Tuesday, March 26, 2013

PC upgrade or replacement (nostalgia version)

The following is from my old website.  It's a little humorous in light of where technology is now and product cycles are much shorter.  Even though the article is 5 years old a lot of it is still relevant.

Enjoy a bit of geek nostalgia!

March 2008

The question of upgrade or replacement.

Could it be the software?

Often times I’ll be working on a project at a client’s site and will be asked to look at a pc that just doesn’t seem to be working as well as it used to.  In almost every case the primary complaint is poor performance with reliability issues running a close second.

When I spend some time with the afflicted “patient” I often find the performance issue has less to do with the hardware and more to do with an errant application or overdue maintenance tasks. 
In many cases the offending pc can be restored to acceptable performance by performing simple maintenance tasks such as defragmenting the hard disk, applying operating system and application updates and removing unused applications that load a portion of themselves into memory but are never used. 

Many Internet security suites are guilty of this behavior.  Perhaps you bought the security suite to protect you from spyware and virus infection but ended up getting extra pop-up blockers and search toolbars that you either didn’t need or didn’t use.  They’re installed and enabled by default and will use memory and slow performance.  This will be more evident on pc’s with less powerful processors and smaller amounts of RAM.
At this point you may be asking, “What does this have to do with upgrading or replacing my pc?”  The answer is that software issues can often appear as a hardware problem.  Often just addressing maintenance and software issues can return a pc to better than new performance.  This is especially true if there are applications present from the original pc manufacturers configuration.  This is a common practice and these applications can eat up system resources unnecessarily.

I recently had just such an issue with a brand new pc preloaded with extra applications that would never be used in a business setting.  One of these was a proprietary encryption program that the client neither wanted nor needed;  even worse, this application used 25% of the processor’s resources! 
The net effect was to make a brand new pc act like one with a serious hardware issue.  Removal of the extraneous applications greatly improved system performance.

It’s not the software…

Ok, so we’ve gone through the pc, got rid of all the extra software clutter, updated all your programs, defragmented your hard drive and tweaked settings in the operating system.  “Great! Now we’ve done all that and it’s still too slow!”

Now comes the question of whether a business pc should be upgraded or just replaced.

The criteria for making this decision should include the age of the pc and your current and future usage. 
The short answer is that if the pc is over 3 years old it’s best to replace it rather than attempt an upgrade.  The lifecycle for computer hardware is still very short and often parts availability for an older pc can be limited.  These parts can be quite expensive especially when the hardware was based on a platform that was only available for a short period of time such as INTEL 850 chipset based pc’s using the RAMBUS memory platform.  Once the industry moves on to the next hardware platform, the previous platform will be abandoned rather quickly by parts manufacturers.  

I recently had a client with an ailing 2 year old pc.  It had performed satisfactorily until recently when it began to exhibit reliability and response issues.  Finally this pc completely failed and would no longer boot.  Fortunately I was able to obtain compatible hardware to repair this pc but had this problem occurred 6 months later the outcome would have been much different.  In that case I would have advised replacement as the availability and cost of parts as well as the downtime caused by limited parts supply would have been more cost effective.  This pc was, in effect, on the cusp of the repair/replace trigger.

In a business setting it’s not uncommon to see a three to five year replacement cycle for desktop pc’s with shorter cycles for larger firms.  Most manufacturers offer one year warranties with longer terms available at an additional cost.  Rarely do these warranties extend past 3 years.  The reason for this has to do with the rate of technology change and the cost to the manufacturer maintain a service inventory on platforms that become relatively obsolete within one year’s time.  The computer industry has very thin profit margins and a business model based on having just enough inventories to process active orders.  The major players don’t want to maintain a large cache of inventory that they can’t immediately liquidate. 

Businesses know that after the warranty expires on a pc; the cost of repairing hardware issues can exceed the costs associated with replacement.  It’s more than simple hardware costs; it’s the cost of lost productivity from the end user as the problem is addressed as well as the cost of labor to deal with the hardware issue.  It’s far more cost effective to replace rather than repair or upgrade a pc in this case.

What works for a larger business doesn’t always work for a smaller one, however.  A larger business will usually have the capital to absorb the initial costs of hardware purchases over shorter periods of time.  Many times a larger business’s assets are depreciated over shorter periods of time than those of a smaller business.  Computer hardware tends to lose its value quickly and thus quickly erases any depreciation benefit past one year.  Couple this with potential costs mentioned earlier in this article and it’s easy to see the reason for the turnover.

