Specifying Hardware (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I offer information sources about computer hardware in general (for educational purposes) and in particular (for item selection).

The Main Divisions On This Page:
o Information Sources
o A Little Education
o Meta-Sites
o Generalists
o Specialists




Information Sources

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There is no computer equivalent to Consumer's Union Reports, a single source of reliable, unbiased, hard-nosed reviews. There are, however, a host of internet sites that deal heavily or exclusively in computer-hardware evaluations. I list below what I feel are the cream of the crop of such sites; there are many more.

The way to proceed is simple: carefully examine all of these sites and see what each has to say about all the things they review. Yes, that's a lot of work: but you don't get an education without work. As you proceed, you will begin to develop a feeling for the products on which there is a consensus and those about which there remains material disagreement even among the experts. You will need to draw your own conclusions, based on both what is said and your developing confidence in who is saying it. If one reviewer seems to disagree with the consensus where there is such, perhaps you will distrust his opinions where there is not consensus; reviewers who agree on many things are more likely to have important things to say about controversial matters.

A little advice: proceed product by product and keep notes. Start, for example, by seeing what motherboard you might want: look at what each site has to say, keeping your notes about both the products and the reviewers. Then try, for example, hard drives, following the same pattern. By that time, you'll have a much better idea about which sites you feel you might want to trust for further advice (but still keep reading them all).

Danger Will Robinson! I am impelled to insert this little warning here: beware magazine product reviews. Print magazines with on-line access put up product reviews all over the place. Always remember that the products reviewed are made by people who are paying those magazines a lot of advertising money. Also, it is worth noting that, in honesty, many of the staffers on those magazines seem--on the record--to not be so facile in technological matters as their jobs would seem to mandate. As a rule, the reliable reviews are those from hardware-oriented sites who earn their money from advertising banners on their sites. Why is one kind of advertising OK and another not? Because most internet banner advertising is from stores, not manufacturers: stores don't care which product you buy--they carry most or all brands--they just want you to buy something. And the hardware-site reviewers seem on the whole much better-qualified at their jobs than the magazine reviewers. You have been warned. We now return you to your regularly scheduled web site.



A Little Education

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Before you start examining actual product reviews, it would be nice to know enough about hardware to understand at least a fair percentage of what the reviewers are saying. Here are some very nice and helpful sites. (But neither I nor they can give you a complete training in computers.)

First, here's The Red Hill Guide To Hardware, a wonderful short course on the innards of computers from a delightful computer shop in Australia (beware--the occasional comparative prices they mention are in Australian dollars, so don't have a heart attack!). The information presented is--as they put it--"for intelligent non-technicians" and seems to us excellently balanced as to both width and depth of explanation. Addendum: the more I look through the Red Hill site, the more impressed I am. If you look at no other site whatsoever off this, ours, do look at this one. Makes a computer aficionado want to emigrate Down Under.

Then there's The PC Guide, which is more of a reference tool than an instructional tool--but perusing it will reward you in direct proportion to the time you spend there.

The Techni-Help free on-line help site is a pretty neat resource. The offer both lookup links and an opportunity to ask specific questions which a (self-described) computer nerd will answer. It is by no means as complete a set of links as they suggest (if it were, I wouldn't have built this site), but it is still a fine resource. (Also, some of their links are outdated--that is, they no longer work.)

And here are a few thoughts from us about the new importance of the unglamourous hardware items.

"Power" systems usually use SCSI peripherals, and SCSI can get confusing. Here's All About SCSI, a nice guide to the basics from IOI, a controller manufacturer. And there's yet further SCSI guidance at The SCSI Glossary, which is really more like a SCSI mini-education. If you want or need a yet more technical presentation Digital has this physics of SCSI site. Or, to focus more narrowly on the latest SCSI development, the "low-voltage differential" interface, here'sa "white paper" on LVD from Quantum, the hard-drive maker.

To understand the myriad of issues that separate video cards which look a lot alike in the raw specs, visit this video-card buying advice page from "U-Geek." But, if you would better understand one point they there gloss over--AGP versus PCI cards--visit this hot AGP versus PCI debate on the "Tom's Hardware" site (cited below).

Confused by the alphabet soup of "removable media"? Try this site. The Compact Disk Homepage: All about CD, CDR, CD-RW, DVD, DVD-ROM, and suchlike.

Want to know about recordable CDs and drives (such as I recommend)? Here's all the scoop you are ever likely to want or need, from Andy McFadden. The CD-Recordable FAQ--and it's kept right up to date, which is crucial in this field. Want to understand a bit about sound/audio cards? Chris Calabrese has put up a quite nice soundcard explanation page. It's worth poking about the rest of the site (beyond the page we link you to).

These are not your father's power supplies! Guidance on wattage, the ATX spec, and more: Power On: Information (a commercial site dedicated to PC power supplies).



Meta-Sites

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These are sites that either do not themselves post reviews or for whom such reviews are not the mainstay of the site, but instead list reviews of particular hardware items posted on other sites. If you are interested in some one item, look here to find reviews of that item.

Dimension X - News: A daily log of hardware reviews with searchable archives.

Materiel - Hardware Reviews: another fine list of hardware reviews.

Planet Hardware: hot hardware news, with links, plus some reviews of their own.



Generalists

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These sites review computer hardware of all kinds.

Tom's Hardware: Tom Pabst has one of the foremost hardware-review site on the net. His opinions are taken very seriously by equipment makers as well as buyers.

Anand Tech: Another immensely respected site, from Anand Lal Shimpi.

Tweak It: Yet another hardware supersite: test reviews and lots of hardware-related information on a pleasingly laid-out site.

Hardware One: some reviews, hardware news updates, and more.

System Optimization: Much useful information lies here, including hardware benchmarks.

The Gaming Power Hardware Forum: Fanatic gamesters review computer hardware (gamers invariably have the computer hardware pedal to the metal).

PCGame Hardware Reviews: While they are product sellers, they are also fine product reviewers. Again: computer gamesters drive their hardware and they know their hardware.

Sharky Extreme: Hardware: Another high-intensity gamers' hardwrae section.

Gamespot's Gamer's Guide To Hardware: Yet another gamester's hardware site.

The Hardware Group: Reviews, and more.

Ultimate PC: Yet more good information, but going away (see the next entry).

3D Hardware net: Picking up Ultimate PC's functions.

Hardware Central: "Overclocking, SuperCooling, Reviews, Tutorials and Help"

The Computer Hardware Performance Site: The name says it all.

PC Advisor Hardware Top-10 Charts: Useful information from a U.K. site.



Specialists

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These sites review specific areas of computer hardware.

The Storage Review: Your hard-drive choice can affect your system performance more than any other single component, so it pays to read up.

Motherboard HomeWorld: Motherboards are not fungible! While performance doesn't vary immensely, quality and reliability do. And nowadays, you need to know about a board's chipsets, too.

ThermalNet: Heat considerations are often snooted in computer design--face it, fans aren't sexy--but today they're literally vital to your system.

The Heatsink Guide: I told you heat is a big deal nowadays.

Boardwatch Magazine - Modem Article: this now-famous lengthy article on extensive real-world tests of the two competing modem standards (x2 and k56) is essential reading before selecting a modem, even with v.90 now in place.




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(Last updated: 15 January 2000.)

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