Custom Built Computers

Why Cars are like Computers

A comparison between cars and today's computers
I like red cars, white cars and blue cars not green ones though

Subjective feelings about different colours for the paintwork of your car are natural enough. I've had green, black, white, gold and silver. Sometimes I've been able to choose the colour of my car, sometimes it was a dealer special offer and I either took the special offer in the colour offered or changed the colour and lost the special deal.

Most people see a computer case first of all. There are thousands of computer case designs, of all colours with the buttons and switches all in different places. Some even have cut out transparent panels on the side of the computer so you can see the innards lit up like a Christmas tree in different colours. Nice. And first impressions count, of course. But if you're buying a computer, like buying a car, you too will have to make a choice between style, design and price. The Apple iMac looks great - but hey, are they paying those designers in gold bars or what?

My advice is: be comfortable with the look of your PC but think of the functionality too. Sitting inside your car (ie when you're using it for the job it was designed for) you can't even see the colour of your paintwork.

Does it come with a starting handle?

Years ago, perhaps in the early 1960s and before, you always got a starting handle with your car. It took a bit of strength and knack to start an engine with a starting handle: you risked a broken wrist if you got it wrong. But it could save you a long walk home if you got it right.

So when Mr Jones took delivery of his new car, he would, as a matter of course, check where the starting handle was and possibly even try it out ready for those cold winter mornings when he might be using it for real. Today, of course, it's a different story. Who can say what the first car was that did not come with a starting handle? Did the new owner realise this, or was a point of major concern and worry?

Today, there are all sorts of recovery tools, manuals, magazines, CD-ROMs and DVDs full of essential information to keep your computer running sweetly - and to get you out of hole when it doesn't. We haven't yet reached the stage where the computing equivalent of a starting handle can be dispensed with entirely, although it's a lot better with Windows XP than, say, Windows 3.1. It's an evolving product and we won't be at the 2001 A Space Odyssey "HAL" stage for a while yet.

What's the compression ratio of the engine?

Do you know the compression ratio of your engine? Or the torque or horsepower. Probably not. And why should you? You know more or less what the car is capable of, and knowing the ins and outs of the car's engine isn't really going to change anything. I always have to smile when I see a potential car buyer opening the bonnet and looking at the engine. Just what does he expect to find there?

If you want/need to know exactly what BIOS revision the motherboard is running, or what modem driver is installed then our computers might not be really for you!. Even we don't know that (or care much until we have to install an update). We're certainly not going to faf about searching for that information for you. If you need to know, search the Internet manufacturers' websites. We're not entirely sure where that information is going to get you, though!

Let's say you're in the car showroom looking at a new car. You've sort of decided on the model/price combination and now just have to "fine tune" the specification a bit. The upholstery colour to your liking? Does it have a CD player or just a radio cassette player? Are the radio controls on the steering wheel? Does it have remote central "plip" locking? Is the steering wheel adjustable for both rake and reach?

Back to computers. Does your computer have a DVD player or just a CD player. Does it have a CD Writer? Does it have surround sound capability or just stereo speakers. Is the keyboard just a keyboard or does it have multimedia features on it so you can, for example, open your mail with just a single key press?

Remember, we can quote you for a DVD player; even a DVD writer. Or a combination unit that can play/write DVDs, CDs and all other formats. We can get you that flat screen 19" monitor. We can customise the computer just the way you want it - exactly.

That might be true, but I know the difference between a 2-litre car and a 1.4 one

You probably do know the engine capacity of your car, not just because it gives you a clue as to the overall performance of the car, but (for men, mostly) it's an ego extension. After all, Fred's 16-valve, 2 litre direct single-rail injection Ford Focus is better than John's 1.4i litre Vauxhall Astra. Isn't it?

Computers are like this now. Fred's 3.1Ghz Pentium with 512Mb of memory and 300Gb of disk space is better than John's 1.1Ghz Duron with just 128Mb memory and "small" 30Gb disk. Isn't it?

