Buying a computer system/Considering upgrade

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QUESTION: Hello 'Bobbert',

I'm not a computer whiz by any stretch so I need some advice.  My experience with computers is limited to mostly surfing the Net, and I had a previous job doing date entry.  But my knowledge of the inner workings, such as memory, GBs, MBs, Bps, Mbps, etc. is very limited.  

I currently have a Dell laptop, which I'm using to write this, and I also have an old Dell desktop that is about 13 yrs old and still has Win XP running on it and is super slow.  My laptop still has Win 7.  

When I bought this laptop I got it from QVC on TV late one night, and I requested a memory upgrade so I wouldn't have to purchase a new computer for a long time.  This was about 10 yrs ago.  I only use it for recreation, like watching YouTube and other videos, and like I said, surfing.  So now I'm thinking of buying a new laptop, although this one is giving me no problems at all.  But I can tell it is slowing down a little.  

Can I ask what recommendation you have for a new computer with a lot of memory?  I know that technology has advanced in the past 10 yrs, so I'm sure mine is considered an antique by today's standards.  I have heard that Dell isn't exactly top of the line, and that HP is best.  Do you agree?  I want the best I can get.

I welcome any input (pardon the pun) you have on this.

Thanks!
Gary

ANSWER: A few general thoughts:

- Windows XP, as you may or may not know, has ended support on Microsoft's end, and has not received security patches or updates in roughly two years as of this writing. In general I would not suggest it for an Internet-connected machine, although for legacy compatibility (e.g. with older games) it still retains value, primarily depending on its condition and hardware specifications. To the same end, depending on its hardware specifications, it may be a good candidate for running a modern, supported operating system like Windows 7 or Windows 8. If you want more information on this, I'd be happy to help.

- On the laptop itself, the biggest improvements in the last few years are primarily related to power efficiency and relative performance, with newer machines getting much better battery life, and doing much better with multimedia content (due to improvements in video decoding hardware). That could certainly make an upgrade worthwhile, and there's plenty of options out there. I'm not really opposed to Dell or Hewlett-Packard as manufacturers - both of them offer good products. You might also consider Apple, as they make a variety of good laptops as well, assuming that OS X will work sufficiently for your purposes (generally if you aren't gaming there's no problems with OS X relative to Windows, but many games are Windows-only).

- As far as operating systems go, Windows 7 and newer are still supported by Microsoft, although a brand new machine today will likely have Windows 8.1 or Windows 10. I wouldn't see a problem with any option, in the grand scheme of things. It may be worth spending some time reading about privacy and security concerns related to Windows 10 if that sort of things bothers you, but that's mostly just food for thought.

- Memory, as in system RAM, is not the sole or primary determinant of performance or system longevity, and generally speaking for the kind of usage scenario you've described contemporary machines of more or less any type will be suitable in terms of meeting your performance needs, so buying a top of the line system with maximized specifications is largely unnecessary.

If you have more specific applications in mind, or need more input, feel free to ask.

-bob


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Bob,

Thanks for the quick and detailed response.  Just a few thoughts...  With regards to Apple, when I began using computers Windows 95 was the OS, and have only progressed up to Windows 7 so far.  So I have never tried Apple.  Is it a better system and more user-freindly than Windows?  I just turned 60, so as you can imagine I am a little resistant to change.

As for my Win XP desktop, I mostly use it for doing my taxes since it has a printer hooked up to it.  I have yet to figure out how to get my laptop to communicate with the printer.  I guess I have procrastinated in that regard.  

My current Dell laptop came with 6 GB of RAM, and currently has 3.87 GB left.  I guess that's pretty good considering how old it is.  My very first computer, a desktop, brand name SystemMax, began getting very slow when my memory starting running low.  That is why I thought it affected the performance or longevity.  It eventually crashed and would not even reboot, so I lost a lot of data that I wish I could have recovered.  

I greatly appreciate you time and expertise.

