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Friday, May 28, 2010

What to consider when upgrading

As with all things computer related, eventually what you've got at home just isn't enough to cut it anymore. Just going out and getting a new one is possible, but when you're trying to make the most of your money, it's important to take your time and weigh options to make the best decision for you. In this article, I'll outline what I don't like about our current set up, and what I'd like to change about it.

Our "Hulu PC" (as we affectionately call it at home), is very old. I'm not sure, but I want to say it the bulk of its components were purchased around 2004. While it certainly does the trick, it doesn't do it quite as well as we would like it to.

Step 1: Identify and prioritize your biggest complaints.

Try to stay focused on the limitations of your solution right now, and not getting too carried away with "nice to haves", that part comes later. Remember that "nice to haves" are typically features that you're currently doing without right now, whereas these complaints are actively in your face and may very well be limiting your enjoyment.

The first complaint that jumps to mind is that while it can display at my TV's native 1080p resolution, it can't really display anything of merit at those resolutions--Hulu and DVD playback stutters.

Yes, I understand that neither of those run at 1080p, but I much prefer the sharpness of 1080p can give you on a TV that supports it--especially in regards to user interface. While we don't currently have the desire to fork over the extra to watch BluRay movies, I want the option to be there when we eventually go that route.

Additionally, for one reason or another the computer simply refuses to install Windows 7. Install begins, but hangs quickly. I'm absolutely in love with Windows Media Center 7, so this is a painful one for me.

Finally, the current motherboard cannot support hard drives that utilize Perpendicular Magnetic Recording, which these days is pretty much all of them, and certainly all of the larger (~500gb and bigger) ones. My wife has a very sizable music collection that she has invested a great amount of care and time to keep organized. Currently this is only stored on a single external hard drive. If that drive was to be lost, my wife would be devastated. We already own two 750gb hard drives that we purchased for backup purposes, but since our computer is so old, we've never been able to use them.

If I was to put these in order of biggest problem, it would look something like this:

  1. Inability to use PMR Hard Drives
  2. Inability to run Windows 7
  3. Inability to display 1080p effectively

2. Start dreaming.

Now its time to think about what you wish you had the ability to do. This is not a list of every feature bullet point your next solution will have right off, but merely helps you plan a road map of what you want to be able to do now, and what you can eventually add later. The more planning you do here, the cheaper your solution will be in the long run, as it will reduce redundant purchases (if you have to have upgrade the motherboard to accommodate a certain single feature, for example). Don't go too far off the deep end, because things like wanting active climate control, or automatic light control are projects on their own. Planning for them is fine, but in my situation, I expect those will wind up being separate systems.

Record Live TV - I almost listed this in the 'complaint' category, because due to Hulu's delay to list some content we tend to have endings of big shows or results of shows like The Biggest Loser spoiled before we have a chance to watch them. In actuality though we've learned how to avoid most of these.

Capture HD Video from Other Sources - I'm a huge gamer, and I've always wanted to be able to capture video from my Xbox 360 (as an example) to possibly make guides, or simply to show off something that happened.

More Aesthetic appearance - When I first built this PC, I valued low noise over everything else, and used looks as a close second. While it currently doesn't look "bad", it would be nice if it blended in a little more, and took up a little less space.

More Energy Efficient - This computer is on all the time. While I don't feel like it's particularly inefficient, I know it wouldn't take much to make it 'greener'.

HDMI Output - Currently, it outputs via a bulky VGA cable with a standard 1/4" 'headphones'" style audio cable. It gets the job done but it's bulky, unsightly, and personally I believe its weight is putting unnecessary strain on both the TV and the computer. I also recently had to move the computer, and dealing with the screws to remove the connection was frustrating.

BluRay Support - Pretty self-explanatory. All that's really needed here is a BluRay drive, and enough power to drive the display.

Reasonable Video Encoding Performance - Digital copies are far more versatile than physical ones, and it'd be nice to have the ability for the machine to encode the video in a reasonable amount of time, or without interfering with the experience.

Like the list of complaints, prioritize these. Here's my list:

  1. Record Live TV
  2. Video Encoding
  3. Energy Efficiency
  4. HDMI Output
  5. Asthetics
  6. BluRay
  7. Capture HD Video

3. Research and shop

Dig into how to do each of these. Software is easy to change, but changing hardware can get expensive fast. sites like AVS Forum and HTPC Forum are real heroes here, as you can get a lot of information from a lot of different people.

Newegg is where I tend to buy most of my hardware, if not for their low prices, then for the ability to drill down lists of hardware based on features. It's very easy to weed out motherboards that don't have onboard video, or HDMI outputs, for example. They also have a very active client base that reviews products very frequently, and it's pretty easy to tell at a glance if a product tends to be a winner or a dud just by looking at its egg rating.

Remember to keep the future in mind here. A motherboard picked out with all the right features, based on an older technology like DDR2 Memory isn't going to last you as long as a motherboard with all the right features, but instead has DDR3 memory. Keep the future in mind, and try to maximize your 'upgrade potential'. It will save you some serious money in the long run. Addtionally, it would be a shame if something as simple as a lack of PCI slots prevented an upgrade, so try to keep your options open without going overboard.

For those of you interested, here's the list of hardware I decided on buying, and a little bit about why.

  1. Cooler Master CPU Cooler
  2. As the primary source of heat, the processor also tends to be the primary source of noise. Going with an efficient, aftermarket heat sink can do wonders for keeping your equipment at a safe temperature while not interfering with your experience.
  3. ASRock M3A785GMH
  4. This motherboard really hit the sweet spot for me. Reasonably powerful onboard video with HDMI output means one less card to purchase, which allows me to consider a smaller form factor (helps with my 'aesthetic' desire). DDR3 based system a long with the AM3 processor means I could probably live off this board for quite a while, considering how little heavy lifting the computer actually has to do. If we get more serious about encoding, we go all the way up to a 6 core processor.
  5. AMD Athlon II X2 240
  6. 2.8GHz is more than enough for what we're currently doing, and the dual core should help us out quite a bit with our light video encoding. It's low price point and power consumption are a two-fold wallet boon. The low power consumption also indicates that it will likely run cooler.
  7. A Data 2GB DDR3 1600 Memory
  8. I have to admit I'm a little uncomfortable with this purchase. I've used ADATA products in the past, and have found them to be of sub par quality. However ASRock recommends them (among many others) for the motherboard, the price is good, and the positive reviews tempted me to try them again. Additional sticks would allow for dual (and even triple) channel, but at the moment I don't think those would give us a significant kick in performance. We can always benefit from that later.

I'm pretty sure my existing power supply will fit the bill for this new computer as well. When the cost comes down a bit, I'll upgrade to one of those 80Plus certified power supplies. Additionally I will be re-using our existing DVD drive.

Looking at the above, I will now be able to:

  1. Use PMR Hard Drives to back up our data
  2. Run Windows 7 (and most importantly, WMC 7!)
  3. Display 1080p effectively
  4. Encode Video reasonably
  5. Slightly improve our energy efficiency
  6. Use HDMI Output

It's not everything I wanted, but it also minimizes the investment necessary to record live tv, improve the visual aesthetics, capture HD video from external sources, or enjoy BluRay videos. Best of all, I can add each of those in any order I want, depending on how my priorities may change.

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