A new PC makes no sense -- but who cares?

commentary It used to be we had to buy new PCs every couple of years just to keep up with the software, but that isn't really true anymore. So, is there any good reason to upgrade your hardware?

Rafe Needleman
commentary It used to be we had to buy new PCs every couple of years just to keep up with the software, but that isn't really true anymore. So, is there any good reason to upgrade your hardware?

Every few years or so for the past 15, I've bought a new desktop computer. As software grew continually more complex and resource-intensive, it was always necessary to keep updating my hardware.

But I fear that cycle is coming to an end. While that should be good news for my bank account, it's bad for my inner geek. I really want to get a new PC -- I just can't justify it.

My home system right now is based on a 1.5GHz Pentium. Over the years, I've upgraded its memory, its hard drive, and its video card, and the thing runs well enough for what I need it for: e-mail, Web browsing, Microsoft Office apps, and Quicken. Thanks to the modern video card, I can even play the latest hot video game, Far Cry, on it, although not at top resolution.

But I look at this boring box every day, and I think how much better everything would be if it was a more contemporary system -- maybe one I built myself with a zippy Athlon CPU, housed in a cool Mac-like Lian-Li PC-V1000 case. Yeah, that'd be the shiznit.

And then my inner accountant rattles off the following things one generally needs a new PC for -- none of which I actually do. I hate accountants.

1. Play games
Well, OK, I do play games. But the PC I've spec'd out is a monster $4000 wonder-box. For that, I could get a PlayStation or Xbox game console for about $250 and spend the remaining $3,750 on games. There's no justification there. Rats.

2. Do video editing
It's true that if you're going to be editing video, a fast PC will really help. But I don't own a video camera. Scratch that.

3. Rip CDs and DVDs
Discs rip faster with power. But how often do I rip CDs? Not very. And videos? Never.

4. Voice recognition
This is one business application that really requires power to operate correctly. The thing is, I don't use it, and I have no desire to. I type plenty fast, and so far, my wrists aren't blown out with repetitive stress injury. So strike that.

5. Faster browsing
Now here's something I could really use -- but a faster PC won't help much. I need to upgrade my DSL service. That's a topic for another day.

6. It's fun
It comes down to this: I like tinkering. My existing machine is about tinkered out, and it's been years since I built a PC from scratch. The image of a stream of parts arriving at my doorstep, waiting for me to craft them together into a slick, silent, and speedy monolith of power is all it takes for me to justify the expense and the hassle of creating my own machine. I like the hassle.

Plus, if I set my sights a little lower, I can get by with a nice set of parts for a lot less than my original $4000 shopping list. In a former life, I probably built hot-rod cars from parts. (Although knowing my current mechanical aptitude, I probably perished in a car wreck when a wheel came off at high speed.)

There is some value to running a machine you've built: You know it inside and out. Tech support on a store-bought PC isn't much help these days once you get past a stock configuration, and no support operator in New Delhi is going to know the ins and outs of your particular configuration after you've had a PC for more than a year and upgraded a few parts. So why not start from scratch and be your own IT? You might not save time, but you'll save yourself aggravation.

I realise that most people consider a PC a tool; you buy one for the need at hand. I certainly use a PC that way too. But I also get a real joy from working with especially well-crafted tools. Making your own tools is a good hobby, and I'd argue that it's one that would make my work more enjoyable and, thus, of better quality. My inner accountant can argue with me all he wants about it, but ultimately, thank goodness, I get the final word.

I'm not alone in this opinion. I visited my local auto-body shop the other day to get a door ding removed. I talked there with J.R., the owner of the shop, who has a custom-built PC near his desk. It has a big window on the side and coloured lights inside showing off the components. J.R. told me that it's a 2.8GHz Pentium overclocked to 3.5GHz. Once he got the cooling sorted out, it became stable enough for his business apps. It's a killer for games, too. I could see J.R. light up when he talked about his rig. I'm sure working on this machine gives him a sense of satisfaction no beige box of boredom ever could.

What do you think? Does upgrading your PC make any sense anymore? Would you ever consider building your own PC? TalkBack to me below!