The Care and Feeding of Your PC
(High-Performance or Otherwise)
~ Five Steps to a Happier, Healthier System ~
by Dave Forster
Once upon a time it was muscle cars. For some people it still is. High-performance
carburetors, blowers, special-geometry camshafts, magnesium-alloy wheels
- the list of modifications one could make to one's car for more horsepower
or just for a unique look was huge, but for the true enthusiast nothing
was too difficult or too involved.
Sound familiar? Water-cooling, graphite trace overclocking, chimneys
and other 'blowers,' radical chop jobs and paint jobs...it's the same
thing all over again, except today's muscle-computer owner tends to
get less sun on the weekends.
But just as is true with cars, it's not only enthusiasts who can benefit
from a well-tuned machine. The fact is, no computer performs well under
bad conditions or with insufficient resources. Attention to a few simple
details can ensure that even the plainest no-name PC runs in tip-top
So with that in mind, the Lab Minions put together a quick list of
five things most computer users can do to make their computer work as
well as it can. Then they gave the list to me, which was a mistake:
as you can see, the list is no longer 'quick.'
1. Stay Cool
Chillin' - you'd be surprised how much of a difference this can make,
if your computer is on the edge. (Just like you or me, if you think
about it.) It might well be the most important thing you can do for
your computer. Even if your computer isn't suffering performance degradation
from borderline overheating, keeping things cool can help your electronics
Today's systems run hotter and are more sensitive to heat and performance
degradation than ever, so proper cooling is more important than it has
ever been. Yet "older" cases of even just a couple of years ago were
designed for a previous hardware generation's needs, and are often no
longer sufficient for today's systems.
If your computer is running hot it can cause retries, errors, even crashes.
Errors and crashes can be pretty obvious, but the "retry" or retransmission
of data just looks like a slowdown. You may never be aware it's happening
- until you cool your system properly, and suddenly it seems to run
If you have any reason to suspect that heat is hurting your system's
performance, or even if you just want to maximize your equipment's lifespan,
check out the companion Beat The Heat article summarized below in the
sidebar, and follow its tips. And if your case is just too clogged with
equipment, or just if you want a more modern enclosure with such handy
features as Room To Actually Work, consider buying a newer case that
was designed for the modern hardware generation's needs.
|Much can be said about cooling
- so much, in fact, that we wrote a whole article about
it called Beat The Heat - 10 Tips
For Summer-Proofing Your Computer. We highly recommend
you review it, but in case you don't want to read another
article now, we'll sum up the points here:
Pick the right room in the house, and
the right place in the room.
||Give your computer
room to breathe.
||Ventilate the computer room. This
doesn't just mean running fans somewhere in the
air conditioning. But in today's energy-conscious
times, you only need to run the extra cooling
when you're actually using the computer. Turn
the thermostat back to normal the rest of the
Fluorescent is best.
||Turn the computer off when you're
not using it.
system out. Dust insulates your heat-generating
parts, aggravating whatever heat problems you
There are a lot of options here. Consider all
you have proper airflow. This is the only
way to avoid dead air spots that allow heat to
screensaver and power-saving settings properly.
Letting your system go into Sleep or Suspend mode,
instead of keeping it drawing those shapes or
animating those fish, can add significantly to
2. Wham, Bam, Add More RAM (or, Don't Fence Me
If you've recently bought a faster CPU, along with the best motherboard
for it and an AGP graphics card that inhales more amperes than your
entire previous system, you've probably already taken care of this.
But if you're still only considering taking those steps, you might want
to try this first.
You see, computers need memory - RAM, that is; virtual real estate.
Silicon elbow room. What they call memory space.
Computers need memory to keep track of everything they do, along with
the programs that tell them how and what to do. And the more tasks they
perform, the more and bigger and more complex the programs are that
you ask them to run, the more memory they need.
When computers run out of memory room, they have a neat trick that we
address in Tip #5. But swapping is slow; while it may be necessary,
it nonetheless hurts performance. So in the meantime let's just say
this: more memory is usually good, and more faster memory can provide
an instant boost.
