Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Some Thoughts On Hardware Upgrades And New System Recommendations

A bit of a warning on this article. I had a hour to kill between work and home tonight. And I thought I would put some answers down to the same questions I get over and over again. I thought if I put the answers here I could just send them out via link or email when the next poor soul came to me with the same question. And that question you might ask is.. "I want to upgrade [blank] or buy a new computer from [blank]. What should I look for?".

I have been thinking a lot about hardware, upgrades and all the things involved in a decision “to buy or not to buy”. And I think that’s where the new poll question came from this month. With the holidays fast approaching I know the real deals will start appearing in all the Sunday ads and sales circulars. So here are some things to keep in mind when considering an upgrade or new system purchase all together.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows my feelings on this subject. But for old times sake let’s go over it again for any newcomers. If you are thinking about upgrading your computer to run Vista and you bought it before January 2006 I have only one word of advice for you….. Don’t! Yes, Vista will run on older hardware. Yes, the compatibility of older programs is working better than most online media claims. And Yes, we as Blind users can ignore all that stuff about graphics and Flip 3D and all that jazz. The problem is that older hardware really struggles with Vista and unless you like trolling around on the Internet looking for drivers, fixes, forums and tech support info you are just better off staying right where you are at currently.

If your system is post Jan 2006 don’t think your life is any easier under Vista’s rein. I have a Creative X-Fi Music and a NVIDIA 7 series card. My life has been just peachy looking for drivers almost weekly for both. And my system was built in April 2006. Believe me I love Vista and I won’t go back but the trip to get here wasn’t fun. In some spots back in March during my big battle between Creative, SAPI 4 and SAPI 5 I almost broke several inanimate objects. Newer hardware that came on line in the last few months is better designed to take advantage of Vista’s requirements. The path of least resistance won’t be found in just a straight upgrade though.

If you do decide to go it the upgrade route here is what I recommend for both Screen Magnifiers and Screen Readers. Also this applies to both desktop and laptops purchases where applicable for the type of system you want.

  • 2 GHz Processor or AMD Equivalent
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • Dedicated Video Card with No Less Than 128 MB of RAM
  • Dedicated Sound CARD! Not a Chip! If You Can Get One
  • 80 GB or Higher Hard Drive

Okay my real rule is 2 + 2 + 200. That’s 2 GHz or higher, 2 GB of RAM and a 200 GB hard drive if your system will support all that of course. The same thing almost applies to a new system as well. However on new computers I have a few other things I am looking for..

New Computers..

  • 2.4 GHz Dual Core or Core 2 Duo or AMD Equivalent
  • 1066 MHz or Higher Front Side Bus or FSB for Short
  • At Least 2 GB of RAM with Possible Upgrade to DDR3 RAM
  • 256 MB or Higher Dedicated Video Card
  • Dedicated Sound Card
  • 200 GB or Higher Hard Drive

Now I know what you are saying and it does sound like a lot at first. If you do decide to move on up to Vista it will be a far better ride if you can swing most of these items in your configuration. And most newer systems have a good bit of these recommendations on board already. Where this would work against you would be if you considered one of those “all in the box” deals you see in some ads or on store shelves at your big box retailers.

Many of these packages are not Assistive Technology friendly due to their lower system specs. Plus a lot of these systems are made from older parts which may or may not see good or even fare Vista driver support. There are some exceptions, however, it's rare to find a good deal in these situations when buying the "all in one box". An example of this would be the inability for you to upgrade these low cost units with more RAM or another video card. I've seen times where the power supply is too weak to handle the new suped up video card or that the motherboard doesn't allow you to go past 1 GB of RAM due to it's lack of extra memory slots. What you end up with is a system that can only take you so far before you end up haveing to replace that one with another that has the features you needed on the previous computer.

Let’s drill down to why I am recommending all this stuff..

If you go Vista, and now with XP getting a little longer life span no one says you have to, you need to have a faster multi threaded processor. True no Assistive Technology takes advantage of Dual Cores at the present time. In the future.. okay in like a year.. that will change with other Non AT products. Many Microsoft products are going multi-core. Several Virus Protection Venders are heading that way as well. Everything changes in the next hardware generation and you want to be ready.