What's different about a small business pc??

A smaller business may not have the luxury of short turnover periods and may choose to depreciate the cost of a new pc over a longer period of time.  In this case the best path is to buy as much pc as you can reasonably afford.  That means a better processor such as the Intel or AMD Dual or Quad core based processors ( Leave Single c
ore an
Semprons out of the mix as their presence in a configuration  indicates a low-end system), at least 2GB of RAM and a Hard disk at least 250GB (preferably 500GB or more) in size. 

For newer pc’s that will eventually run Windows Vista or Windows 7 a good mid level graphics card such as the current Nvidia GTX 250 or ATI 5650 is mandatory.  While thought of as mainstream gaming cards, these cards actually handle Microsoft Vista and Windows 7'’s 3D graphics capability much more effectively than any integrated graphics options.  Vista makes use of the 3D capabilities of these cards and can offload much of the image processing duties from the system processor.  While not the only Operating system option available it’s likely that any new pc in the near future will come pre-installed with Vista and applications expecting to make use of it’s more graphics intensive interface.

The advantage of buying as much pc as you can afford is of course having a faster pc and a longer depreciation period.  What you also gain is a bit more “future proofing” allowing the possibility of upgrades in the future as your needs change.  Changing the video card, adding memory and even processor upgrades are much more likely with the higher end configurations.  Manufacturer’s higher end pc offerings often use more robust system level components that are unavailable in lower end models.  This can help extend the useful life of the pc and may be offered with a longer warranty term.  The rule of diminishing returns still applies however and eventually any upgrade potential will evaporate.  

For a small business that time will likely occur in the 4th or 5th year due either to major hardware failure or requirements of a critical business application that the hardware cannot meet.
I should mention that there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing” when it comes to buying a pc for business.  Generally speaking, a well-equipped business pc should not exceed 1200.00 base price.  Extra network adapters, High End video cards, special paint jobs and the like do nothing for the business user.  On the opposite end of the spectrum a pc offered for 399.99 is likely to have insufficient RAM, a low-end processor and video system and offer disappointing overall  performance. 

As an example; I own three pc’s not counting my laptop. Two are used exclusively for my business and one is reserved for Saturday night recreation driving a virtual Ferrari ENZO around Hawaii J
The cost to build the gaming pc is within a few dollars of what it is going to cost me to replace my two production pc’s.  That’s because my business machines do not require the level of hardware of my recreational pc.  In fact the gaming pc would be overkill for anything but gaming and an inefficient use of resources.  That doesn’t mean I plan to have inferior hardware in my production rigs, quite the contrary.  My production pc’s are purpose built for the jobs I need them to perform.  Luckily those purposes don’t require the hardware expense of a dedicated gaming pc.

What about laptops?

For the most part many of the above rules apply but the time periods are much shorter.  Laptops are not designed to be long term and their design severely limits upgrade potential as well as longevity.  For business use most laptops are outmoded within 2 years with the only upgrade path available being RAM, Hard Drive and wireless adapters.  Some models do have modular video cards but these are generally reserved for the high end enthusiast market with little value for the business user.  Again, buy as much as you can afford but realize that after a few years items such as batteries, power supplies, keyboards and LCD displays will often fail.  Replacement can be costly and often more than the cost of a replacement laptop with the added frustration of poor parts availability and user downtime.

Final Word

The choice of upgrade or replacement of a business pc is governed primarily by practical factors.  Time is always a factor no matter what size the business.  Generally a pc that is over 3 years old that is no longer performing adequately for the applications installed should be replaced.  Often, the cost of upgrade will likely exceed the value of the pc and bring little or no improvement.  While many pc’s will function reliably after the 3 year mark; their viability will decrease as software places increased demands on hardware and replacement parts become scarce.
Your best option for upgrade of a brand name pc is at the point of purchase when the pc is new.  Often, hardware upgrades can be more economical when the system is initially configured than after delivery.

In troubling economic times it more important than ever to get as much as you can out of all of your business assets.  As with any purchase, the best value isn’t always the cheapest option.  I hope I’ve been of some assistance.  Feel free to contact us if you’d like assistance with this or any other IT need.

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