Sunday, April 22, 2012

Upgrades for Your Computer?

Have an old computer?  Or maybe your computer is not that old, but you want it to be faster?  There are a few upgrades that can add some additional life to your computer.

First components is the CPU.  The CPU probably has the biggest affect on speed in you computer.  Unfortunately this is also the component that is least likely to be upgraded do to compatibility issues.  CPU speeds are rated in GHz and also many CPU cores on the CPU, for example a Quad (4) core CPU at 2 GHz; this by the way is better then a single core CPU at 3 GHz.

Second component is the Motherboard.  The motherboard does not have as much to do with the speed of the computer other than the fact everything plugs into the motherboard and components are going to be limited to what the motherboard can support.  For example a motherboard can support a Core i7 CPU and DDR3 RAM.  The motherboard also is usually not a good candidate for upgrades.  Any upgrade in a motherboard is probably going to require a new upgraded CPU, at which point you basically have a new computer.  This by the way is not necessarily a bad upgrade, especially if all your other components (RAM, Video Cards, Hard drives, ect.) are compatible with the new motherboard and CPU.

Third Component is the RAM.  RAM is usually rated for its size, for example 2 GB; however, there is one more important number for RAM and this the speed of the RAM, usually rated in MHz.  Higher number is better; however, before spending extra money though on higher speeds you should make sure your computer can support it!  RAM is one of the easiest and possibly cheapest components to upgrade in your computer.  How much RAM should you have? If you have less than 1 GB and your computer can support more, this is definitely a upgrade I would recommend. If on the other hand your already has 4 GB RAM there is no sense upgrading.  When buying RAM, I recommend buying the largest in both size and speed that your computer can support.  For example if your computers motherboard supports 2 GB modules at 1333 MHz per slot, then you those are the RAM modules that you should purchase.  As a further example, lets say that you want to add 4 GB or RAM to  your computer (computer has 4 slots and supports 2 GB per slot for a total of 8 GB), you should purchase 2 2GB module, do not get 4 1GB modules!  For finding the right memory for your computer, I recommend using the Memory Configurator at Tiger Direct:

A forth component that can really speed up your computer is a Video (or Graphics) card.  I have already posted an article on video cards, so other than saying it is important, I will leave it at that.  You can find the previous post here:

A final component is the hard drive.  Yes, the hard drive!  If your computer is older than 4-5 years then this probably is not an upgrade worth investing in; however, if you have a fairly new computer that has a SATA interface for the hard drives, than an upgrade from a regular hard drive to a Solid State drive can drastically improve your computers speed.  It use to be on older computers that the CPU could only process data so fast and a regular spinning platter hard drive could keep up with no problem, but on newer computers the slow down is often caused by the fact that the hard drive cannot provide the data fast enough.  Solid State Drives (SSD) offer extremely fast read and write times and because there are no moving parts they use less power and are not likely to be damaged if dropped like a normal hard drive.  SSD are similar to a USB flash memory stick, just bigger and faster.  A SSD is definitely one of the more expensive upgrades that you can put into your computer; however, it also one that will probably provide you with the biggest boost in speed, at least if your computer can support it.  One issue that remains with SSD is that the price for per GB is high; for example, a 120 GB hard drive (which is very small by todays standards) can run over $200!  A standard hard drive will probably cost less then $30 for similar size.  Larger SSDs can run over $500 and even over $1000!  Most people recommend purchasing a smaller SSD (60GB to 120GB) and installing only Windows and any necessary programs such as Games and productivity software – Adobe, AutoCAD, ect.  And then purchase a larger standard hard drive to hold everything else.  This is what I have done with my Acer 8951G laptop.  The laptop originally came with a 750GB hard drive, which I replaced with a 120 GB SSD.  I installed Windows and a few necessary programs to the SSD and placed everything else on the 750 GB hard drive, which I put in the second hard drive bay on my laptop (second hard drive bay was originally empty.).  The SSD cut load times by about 75%, which is a significant increase.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Mouse

Yep, a computer mouse?  Computer mice come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors.  However, they all have one primary function that is the same, moving the cursor on the screen.  Most mice also have at least 2 buttons and a wheel.