Front Side Bus:
This is just as important a feature, if not more so, as RAM. The FSB is the part of the system that ships data to and from the various parts of the computer. You could have a huge amount of RAM on board with an ultra fast chip but you could find yourself moving slowly if the pipes aren’t wide enough to let all that fast moving data through freely. The FSB is the size of the pipeline for your data. A higher number is a good thing. Just remember that lower than 800 MHz is not advisable for newer or older systems, in my humble opinion of course, running Vista. If you like to have more than three windows open at one time with several other programs running in your Systray then you want a higher number on the FSB and a good bit of RAM.

2 GB? Yup. 3 would be even better but 4 is overkill in any 32 bit based version of Windows. RAM is where most of the heavy lifting is done with Vista. No matter how hard you try you will always have something running in the background with Vista. Power Management, indexing of files or waiting for the Sidebar to update. It’s all running all the time. Even when your computer is in Sleep Vista has something hanging out in RAM to make your return to an awakened computer faster than in XP. Plus everything you run on a computer takes up a little piece of RAM. This is even more true when you have integrated video and sound. More on that below.

Video Card..
So you Screen Reader users must be laughing at me for this one. Well sadly you aren’t immune from having to run higher video cards in Vista. See all of Windows, visual or not, relies upon Direct X or Direct Draw. The Internet, the look of MS Word, Win Amp or whatever you run has a Graphic User Interface with need for a graphics display driver. Even without using that AErO Glass stuff with Assistive Technology active on your system you still end up using video RAM for all tasks in Vista. If you scrimp on your video card Vista will just take what it needs from your available 2 GB of RAM. That means if you have a card with 64 meg on board but the card allows for it to share 64 MB or more of memory.. you lose that 64 MB from what you have out of the 2 GB pool. A pool that can see almost 500 MB used by Vista alone. Now toss in 60 MB for your AT software, another 40 MB or so for Virus Protection and 25 for Firefox and so on and so on.. You can see that the 2 GB pie of RAM gets eaten up quickly by all the hungry hungry hippos on your new computer system. Having a dedicated video card saves you some problems with resources. Especially in longer sessions with a laptop. Whew.. you don’t want to be on a plane with all of that plus a few RAM clearing reboots on a low battery to boot let me tell ya.

Sound Card..
It’s the same deal as the Video Card. However I have seen with some laptops that Screen Readers just don’t do that well with some on board sound card solutions. I have met some out there who are using headphones with a built in sound chip, like those from Plantronics, who say that their speech is far more clean and easier to understand via the chip in the headphones. The big thing here is that you will notice more static or clicks running through your audio if you stay with an on board solution for your audio needs. Dedicated audio devices, and I stress this one, CAN! but not always aid you with speech. This gets a bit tricky because some speech synths work better than others. Via Voice has caused me problems and a few others seem to dislike my Sound Blaster X-Fi all together. Like I said above it took me awhile to learn that my audio card hates being in Vista Basic. Which is a shame as just about any AT product short of System Access puts you in Vista Basic Desktop as per the mirror Driver. oopss. . I got a little off course. To repeat.. Dedicated good or USB Headphones with their own sound chip better for some laptop users.

Hard Drives..
You plan on doing a bunch of those Audible, NLS or other E Books? How about podcasts? Or video in high def? Yeah.. you need either a big drive or a series of little ones you can dump those files off to because them files get awfully big awfully quick. We are talking about 600 MB for 1 hour of low grade high definition video. Or a few GB for 320k or Lossless MP3 files. And burning all that on disc takes more money and time. Nope.. go with a bigger drive and ask for an external back up drive for Xmas. Always back up for safety.

Well I hope these words help you out when considering upgrades or a new system. I am sure I will end up expounding more on this subject again eventually. Feel free to disagree in the comments section if you think I am off my rocker though. After all the first key to learning Vista and Office 2007, or so Microsoft tells me in their demonstrations, is "Experience". Your mileage will always very..

No comments: