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Courtesy of Thomas at Innovative Quality Software (IQS) – “The SAW People”

Okay….below are the 11 questions that I think should be asked and definitively answered before purchasing any name brand computer and maybe should be asked of independent ‘mom & pop’ system integrators too. – – from a mail order vendor or a local vendor of name brand computers (CompUSA, Computer City, Best Buys, Circuit City, Sears, etc..). – – If the store vendor or the telephone salesperson does not know, then do not purchase the computer until you find out for sure. Get the model number of the computer and contact the manufacturer. Ask them to fax you motherboard layouts if necessary. Write down the names of their representatives that you talked to in case they mislead you with the wrong information and you wish to return the computer. With a local person (mom & pop), I feel it is easier to sit down and discuss what you will do with that computer and what upgrade options you would like built in for the future. Look at the shop this person has. He might give you a decent price, but how long has he been in business and does your gut feeling tell you he will still be there a year from now (and do you care if your computer is generic enough to be serviced by any M&P shop)? – – Figure out what you need first, then – –


  1. How far can I upgrade the motherboard CPU? My personal recommendation is that these days, have the ability to upgrade to a Pentium 200 CPU with the installed motherboard, but this is a choice that could affect the price, but take this into consideration.
  2. Is the video built onto the motherboard and can it be disabled? If the video is on-board, and the manufacturer is ATI Technologies then their video eats up one of the only two port addresses the Digital Audio Labs sound cards use.
  3. Most sound cards are full length cards (extends from the slot to the end of the motherboard or beyond) and the majority are still the older ISA slot cards. Does the placement of any components on the motherboard ( CPU/heat sink/fan, memory SIMMs, large capacitors, or voltage regulators) block the usuage of these full length cards in whatever slot they will be used in? What if you plan in the future to use multiple sound cards? Even if the motherboard layout is fine, will the design of the computer case block the use of full length cards? (Users have encountered this on Compaq computers).
  4. Does the motherboard CMOS give you options to disable the second EIDE port to free up IRQ 15 should you need that for additional peripheral cards. (Certain models of the Gateway computers do not).
  5. For the same reason stated above, if your motherboard comes with a PS/2 mouse port, – Does the CMOS allow it to be used on IRQ 12 and can you disable the PS/2 mouse port so that it frees up IRQ 12 for use with other peripheral cards (lots of PCI cards/slots can and do use IRQ 12). It is nice to be able to disable one of the COM ports and use its IRQ for another card (like IRQ 3 for the Card+ if the PS/2 mouse is using IRQ 12 for its interrupt).
  6. Is there a built in sound chip and if so, can it be entirely disabled? These are usually cheesy sound chips, but if you need to disable it to free up the hardware resources, it is important to be able to do so. Some motherboards do not allow you to disable the sound card entirely (HP Pavilion uses the Crystal Lake sound chip which eats up an IRQ for the audio portion of the card and takes over IRQ 9 for the MIDI and does not let you disable it and you can not tell the MIDI portion of the card to use a different IRQ).
  7. How are the slots configured in the computer and how many are available and of which type (ISA? PCI?)? Some computers have one slot on the main board with a daughter card plugged into that contains the slots that you would plug additional cards into (Packard Bells). There may be up to only 3 slots on this card and when you plug in your additional cards, they are mounted sideways inside the computer. The case usually supports this. These proprietary cases are a problem should you decide to update the computer’s motherboard for a more powerful one in the future only to find that standard, generic motherboards in the industry will not fit in your computer or even if it does, the use of non-standard slot configurations means there is no way to plug in and bolt down standard peripheral cards in the industry. If the case used does not present support for up to 7 slots to be mounted (vertically) inside the computer (AST), it will not lend itself to being upgraded without having to replace the case as well.
  8. How much memory can be added to the motherboard and are you satisfied with that for future upgradability?
  9. Does the computer come with an internal modem? If you have a limited number of slots on the motherboard and plan to add more, would you be better off asking for an external modem so that the modem is not using up a precious slot? If an internal modem locks up or hangs for some reason, users usually end up having to reset the entire computer to free the modem. On an external modem, all you have to do is toggle the on/off switch. The indicator lights are also visible on an external modem to help give you a clue about the status of the modem which I personally like and recommend.
  10.  Can I “TOTALLY” disable the serial ports in the motherboard CMOS and have the interrupts they use free and clear for use by other cards (very important)! The IBM Aptiva lets you disable the COM ports, but for some reason it still causes Windows 95 to see two communication ports. Even pulling the MWAVE card with its built-in modem does not allow Windows 95 to still boot up without finding new “Unknown hardware” and installing two com ports again. The MWave card also eats up four interrupts ( for the MWave chip itself, the built-in Soundblaster audio, the MIDI port, and its built-in fax/modem) for different built-in devices on the card, none of which can be disabled to free up its interrupt.
  11.  Finally, if you decide to purchase a name brand computer from a mail order vendor or a local vendor, ask not about the warranty so much as where and how fast can you get your computer serviced if you have an audio project to complete and you do not have time to ship the computer across the country. Will a technician come out to your place of business if need be? Will they come quickly? If you have to pay for that support, are you willing to do so at their price? Will mail order vendors pay for shipping if the computer has to be shipped back to the manufacturer? Can you afford the down time if you do not have a backup computer? Do you feel comfortable with the level of the mail order vendor’s tech support. One of the largest complaints I hear are that people can not understand some tech support personnel because their command of the language is poor or heavily accented or with the case of Americans, that we speak to fast, use too many slang terms, and use too many double-negatives with coupled with contractions. Does the local vendor of the name brand computer tell you that all tech support goes through the manufacturer after purchase and are you happy with that? If he has technicians on site, will they do a rush job to repair or reconfigure your computer since you might have a deadline to meet?

Most of the name brand computers I mentioned in the text above I’ve had personal upgrade experience with. Two of them come from reconfiguration tech support calls from users where we went step by step through all of the IRQ configuration possibilities to no avail (HP Pavilion & Gateways). What I wrote above does not mean that these computers are “bad”, just that for the purposes of more serious users (like our users) who need more performance and versatility than the average home user or desktop business user, these systems present some major obstacles. In fact, if the user is armed with the information above, the above companies usually have a higher end system they can offer (at a higher cost) without these limitations. The trick is to approach them armed with the information above to help them select a model for you without the above limitations.

Let me also say that the computer hardware industry is in a constant state of change. Things like MMX (Multimedia extensions), USB (Universal Serial Bus), Firewire, AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) will be making their way onto motherboards and CPUs over the course of 1997 (USB is already on many new motherboards) and all could have serious impacts on the hard disk recording industry. People can get stuck in limbo always trying to “wait” for the “next thing” to come out. The best you can do with this industry is to slow down the impact of the upgrade costs by giving your computer as much upgrade abilities as possible. It might involve replacing the motherboard, but keeping the exisiting CPU and memory chips to take advantage of some of the new motherboard features next year.

Thomas/IQS – – – POSTED 12/31/96

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This page last updated 11/10/97

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