I am happy to discuss and learn your point of views on hardware. Do you like to build your own PCs? Do you only trust name-brand pre-build PCs? Or do you have a favorite PC builder?
Also, I realize not everyone would agree with me, let alone agree on every detail. But here's my take, along with a lot of hardware and PC geek ramblings.
Fair warning: I am a hardware enthusiast (call me a hardware elitist if you like), a hard-core PC geek, gamer, and software engineer as per my career. I am not your average user: I am picky, snobbish, and not afraid to argue the merits of open-source and DIY, but I don't claim to know everything or even master anything.
To me, Macs are overpriced, cheap crap where you're paying only for the aesthetics, trends, and the Apple name. The laptops are the only thing worth getting if you want super-slim trendy devices to show off your yuppie appeal while at Starbucks. As for desktops, I wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. I won't mention anything more, as I'm sure you know where I stand on Macs now, lol.
Yet some Apple fans defend their Macs with such blind zeal. There is no fighting that defense, because it's the same sort of zeal shared with fashion horses who defend designer Italian leather clothing, footwear, handbags, etc. To some people, it's obvious fashion is more important than function and value.
Even more opinion and vitriol...
Yet do you know any die-hard hackers who use Macs? We're talking both white and black hat hackers, who know how to get the most our of their hardware and software, and can earn exceedingly lucrative contracts and consultings gigs and top-end firms and government postings. These people don't use Macs. They use some of the most reliable and best performing hardware they can acquire and install their own Linux/BSD operating systems.
Macs cater to the creative/artsy types who typically use only Adobe applications and want to share their work with other artists who also use Macs. This is why Wacom always ensures their drawing pads and tablet products work perfectly with Macs. I should know, I own a Wacom Cintiq. I'm not an artist, but I like to feed my creative side now and then. And don't forget I'm a hardware enthusiasts as well... Wacom tablets are something special, even if overpriced.
Pre-built PCs (ie: Dell, HP, etc.)
Sometimes affordable, but ultimately fail because a majority of these models are built on the same cheap crap Macs are built on. Some manufacturers will offer top-end models (Dell XPS line for example, along with enthusiast niche-market brands like Falcon Northwest), which typically have nice hardware. Problem is, pre-built PCs can lead to proprietary hardware. Not always, but it's a growing trend, ESPECIALLY on value-line models. I only run PCs I built by hand-picking my components, one-by-one, and sometimes even modding cases and cooling devices to get things the way I want it.
Dell uses Foxconn for most of their motherboards, which is typically stable and decently reliable. But these are poor performers compared to what you can get at the component-level and build yourself. These mass-produced PCs also hide specs from you.
Oh, it has 4GB of RAM? That doesn't help. What brand modules so we can tell what brand chips? What's the RAM's bandwidth? DDR-what? (this is why PC-xxxx designation was used to confuse user of actual speeds) Latency? Does the RAM have heatspreaders? And a 320GB drive? What brand? What model? What is its avg. seek time? Cache size? And spindle speed probably won't be 10k in a cheap PC. Etc., etc. These manufacturers don't want to tell you all of that so that they can give you the cheapest crap they have to push out overstocks of specific components in their value-line PCs. The same is true for some Apple hardware.
The other problem with pre-built PCs is all of the crap/bloatware you get pre-installed on them. Retail boxes/models of PCs found at retailers such as Best Buy are the worst offenders. If you buy pre-built, just wipe it and do a clean install of your O/S. Seriously, it takes more time cleaning out that crap than it does to just start over, download the drivers and updates you need, and go on your way.
Component purchasing woes
But what about all of the high-end gaming PC hardware? NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295 Co-Op video card? ATI Radeon 4870X2 video card? The top-end ATIs are actually a steal for the price to performance ratio compared to NVIDIA. That dual GPU 295 is sexy, but at $500? Oh, and you want a watercooling ready model? Add $100-200. Not enought? Let's multiply that by 2 or 3 and run Crossfire or SLI. Did you top your PC budget on just video cards alone yet? Still not enough, and not interested in water cooling? Let's pay $50-60 per card for aftermarket air-based coolers.
Well, I admit, I've paid that $500 each of my two 8800 GTX cards in 2007. I'm a sucker for top end gaming cards because I'm roped into it with 4 megapixel gaming at 3840x1024 (three 1280x1025 monitors on a $300 Matrox TripleHead 2Go device). I even spent $400 on my GTX 285, and considering switching to a GTX 295 for $100 more with a step-up program. But if you're running one monitor (and it's not the 5 megapixel 2560x1600), opt for a single $250 or less card for serious gamers.
$1,000 CPUs? Nothing new, still the same rip-off. Go $300 or less for yours.
$400-600 boards? EVGA X58 Triple-SLI Classified motherboard? ASUS Rampage II X58? Overpriced by $100-$300 just to 1337 bragging for paying too much. $200-300 is enthusiast, unfortunately, for Core i7. $150-200 for last generation enthusiast.
And yes more babbling...
You can build a gaming rig for $500 and enjoy it. You don't need a $1,000+ PC to enjoy games today at the highest graphics settings either. Almost any modern PC with a modern video card, even a cheap one, can run high-end graphics smoothly: just turn down your resolution. Resolution is the performance killer for PC gaming, yet it's so important to any MMO with an insanely high number of UI elements taking up screen landscape.
You can spend under a grand on a new PC, and if you were wise in your component selections and hand-built in, I could still call you a hardware enthusiast. Money isn't everything for enjoying hardware, but it certainly helps. I've spent way too much on my builds, but I do know where to avoid dumping money. Here are some money pitfalls to avoid...
