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Building a stable Windows computer

This article is intended for managers in their office who wanted to reduce their IT costs and home user who wanted to get a stable computers.

I feel sorry that many computers out there are having problem with instability.  While I have never had any problem with the computer that I use, in fact I use my computer heavily.  On daily use, I open softwares such as MS Expression, Corel DRAW, Corel Photopaint, MSN Messenger, Internet Explorer, Etrading HOTS, MS Word, MS Outlook and MS Excel together.  They just work fine - although somewhat slow due to my 512 MB RAM - and I rarely restart my machine.  Then I decided to share my knowledge on building a stable machine.

I had more than 14 years of computer administration experience.  I used to work in Internet Cafe as administrator and computer shop as a technician.  That made me understand virus combating skill and computer troubleshooting.  Moreover I also had a BSc degree in Computer Science.  Today in my office, beside my job as a manager, I currently administer 15 PC's ranging from an old Pentium 133 MHz to the latest quad core AMD Phenom.  So, trust me to get a stable PC!

Kind of operating system is not important!  I used to had a Linux server on the internet cafe I've worked.  This Linux server was installed by a computing professional but still crashes almost everyday.  Calling the administrator and reinstalling the Linux did not solve the problem either.  Therefore we had to reset it everyday!  Then I've decided to put Windows to work as the server, Windows works exceptionally stable with 99.9% up time in a year for at least 3 years before the computer died.

I also had a cute white Mac Book Mini which I had to bring it back to the dealer in 2 days after using it.  I only put a bad DVD on it, and the Mac Book just can't boot!  Moreover, another Mac OS9 laptop just did not work with external projector!  It needs restarts to attach and detach a projector.

  • If you are planning to build new computer then handpick your hardware,

    • Windows - unlike Mac - is designed to work with every x86 hardware available.  There are hundreds of hardware manufacturers in the world and millions of possible hardware combinations (e.g., AMD processor with Nvidia chipset and ATI graphics).  This leads to - although they are trying to conform to a standard - incompatibilities with other hardware, especially with hardware manufacturer's custom BIOS.

    • Therefore it's always best to choose mainstream product, not performance product.  Mainstream product did not have special 'off standard' code and BIOS that performance product had. 

    • Both Intel and AMD processor are fine.  Intel is always fine, except their early socket 423 Pentium 4 and Prescot Pentium 4 which is problematic.  Older AMD's like the original Athlon Thunderbird is not good, they tends to die early and unstable due to heat problem.  However later AMD's is good!  Be confident in using AMD!

    • Overclocking is fine, as long as your platform is capable.  From 2001 I used to operate a Pentium 3 550E MHz overclocked to 733 MHz without any problem.  That machine were operational from year 2000 (I revert it back to 550MHz in 2002).  This machine died in 2007 due to water damage.  What a pity!

    • Motherboard that uses chipset from Taiwanese SIS, Intel's midrange and AMD's midrange could be a nice performer.  They are not the fastest chipset around, but they are not plagued with heat problem.  Choose motherboard with solid capacitors if available.  They are fine for at least 10 years, the non solid ones are fine for 5-8 years.

    • Do not choose only video card only by judging its chip vendor, the card maker also plays important role.  High end consumer products tends to be somewhat unstable.  Midrange video card is better in terms of stability than high end video card. 

    • Choose WHQL'ed driver from the chip manufacturer, not hardware manufacturer.  E.g., choose driver from Nvidia instead of Asus.  The chip manufacturer's driver - although not heavily optimised with the hardware - tends to be more stable and up to date than the one from hardware manufacturer.

    • The most important thing is do not install all the software that come with the hardware.  Most of the time, they cause more problems.  Just install the driver, and let the OS handle the rest.  I had a lot of problem from video card applications, motherboard tweaking tools and such application.  The less the application is the better!

    • When upgrading hardware, be sure to do a burn-in test on it, e.g. after installing new ram, you should do a memory test to check whether the new ram is working properly.  If they don't do well on the test, just return it to where you've bought it.

  • Handpick your software, the philosophy here the less software installed the better

    • Do not install software add-ons such as free toolbar, free screensavers.  Usually virus and spyware come with them!

    • Some application, when installed will ask you to install a free search engine toolbar.  Never install them!

    • Fiddling and streamlining registry is also almost useless.  Most registry file is only few megabytes in size, usually ranging from 16-64 MB, even my 8 years old Pentium 3 is powerful enough to manipulate that amount of data in a no time.  Those step usually introduces more problems with the computer.

    • Don't worry about virus and spyware, most of today's virus designed for rapid spread and self preservation.  They will not cause you to loose data or format your hard drive but it will cause inconvenience for you such as data stealing, identity theft, opening porn sites, slowing down your computer and your doings and creating pop up's.

    • Most of data related damage caused by virus happens during the virus removal phase, not virus infection!  It usually the negligence of virus removing technician! 

    • Update your operating system using free update, do not disable the Windows Update.  But only choose cumulative update or service packs.  They are stable.  Separate updates are fine, but only after the latest service pack.  Enable it to get most of your Windows!  You've paid a big money when buying your copy of Windows and that money includes the updates for the next 5-8 years, so enable it!  Things to remember: do not update your hardware driver from Windows update.  Drivers from chip manufacturer is often more up to date.