Mice use a couple of different forms of tracking technology, the most common tracking method is optical.  Optical mice use a light to track the surface as it moves across it.  Laser optical mice use a laser beam for tracking, they offer more accurate and faster tracking.  Laser mice are becoming increasingly popular because of the impressive tracking speeds and being able to work on almost any surface, including in some cases glass, mirrors, and other transparent surfaces.  An older and no longer common from of tracking is the ball mouse.  A ball mouse used a larger rubber ball that was tracked by two wheels.  The problem with ball mice is they could only be used on only a few surfaces (namely mouse pads) and they collected dirt and dust and often got junked up and would work very poorly.

Laser and optical mice are usually rated in DPI (dots per inch) for how fast they track.  Now, a higher DPI does not necessarily make the mouse better than a lower DPI mouse it simply means that a smaller movement of the mouse will result in faster movement of the cursor on the screen.  Its not uncommon to see Gaming mice to go as high 6000+ DPI.

Most mice now days have at least 2 buttons and a wheel.  The two buttons are usually referred to as the left and right mouse button.  Obviously (I hope) the button on the left side of the mouse is the left mouse button and is the most commonly used button for opening files and programs, clicking buttons, ect.  The button on the right side of the mouse is the right mouse button and is usually used for opening menus and properties, for example right clicking on a file to rename it.  Just to note if you use your mouse on the left side of your keyboard you can flip these buttons around so the right mouse button actually is left mouse button.  The wheel on a mouse are used to scroll content, such as on a webpage.  The wheel on the mouse is also a button and is usually referred to as the middle mouse button.  The middle mouse button is used for scrolling or if you click on a link on a webpage it will open that link in a new tab (or window).  Mice also come with a number of additional buttons such as backward and forward buttons, custom programmable buttons, as well as DPI adjusting buttons.

In addition to mice there are also trackpads (or touch pads) and trackballs.  A trackpad is the touch sensitive surface on a laptop that uses a fingers movement across the surface to move the mouse.  Also most trackpads also accept single and double tapping for left mouse clicks.  Some newer mouse pads with the correct software also support multi-touch.  Multi-touch allows one to use both fingers on the trackpad and allows for similar gestures as a smartphone, such as pinching to zoom.  Some people have trouble with trackpads not reading there movements correctly, if that is the case try wetting your finger slightly.

A trackball on the other is like an upside down ball mouse, rather than moving the mouse around, a large ball is mounted to the top and you move the curse by rolling ball with your finger.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Video Cards–And Why You Should Have One!

This post is more directed at desktops rather than laptops; however, a graphics card can also be important in laptops.  The main difference with laptops is the fact that if you want a graphics card you are going to have buy a laptop with a graphics card in it.  Unlike desktops, you usually cannot add hardware to laptops.

So, what is a graphics card?  A graphics card is a piece of hardware that drives the display on your computer.  In other words, no graphics hardware, no display!  Imagine trying to use a computer without a display?  The most important part of a graphics card is the GPU (not CPU!) – graphical processing unit.  A GPU is similar to a CPU in the fact that is also processes data; however, a GPU is significantly different in the fact that it is a parallel processor, whereas a CPU processes data in a series.  One of the best demonstrations of a CPU versus GPU that I have seen is done by the Mythbusters:

Mythbusters Demonstrating a GPU

Basically a GPU is designed for one specific task and it has to do that task very fast!  A GPU has to drive every pixel on your computers screens and if you have a 1920x1080 pixel display that is a total of 2,073,600 pixels that the GPU has to drive (render).

All computers have graphics hardware; but, on most computers, especially cheap computers, the graphics hardware is integrated with the motherboard or CPU.  While this works, it means that the computer is stealing resources from the CPU and RAM in order to power the graphics.  For basic computing such as checking email, browsing the web, ect. you probably will never notice the difference between integrated graphics and a dedicated graphics card.  However, if you want to start playing HD video or playing games the integrated graphics are really going to struggle and you probably notice stuttering, jerkiness, and overall poor performance of the computer.  This is especially true of older computers where the integrated graphics where not very good.  Even the cheapest dedicated graphics cards can outperform integrated graphics solutions.  The motherboard is the large board inside your computer that everything plugs into.

