It's easy to make your PC super
- By John McCormick
- Sep 13, 2004
A mere 10 years ago, it would have been impossible to buy or build a machine as powerful as today's low-end, off-the-shelf PC. The microprocessors, memory and bus designs simply had not yet been created.
Today's lowest-priced Dell, a $500 Dimension 2400, comes with a 2.66-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 128M of RAM, a 40G hard drive, CD-RW drive and 17-inch monitor ? certainly enough computing power to handle common office tasks and even low-end graphics.
For some users, a basic PC becomes a super PC merely by adding a DVD burner, fully populated RAM slots, removable drives or a RAID storage controller. But for what I call a super PC, you need the fastest available microprocessor and as many top-of-the-line components as you can pack into a large tower, including fast storage and fast video.
What makes a super PC?Fast storage is critical, and there's nothing faster than solid-state. Even the fastest SCSI drives with large caches can't compete.
Curtis Inc. of Minneapolis makes a solid-state storage device that fits into a hard-drive bay and has a 12G capacity. Adtron Ltd. of Phoenix just announced a 40G Mil-Std-810F serial ATA interface flash drive.
Fast video, especially 3-D graphics using an advanced graphics card loaded with dedicated RAM, is important.
For a notebook PC, two main features on a power user's must-have list are a gigantic screen and long battery life.
PCs listed on the chart start at $2,500 and go as high as $17,000, but prices could easily top $20,000 if you add special audio options. I don't consider high-end audio and expensive speakers necessary, except for entertainment, so I stuck with basic audio components.
Super PCs can justify their existence by tackling jobs that would, a few years ago, have been considered the province of networked slave systems, where rendering or other jobs were parceled out among a dozen or more machines.
With really high-end systems, it's also important to remember that you can't measure a processor only by its clock speed.
The Intel Xeon with 1M of Level 3 cache may be the fastest you can get for running high-end graphics software such as Adobe Photoshop or Discrete 3D Studio Max.
You want an Intel Xeon system to create simulations, though tests have shown that an Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., with a much slower clock speed might be considerably faster for gamers, and hence for running simulations.
The easiest way to find a super PC to run simulations is to look at the game machine category, because they share the need for powerful processing capabilities, large amounts of RAM, and the fastest graphics capabilities.
When it comes to memory, the more RAM the better; systems with only 512M modules could double memory when the emerging 1,024M modules ship in quantity.
A big difference in machines built for video editing, computer-aided design or graphics editing is the separate work drive or, more commonly, multiple RAID work drives reserved for the ongoing project. On all but the most powerful systems, this is often a Serial ATA controller and two to four RAID Level 0 drives, but they can also be configured with all-SCSI RAID drives from RAID levels 0 through 10.
Super PCs also need removable drive bays, write-blocked drive bays, extremely dependable power supplies, and connectors to read virtually any kind of media or connect any kind of hard drive.
John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org