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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'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 shape.

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 live longer.

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 faster.

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:
1) Pick the right neighborhood. Pick the right room in the house, and the right place in the room.
2) Give your computer room to breathe.
3) Ventilate the computer room. This doesn't just mean running fans somewhere in the room.
4) Consider 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 time.
5) Light properly. Fluorescent is best.
6) Turn the computer off when you're not using it.
7) Clean your system out. Dust insulates your heat-generating parts, aggravating whatever heat problems you have.
8) Add fans. There are a lot of options here. Consider all of them.
9) Make sure you have proper airflow. This is the only way to avoid dead air spots that allow heat to build up.
10) Set your 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 its life.

2. Wham, Bam, Add More RAM (or, Don't Fence Me In).

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, anyway!)

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.

If 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

If 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: drive.

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 drive.

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 be increased.

Yet, while this may be effective for most users, it is not a be-all, end-all solution.

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 size.

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 even more.

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.