Reader How Tos: Building For Stability

Software Installation

The operating system choice is more problematic than it first seems. My first instinct is to go with XP, as this is where the majority of research efforts and development dollars are being invested, and, therefore, where the most noticeable improvements are going to be. Staying in touch with the most current OS can also be essential for work. However, lots of PCs I've built were for family use, DOS-based, and typically used for, among other things, childrens' games. A number of these games have compatibility problems with XP (I doubt Microsoft will have ever heard of any of these titles), even with the XP compatibility function, so proceed cautiously. In my opinion, there is no comparison with the stability of XP to that of Windows 98/ME, as one is an operating system, while the other was just an attempt! The only issue I have with Windows2000 and XP is the refresh rate problem, which has been talked about on many sites, including THG. Although it has been further addressed in XP with SP1, I cannot find an explanation as to why it is present, nor why it cannot be removed, which is more amazing when you consider programs are available to fix it. I chalk it up to being one of life's mysteries, of which I'm not privileged to answer ... rant over.

My comments on the Software Installation Procedure on a base system follow:

  1. Check for BIOS Update if possible and update. Read the instructions and pitfalls on loss of power during an update. Depending on the problem and your skill level, the worst that can happen is that you may have to send for another BIOS Chip. I always recommend updating the BIOS, although details on exactly what has been fixed are always sketchy. I believe it's in the manufacturer's interest to put far more detail in the BIOS updates, but are they too embarrassed to admit mistakes?
  2. The initial BIOS settings of the motherboard are very important. I first set up a system with conservative settings; you can turn them up once you attain stability. My main area of focus is the RAM and AGP settings, as I have found these have the greatest effect on stability. RAM timings can be considered as the clock frequency at which they are accessed (100 MHz, 133 MHz, etc.) and the delays/ timing between accesses. The clock rate is easy to set; set it to the RAM's rated speed, not necessarily that of the processor FSB. The CAS timing is interesting as it is defined in terms of "T" (a common British drink); T is how many clock cycles it takes to perform a refresh (of the data stored). It is measured in fractions of a second; for example, 2.5T is longer than 2T, and thus 2.5T is the slower and more conservative setting. In the first instance, I would set the RAM to its correct frequency and the slower access time (e.g., 2.5T). Conservative AGP settings should have fast writes disabled, video shadow buffer disabled, AGP aperture set to half or less of system RAM. Finally, I do not have the BIOS set as PnP enabled when using Windows 2000 or Windows XP. There are daunting websites dedicated to BIOS settings, and hence a lot of users avoid a simple verification of the basic settings.
  3. Installing the OS and formatting is not something I've seen problems with, other than actually booting the install CD from the drive.
  4. Drivers are one of the most important features of software stability. I cannot remember when I last used the drivers provided on the CD. The latest, most "stable" drivers may not be so stable. I determine stability by reading newsgroups on the device and websites. I have found WHQL is a good indicator of stability. I have used the following drivers extensively and I can offer the following comments:
  5. Motherboard Chipset Drivers
    Ordinarily, I have not needed to update the chipset drivers. My experience is mainly with the Via drivers for motherboards using their chipsets, and after a long and torrid development, they now appear to be stable, even under XP.

Graphics Cards Drivers
Nvidia has the Detonator, an excellent, all-in-one driver ("unified") for which I can only applaud them. However, there have been unstable detonator driver releases, and I personally check drivers on hardcore graphics sites, such as . This site and others give reviews on driver releases, in terms of stability and performance. I can offer little comment on ATI, but in my opinion, they seem to have improved tremendously.

  1. I install all available OS updates/service packs, and have them downloaded and on CD, wherever possible.
  2. You have now completed a minimum clean install with minimal components.