In fact, if you're running a Windows system with 16 or 32 or even 64MB
of RAM, and if you ask it to run more than just a few applications at
a time, more memory will probably help your system's performance even
more than a somewhat-faster CPU. (Look, if you're upgrading from 350MHz
to 1.8GHz, that's a big upgrade. But if you're thinking of raising your
900 to 1.2, give the memory increase serious consideration first.)
Of course you have to buy the right kind of RAM. Keep in mind the type
of memory your motherboard can accept; there's no point in buying DDR-266
for a system that only takes PC-133. Check the manual if necessary.
But with that accounted for, buying your CPU a bigger yard to play in
is a very good idea.
3. Uncorrupted Power
Stable power is a crucial requirement for stable computing, since voltage
instability can cause crashes, odd performance, boot failure, even component
damage. Power supplies have evolved greatly in the past couple of years,
expanding in capacity, improving performance, and adding such features
as increased quietness and voltage feedback for greater stability.
If your current system exhibits any of the following behaviors, you
should consider upgrading your power supply (PSU) or at least testing
it to make sure it is not contributing to the problem:
a) A burning, "hot," or overheated odor. Any smell like this is a bad
sign, if it continues past the first burn-in period some electronics
exhibit. Poor quality power supplies and overrated power supplies (where
the manufacturer is not entirely honest in its ratings), will likely
overheat or even blow out at higher loads, and such smells are often
an indication that the load is at 75% or more of capacity.
b) Any sort of non-fan noise, usually a high-pitched humming, buzzing,
or "whine." A good power supply should perform without significant hum.
If the humming noise increases directly as the load increases, it usually
suggests that the power supply is over-rated for its design or components,
or the quality of the power supply is otherwise poor.
c) Unusually warm or hot air blowing from the PSU exhaust fan, especially
if it is an older model. This usually indicates that your power supply
is working very hard, possibly too hard (it may be underrated for the
work it is being asked to do). On the other hand, some modern supplies
with noise reduction systems may be designed to run warm, so this is
not necessarily a sign of a problem.
d) Unstable behavior, including crashing, if additional load is placed
on the system. This can be hard to diagnose, but if waking your hard
drives from sleep mode or starting a particular piece of software that
really exercises the CPU causes errors or crashes, you may be suffering
significant voltage instability.
For more information on power supply testing, specifications, and ratings,
please see our companion article
Power Supply Specifications,
Testing, and Antec TruePower
Another aspect to consider, especially if your computer's proper and
continued functioning is important, is surge suppression (highly recommended)
and even line filtering. "Dirty" power has the potential to cause problems,
and can even damage your electrical equipment. Filtering the incoming
power wave shape before it reaches your PSU can result in increased
energy efficiency, reduced heat loss, prolonged life for power distribution
and consumption equipment, and improved output voltage stability. It
is currently mandatory in European Union countries, and while not mandatory
in the U.S. (and therefore harder to find) it is nonetheless an idea
worthy of consideration, especially if you are running an office with
hundreds of PCs.
4. Clean, Mister
Okay, keeping your case dust-free was mentioned in Cooling Tip #7 above,
and while it is so important it may rate its own whole point out of
our 5, that's not what we're talking about. (But clean your case regularly,
What we mean here is: keep your file system organized, get rid of unnecessary
or unused "helper programs," and above all avoid viruses, Trojans, etc.
Your computer will run faster if the information on the hard drive
is well organized, and if the drive is not too full. That means you
should take the time to delete or archive unused files and programs
(but unless you are an expert you're better off leaving the Windows
folder alone), organize your folder system and files according to some
logical scheme, and then run the "defragmentation" program that your
operating system almost certainly comes with.This will move the data
on your hard drive around so that each file is in one place, rather
than being scattered in bits and pieces all over your hard drive. A
further benefit accrues if you organize your folder system and files:
you personally may be able to use your computer faster, just because
you know where everything is.
you use MS Windows, you can probably find your Disk
Defragmenter program under Start : Programs : Accessories
: System Tools.
Another way you can improve your computer's performance is by not wasting
its compute power on unnecessary frills. If you load all kinds of "neat"
little programs, you can end up bogging everything down. Only you can
decide between frills and necessities, but give it some thought and
uninstall what you don't need.