What is a dedicated graphics card?  A dedicated graphics card is an add-on card that plugs into a slot on your computers motherboard.  One of the major advantages of a dedicated graphics card is that all the components are separate and resources are not stolen from the CPU.  Dedicated graphics card contain two main components, the GPU and the RAM.  Just like a CPU needs RAM to rapidly store and access data, so does a GPU need RAM for extremely fast access to data.  Most newer dedicated graphics cards have at least 1 GB of onboard RAM.  PCI-Express graphics cards range in price from about $15 all the way up to $1000+ dollars.  Specialty cards can cost even more.  Most dedicated graphics cards support more than one monitor, so you can have two monitors.  Two big names in a graphics hardware are NVidia and ATI (now made by AMD).

There are two main slot types that are dedicated for Graphics cards to plug into.  The first and newest slot is the PCI-Express (there is now three versions of PCI-Express all compatible with each other).  The latest greatest PCI-Express slots is PCI-Express 3.0.  PCI-Express slots have been around for about 10 years now and if your computer has a PCI-Express slot, this is the slot you should use!

The second type of slot is the AGP (accelerated graphics port) slot.  This is the older slot and I personally have not seen it on a computer newer than about 8 years.  Do to the fact that AGP is an older slot type, AGP cards tend to be slightly more expensive than PCI-Express cards, also AGP cannot support as large of cards as PCI-Express slots.

The third and final slot is a PCI slot.  The PCI slot is a standard add-on slot for multiple types of cards, such as dialup modems, audio cards, Ethernet cards, WI-FI cards, ect.  PCI slots can only handle smaller graphics cards and should only be used if you do not have one of the other slots type or you you need additional graphics cards (for more monitors).

If you have an older computer, one of the best add-ons you can buy to speed up your computer is a graphics card.  Even on newer computers a dedicated graphics card will help.

I will finish with a quick story about computer I recently fixed (computer was only about one year old).  This computer had experienced a power issue of some type (possibly lightning) and burned out both the power supply and motherboard.  So I replaced both the motherboard and power supply, the old motherboard had integrated graphics and the new board I got did not have integrated graphics (oversight on my part).  Upon hooking everything I realized the problem; luckily I had a graphics card on hand an older GeForce 8500 GT (with 1 GB of on board RAM).  Upon returning to the customer, the customer mentioned to me a couple weeks later that the computer was significantly faster, especially while watching HD movies.  The only real change was the Graphics card!  Motherboard was basically identical.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hard-drive Fragmentation?

Next to cleaning up your registry, this has to be the second most common thing you hear for speeding up your computer.  At least with this one there is some truth; though do not expect the amazing results that are often claimed.

Fragmentation is caused by uninstalling programs and deleting files/folders and then installing programs or adding files/folders.  Basically when a file gets deleted it creates an empty spot on the hard-drive, so when you add a file to the hard-drive, the hard-drive fills the empty spot; however if the file is larger than the file that was deleted than part of the files need to be place elsewhere on hard-drive.  This means that parts of files and programs can end up scattered all over the hard-drive, thus causing the hard-drive to slow down while seeking all the needed files.

How often should you defragment your hard-drive?  In general I would say every other month should be often enough.  However, if you install or uninstall a larger number of programs or delete or add a bunch of files than I would recommend defragging the hard-drive afterwards.

Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 automatically defragment the hard drive on a regular basis.  As such, you should not have to worry about doing this on either Windows Vista or Windows 7.

If you have Windows XP or an even earlier version of Windows, then you will have to defragment the hard drive manually on a regular basis. 

The Windows Disk Defragmenter can be found under Start >> All Programs >> Accessories >> System Tools >> Disk Defragmenter.  It is in the same location on all recent versions of Windows.  To start defragmenting the hard drive, just hit the defragment button.

Windows 7 Disk Defragmenter


Windows XP Disk Defragmenter