    • Do not install Windows optimising program such as a program that will arrange file on ram, a program that will streamline the registry or a program that will change the oil on your computer.  Data stored in RAM in a linear fashion, therefore it took the same speed in accessing data in the first byte and the last byte of RAM.  Warning: Some Windows Optimising program assume that the Windows Update is useless, therefore disabling it. 

    • Install new version of a software after at least they are 3 month available.  The newest software is always suck, even the Apple Leopard also gave blue screen when it was first released!  Let other uses the newest software and crash them, then use it after the update is available.  In fact, I still use Windows 2000 with 3-4 years old software when it was in year 2005 and it is still fine until today.

    • There are saying that 3 months old update are useless.  5 years old computer's value is 0 or old computers is problematic and causes to loose money.  Don't believe those saying! My old 6 years Pentium 4 machine is still fine and generating good money for me.  Just beware with old hard disk, since data is stored on a hard disk and hard disk damage could destroy the data!  Therefore backup your data regularly and always had a clone of your main disk (Drive C) to get your computer back online in a no time!

    • New viruses are made everyday, however most of them uses the same virus engine.  Today's antivirus's heuristic algorithm could detect those variants.  Their daily updates contains only definition name and what the virus do.  So don't worry about the viruses.

    • Do not put more than 1 antivirus and 1 anti adware program

    • Feel free to open a lot of programs!  On average I run 15-16 programs at once.  That is the point of multitasking!

  • How to make a computer quick?

    • Do not change the processor, starting from dual cores are adequate to do office tasks.  Processor's clock speed is not a big matter for today's system, unless you are doing processor bound task such as 3D rendering and number crunching, where every MHz counts it is useless to change the processor.

    • Most computer only needs RAM upgrades.  A 6 years old Pentium 4 system with 2GB RAM could outperform the state of the art quad core AMD Phenom system with 256MB RAM.   

    • If a computer starting to slow, be sure to check for the hard disk.  Bad sectors slows a computer down by significant amount.  If the hard disk is fine, then check for other things such as viruses.  Usually virus will not bring any modern computer to its knee.

    • Replacing new hard drive and and adding more RAMs will cost significantly less than buying new machine.  Saving IT costs.

  • So when to upgrade a computer? 

    • When it is inadequate to do everyday task, e.g. to play new game or playing High Definition movies, you will need to upgrade to a multi-core processor and video accelerated graphic card.

    • To improve productivity, e.g. for 3D rendering but not for office works.  For daily office works, my 6 years old Pentium 4 machine with 512 MB RAMs works exactly the same compared to my 4 core AMD Phenom with 2 G RAMs.  While for 3D rendering and DivX encoding, my new AMD Phenom is at least 4 times faster compared to the Pentium 4.

    • To add more storage, e.g. because of so many MP3's and DIVx movie. 

    • Computer speed is constant, because it is electronic, it won't degrade overtime, while hard drive speed degrades when the hard drive ages.  Therefore if your computer speed degrades to a significant amount, its time to check your hard disk.

  • Therefore, beware managers, do not always trust your IT people when it comes to IT.  I'm a manager, and I do administer all computer in my office.  It took me less than an hour in a month to maintain all those 15 machines.  It shows that those computers are stable. 

  • Suggestion to manager is unless you are doing a processor cramming task, you won't need to change your computer.  RAM and Hard drive upgrade is the one that is important!  They are a big factor in computer's speed and stability. 

  • Do not change the operating system unless its absolutely necessary. 

    • Newer version of OS usually did not work well until the first Service Pack.  My experience shows that Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Linux are the same.  Unstable on their first release.  To be honest, I've made countless BSOD on Windows machine, I've made a Windows's BSOD equivalent on a MacOS X Leopard and MacOS 9 machine and I crash several Linux Distros including but not limited to Fedora, Redhat, Slackwire and Debian when they are new. 

    • After the free updates and new drivers, those OS is just as stable as each other.  That's why never upgrade to new OS after they just released!

    • When first released, Windows XP is unstable, that is why I stayed on Windows 2000 until 2005.  Windows XP SP 2 is very stable, however I couldn't see any reason to upgrade until in 2005 I've found that audio sounds better on Windows XP.

    • I got a Windows Vista machine than runs my quad core Phenom for home theatre system.  That because Windows Vista displays DVD and HD contents better than Windows XP on the same platform.  At this moment, the Vista is not very stable, on average crashes once a week.  I had no plan to use Windows Vista as my main working machine at least until Service Pack 2 appears.

    • New OS's drivers tends to be unstable and inefficient.  Therefore making the computer slow and unstable.  If you've had to use the new OS, don't worry new drivers are released almost every month and its always free!

    • New application is not always necessary with a new OS.  What's needs to be changed when new OS is installed is Antivirus and Utility application.  In Windows, other applications usually works perfectly, but they just don't have the looks and feel of the new OS.

  • This is the utility that I use:

    They are good utilities that I use to maintain and protect my computer.

    • Antivirus: AVG Free Edition or Avast! Home Edition

    • Antispyware: Spy Bot Search & Destroy

    • Firewall: Windows Firewall

    • HDD SMART monitoring: HDD Health, HD Tune,

    • Hardware monitoring: SpeedFan

    • Scandisk and defragmenter: Windows standard

    • Hardware stability test:

      • Memory test: Memtest,

      • Processor test: Sisoft Sandra

      • Video card test: Futuremark 3D Mark

      • all run in burn in mode for at least few hours!

  • That's it!  Have a good luck with your computer!