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

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 slow ones.

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 faster CPU.
  • 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.

Next: Overclocking

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