Gary

ANSWER: I wouldn't say Apple is universally better or worse than other platforms, just like I wouldn't say Windows is universally better or worse than other platforms. Many users do find it to be somewhat more user-friendly or intuitive in terms of its UI design (and Apple has made it a priority to keep their UI relatively consistent - from Classic OS 9 to OS X 10.1 through to present day OS X 10.11 things look fairly similar, and if you're used to finding something in a certain place, it probably hasn't moved; unfortunately the same cannot be said for Windows from Windows 98 to Windows XP through to present day Windows 10). If you aren't gaming (specifically DirectX-based games), there's really no compelling reason to exclusively stick to Windows though - many modern operating systems are fully competent for non-gaming usage, but OS X and Windows will be the best supported and best documented, and Apple makes fairly high quality hardware, so it's worth giving them a consideration alongside Windows. The other advantage to Apple, although Microsoft seems to be closing this gap, is the Apple Store itself, which offers hands-on (from a real live person) training and information about using OS X and Apple products. Microsoft has recently (in the last few years) launched the competing Microsoft Store to do the same thing, but they aren't (generally) as common as Apple stores, but the goal is the same. If you aren't likely to ever want in-person training or assistance with the machine, this is more or less a moot point.

Buying a new machine, at retail, with Windows 7 today is likely impossible, however you can still acquire Windows 7 through OEM channels and install it yourself if you'd like (it is officially supported by Microsoft until 2020 on most platforms (the newest Intel (Skylake and later) and AMD platforms will end support early, in 2017)). But conventionally speaking you will be looking at Windows 10 or OS X 10.11.

With respect to the Windows XP machine, I'm very nervous when I hear about an outdated/insecure platform being used for financial transactions - I would encourage you to move to a more secure platform, unless that machine is entirely disconnected from the Internet.

On the RAM: computers don't "run out" of RAM as they age - memory capacity is whatever it is from the beginning, and depending on what applications you have running, depends on how much is in use (think of RAM as the computer's "scratch paper" - its where it stores all of the data that its working on at present). 6GB of memory is certainly sufficient for modern tasks, although not as high end as it once was (a contemporary machine will usually have 8GB or more, but for light web browsing and some video watching there's nothing wrong with 2-4GB, let alone 6GB, as you're unlikely to run out of memory - if Windows is reporting 3.87GB available while you're doing everyday tasks, that should give you an idea of how little memory (relatively speaking) you're actually using).

Without a lot more information (ideally hands-on) with the SystemMax machine, it is impossible to say what actually happened. If you still have the hard drive(s) they may be in fine condition - the easiest way to find out is to hook them up via an external enclosure and see if they'll spin up and access; if so you can just browse around and find whatever data you'd like from there.

Can you provide more complete specifications for your current Dell laptop? Is anything wrong, hardware-wise, with it? (e.g. is something physically broken) Is there anything you wish it could do, that it struggles with?

-bob




---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Bob,

My Dell laptop has been performing pretty good so far.  The only issue I'm having is sometimes websites are very slow to load.  This is probably my broadband connection speed being too slow rather than computer issues.  I have several anti-spyware/malware programs I run regularly, as well as anti-virus protection, so I'm pretty sure that eliminates any problems from that direction. Another consideration is times of heavy usage, such as from about 4pm to 9pm. I've noticed things run slower during those times.  

I have used the website Speedtest.com to check my connection speed and it isn't that fast.  1.41 mbps download speed and 0.38 mbps upload, and it is Frontier Communications through my landline phone.  I have old phone wiring in my house, so could that affect connection speed?  I'm afraid that is my only option, other than DISH satellite, which I have.  I have not checked into getting internet through them yet.

I don't play games very often so I'm not too concerned about that.  I mostly watch videos, listen to music, and search websites.  It does get a little aggravating when I'm trying to watch a streaming video and it continually 'buffers'.  During football season I have encountered that problem while trying to watch my local college games.  Other than that it hasn't been totally unbearable.  

Thanks for tip on my old SystemMax computer.  I do still have it, so I'll try to crank it up and see if I can transfer some things to a disc.  As for my Win XP desktop, it is connected to the internet, and for the past 5 years I have used it to do my taxes and submit them electronically.  So far it has worked well, but it is very slow.  Next year I may have to upgrade before doing my taxes again.