And if most of those frills came from some site on the Internet or by
email from friends, how sure are you that they were clean? Nothing can
be as dangerous to your computer (or your bank account!) as a virus
or a Trojan.
Get a virus detection and prevention program, and then Keep It Updated!
Immediately afterwards, get a personal firewall. (If you go on-line,
you are wide open to attack as long as you are connected without one.)
There are several free and good firewalls available from reputable manufacturers,
so there is No Excuse for not having one. Get one today.
5. Swappin' in the 21st Century
you use MS Windows, you can control how the OS uses
swap or 'paging file' space from the System Properties
panel. Right-click the My Computer icon, choose Properties
from the menu that opens, and select the Advanced tab.
Now click the Performance Options button, and in the
Virtual Memory area click the Change button. If you
have added a D: drive to be the new swap drive, change
the settings here to point to it and not your boot C:
This tip is listed last because the preceding four should definitely
be addressed before you worry about swapping. In a sense, this is the
lone 'high-performance' tip of the five - unless your hard drive is
nearly full, in which case the problem addressed here might be significantly
bogging down your computer.
When they run out of memory, computers pull a neat trick: they copy
whole chunks of data from memory (RAM) to storage, to the 'swap space'
on their hard drives, then use the newly freed memory as if it was more
memory. And when one of the programs that was originally using that
memory needs to act again, the computer copies more data to storage
and then swaps the first stored data back into memory - after which
that program can keep computing.
It's a neat solution, but the problem with shuttling chunks of data
back and forth between your hard disk and your RAM is that it's slow.
Your RAM can act as much as hundreds of times faster than your hard
Even if you have installed as much memory as your motherboard can support,
you could still find your system swapping out to the hard disk unless
you only run small or few programs. Most users will get some benefit
from increasing the performance of their hard drive storage system so
as to improve swapping speed.
The most oft-used technique is to buy a "faster" hard drive - an Ultra
ATA 100 or 133, or Ultra 160 SCSI drive - and to put it on a separate
bus from the boot drive that holds the operating system and applications.
(Separating the swap drive from the boot or Primary channel is especially
recommended for IDE/ATA systems; less so for SCSI, which allows devices
to share the bus better. And remember: you may have to tell your operating
system to use this drive for swap, because it may not do so automatically.)
With the proper controller - either a separate card or built into your
advanced motherboard - these hard drives can then communicate at much
larger data throughput rates (bandwidth), and system performance can
Yet, while this may be effective for most users, it is not a be-all,
What most users don't realize is that inside the hard drive, the data
transfer rates can be much less than on the bus attached to the drive.
A hard drive is able to "burst" a relatively small amount of information
at high speed, and if the amount of information to be sent or received
is small, this is fine. But if a file is big - or badly fragmented,
see above - performance can be significantly less than the theoretical
maximum the bus type affords. If your hard drive can transfer only 15KB
per second from its own built-in cache memory onto its magnetic platters,
the fact that the computer can fill the hard drive's small cache memory
at 160KB per second is largely irrelevant for data larger than the cache
Users who understand this fact buy truly faster hard drives: those that
combine a larger internal bandwidth with a faster bus. Drives that spin
at ten or fifteen thousand rpm can transfer two or three times as much
data on a sustained basis compared to older 5400 or 7200 rpm drives.
Put one of those on your secondary bus, and you can be confident you've
done as much as most users can to address the swapping issue. (And if
you do, go back and look at a hard drive cooling fan, because those
drives tend to run much hotter.)
Another approach, seen for example in some high-performance server applications,
is putting the swap space on a RAID system, typically RAID 0 "striped"
setups, to take better advantage of the full bandwidth available on
the high-speed bus. But if you know how to set up a RAID 0 system for
your swap file, you aren't reading this article, so I won't go into
detail. (It's mentioned here just for the sake of thoroughness.) RAID
systems may be addressed in a future article for those who are curious,
but for now let's leave it at this:
A faster, better organized hard drive with significant free space can
help your overall computer performance. Moving your swap space to a
second drive, on a second bus separated from your main drive, can help
So there you have it. Five things you can do to give yourself a happier,
longer-lived computer, and only one of them even really comes close
to being a 'muscle-computer' mod. Each can be instituted without going
near the power tool locker, and most require little or no expertise.