techies.

Krings battled the physical problems I've found to be almost universal. I'm talking about cramming the stuff into the case, not an infirmity on the builder's part, though there are always those unexplained scraps. (Again, you never read about this stuff in published reviews.) In his letter, he couldn't mount a 120-mm intake fan in the front of the case without pushing back the hard drives. That, in turn, made it a challenge to keep everything from bumping into each other.

Along with missing drivers--again, a frequent issue unless you're going totally plain vanilla--his mobo messed with his software set-up:

"Installing Linux (regardless of flavor) was a challenge as the Promise controller gets detected as a SCSI device by the Asus BIOS and insists on being the first one to go. That means that adding the PATA drives shifts the drive assignments and sda [SCSI device a] is no longer sda, but something else. That got both me and GRUB confused and I had to disconnect the drives. It doesn't help that the SATA controller gets treated like a SCSI controller as well."

I particularly enjoyed Krings's closing line: "You are not the only one who has to deal with silly hardware and software issues. Okay, we all could just pay up and buy Apple. Nah, I rather spend the money on a quad core...."