So Where *Do* You Begin?

A Stonking Motherboard, Earlier Today

Going back then to my guide to making your own computer, it’s at this point that I’m supposed to say something wise like: “Before choosing the parts for your PC, ask yourself what you’re going to be using it for”, or “Decide now how much you really want to spend”. To my mind however, the only sensible answers to these questions are:

A) Everything! And

B) As little as I can possibly get away with.

PCs are meant to be flexible, inexpensive and upgradeable computing machines, so let what you can get be the guide to what you should get; what happens to be available at a good price now. Perhaps memory is really more important than that crazy amazing video card, but if the card is on sale at a great price now, memory can always be upgraded later. Seek bargains, go with the flow. Though bear in mind that by a bargain I mean something that’s cheaper than it usually is, not the kind of part that’s always cheap. Reliability is everything in a computer, so quality is worth paying – or at least waiting – for. Look out for brands with a track record, read all the reviews you can get your hands on.

So you could say that the place to start is wherever you’re at. See a bargain? Start! But from another point of view, your real starting point is the motherboard. Virtually everything else slots or plugs into it – as you may guess from the photograph – so more than any other it’s your motherboard that will define what components you’ll be able to use. It’s crucial therefore to have a nice one. But what goes into the choosing?

One choice is between the two major makers of processors, the chips that sit at the heart of a computer. Intel you will surely have heard of; AMD perhaps not, though they offer the chip design Goliath some degree of rivalry. Indeed – though l may be lynched for saying this – I suspect their David status may help explain their lasting popularity with system builders. Their image is not so sleek and corporate as Intel’s.

AMD have been technology leaders from time to time – producing the first 1 GHz processor, developing the 64-bit architecture that Intel themselves later adopted – but I think Goliath has it all over them just now. Processors have to fit into a socket on the motherboard, the design of which usually changes with the technology. Intel however have just introduced a new generation that are largely compatible with the socket – known as LGA 115 – used by the previous. That means these boards can use processors ranging in price, to go by, from €35 to almost ten times that much. That is a hell of a range of options.

And that means you can get a cheap one now and upgrade at least once, perhaps more, over the lifetime of that motherboard. Which is exactly the route I chose, purchasing a dual core, 2.7 GHz Celeron G555 – a processor that could by no means be described as feeble –  for only €50. So you may have a particular reason to prefer some other family of processors, but to my mind that LGA 1155 socket is the thing to look out for in a motherboard right now.

But there’s more…


Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.
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