Thanks again for your patience and knowledge.  You have been extremely helpful.  

Gary

Answer
All of the performance issues with online video and multimedia content are very likely the result of your ISP - contemporary HD video can offer bitsterams in the 4-8mbit range pretty regularly, which is roughly 4-8 times what your ISP can provide. Old wiring can absolutely impact DSL performance, and different parts of the world have different "caps" as to what bandwidth is available based on infrastructure; on the other hand your ISP may offer numerous upgraded packages at a similar (or lower) price to what you have now, and is happy to just keep providing you with the "outdated" service you've got at the price you've been paying. Overall it might be something worth looking into - if you could get a connection in the ~10mbit/s range you would probably eliminate 90% of your performance woes.

On the machine itself, without specifics about its hardware, but going based on its age, it very likely does not offer complete hardware acceleration of many modern video codecs (e.g. VC-1 and h.264), which will impact performance, especially if you're attempting to multi-task while watching video. It would be something to consider, but on the other hand as long as it has a multi-core processor, it shouldn't be unplayable/unbearable for contemporary multimedia content (at least, barring something really ridiculous like 4K Blu-ray), but again it will probably run into some performance slow-downs if you're trying to do other tasks simultaneously.

Things slowing down under heavy usage is tough to specifically pinpoint - it could be that your ISP is fairly heavily taxed around those hours (and given the time you've specified, that wouldn't be unbelievable) and the connection is just experiencing an overall slowdown, or it could be your machine is throttling under heavy usage (and its time independent) due to heat production - you can attempt to remedy that by cleaning dust/debris out of the machine's cooling fans and vents, and investing in a "cooling pad" device for it (they cost around $20; example: http://www.amazon.com/Cooler-Master-NotePal-Ultra-Slim-R9-NBC-XSLI-GP/dp/B005C31).

Buying a new laptop (be it a Dell, Apple, HP, etc) would potentially remedy some of the above concerns:

- Newer hardware is generally more power efficient, so it would generally run cooler, get better battery life, and be less likely to throttle under moderate usage.

- Newer hardware offers more or less complete hardware acceleration support for multimedia content, which further aids power efficiency and performance for watching videos.

- It would be a new machine and (ideally) have nothing wrong with it, so if your system presently were to be broken or damaged in some way, it would remedy that.

However it would not remedy what is likely the biggest issue: your ISP speed. You could have the best computer in the world, and still would likely encounter a lot of buffering and delays trying to stream higher resolution/bitrate content over a 1mbit connection, simply because that connection can only provide the data so fast (and in this case, slower than the bitrate of the content).  

Running anti-virus software and regularly scanning is good practice, and in general you probably are as safe as is reasonable to expect (e.g. no system is 100% impenetrable/bullet-proof; its sort of like having locks and alarms on your house or car - they don't make theft impossible but they go a long way in mitigating it, and making it more improbable). Do note that if you have multiple real-time anti-virus or anti-spyware packages running concurrently that can cause significant performance slow-downs as well as potential conflicts between them (running on-demand scans from different applications, like MalwareBytes, Microsoft Anti-Malware, etc at regular intervals is fine, but you shouldn't, for example, be running Windows Defender, AVG Anti-Virus, and Avast Anti-Virus simultaneously).

If you have some specifications on your existing machines I can provide a more directed answer with respect to upgrades (especially on the desktop, as desktops are generally far more upgradeable than laptops), and if you have a budget in mind I could give you a general idea of a new laptop, but ultimately it sounds like the bigger issue is your ISP performance, not the hardware that you own (and unfortunately, depending on where you reside, that may be an insurmountable issue at this time).

-bob  

Buying a computer system

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Bobbert

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner.

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I have been an enthusiast of PC's for many years, and can answer questions about the purchase/use of a new computer or the purchase, installation, and use of upgrades for existing computers. There probably isn't a whole lot related to the home computer that I haven't seen over the years.

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15+ years of experience

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