Well, let's consider both cars. There's no doubting that the more powerful car is going to be "faster" than the smaller car. But of course, we're all limited to 70mph on the motorway (oh, alright then, 85). Even you had a Porsche 911 you'd be risking your license if you did 120mph anywhere outside of the German autobahn. And, of course, if you're the fastest car on the road then you're just going to be catching up all those slower cars. In the real world, going to work, getting the shopping done, visiting Grandma is either car "better"? Both will perform adequately on the road, they both have power steering, a heated rear-window, central locking, a heater, a radio/CD player and more. Yes, the more powerful car will be able to accelerate to the next set of traffic lights more quickly than the slower car. But it will really only come into its own effortless eating up the miles on the motorway.

And so Fred's 3.1Ghz computer will load Word a few nano-seconds more quickly than John's; they both are hampered by the relative slowness of the hard disk. Fred's will most certainly be able to spell check a large document a second or so quicker than John's. Let's hope Fred puts that extra second of his life to good use. It doesn't matter how fast either machine is when it comes to printing, because printing is like a snail on Valium, speed-wise, compared to the processor speed in either machine.

Now if Fred wants to do some video editing of his last holiday in Spain then his machine will certainly outperform John's. Indeed, it could be argued that if John, with his lowly 1.1Ghz Duron intended to do video editing all along then he should of thought of that first and got a machine more suited to the task. It's a bit like John spending all day climbing the hills and dales in Scotland in his Astra. Yes, of course it will do it but is it really the car you would choose for the job?

Horses for courses. Egos notwithstanding, of course.

Can my car tow a caravan?

A mini was never designed to tow a caravan. A Vauxhall Vectra can tow most sensibly sized caravans, and a Land Rover can tow anything up a hill with ease.

So before asking, "Can my computer play games/run a CAD program/do video editing/play music", you should really have some idea of what sort of caravan you intend towing. If you buy the computer equivalent of a mini, then you'll get away with towing a small trailer now and again. You'll never be able to tow a proper caravan though. If all you intend is to tow a trailer, then why are you buying a Land Rover (see previous point about egos)? Admittedly, most people never imagine they would be towing anything at any time and are [un?]pleasantly surprised when they discover the real capability of their car - or computer in this analogy.

If you read the boxes that software comes in it will state the minimum requirements for that software to function adequately. That does not mean function satisfactorily. If the box says it needs a Pentium III with 128Mb of memory then it could probably do with a Pentium IV with 256Mb of memory to run smoothly. As we said, if you knew that you wanted to tow a caravan you wouldn't buy a mini, would you?

Luckily for us all, today's computers are mostly fitted with the car equivalent of a 3 litre engine. Such is progress. So a new computer today will be a competent jack-of-all-trades, as suited to playing games and browsing the Internet as it is at running the latest office applications and editing family snapshots for printing onto Christmas cards.

I'm stripping the engine and fitting oversized pistons with a new crankshaft

So you're after more performance from your standard car, is that it? Well, it's certainly cheaper than buying a brand new car albeit not without some risk and lots of work. But if that's what makes you happy...

Sure, you can probably fit a faster processor in your ageing computer. Or more memory. Or a bigger hard disk. And quite cost-effective it is too, up to a point. When you get to the stage of fitting a jet engine and sports exhaust into your standard family saloon, the question must surely be: Isn't it about time to get a new car?

If you currently have a Duron 850Mhz processor in your computer, chances are that it will never support an AMD 2200+ processor; it might seem to work for a bit, then you'll get the occasional BSOD (Blue Screen of Death). And the hard disk is now so over-burdened that you should replace that too. And a bit more memory wouldn't go amiss. Mmmm, cheaper and less risky to buy a new computer with all those bits designed in from the start. And sell on your old system to recoup some of the cost. Or see my guidelines on Upgrades.

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