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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Key Non-Performance Issues In PC System Design ]

Standardized and Proprietary Designs

One of the greatest things about the general design of PC systems is that they are modular. While they may seem to be mysterious "black boxes" in some ways, they are in fact made of mostly standardized components that are connected in standardized ways. This is called an open design and is generally considered to be responsible for the success of the PC platform over the last two decades.

Standardization enables the relatively easy interoperability of different components within the PC world. It is key to the wide breadth and depth of different hardware and software choices that make the PC so flexible and accommodating. It is what makes it possible for the average person to make his or her own custom machine, or to repair one that uses standard components. It's not always perfect, but it beats the alternative: a closed design, where one company or group of companies controls what hardware you can use in your system.

In order to get the real benefits of standardization, however, one must make use of standard components and designs. Unfortunately, some PC designs forsake the open nature of standard PC designs by incorporating proprietary designs. These are systems where the PC maker has decided to use components that are not standardized, or has implemented standard components in a non-standard manner.

The designers of such systems usually have good intentions. They typically decide to make use of proprietary designs because they feel they can deliver a better product to the customer at a lower cost if they do this. And sometimes this is in fact the case: some people like the special features of certain proprietary designs. After all, a generalized modular design cannot be as readily tailored to a specific need as a special one.

Unfortunately, you know the old adage about road paving and good intentions. :^) The problem with proprietary designs is, well, the fact that they aren't standard. (How's that for a nice circular definition?) By moving away from standardization, proprietary designs give up the advantages of standard components. Here are some of the more important issues with such systems:

  • Choice and Flexibility: Proprietary designs are less flexible than standard ones. You usually will have fewer choices in components when you buy the system, because the design will usually be based around specific choices made by the company's engineers.
  • Expandability and Upgradeability: Proprietary systems are much more difficult to expand or upgrade than standard ones. If they are not designed to use standard components then you are limited in your expansion and upgrade options to whatever the manufacturer allows. This means you have fewer options, and you will also usually pay significantly more for any components you try to buy. If a new technology comes along a year after you buy your machine, you have to hope that the manufacturer will decide to support it.
  • Service: PCs made from standardized components can be repaired by pretty much any competent PC technician--including yourself, with some study and assistance. Proprietary systems must be worked on by those who have been specifically trained in how they are constructed. Again, this reduces your options and usually increases your costs.
  • Repair: With a proprietary system you must go back to the manufacturer for any replacement parts for the system. These usually cost far more than standardized replacements, if they are available at all.
  • Comprehension: Proprietary systems are more difficult to understand than standard ones, which matters if you want to really know what's going on "under the hood". Worse, in some cases the proprietary nature of some subsystems isn't spelled out. As an example, standard IDE/ATA hard disk channels, found in virtually all PCs, support either one or two devices. Some companies create their systems so that their IDE/ATA hard disk channels only support one device, but don't mention this in the product manual. This leads to much frustration when someone tries, for example, to add a second hard disk to that system and it doesn't work. They will usually think it is a problem with the hard disk.

It's not the case that a system is either "standardized" or "proprietary"--there is a spectrum of designs. Some PCs are made entirely of standardized components, but proprietary machines still use at least some standardized parts. You have to find out, however, what is standard and what is not in such a machine. The most proprietary designs are the "all-in-one" systems that include everything in one physical case, which are sold like appliances. Be very careful of such designs, because if anything goes wrong, everything is affected. If your PC has the logic components and the monitor in the same case, what happens if the monitor fails, or you decide you want a bigger one?

Note: Pretty much all notebook PCs should be considered proprietary. This is one of the reasons why you should only consider a notebook if the portability these units offer justifies their weaknesses.

Next: Expandability and Upgradeability


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