This was actually supposed to be published Christmas Day as a sort of gift to the two or three readers who do read this blog. Like a lot of other things lately, I didn't do it right. So this is a two-post day at this blog and will serve as a parting gift for 2008. I am going to be back in 2009. I finally quit the insane attempt to have a major re-write done in six months of my main (2 million lines plus) application and now am targeting a more reasonable late winter target date. That, hopefully, takes the pressure off and lets me rant and rave here a little bit.
Naturally, this entry will be a little bit long, so I have broken it up into two parts. The first part is the Hardware entry you are reading now. What follows a little (or a lot) lower is the huge software part of what goes into setting up a good Windows system on a minimum of dollars. In fact, I'm only going to recommend a pair of for-pay programs!
Before going down the hardware path of your choosing, make sure you download the latest versions of the software listed in the software section and have them available on disks, drives or memory sticks to install on your new/updated system. Do that now, while you are thinking about it. Then come back here.
Done? Now onto this entry, which is, sort of, all about the hardware.
IF you are simply upgrading your system or doing a spring/fall overhaul, you should absolutely start the process by doing two things. BACK UP YOUR SYSTEM! And then, back up your drivers. And if you have any doubts, do it again, with different kinds of software or storage medium. I cannot emphasize just how important backups are for the inevitable little disasters that changing hardware seems to entail. I've been down to my fourth level of backup twice this year. Paranoia is your friend.
On the other hand, you MIGHT be buying an all new computer. You'll still need those backups to move data over from the old system, so even new hardware doesn't offer you avoidance of the need for a backup.
IF you buy a new system, it's likely that it will come with some flavour of Vista. There ARE versions of Vista Pro that are not horrible on name-brand equipment that Vista has been specifically attuned to. Any version of Home Vista is bad. Any non-brand name software will likely be a nightmare of mismatched drivers. And Vista is just generally a gigantic pain in the posterior to run on the best of its days. And today, tomorrow and any date in the near future qualifies as not being one of those days. Get your hands on a copy of XP Professional. Smilin' Steve Ballmer and the profit-happy folks at Microsoft will happily sell you a copy of XP along with that copy of Vista (Fully one-third of all new Vista purchases are accompanied by a copy of XP, to 'upgrade' the system back to XP. Steve's smiles are all about soaking the customer for twice the operating system price to get one workable system). Otherwise, finding a copy of XP might be a tad difficult. Have an expert friend do the looking, if you don't have a legal copy lying around.
Now here's the extra trick that my following free software suggestions will allow you to indulge in. Unless you know what you are doing, get that same local expert friend to set up Windows for you, as per instructions you'll provide from what's detailed below. (Expert friends can be plied with liquor, food or even a smile to do it cheaper for you than The Geek Squad or somesuch organization).
Buy as much system as you can, either as a new purchase or when upgrading. Get two gigs of memory, preferably three. Best bang for your hardware buck you can buy. Hard drives ceased being small years ago. You are talking about 500 gigs to 640 gigs being somewhat standard. A terabyte (megs, gigs, .... tees?) is certainly within the realm of reason. What you are going to do with the machine dictates quality of video and sound. Games players will max out there, business people needing a glorified typewriter and web-browser can spare the change. Get a good 20+ inch LCD monitor. Keyboard and mouse/trackball are personal preference items. Get a rewriteable DVD drive of some quality. Get a router to connect to the internet through the cable modem or (shudder) telephone modem. It's a great layer of protection and lets you hook in your other computers. And lastly, for a hundred bucks you can get a 500-gig external hard drive for backing up. And don't forget 20 bucks or so to get a thumbdrive aka memory stick. They are the new floppies.
Patrick makes my computers and always gives me the box the motherboard came in as a one-stop repository of everything needed to actually set up the computer. There's a few extra left-over cables and assorted nuts and screws. Plenty of manuals. AND EVERY DISK POSSIBLY CONNECTED to the computer. At least a copy of. And this box does NOT get stored down in the pantry in that space around the corner from where the drawer opens up. The place bits and pieces of Jimmy Hoffa might be buried in because nobody ever, ever looks in there. No, the box has to have as prominent position in your computer 'office' as say the ashes of a loved one in some ugly urn does. When needed, it's needed bad. You might not get a motherboard box to serve the purpose, but you'll have to find an alternative. The keyboard box, long and awkward as all get out, can serve in a pinch. But there HAS to be a box of solutions handy.
When starting up a system, I set it up so that the Windows partition remains as free of installed programs as I can make it. I don't succeed completely, but it's a work in progress. Windows gets installed on C: and the size of the partition is obviously dependent on the size of your local hard drive. For me, storage ceased to be a real determining factor a few years back. So, assuming size is no object, alot between 35 and 50 Gigs for C:. The rest goes into logical drive D:. (There are reasons for making more than one partition in the 'all the rest' area, but you'll know if you need to do that better than I.
The idea is then to subsequently install everything into \APPS residing on Drive D:. That means choosing custom in every install and choosing to change the default install to D:\APPS\WHATEVER. There will be, however, times where you get no say. It's rude and crude, but true. Some programmers think they know better. (By the way, all of my commercial apps get their own install folders ON drive C:, but that only goes to show you, you should beware over-bearing programmers and their install routines!)
Why do I set up this multi-partition scheme during the install phase? C: drives tend to get mulched in a variety of ways. Sometimes, a key file is over top of a bad spot on the hard drive. Sometimes, files get deleted accidentally. And sometimes nasty software turns the computer unbootable. By having a small, easily backed up partition, you WILL make backups. And solving the issues outlined earlier in this paragraph, restoring a backup makes all kinds of hand-wringing attempts to recover from disaster a minor inconvenience. Plus, you don't have to re-install all of your programs and reset their settings. I can back up C: on my computer inside of 20 minutes. Restore is just as quick. And I sleep easily at night.
Need more? By controlling where programs are installed, you deny bad virus writers automatic access to your software to infect. Not that you want to get a virus, but if a new one is out and about and lands on your drive, it's going to get lonely looking for stuff on C: to infect. If you let your temp folders run amok, it's nice having ALL of that empty space on C: to fill. Nothing like trying to write a DVD and then finding out you don't have the space for the temp files it needs to create the disk image. Mind you, you WILL be doing something about those temp files. For that, see the software entry on Crap Cleaner.
Lastly, if there is a lot of crapware installed on your system, spend a few minutes UNINSTALLING most of it. Especially the short trial anti-virus that comes with most systems. Only now are you ready for the install process to actually start.