Back to basics

Don't be lured by an attractive bundle of accessories when buying a home PC. Spend money on good quality basic components, and you'll be rewarded in the long run, says Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online

A computer today is vastly more powerful than one made just a few years ago, and it will cost less too. Yet with all but the bottom-of-the-range computers still costing upwards of £500, they can hardly be described as cheap: a fairly basic home computer will easily cost as much as a good widescreen TV. A fully featured computer will leave you more than £1,000 poorer.

The chances are that if you spend that sort of money on a TV, it will carry on working for five years with few complaints. The same cannot be said of a computer. Most businesses write off the value of their computer equipment over just three years. A substantial minority of PCs will not even last that long. Research by Which? magazine suggests that, on average, more than a fifth of desktop computers fail within five years. Some 14 per cent of home users' laptops fail within three years.

As with most consumer goods there is a direct correlation between price and quality but home computer users are paying for inferior technology. In part, this is because a large number of home computer buyers shop for their PCs on the high street, and retailers have to make a margin. Businesses are more likely to buy directly from a manufacturer or in bulk through a dealer or catalogue. What's more, a computer destined for the office will come with fewer accessories, such as sound cards, modems or DVD drives. This, along with the savings from buying in bulk, leaves more money for the parts that make up the computer itself.

"The problem with home PCs is that the retailer tends to bundle them with a lot of stuff you may not need," says Mark O'Dell, managing director of Connect Technical Services, a computer maintenance and repair company.

"Rather than sell a basic PC with a fast hard disk or a good video card, they will give you a bit of everything. A cheap scanner will not produce good scans, and a cheap printer will break."

O'Dell points out that companies selling computers to home users also tend to skimp on memory (RAM). Too little RAM will not, in itself, damage a computer, but it will cause errors and crashes, especially under memory-hungry operating systems such as Windows XP. O'Dell suggests that rather than taking a "bundle" of accessories, home users should spend some of the money on good quality basic components and, especially, extra RAM.

"It is not fair to say that all cheap PCs are bad: a lot of people do buy cheap PCs and they last forever," says Oliver Pawley, a senior researcher in the product group at the Consumers' Association. "But a cheap PC may well use cheap components, such as power supplies, where there is a lot of difference between a good and a bad one. If it is not up to spec, it might not be supplying the right power on the right basis, and it will put the chips under strain."

Both Pawley and O'Dell also point the finger at computer components that might work perfectly well in their own right, but fail to function together properly as a system. Sometimes the problem is not strictly the hardware itself. Drivers - the small pieces of software that tell the main processor how to communicate with other components - are often to blame.

Large manufacturers spend a lot of time checking that components work together when they are designing systems. Their bulk-buying power allows them to strike good deals for parts with just one or two manufacturers, while smaller computer makers - the "white box" makers - have to go into the open market for parts.

Company IT managers like knowing exactly which hard drive or video card goes into a PC, so they can swap or replace parts; IT departments often pay a premium for this certainty. "We use only first-tier suppliers for our parts, and a first-tier supplier puts a lot of effort into the design and quality of a product," says Larry Wuerez, vice president of manufacturing for HP's consumer PC business in Cupertino, California. "We ensure that components are tested and that they work together. You won't get that with a 'white box'."

The leading international computer brands give their suppliers incentives to keep quality levels up; they are also frequently penalised for failures too. Better manufacturers will also build more diagnostic software into the BIOS control chip and may provide performance-tuning software tools for the buyer to use too.

"If a better PC is too hot, it will flash up a warning before shutting down," says O'Dell. "A cheap one will just shut down without telling you anything."

Software tools, even the basic disk utilities that come with Windows computers, can have a big impact on reliability. Even on a well-built computer, the hard drive will become less reliable over time: it is, after all, the most mechanical part.

According to Niall Scoland, service operations director for Dell in the UK, the hard drive is the most common part that fails in a consumer PC. A drive can simply fail to work when the computer boots up, although this is much less common than it was. According to maintenance figures from Connect Technical Services, 70 per cent of computer hardware failures are due to drive failure (power supply and processor failures are the next most common problems).

More likely is that the drive will develop "bad blocks", areas that can no longer hold data. Disk-tuning tools such as Norton Utilities help by hiding the bad blocks from the operating system. This way, the computer will not try to use them, so there is less chance of losing data.

Disks can also become less reliable as they fill up; more expensive computers seem more reliable because they have larger and often better-specified hard drives. As the price differential can be as little as £30, it's worth paying extra.

Parts such as CD or DVD drives are also prone to mechanical failure, although they are relatively easy and cheap to replace. However, if a more critical component such as the computer's "motherboard" (which holds the computer's essential electronic circuitry) fails, experts such as O'Dell say the cost of replacement is so big - hundreds of pounds - that it rarely worth paying for a repair. "Unless it is under warranty, spend the few hundred pounds more and buy a new computer," he advises.

And an expensive computer will fare little better than a cheap one if it is not handled with some care. Putting a computer in a confined space and especially on thick carpet is one of the quickest ways to shorten its life. "Back your computer up and keep the ventilation clear," advises Wuerez.

Before you buy a new computer, remember that the money you save on the price tag might come out of your pocket in the long run - with annoyance as interest.