Wastes of hardware money for the average PC enthusiast/gamer:
- Slot covers. Yes, PCI, PCI-E, and memory slot covers are slot to "keep the dust out" of your slots. It's just silly. To get dust out, blow some air over it when you want to install a new card on a well-used, dusty system.
- LEDs and CCFLs (cold-cathode lighting). The DIY PC market is satured with annoying flashing, blinking, and/or bright LEDs and other lighting. Unless you want to turn your PC into a Dance, Dance Fever, Disco-Ball party machine, avoid the temptation to add lighting. I've had my share of playing around with the different lighting methods from CCFLs to EL glow strip lighting, etc., for fun, and I can tell you it's just a waste of money. The stuff will never look as good as you imagine it will. This sort of stuff could easily be ridiculed as the "Type R" rice-rocket accessories of PC building. If you still want lighting, buy a single, cheap $10 CCFL dual tub kit (white is brightest) to help illuminate your PC's insides when you need to do upgrades, work on it, etc. but be warned, leave those CCFLs on all the time (when the PC is on), and you'll either burn them out or more likely, burn out the inverter and create power instability inside your PC. Use the included switch and only turn them on to see the inside of your PC when needed.
- 10/15k RPM Enterprise SCSI/SAS hard drives. These drives will just annoy the heck out of you with their loud, high-pitched screeching (even in an HDD silencer box), let alone their gross dissipation of excess heat. Network admins and IT professionals may swear by them, but they have no place in a modern PC. There are alternatives to this that are just as fast and robust for performance these days, that SCSI/SAS just can't compete unless it's in a rack-mounted server in some company's IT server room, hooked up to a RAID 5/10 array controller. Western Digital Raptors are better options, but even then those are getting phased out for SSDs. And now even the consumer-level HDDs below Raptors are getting pretty fast. Be creative with your choice with storage, but avoid enterprise drives.
- Server architecture. Your IT friends might tell you how much the latest dual/quad Xeon motherboards rock, but don't buy the hype. Server architecture is always behind from the consumer market, sometimes just a hair, and sometimes a whole generation. That $1,000 server board that can be equipped with 1TB of memory might look cool, but it's not going to handle your games any faster than a $300 PC motherboard. Server boards are meant to excel at IOPS and multi-tasking, not single-user, limited thread count applications and games. Also, 1TB of memory might even hurt your gaming performance as multiple banks add to your overall latency and cycles of memory controllers.
- Memory module cooling. This includes third-party heatsinks and fans, all the way to watercooling devices. There is no point in this as your memory modules are one of the coolest components, even with moderate overclocks. Only extreme overclockers might want to do this, but if you're spending money here, you better be spending exponentially more elsewhere.
- Crossfire/SLI. Let's face it: multiple video cards is typically going to range from 90% to 30% hype. Why these percentages? Because your second card is going to boost your gaming performance typically anywhere from 10% to 70%. And your third card? Even less. In fact, if you shelled out for a dual GPU card, your second card will have VERY low, diminishing returns for most games, from anything to zero to %30 unless you enable something like NVIDIA PhysX for a PhysX-capable game or running SLI only for high Anti-aliasing levels. Then you're not getting a performance boost, just a visual boost. But why is this so popular? Enthusiasts like to play around with it... for the "coolness" factor... and it does help people who play FPS games quite a bit more than someone who plays MMOs. But you're still locked to those diminishing returns. And then when you need to upgrade your rig? You're paying double or triple each upgrade for your video cards. But other than that, it's good, right? Not so fast. Some complain of micro-stuttering in games. I've seen it myself, but it only bothers me in some games. Yes, I've done SLI before with 7-series and 8-series cards, but I'll never run SLI again. It's too inefficient, too expensive to upgrade, and downright buggy/odd in some games.
- Bigfoot Killer and Keno network cards. Would you pay $100 to $200 for a network card? Seriously? This cards are actually values for what they include in hardware, but overpriced for what they do to improve your performance. Hardware: these cards have their own CPU, own memory, etc., and run their own *nix operating system. It's like a mini-PC on an expansion card in PCI or PCI-Express flavor. This is very similar in concept to expensive hardware-based RAID controllers. However, these Killer and Xeno cards exists solely to bypass your Windows networking stack and handle their own network traffic. The claims are exaggerated, unfortunately, even if the concept is very cool. The problem here is that modern CPUs with 2-4 cores don't have to worry about a little processing overhead to handle the Windows networking stack. Now if you were trying to game on an old single-core Pentium 4, one of these cards might speed up your pings and network traffic when playing online games, but that $100-200 is better spent upgrading your PC. Worse yet, their network stack doesn't always play nicely with every game, let alone every application. Bigfoot, and in-turn one of their partners EVGA, have been plagued with driver issues, compatibility issues, and general stability problems. They've matured a little since their initial release, but their resources for writing programs to run on the cards is still a long ways away from making them more useful.
- Pre-built watercooling systems. Unless you enjoy building your own, custom water-cooling systems, part-by-part, and are actually going to do some extreme overclocking by changing everything, including voltages, there's no point. Pre-built water-cooling is a waste of money. Period.
- Extreme cooling such as Phase-change. These $1,000+ systems can get your CPU down to some pretty impressive double-digit negative Celsius values. But the risks you take are going to hurt your pocket even more. Ooops, what happens when you crack that $1,000 CPU and $700 cards with your $1,000 phase-change cooler? Material science for computing components is not up to par in saving you from temperature changes of 40-100 degrees difference Celsius. The stress is too great for daily use. For these system are used a few times to break overclocking records, or left on 24/7 to ensure changes in thermal conditions are much smaller.
And if you don't game, don't spend more than $50 on a video card unless you're running more than two monitors or an insanely high resolution like 2560x1600.
One of my favorite charts for resolutions is on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Display_resolutionp