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PC System Balance
I mentioned in another section the emphasis that many PC
makers and vendors put on "magic numbers", and the reasons why you need to
beware of this. I also talk about the different performance aspects in another page, and how you need to prioritize which parts of
the system will have the most performance. Both of these issues are intimately related to
another important performance matter: system balance.
Balance simply refers to making sure that all of the parts in a PC are of at least
comparable performance and quality. If a system is grossly imbalanced due to having some
components that are very fast and others that are not, the overall performance level of
the unit will be degraded. Worse, you likely won't get all of the benefit you should have
from the high-performance components you do have; they will be dragged down by the
Knowing what the proper balance is depends entirely on what your needs are: this is
where the matter of performance priorities comes in. It's certainly smart to spend more on
some components than others if you need their performance more. At the same time, you
don't want to go too far and end up with a system that is crippled by extremely poor
performance in one or two areas.
The focus on magic numbers often results in systems that are imbalanced. Since most
buyers focus on the few "big numbers" that are attractive and make the PC seem
fast, some system makers put most of the component cost into these items and skimp on
others that are equally important to performance but not nearly as "sexy". Or
they use components that have high speed ratings even though they are actually worse in
other, more subtle performance areas.
I realize that this tells you what to watch out for but not how to easily recognize it
when you see it. :^) In fact, defining proper system balance is not an easy thing to do.
However, here are a few specific tricks to watch out for:
- CPU Over Memory: A fast system needs enough system memory to hold the greater
numbers of generally larger applications that the users of these systems demand. Some
companies emphasize the CPU speed above all else, without paying enough attention to
memory size. A modern system should come with at least 64 MB of RAM, and really,
128 MB is the lowest I would now recommend. A PC with a speed demon CPU and 32 MB of RAM
is not going to perform well. Even with 128 MB some people running operating systems like
Windows 2000 would see more improvement going to 256 MB before they'd see benefit from a
- Cheesy Video Card: Many companies skimp on the quality and speed of the video
card because most buyers know less about them than other components. These firms are quick
to tell you how much video memory is on the video card but little else (this has
fortunately gotten a bit better of late). The amount of video memory is only one piece of
the picture; at the very least, you want to know what the video chipset is. If you are
into 3D applications of any sort, you really want all the details.
- Cheesy Motherboard: Many PC buyers don't really understand the role and
importance of the motherboard in a PC, and as a result many manufacturers just use the
cheapest one they can get to work, to save money. Performance sometimes suffers as a
result, as do compatibility, upgradeability, expandability and other non-performance
attributes of the system.
- Integrated Peripherals: Some systems seem like a great deal, but the integrated
peripherals they use are of very poor performance, and in some cases drag down the CPU,
making the system much more sluggish than it should be. So-called "Winmodems"
are one of the biggest culprits; your fast CPU wastes much of its power doing what a cheap
real modem could do independently. See here for a more thorough
discussion of integrated peripherals.
- Hard Disk Quantity Over Quality: It's become almost universal now for "quick
summaries" of PC systems to include nothing more about the hard disk than its
capacity. The hard disk drive in a PC is an important performance component, not just a
repository for information. Size matters, but so does speed. :^)
- Imbalanced Used Systems: Balance problems are common with older systems for a few
reasons. One is that older systems were often generally less balanced than newer ones,
largely due to the cost of memory--which a few years ago was ten times higher than it is
today. During the early and mid 1990s most systems were sold with less system memory than
they should really have come with. Another is that sometimes older systems are upgraded,
but only one component or maybe two is changed; the others are still matched to the power
level of the original PC. Commonly, the CPU has been upgraded to a faster model but the
other components in the system are still slower and/or of lower capacity.
Anyway, those are a few examples; there are certainly others. To avoid an imbalanced
system, make sure to look at the whole picture when shopping for a PC.
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